California Naturalist Class, Part 4: The Perseid Meteor Shower

David and I are lying in the middle of the road, our heads propped up by a slowly-deflating air mattress. David says the mattress may not have been the best buy in the world, but here we are putting it to good use. Paulette and Trish are leaning their heads against David’s car, their eyes glued to the night sky. We’re in the middle of the road in an area usually busy with cars and tourists, but it is past midnight, and we think we’re safe enough. Hardly anyone comes to the Bear Valley Visitor Center at midnight. And if they did, well, it’s the dead of night, and we’ll hear them, or see their headlights, long before they are near.

It’s the perfect place to watch a meteor shower. Dark as dark can be. Of course, part of the darkness is due to the fact that the fog is thick in the sky. Only one less-than-dusky patch is showing a single star twinkling above us. Paulette claims to see not one, but three stars. I’m not about to argue about it. Her eyesight, I daresay, is better than mine, and even if not, her optimism is an asset. For us to see the shower, the meteors will need to streak exactly through our one patch of unclear skies.

We are all giggling uncontrollably but still keeping our eyes on the heavens. I no longer know why we are laughing, only that everything is funny. For some reason, David and I started calling the mattress the Guillotine. This is hysterically funny to us. Perhaps every word, even the word “guillotine,” becomes funny when it’s way past your bedtime, and you are lying on the cold ground in the middle of the road on a fast-deflating mattress, hoping to see a meteor shower in a foggy sky.

“I saw one, there!” Yells out Paulette. We all aim our eyes at the spot to which we think she points, but nothing is there, of course. Meteors tend to do that, I hear. They streak across the sky, and then they are gone.

“Which direction did it go?” I ask, remembering that the only time I saw a falling star was when I knew which part of the sky I should look at. It’s a lot of space to cover, otherwise.

Paulette spans the whole night sky with her arm. “This way,” she says.

The fog rolls in, threatening to cover our patch of sky. I no longer see even the one star. Nonetheless, I scan everywhere. We’ve come all this way. I know we’ll see a meteor shower tonight.

A car approaches, its beams scouring the road. We watch it as it passes slowly through the parking lot behind us and then turns, its wheels crunching pebbles, onto our road. David and I jump up and move to the side. David snatches at the mattress, which droops feebly in his hand. The car pauses, its headlights wavering, then backs up, tries to go forward where there is only a trail. I wonder, briefly, if the car would breach the barrier and head up the Bear Valley trail which eventually will lead the occupants to Arch Rock and the ocean. Now, that would be an exciting drive in the dark.

David jogs toward the car to see if he can help. Perhaps they had taken a wrong turn. I notice that I am not afraid of murderers and rapists. The car is a minivan, the backseat probably filled with children sleeping in their carseats. I watch David for another moment, then remember the shower. I cannot fall asleep on my watch. I return my gaze to the sky.

A light, like a racing, single firecracker, arcs through our one clear patch, disappearing before I can yell, “There!” I feel redeemed. I saw a meteor. We can go back to the Boathouse now if we must, though if it was up to me, we’d drive to Mount Tamalpais to see if up there we’d have better luck.

We drive back, tired but satisfied. Paulette of the sharp eyes had seen two meteors. David, Trish and I each saw one. The drive back is nearly uneventful. As we make the turn toward Chimney Rock, a pale shape materializes on the side of the road. David stops the car, and we all hold our breaths. It’s a barn owl, just sitting there, as though waiting to hitch a ride. The owl stares back, unblinking, its white face remarkably expressionless. Every detail of it stands out in the darkness. A frightening ghost. A predator to be feared. Suddenly, it opens its wings wide and soars up and away above us. We let out our collective breaths. Meteors and owl. There can be a no better end to our foggy foray.

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