Have you seen events in the sky you can’t explain? I’m asked this question frequently because I’ve spent many nights out, a likely candidate for seeing things that can scarcely be fathomed.
One happened last week. I live near the Utah-Colorado border, no human lights to be seen. Carrying groceries and my work down the unlit walkway, I was looking up at the usual dazzle of stars and intermittent passenger jets around 7:30pm when I noticed in the southwest a peculiar light. A white pinpoint glowed through a cloud veil, only there were no clouds. It was moving, not unlike a plane or a blazing satellite. I was about to open the front door and go in when I stopped and waited for the blinking lights of an airplane to appear. Instead, the bright object began emitting a luminous tail, like a comet. I set my things down, and snapped off a grainy picture with my phone (above).
The tail spread until it was diaphanous and covered a large portion of the southern sky. Was it Falcon Heavy? An alien probe? A divine spitball?
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is the correct answer, the burn that sent this rocket, with a convertible sports car attached to its upper stage, out of Earth’s orbit and into infinite space. I was seeing a moment in history, but instead of recognizing the gravitas, I scratched my head and wondered, what the hell is that?
Last week’s SpaceX launch was not the only peculiarity I’ve witnessed in the night sky. I used to guide high schoolers in the desert of southern Arizona and southern California. One evening we all saw a green dome of light expand in the west until it looked to be miles high, covering almost a quarter of the sky. The kids were perturbed, jabbering rapidly, asking their teachers what it was. One of the teachers who’d been telling the kids to calm down, came to me and softly said, “Really, Craig, what is that?”
Either San Diego just went up in an experimental atomic explosion, or the military breached the space-time-continuum. With bombing ranges around us, you get used to sonic booms and strange lights, flares on parachutes descending into the desert. This was not one of those. I’d never seen anything like it, the light clearly defined as it grew, as if it were a force field, Gaia emerged from her slumber. The light eventually faded and stars moved in like hundreds of bright seeds. I never learned what it was.
Other things, I did learn what they were. Around fourth grade I went houseboating on Lake Powell in Utah with my dad and his friends when the northern evening sky burst into a glimmering red corona. There was talk of maybe forest fires, but no forests were up there to burn. I remember the event ominously, houseboat tied to a shore of naked sandstone, summer thunderstorms rumbling in the distance, all the men gathered, staring, wondering, as a cool, rain-smelling wind swirled around us, softening the desert. It turns out to have been the aurora borealis seen at an unusually southern latitude. Since then, I’ve seen the northern lights from as far south as Sonora, Mexico, streaks of red shooting from north of the border as if the entire US had gone up in flames.
Of the handful of truly odd events I’ve seen, the most inexplicable was from the porch of a hotel in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Teaching an MFA residency a few years ago, I walked outside on a summer night and noticed a chain of bright lights far off in the sky. There were three, maybe four. At first, I thought they were military flares like those I used to see in the desert. But they weren’t. Nor were they helicopters, or airplanes. They floated, as if suspended. Two students were at the bottom of the stairs and I walked down to them.
“What are they?” one of the students asked.
I flipped back and forth through my rolodex of technology and physics, and said, “I have no idea.”
That’s when the light show began. Either projected or propelled, one light moved along the horizon with incredible speed. It passed behind clouds, so it seemed far away, making the speed, if it were speed at all, impossible. One of the stationary lights brightened and out of it came a smaller, pinpoint of light that moved along the horizon with the same ridiculous momentum. What were we seeing, an Illuminati laser show, military yahooery, or gods coming down on their magic carpets?
The event went on for a few more minutes, lights jumping into motion and slowing. I never got a satisfactory answer to that one either. Not solar flares or weather balloons.
The most dumbfounding and beautiful event I ever witnessed came when I was in college walking across the winter campus of CU Boulder. In the wooded part of campus near Old Main, I happened to look up. Through bare tree branches I saw a large delta shape in the sky directly overhead. It was outlined by the faintest light of the city reflecting on the underbelly of this impossible floating thing.
I stopped and stared straight up, trying to figure it out. I’m not sure I believed or didn’t believe in UFOs. In the absence of dependable data, how could you fall one way or another? At that moment, though, I started to believe a little. The delta shape moved slowly, like a starship silently cruising over Boulder, its nose pointing the way.
Then I heard their wings. I knew immediately they were Canada geese flying low in V formation looking for a lake. Their white bellies shined from the city passing underneath them, more chilling and enchanting than any of the other bizarre possibilities they could have been.