Each year, we earthlings have the chance to witness the great wonders of our solar system, up close and at high speed. As summer reaches its peak in mid-August, the Perseid meteor shower graces us with its presence. The Perseid sends comet debris rocketing through our upper atmosphere at speeds upwards of 130,000 miles per hour, and with breathtaking frequency. This amazing show was predicted to be especially active this year, so we made a point to go camping outside the reach of city lights to see it. True to form, it didn’t disappoint.
To see the shower, we chose Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hour away from our home base of Austin, Texas. Being a Thursday, we rushed to get the day’s work done before skipping town. Heading out to the park around 5pm, we felt that familiar rush of a different kind – the positive butterflies of anticipation that only a trip to the wilderness can bring. Our expectations for a great meteor shower made a great cherry on top of that feeling.
We arrived to our campsite around 6:30pm and quickly hung our hammocks for the night. Any camping enthusiast knows what horrors may ensue when one accidentally leaves the gate open for the small-winged harbingers of terror and itchiness, mosquitos, but we were prepared. We brought hammocks with mosquito nets, and we were sure to zip those up first.
Having set our hammocks, we ventured down the trail for a quick sunset visit to the river. Although the park is small by most standards, it has a multitude of trails of differing difficulty. On this leisurely trip, we were also short on sunlight, so we made a quick stroll down the trail, to the stone staircase that leads to the river.
Being able to forget one’s proximity to civilization is a key ingredient in camping, and this park offers that opportunity in a number of places. This section of the river is one of them, so we relished it as the sun went down, envisioning it would look like to camp with our hammocks hanging between the cypress trees lining the rippling stream. This part of the park is subject to extreme flash flooding, so camping on the river itself is prohibited.
After a dip in the stream, we headed back to camp and made dinner, filling our bellies for the long night ahead. For dessert, my brilliant camping partner brought frozen grapes, which make a surprisingly convenient and tasty treat on shorter trips. We filled our inflatable lounging hammocks with air and laid back to wait for the show.
The moon shone brightly though it was small. It was beyond the trees and came out of hiding, slipping perfectly between two tree limbs as though a neighboring camper had switched on a spotlight pointed right at us. We love a good bright moon when camping, but on this particular night we eagerly anticipated the moment when the moon would set, conceding the battle for attention to meteor shower that would soon be upon us.
A few hours after dark, the moon slipped away and the meteors became more visible. We had seen some, but the show was far more remarkable without the moonlight.
Bits of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle streaked across the star-laden sky above us, dragging trails of radiating light behind them. There were no two the same. Every one of them was seen for the first time and for the last, in a matter of seconds. We Oooo and awe as a brilliant rock with two tails hurls itself from one horizon to another. It is bested only moments later by a mid-atmosphere light show as one large meteorite becomes two before our eyes.
We shift our position in the hammock to get a full 180-degree view of the sky in every direction. A symphony of crickets reaches its crescendo as the heavens unleash a rapid-fire series of long-tailed meteorites, like the grand finale of a professional fireworks show. But unlike a fireworks show, this one doesn’t end. It ebbs and flows, but until we can’t keep our eyes open any longer, there are always more to see.
There’s something about these showers that brings out a child-like fascination for me. They’re so impressive, so massive in scale, and so fascinating in their nature. Like a child, I point and exclaim my wonder at each one. And finally, like a child, my eyes need rest from the awesomeness. We doze off, I wake up and watch some more, and eventually we turn in for the night shortly before daybreak.
We awake sleepy but refreshed. The show is over for now. It will return the following night, but we won’t be there. Still, we count ourselves among the lucky ones who got to watch a full night of the Perseid in all its glory, under the stars. We go for a quick hike and a morning swim, and we’re back on the road to civilization and work – and work is better for it.