It’s no spoiler to tell you a dark sky reserve is exactly what it sounds like. As more and more of us get born and more and more of us die slower, more and more of us generate heat, emit light, pursue both. It’s bad for nature (which you knew and didn’t care about, really), but it’s also bad for us (which maybe you didn’t, fully; just think of the heartbreaking anecdote about LA residents who couldn’t even recognize their own Milky Way). That’s why the International Dark-Sky Association has worked since 1988 to preserve places on the map where light pollution can be minimized and space can be seen with the minimal effort of tucking away a phone, turning off your car, putting out the fire.
Only 48 officially designated International Dark Sky Parks exist right now. One of them is about four hours from where I live, a straight shot north past Milwaukee, past Green Bay, past acres of rolling Wisconsin farmland and out to the tip of Door Co. at Newport State Park, Wisconsin’s only wilderness-designated state park. There’s nothing up there. That’s the point.
I don’t remember exactly when a friend told me about dark sky reserves (also known as preserves and other variations since no one technically, officially governs these things), but it might’ve been in late winter when eating pay-for-charity soup every week at The Hideout was still a constant in my social life before COVID closed in and so we did, too. I pocketed the thought for a later date that turned out to be August, when I called one sunny Friday off because there was finally a good enough reason for it, nicked a car I could comfortably sleep in and made the drive.
Now that I’m thinking on it, there really isn’t a whole lot negative to say about Wisconsin. Once you get past Scott Walker and the noticeable Three Percenter contingent and the pickups rolling coal and the provincial Cheesehead pride and the accent, which stands out even among headache-inducing Midwesterners and ranks among my least favorite of the English-speaking world, it’s a beautiful place. The cheese is world-class. The apples are serious business. It’s home to Road America and Giannis Antetokounmpo (for a little while longer, anyway). There are miles of rolling hills and easy driving. The trees and lakes are plentiful. So is the beer. An ideal summer getaway.
In between shopping bottles at various breweries I’d never heard of and will probably never see again — while I can still recall it, that means Faklandia, Mobcraft, Stillmank, Dead Bird and Ahnapee — I was therefore able to enjoy the languid roving of my only significant summer trip in a year that had started out promising so much more. Newport’s rules state that a vehicle admission sticker is required to visit unless you have a day pass and that the park closes at 11pm, but it’s not like the place had armed guards and I wasn’t going to sweat what I didn’t know. There was no reason for me to be there before dusk anyway; I wouldn’t have done much but walk around lost even if I had gotten there early. I could afford to take all day popping into places if it meant I had a car-sized spot somewhere among the park’s darkest 2,300+ acres in the pitch black to celebrate the night and maybe even catch some afterglow from the recent Perseid meteor shower. So I did, I took my time. Boy, it was a gorgeous sunset, too. A real Bob Ross painting.
By the time I arrived after night fell, however, clouds had rolled in and a summer smirr had blanketed the peninsula. I’d checked the weather that week and all signs pointed to a clear view of the cosmos. All my daylight driving had been done in the sunshine with the windows down. Now, here I was, more than 260 miles and four hours from home on a good day, with rain and bottles of lukewarm beer to show for it. I counted five stars through the cloudcover, slept poorly and left before the first ferry at daybreak. When my friend told me it was good star karma, I almost punched him in the face.
Adam Ehrlich-Sachs’ The Organs of Sense starts with a university-aged Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the 17th century rationalist, optimist and mathematician for whom you can blame the binary system and probably a lot of your high school calculus headaches on. Leibniz hears about a blind astronomer who, unlike every other astronomer in Europe, is predicting a four-second solar eclipse. So, Gottfried hits the road to the observatory out of morbid curiosity. Leibniz writes he intended to “‘rigorously but surreptitiously assess the astronomer’s sanity’ through ‘a series of subtly stringent interviews proceeding from the political to the theological,’ i.e., from the lowest to the highest, ‘by way of the ethical, the logical, the astronomical, and the metaphysical,’ and finally … to observe by the astronomer’s side the Moon’s predicted occultation of the Sun, the foretold four seconds of darkness on Earth, ‘the assessment sine qua non of his sanity.’”
After a 28-day trek that takes 30 days, Leibniz reaches the observatory and finds the astronomer, who immediately launches into an exhausting story about how he once observed a star over Prague that appeared overnight and which he used to tie up Aristotelian astronomers in knots, “‘tight knots, truly tight cosmological knots,’ he said, ‘the kind of knots they would forever struggle to get out of, but would never be able to get out of as long as they lived because I’d actually used their own eyes to tie them. If you use your eyes, they’ll always squirm out of it, but if you use their eyes then they’re trapped, and in this case I used what their eyes had indubitably seen of that incontrovertibly twinkling object,’ a heavenly object which, as Leibniz noted in a parenthetical addressed to the editor of the Philosophical Transactions, may correspond, if we permit of the possibility of the old man mixing up his years, to the supernova of 1604, what is now known, needless to say, he added, as Kepler’s Supernova. ‘The secret,’ the astronomer told Leibniz, ‘is to tie a person up using his own retinal impressions, so the more he sees, the tighter he’s tied.’”
You get the idea. It goes on like this for 227 pages, a fully committed philosophical run-on joke designed for, I guess, Medieval science majors from Harvard and Thomas Bernhard acolytes and people who prefer Latinate syntactical nesting in their sentences. Well, and me. I don’t know who I’d recommend it to, but I do know it’s the funniest thing I’ve read this year. An ideal summer read.
I’m out on a neighbor’s deck watching my breath for the first time all year and thinking about how many stars I can count. It’s a hell of a lot more than five, I know that much. It’s the first full moon of the month, too — but it won’t be the last, as they fall on the 1st and 31st this October. I grab the binoculars between sips of something from Wisconsin or maybe just down the block and have a better look at the rooftops, the trees, the planes I’ve been tracking with the Plane Finder app while my battery’s still good for it, the moon, and I can’t stop thinking about how Tycho, the really giant crater, resembles where the stem of a fruit once lived. I take a good look at the various Mares. I can see the craters of Aristarchus and Copernicus. I can also, needless to say, see Kepler.
“Mars is the closest it’s going to be until 2035 on Tuesday,” my friend reports from their phone. Ah, my favorite planet, and, well. My heart pumps a little differently for a second. I move the binoculars a bit to the left and gaze at an iron oxide planet slowly edging up to 33.9 million miles close before it backs away again. I wish it didn’t feel 33.9 million miles close and no, 15 years, that feels a little far and a little long to me. A couple of blocks or states and five or 10 years seems more on the nose.
Practice times are not really worth close inspection given that some riders are looking for one-lap speed while others are working on their race pace, but it was still unusual to see Bradley Smith’s name top the French Grand Prix’s damp first Friday practice session. The former MotoGP podium finisher, ex-KTM rider and current factory Aprilia man is usually invisible after grid walks and hasn’t been anywhere near the front in 2020, but with the championship so close, guys like Andrea Dovizioso, Joan Mir and home favorite Fabio Quartararo were focused on getting their race pace sorted, a race that was expected to be dry… so when the rain fell on Sunday morning, it was an open call for underdogs.
Smith’s ride from 19th to ninth after one lap and seventh after four was startling. After the initial flurry of passes at the start, he had started to settle in and a top 10 seemed possible… until he binned it after nine laps. Teammate Aleix Espargaro collected two points and came home a distant 14th.
“The 2020 bike is completely new, a big revolution, and from Lap 1 in [preseason testing in Malaysia], I felt that the bike has a lot more potential because I felt there was no way to go faster with the 2019,” Espargaro said at the unveiling of Aprilia’s 2020 RS-GP bike in March. This was shortly before COVID hit and the race was canceled, when optimism was still a tangible feeling and not something distant and cosmically infirm. “It was just one test, we still have a lot of work in front of us and our rivals are very strong, but I think it’s going to be a fun year.”
Now? “The situation now is not easy,” he admitted in late September. “I’m really not enjoying [it] so much because I’m fighting for very bad positions.”
Then there’s Andrea Iannone. I don’t read the Italian or Spanish press because their gossip is more often wishful (upon a star) thinking than substantive or even theoretically possible, but every so often something makes it through the filter that’s worth a tip of the cap — something like Iannone (whose bike Bradley Smith is riding instead of testing the way the Englishman was hired to do) celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday in January at a place literally called The Doping Club two months after he was banned 18 months (and threatened with four years) for testing positive on the steroid drostanolone, a substance better known for treating breast cancer. Mario Balotelli would be proud.
It’s been like this with Aprilia since they formally reentered MotoGP in 2015. Every year, the season starts full of optimism, but after a few races you’re left wondering what’s going on back there. Progress seems stilted. Blame it on Roman Albesiano being a worse manager than he is an engineer or blame it on the suits back at Noale too scared to cough up the euros to chase down a rider of (currently available) Andrea Dovizioso’s caliber or blame it on Iannone’s mystery diet or Espargaro’s humanity or Smith’s mere competence or whatever you want, but the story’s always the same: If you’re an Aprilia fan, you’re left looking for a sign from the heavens, stargazing, dreaming. All this way and for what?
The court will announce its decision on Iannone today. Somewhere, right now, it’s within the realm of celestial possibility that Andrea is considering the minimal effort of tucking away his phone, turning off the bike, putting out the fire, calling it a career. He’s thinking 33.9 million miles sounds pretty good right now. He’s thinking there’s nothing up there anyway. He’s thinking that’s the point.