Above/featured: Morning fog in the valleys below, facing north-northeast from Cerro Tololo Observatory – 9am CLDT (12pm UTC), 22 Sept 2011.
Late-2011: Cerro Tololo Observatory, Región de Coquimbo, Chile.
The morning creeps gently forward, up and over the desert sky. Sounds? What sounds? What scarce sounds there are, they pierce the silence with soft whistles and drawn-out wails. Alternating light and dark horizontal streamers, known also as “the rays of God,” mark the first light of dawn. Small clumps break loose, as the overnight shroud of valley fog pulls back slowly from view.
The sun climbs higher, the shadows grow shorter, the cotton patch dissolves. It isn’t long until a spectacular sight is revealed. This is what you get from a height of 7500 feet above sea level.
Dry river beds twist and sweep and stretch along canyon floors. Cactus and desert scrub carpets the surrounding hills in faded greens and dusty browns. To the east rise jagged rocky teeth capped with white frosting, fixing the location of the Andes along the Chilean spine.
In this desolate and isolated part of the world, I’ve often wondered about the few brave souls who make this place their home. They’re prospectors, miners, even some farmers, all of whom carry their burden for financial endeavour. People have been digging around in these parts for centuries, whether it’s plant, mineral, or some kind of monetary paydirt.
But there’s another human enterprise with different rewards, a quest that asks questions on a much larger scale.
How do planets take shape?
How do stars form?
How are galaxies assembled?
Is there life elsewhere in the universe?
These issues occupy astronomers from all over the world. Many astronomers go up onto mountains, just like this one, onto the summit of Cerro Tololo, peering into the skies. The telescopes point straight up, reaching out like outstretched hands, wanting more.
I’ve been coming here since 1995. I’m never bored of Chilean sunrises, impressive in the daily entrance over the tall Andes mountains. I’m never bored of Chilean sunsets, providing as always some measure of peace in the daily exit over the waters of the Pacific.
And so, I’ve witnessed hundreds of Chilean sunrises over the years, but today, this special sunrise stands out from the rest.
Today, I’m leaving the mountain for the last time. Soon, I’ll leave Chile, my residence of 5 years. Soon, I’ll leave behind astronomy, after 15 years in the making.
I’m fortunate I recognized change was coming in my life. All the signs were present, even though trying to stick around was undoubtedly the safer choice. Any despair I had about leaving astronomy has transformed into something resembling relief. I have no regrets about astronomy; it’s time for something new.
I have a new journey to take on: one full year around the world. I’m okay with jumping into the unknown; I get to ask different questions, even if I receive few answers in reply. I’m reminded the journey itself will be the most important thing.
Some furry four-legged creatures have arrived to greet the sunrise here on the summit of Cerro Tololo. A scruffy mountain goat moseys up, lifting its head to gauge my morning mood. Three desert foxes about the size of small dogs have also joined the party. They all leave disappointed; I have nothing for their attempts to beg for food.
It sounds strange, but this all seems to fit as my way of saying goodbye to Chile.
But a ‘goodbye’ to the old implies there’s a ‘hello’ to something new.
Well, what’s it going to be?
What am I going to be?
We are all the same, under the same sky.
More from Chile
I made all of the photos above. A version of this story appears on World Nomads (May 2014). The present version appearing here is a transcript of the reading at the Vancouver launch for Debbie Wong’s book, “The Same Sky” on 30 July 2014. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-52m.