The “rays of God” mark the first light of dawn. Sounds come scarce, piercing the silence with soft whistles and drawn-out wails. The nighttime cotton blanket pulls back slowly; small puffs break loose from low-lying areas and push west towards the Pacific.
The sun climbs higher, shadows grow shorter, and morning fog parts. A spectacular view is unveiled at a height of over 2000 metres. Dry river beds twist and stretch along canyon floors. Cactus and desert scrub blanket neighbouring hills in faded greens and dusty browns. To the east rise jagged teeth capped with white frosting, fixing the location of the Andes along the Chilean spine.
I wonder about the brave souls who make their home in this part of the Atacama desert. They’re farmers, prospectors, and miners, carrying individual loads for financial endeavour. People have always been digging: plant, mineral, or any kind of pay dirt.
There’s another human enterprise, one that looks up into clear skies and seeks different rewards. People come to ask questions of the universe. How do planets take shape? How do stars form? How are galaxies assembled? How far back in time can we look back? These concerns occupy guest astronomers here on the summit of Cerro Tololo, the telescopes pointed up, reaching for elusive answers.
I’ve never gotten bored of Chilean sunrises, impressive as always over the great cordillera beyond. Fifteen years will pass, and every sunrise is a marvel. I’ll witness hundreds of Andean sunrises, but today’s sunrise is different.
I’m leaving the mountain for the last time, and soon, I will leave astronomy.
All the signs indicate changing course, although continuing was a safer bet. I’ve fought against changing times and priorities. Grief over my loss eventually transformed into great relief, and I’m fortunate to have departed science on my own. I have no regrets about my time as astronomer, but I’m likely never coming back.
I’ve a new imperative and a new journey: to take on a full year of travel with visits to family and friends around the world. I’m okay jumping into the unknown with many questions and few replies.
Some furry four-legged creatures arrive to greet the morning on Tololo. A scruffy mountain goat appears to check out the hubbub. Three diminutive desert foxes join the party, but they soon leave disappointed, their attempts at begging for food thwarted.
With a smile, I wave at their retreating backs.
It’s fitting validation, a final valediction.