My inability to witness the glory of the Northern Lights isn’t for lack of trying.
At the behest of my Northern Lights-loving friend, on several occasions over the past few years, I’ve been roused from the comforts of my bed by way of his prodding texts — “Should be quite a show tonight!” More often than not I take the bait, untangling myself from my bed sheets to take my chances with the sky.
By now, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson.
In late August, the text comes yet again — “Auroras should be good tonight if you’re interested!” Because I don’t want to be the guy who can’t be bothered by auroras, I reach once more for my shoes.
But all the while I’m grumbling: What kind of friend drags another friend from bed, forces him to drive 40 miles, demands he shiver along the banks of a lake, all so that the friend can catch a glimpse of some lights in the sky?
Thankfully, by the time I reach Lake Wissota, most of my grumbles have dissipated. I arrive shortly before 10 p.m. to find my friend emerging from the roadside weeds.
“Hey man, you ready for this show?” he asks.
I want to tell him that I’ve been ready for a couple of years. But rather than resort to my glass half-empty assessment of what’s to come, I echo his enthusiasm.
“Tonight’s the night!” I agree.
My friend is decked out in a headlamp and camo jacket, while I’m wearing a pullover and pajama pants. Our difference in apparel perfectly reflects our difference in commitment. I’m willing to give this a couple of hours at most; he’s in it for the long haul.
We position ourselves near the water’s edge, his cameras already in place and clicking at the behest of their automatic timers.
Meanwhile, I peer up at a sky that, to my estimation, appears like any other.
Where are the glowing greens? The deep purples? The shards of light bursting upward toward the stars?
All I see is a gauzy wisp of white, thinner than cheese cloth, draped along the darkness.
“See it!” he points. “Right there!”
I lie like a rug: “Oh wow…there it is...”
Through the camera’s LCD displays, I actually do see it: a shade of green somewhere between emerald and seafoam. My friend checks the aurora borealis app on his phone, sharing with me half a dozen meteorological graphs, all of which, apparently, are giving us precise data of what’s to come.
“Our Kp-index is 4. The hemispheric power is in the mid 50s. Solar wind speed is good and the Bz is dropping south.”
“Should be,” he says.
Of course, one never really knows. Which was doubly true 150 years ago, on Jan. 4, 1870, when Eau Claire’s citizens craned their necks toward the sky for a celestial display so astonishing that even the New York Times took note. In the article, an unattributed reporter described a light “exactly resembling the aurora borealis in its pale, milky color,” but which — judging by its placement in the sky— was not the aurora borealis.
“The night was very clear, the stars shining brightly; but the mysterious light came out in a broad circular spot, and spread slowly, like the moonlight coming through a cloud, or the reflection of a prairie fire, putting out the stars nearest to it.” The reporter went on to describe the sudden appearance of a second spot, both of which “melted into one another.”
Imagine the scene: a bevy of bankers and teachers and millers and lumberjacks slipping from their homes and taking to their porches to gaze up at some phenomenon in the sky. “No plausible explanation for the occurrence has been suggested,” the reporter concluded.
As my friend and I marvel at our own meteorological miracle, it occurs to me that the true wonder of the lights — aside from their obvious beauty — is that they can’t be lured out of hiding. We can create no conditions to hurry them along. Rather, we have no choice but to sit patiently alongside one another in the dark, our eyes fixed skyward as the aging crickets offer their final summer chirps. Idle chitchat is key. Twiddling thumbs is encouraged. What a pleasure it is to yield all control to the universe.
Just as boredom begins to set in, the Northern Lights stun us with a solar flare.
We leap up — “This is the big one!” — and, indeed, it is. The cameras capture two bursts of green piercing the sky amid the purple hues. We celebrate as if we had something to do with it, as if all our chitchat and thumb twiddling has at last paid off.
I yawn, check my watch. Somehow, two hours have passed in the span of a bullfrog’s croak. My eyelids grow heavy; I tell my friend I’m ready to call it a night.
“You sure?” he asks, referring once more to his aurora borealis app. “It looks like the really wonderful stuff is still coming.”
“Oh, I’ve got a pretty low threshold for wonder,” I say. “I think I’ve got all I need for one night.”
By flashlight, my buddy walks me back toward the car, then returns to his post alongside the water.
“Take it easy,” he calls.
And then he’s gone — engulfed by the heavy darkness.
Despite my friend’s exuberance, as well as my own renewed interest in the lights, I return nonetheless to the thoughts I’d grumbled about during the drive over.
What kind of friend…
But now the answer is obvious: a good one.
Lights in the sky are one thing. But lights in the sky shared with a friend makes them all the brighter. I like to think that the ghosts of Eau Claire’s past knew this too. That on the night of Jan. 4, 1870, those bankers and teachers and millers and lumberjacks didn’t restrict themselves to their own porches, but instead, joined one another in their marveling.
Throughout my drive home, as I peek out the passenger side window, I can just make out a hint of the lights that remain. They’re still beautiful, sure, but they’re nothing to “ooh” and “ahh” over. And so, I don’t.
After all, what’s the point of “oohs” and “ahhs” if there’s no one around to hear?