I climbed the wobbly ladder and slid onto the soft, rubber roof of the camper. I’ve never been afraid of heights, but my perspective was immediately challenged by the enormity of what I could and couldn’t see. The blackness of the dark seemed different than what I had known my whole life. And as I stood alone on the rooftop, I realized that it wasn’t the density of the darkness that was intimidating — it was the distance of it all.
Sitting atop a knob in the Madison Valley of Montana, Dad and I had parked his fifth wheel in a solitary campsite for a week of fishing in early August. The days were hot, but the nights were dark and cold, like this one. And being from Pennsylvania, such a wide swing between daytime and nighttime temperatures was unexpected. The air wasn’t wet or heavy here, as it was in the narrow, wooded valleys of my home. Rather, it was crisp, cool and dry. And I looked out toward infinity from the roof of a camper.
The sky seemed as though it may fall to the ground with the weight of so many stars. With no city lights on the horizon, no clouds, and no trees or mountains blocking the beauty, I saw the big sky undressed for the first time in my life.
When the cold reached through the muscles and gripped my bones, I climbed down the spindly ladder to find a sweatshirt. And then I climbed back up to my perch — warmer with the extra layer.
I considered also bringing a book and a light, a bottle and a cup, or a guitar and a transistor radio. But the thought passed quickly, and I knew this was one of those pure moments that I’d remember forever if I kept it uncluttered and unusual.
I sat on the roof for a while, then laid back, lying flat with my arms stretched out to the sides, using my body as an extra receiver to take in what my insufficient eyes might miss.
There were names of constellations I should remember from a dark room and an overhead projector in eighth grade science class. There were planets and galaxies and craters on the sliver of a moon that I’d once observed through a cheap telescope. But I’d never seen this. And in that moment of amazement, the fear that I never would see it all this way again was enough for me to linger on the rooftop of the camper even once the sweatshirt was ineffective against the cold bite settling in.
The colder air moved downward without a breeze — it seemed to descend from the blackness of the sky. But even while I fought off shivers, I remained. Because I could sense that my ambition would not be enough to fight the claws of comfort, if I were to teeter back down the ladder and reach into the interior of the warm camper for a heavier coat.
I don’t know how long I laid on that roof, but when I stood and stretched my arms and body (tired and sore from long, repetitive days of fishing big water), I know I was satisfied.
I descended the ladder one last time, and I took something with me that I could never lose.
I slept well that night.
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