Skygazing in Sarasota

By Beau Denton January 1, 2011

eclipse2.jpgIt was just last week that my boss, Pam Daniel, chastised me for not getting enough sleep. “Beau,” she said, “three hours is not enough!” And I knew she was right—which is why news that Monday night’s lunar eclipse wouldn’t happen until after three in the morning preceded a sinking feeling in my stomach. A full lunar eclipse, on the winter solstice for the first time since the 1600s, plus a chance for distant meteors? This was too good to pass up.

So a little after 11, I left my house in Bradenton (I didn’t trust myself to actually wake up if I stayed in bed) and drove east, past the interstate, past all the lights, to the first field that didn’t look like a cow pasture—near my viewing spot for last week’s brilliant Geminid meteor shower. Since my phone was about to die, I rummaged through the trunk for my old alarm clock, unrolled my sleeping bag in the grass, and waited.

The first alarm never works. I remember waking up long enough to think about how cold it was and how tired I’d be come sunrise before falling asleep again. But the second one, some time around 2:15, reminded me why I was there. For the next hour and a half I alternated positions—reclining in awe, sitting in a chilled crouch, and running in circles to stay warm. Don’t tell anyone, but I may have even talked to myself and spent way too much time humming “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”

But all of that took a backseat every time I looked up. Our shadow slowly spread across the moon and created that legendarily eerie red glow that haunted our ancestors, and I began to feel very, very small. A full moon on a regular night is more than enough to humble me, but this—this was beyond compare.

Finally, just as the moon’s regular color started creeping back into the spotlight, I rolled up my sleeping bag and, with a strange sort of sadness, decided I should heed Pam’s advice and try for a little more sleep. I cringed when I thought about waking up for work, and again when I realized my alarm clock was still somewhere in that field, but it was fleeting. I knew right away that what I had seen was worth the cold, the restlessness, and the missing gadget.

By the time I turned on my computer this morning, Facebook was blazing with my generation’s endless need to broadcast ourselves—pictures, videos, play-by-play updates. For a moment I regretted that I had watched the eclipse with no camera, no Internet, and a dead phone, but somehow that seems fitting now. I spent the night with the moon, a sleeping bag and an empty field, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


For sky-gazing enthusiasts, check out our local Deep Sky Observers club. You might especially enjoy their Sidewalk Astronomy events.

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