Rare Nights of Wonder
By Larry Engel
So this is how it goes: spend the day packing, getting to the airport, leave New York City around 8 p.m. Switch planes in Miami after a couple of hours wait. Fly south overnight across the Caribbean, along the Andes and land in Santiago, Chile sometime early the next morning. Collect your 12 cases of film gear, clear customs, move all the stuff from the international building to the domestic one. Check in for another flight north. About an hour or so flight, is all. Collect the gear. Pack into a pick up and four wheeler. Drive with the crew and guides for another couple of hours into the Andes and finally arrive at the top of a mountain dotted with observatories. It is now late afternoon. Just enough time to unpack, have a quick bite to eat and prep for the sunset shoot. So what if you've been up for more than 24 hours.
Quickly scout for an appropriate set-up. Load the camera, pick the lens, worry about exposures and filters. Lock the tripod and start the camera on its time-lapse recording that will compress more than twelve hours into a fleeting but hopefully beautiful 10 seconds of cinema (or television to be more accurate and realistic, but you're thinking that this moment deserves a bigger screen, a darker room). You check the battery, adjust filters and exposure settings as the sun dips behind the horizon and the sky slowly darkens, but only after gorgeous colors of reds, purples and oranges flood the sky and fill the clouds in a super-real display of natural beauty.
You head back to your room for your sleeping bag and flashlight and some munchies and water and a warm jacket. It's getting cold. The sky is now dark, the landscape no longer familiar, just something blocking more of the night sky. You look up and behold the heavens. You are in a place that is darker than most any other place on earth. Few lights from cities, towns or homes interfere with the magnificence of the night. The camera continues to expose a frame every minute or so. You hope. You lie down on the rocky terrain. It is a desert you're in. Few plants, fewer animals. Very quiet save for the occasional whir of a telescope repositioning.
You realize that our species with all its wrist watches and clocks has misplaced its evolved sense of time. The stars and planets move across the night sky. You lie in awe at the numbers, the distances, the sheer beauty that derives from something as simple as just looking up. And you realize that this experience is a true measure of time. You also are surprised that the night sky, even without moonlight, is bright enough for you to see and to traverse the land. What we have lost with our modernity.
Then dawn surprises you and you stop filming and thinking. You sleep for a couple of hours, gear up again for an afternoon of interviews and some scenics. Somewhere along the way you eat, but you're not sure if it's breakfast, lunch or dinner. But it really doesn't matter, you just want to be outside again.
Then you film another sunset and leave one camera to enjoy the night sky's display while you and the rest of your team head in to film the astronomers, also in awe of it all, trying to learn more about just what it is that's happening out there.
These are rare nights of wonder.