Chasing the Comet

I heard on Wednesday that it should be a great night for viewing the Comet Neowise, so I suggested to my family that we find a wide open spot without light pollution, with a good view of the northwest horizon.

My husband said sure, with one caveat: he didn’t want to travel far. Our viewing spot had to be within an hour’s drive. My son said he was up for it too. I started researching places for stargazing, mostly state parks and other natural areas. And every one of the places within an hour of here, even the ones with a reputation among stargazers, has a website that says closes at dusk and is only open at night for special sky-watching events, all of them on weekends.

Finally, we decided we’d just have to see it from closer to home. The GW Parkway has two scenic view spots overlooking the Potomac; we hoped one of them would do. I gathered some camp chairs, some beach towels, and my camera. I printed out information about how to find the comet in the night sky and what time of the night to look. I told my guys we had to leave in a few minutes. My husband said he’d be ready shortly, and would get the binoculars. And then he fell asleep. Finally I found the binoculars myself and managed to wake him. And then my son was too busy on some video game or chat, and just would not come. He kept saying he needed just a few more minutes.

This comet had a 20-minute window for optimal viewing, with some less spectacular viewing time before and after that. And we were already running late. So “just a few more minutes” could be the difference between seeing the comet and not seeing the comet. Yet, his “just a few more minutes” kept lingering on.

We finally got in the car at about the time I had hoped to be setting up at our chosen viewing site, so we knew we might not make it in time for the best look. On the GW Parkway, we noticed the first overlook area, but continued to the second one because it was farther from Washington, D.C. across the river, and more likely to have a dark sky. Unfortunately, we found when we stopped there, way too many trees obscure the view. And there is no way to easily turn around and go back on the parkway. Instead, we had to continue northwest until we could cross the river into Washington, D.C., and keep an eye out for a viewing place as we sped back toward Georgetown to cross back to Virginia. The only potential viewing sites we could find had absolutely nowhere nearby to leave the car, so we were back in Virginia on the Parkway again before we finally stopped to look for the comet.

Back at the first overlook, we climbed quickly out of the car, trying to stay well away from the older couple that was sitting in camp chairs, their own eyes pointed upward. We staked out a spot and began to search the sky – and realized there was too much light pollution to see more than one or two stars total. And that the comet was likely behind a large clump of trees. Already past the peak time, we jumped back in the car and headed west, hoping to find a better viewing spot before we were completely out of the time window for seeing the comet at all.

At this point, I was so upset that I was ready to burst into tears. I was so much more disappointed than I’d thought I’d be, both with the fact that we were unlikely at that point to see the comet at all, and at the fact that I felt my family had let me down so badly in just getting out there at a reasonably early time, or even being willing to travel farther to get to a darker place. Though I doubt it would have made a difference. I think Bob realized a little of how I felt, and was sweet about driving miles westward to find another viewing spot. But we had no particular destination in mind and no idea where we might be able to see it from, even if we could make it before it was too late, which was looking less and less likely.

I don’t think I’d realized just how badly I wanted to see the comet. I’m still not sure why it mattered — and still matters — so much to me. Except that we’ve all been stuck mostly at home without much difference in our lives from day to day, in a world that feels increasingly petty and gray and cruel. We can’t travel. We can’t even sit in a damn coffee shop. I long for a glimpse of something different, something higher and purer, something of beauty and science and mystery.

Today is cloudy, and tomorrow is supposed to be, as well. Maybe we’ll try again Saturday.

UPDATE: Success! We saw it on Saturday. Here’s a link.

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