Source to Sea

Sleeping Out
by Mark Downey -- September 24th, 2013

Long ago, an astronaut came to my middle school, and everyone crowded into the gymnasium to hear him speak about I-don’t-know-what. I can only remember one of his stories: on his first mission, in orbit, the astronaut arranged his space-bed so that he could stare out a porthole, looking back at earth. Every forty-five minutes he’d be awoken by another gorgeous sunrise, which he would watch enraptured. The captain eventually made him move the bed so that the astronaut could actually rest. Or at least that’s the gist of the story; forty-five minutes seems outrageous now that I write it.


Raise your hand if you also love sleeping in beautiful places. Me, yes, my space-bed would be by the window too. And like the astronaut, sometimes I’d rather just lay there in a blissful doze captivated by the splendor than shut it out and dream. That’s the case out here, and my favorite part of life in the Nevada desert. It’s so clear and dry that we lay out under the stars almost every single night. We call it “cowboy camping.” Usually it doesn’t rain. Sometimes it does, and those times are rough. Rarely at night though.


And when I climb into my (usually) dry sleeping bag, the cool desert air stirs my hair, and the desert hums its lullaby: tiny chirpings of insects and the giggling of coyotes not so distant. The night sky is revealed clear and vast. I can see satellites – maybe even space stations with other astronauts gazing back – airplanes of course, meteors, and whatever else flies around up there. My favorite constellation, the Pleiades – I can count every star. Then when the moon comes out it shines like God’s headlamp so bright you can read by it.


The beauty is immense enough that I don’t even mind anymore the rumpled ground on which we sleep. There are plenty of times when we find ourselves in the hills with no flat surface, and we end up reclining at wild angles. And these are often the more eroded terrains, the slopes composed of bare shattered volcanic rock. In such slant-y times, the only thing to do is try rearranging what we can, maybe digging out a shelf or stacking a pack and some rocks downhill of our pads. And – let the glory of the moonlit universe compensate the uneven skin of earth.


It’s backcountry camping! I can’t move the hills or cause soft grass to grow underneath. Forget the angle of the ground and right kind of gear. Fix what I can and embrace the rest – there will always be some kind of rock in my back. And I’ll take those bumps and interruptions most nights over the sterility of a bedroom. The physical comfort of a soft mattress, sure, but what else? The four walls – THE CEILING! – the padded carpet, the quiet bug-less emptiness. At what cost! While the universe whirls unseen, unheard, and unfelt outside above.


Who goes to outer space to get a good night’s sleep?

1 Comment

  1. Kelly
    Sep 26, 2013

    GOD – you have beautifully so captured the feeling I have every time I sleep outside. Thank you for this post.

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