Starry night

Darkness was falling on Karanga Camp. Robert encouraged us to get a good night's sleep. It would be our last before the summit push. Then he added, "Stay warm. The temperature is supposed to drop tonight. It will be very cold." 

  Evening view from Karanga Camp. The African plain is covered by clouds. Image by teammember Nico Roger.

Evening view from Karanga Camp. The African plain is covered by clouds. Image by teammember Nico Roger.

A few eyebrows went up, but no one was really surprised. We had been warned. We knew the sting was coming sooner or later. So far, it had been later.

We left the mess tent and Kibo reappeared. It was immense in scale, sprawling across the horizon. The sun slipped away, leaving behind a blush-colored stain. Kibo's frosty head dangled between an effervescent sky and the ground underfoot. An abyss yawned between its mass and ours. That distance stirred my doubts: Nineteen thousand feet is beyond my experience.

"Do you think we'll really walk up there?" I asked Tommy.

"Yea-ah!" he shot back, grinning in that crazy way that only Tommy can.

I wish I shared his confidenceI've been beaten by mountains before.

  That frosted rock hung above Karanga Camp.

That frosted rock hung above Karanga Camp.

We did our necessaries and retired to the tent. It had been an easy afternoon. Because of this, the energy of the camp took longer than usual to dissipate.

The blush of the sun was eclipsed by the inkiness of night. It was cut here and there by a flashlight or a burst of laughter. I heard Nico talking. Tired of lying there, I pulled on my boots and coat. Tommy did the same. We crawled out the zippered door to see what was astir.

We found Nico standing in the open. His face was illuminated by the glow of a cell phone. 

"Look!" He didn't need to point.

  The night sky made the mountain look small.

The night sky made the mountain look small.

The mountain was silhouetted against the night sky. But the longer I looked, the more I saw. And the more I saw, the less I noticed the mountain of our obsession. It was stars--sweet Jesus!--the stars that dominated this glorious night. They were everywhere, from horizon to horizon. And running right down the center of this glitter was the wake of Apollo. It was road of diamonds. It was Hera's spilled milk, the Kiklios Galaxios, the Via Lactea, the Milky Way!

I knew if I could step beyond my own vantage point it would appear as a ring completely encircling the earth. A ring measuring 100,000 light years in diameter.

Kilimanjaro was suddenly reduced to a planetary pimple. I was no longer a tired trekker. I was old Abram peering into the infinite. I heard the command: "Count! Count the stars." So I tried. "Nineteen thousand. Twenty thousand. Twenty-one thousand." It was beyond my experience.

"Start with one-hundred billion," he said. "And that's just the galaxy you can see with your naked eye."

  Bharti Kher, "Starry Night After V.G." (2011). Image from  here .

Bharti Kher, "Starry Night After V.G." (2011). Image from here.

"Shooting star!" cried Tommy. Then there was another. And another.

A satellite whizzed by. 

The overhead panorama was no static canvas. It was throbbing, spinning, zipping, burning!

Nico showed us his cell phone. He had some kind of starfinder app. We found the Southern Cross, Mars, Venus, Pisces, and more skymarks than I could ever name or remember. The sky at the equator was a mix of the familiar and the foreign.

  Starchart. Image from  here.

Starchart. Image from here.

The three of us stood there and looked up for a long time. And somehow, the weight (and challenge) of Kilimanjaro melted away.


A Poem of Divine Interrogation (A translation of Job 38:4-7 from the hip)

Where were you when I stabilized the universe?--Fess up!

Who fixed its limits? Who stretched the tape?--Come on, don't you know?

Into what--exactly--were the sockets of the universe sunk, and who lined up its corners

(to the sound of a chorus of stars and the ballyhoo of angels)?