Hidden Treasures: Six Places to See the Milky Way
Here’s a statistic for you: “The stellar disk of the Milky Way galaxy is approximately 100,000 light-years (30 kiloparsecs, 9×1017 km) in diameter, and is considered to be, on average, about 1,000 ly (0.3 kpc) thick.” I got that from Wikipedia.
I don’t really know what this kind of scale means, and that’s because for all my travels I have never traveled a light-year. Just haven’t had the technology, or the time. I’ve certainly had some horrendously long bus rides in Sumatra and Tibet, but when all was said and done we didn’t really go that far. Certainly not a light-year.
Here’s another line from Wikipedia: “It is agreed that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, with observations suggesting that it is a barred spiral galaxy. It contains 100-400 billion stars and is estimated to have at least 50 billion planets, 500 million of which could be located in the habitable zone of their parent star.”
It’s hard for me to make much sense of that either, and it reminds me of how there are women in Afghanistan who have never traveled more than five miles from the village in which they were born. When it comes to the universe, we’re all a lot like those Afghan women.
The Milky Way may boggle the mind, but when viewed it tends to please the eye. I’ve stood in places around the world and, when there’s a notable absence of earthly lights, I try to look up at night. Below are daytime photographs of places where I’ve looked up at night and seen the Milky Way in all its brightness.
WADI RUM, JORDAN: Even after an exhausting day, it is difficult to go to sleep in this beautiful desert because the stars are so spectacular, and the silence so vivid. You just don't want to close your eyes. I put this photo first on the list because Wadi Rum, in terms of both Milky Way viewing and earthly landscape, is one of my favorite places in the world.
ROAN MOUNTAIN, USA: Roan Mountain straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina state line and is one of the highest points east of the Mississippi. Though not as light pollution free as Wadi Rum, it's still a commendable place from which to view the Milky Way.
MOUNT SINAI, EGYPT: It can get chilly up here -- below freezing in winter -- and so having a blanket handy is advisable. And if you walk up in the middle of the night, waiting about half an hour after the hundreds of other visitors have already begun the two-hour-or-so ascent, you'll have the sensation of walking up alone, and you'll see a line of flashlights zigzaging toward the peak, and above the peak a breathtaking array of stars. It won't be hard to imagine ancient religious processions, or how someone like Moses might have suspected to find God here.
TIGER LEAPING GORGE, CHINA: Sunlight reaches the bottom of this gorge, one of the world's deepest, for only about two hours each day. In the upper left of the picture you'll see a guesthouse. I spent the night here once, the only person down here except for a caretaker, and in pitch darkness I sat on the rocky bank of a raging Yangtzee and looked up at satellites and shooting stars slicing across the sliver of sky above.
DEAD SEA, ISRAEL: If you leave Tel Aviv by car at midnight, you can be lying on a blanket flat on your back at the lowest point on Earth by 1:30 a.m. And if you get tired of that, you can walk a few feet to the Dead Sea and lie flat on your back there. Either way you'll see something of the Milky Way.
KONSO, ETHIOPIA: If you're staying the night at the Strawberry Fields Eco-Lodge in southern Ethiopia, there won't be a toilet in your room. For that, you'll need to walk to an outhouse, and on the way if the weather is clear you'll look up and see the Milky Way. And months later when you're skimming Wikipedia and read, "All the stars that the eye can distinguish in the night sky are part of the Milky Way galaxy, but aside from these relatively nearby stars, the galaxy appears as a hazy band of white light arching around the entire celestial sphere," you'll remember your trip to the outhouse.
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Joel Carillet, the first chief editor of Wandering Educators, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, follow his regular photoblog, or purchase images, visit www.joelcarillet.com