Chasing the Milky Way: Waiting in the Darkness for Light

We drove through the lava fields at twilight, rugged, broken and black as coal.

I had been sick for weeks. I needed to be tucked into bed early like a child, but my husband Mike, had been planning to photograph the Milky Way for months and this night was an open window to catch it over the Cascades. This night, we hoped to see the Milky Way clear and bright.

So we took off to outrun the setting sun with camera, tripod, two college girls and one down duvet.

At the Dee Wright Observatory in the Willamette National Forest we set up the camera to catch all the seasons of light before night fell deep and dark. This night the sky was singing.

We waited, watching through all the hours - golden hour, that last drop of sunlight poets call the gloaming, then blue hour, just after the sun dips below the horizon, casting the world in shades of blue. We saw clouds riding on the wind, threatening to veil the mountain crest, closing our precious window.

Our girls sat high on a brass compass taking panoramas of the splashed sky on their phones. We watched the clouds fade into inky darkness, the kind that used to scare the wits out of me when I was a girl visiting my Granddaddy Crump in Louisiana. Once when I forgot my bedtime book (it was probably Nancy Drew), I remember running scared in the dark from house to old blue station wagon when night came solid to the country, slamming like an old pine door.

We were waiting for that kind of darkness like at Granddaddy’s house to see the stars come out in full; faint twinkles first, then brighter dots piercing the sky revealing the Big Dipper and North Star straight from its spout. Mike manned the camera, the girls laid flat on their backs, while I hunkered down under the duvet in a camping chair, my head thrown back to catch the bowl of stars.

At first the waiting was easy, but as the wind picked up, cold seeping into my bones, I looked to get on with it. My throat was getting that swollen, scratchy feeling. Surely it had to be dark enough by now, but darkness falls in its own time.

The thing about photographing the Milky Way is you have to chase it down with a lot of waiting. It’s right there, yet to see it you have to watch for it on a clear and dark night, holding still, keeping the shutter open long enough to catch it. Otherwise, you only glimpse it as a smudge in the sky.

The night finally closed tight around the stars. Mike took several shots, the girls counting seconds of light. It was like dusting for fingerprints and seeing where God’s hand had been. I felt bright wonder and a tad lightheaded as though I had been brushed by those starry fingertips.

Finally home, head on my own fluffy pillow, I thought about a baby in a barn and a persistent following star. I was happy to be a star chaser, happier still to be chased by stars.

The Milky Way seemed to me to be a beautiful scar in the sky, the place where God tore right through the heavens reaching down to touch me with the Light of the world. And I felt God's hand as a personal touch, a healing one for my own scars, and not just for mine.

He heals the brokenhearted
And binds up their wounds.
He counts the number of the stars;
He calls them all by name.

Psalm 147: 3-4

Original photo by Mike Conlin.

(Psalm 130:5-6, Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 2:9-11)