Essential Nights Out

by Tim Mulherin, 04/19/2020, Indianapolis, IN

Adult Category


“There are more viruses than stars in the universe,” read an April 15, 2020 National Geographic story headline, which appeared in its online Coronavirus Coverage section. With COVID-19 spreading across our planet, I’ve been turning to the stars — not to compare numbers but to marvel.

My family has been coming to northwestern lower Michigan, specifically to Leelanau County, drawn by its timeless beauty, for more than 30 years. Among our countless precious memories are those of late nights on a summer beach, eyes skyward, gazing at the Milky Way. As locals know well, one can actually see the Milky Way in Leelanau County on clear nights. In Indianapolis, my reluctant home, only the most intensely illuminated constellation’s starlight can be made out with the naked eye: notably, the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), Cassiopeia, and Orion.

During the Perseid Meteor Shower in early August, I can be out for hours trying to peer through the vehicle-emission-caused air pollution that settles over the city, especially in hot months, and never see a Perseid. Not so Up North. One treasured August evening 20 years ago, while camping on South Manitou Island, my good friend and Traverse City native Greg coaxed me from my slumber inside our tent, whispering urgently, reverently, “Tim — get out here! You won’t believe it.” I crawled to the tent opening and looked up. Meteors streaked above every several seconds — through pulsating emerald green sheets of the northern lights. “Wow; just wow,” Greg summarized perfectly.

Indianapolis is now under a governor-proclaimed stay-at-home order, with only essential travel allowed, until at least May 1. Since March 16, my wife and I have been working from home, me a public charter school administrator, she a healthcare patient services representative. As we endure this event, I have found myself turning to the skies for solace. And something remarkable is happening there during the pandemic.

Last week, I watched the International Space Station cruise across Indy’s night sky, a bead of setting sun-reflected light traveling at 27,500 miles per hour yet moving at an illusory pace, taking three minutes to disappear from view. The sky was amazingly clear, for Indy — thanks to the coronavirus’s impact on traffic.

In mid-April Venus shimmers in the coal black night. I can now make out Gemini, Auriga, Leo…constellations I could only spot previously with my astronomy apps. Starry nights are a godsend.

This morning before dawn I went outside to observe the three-planet alignment about 30 degrees above the southeastern horizon: Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, with the crescent moon hanging low in the east. In times like this, capitalize on what’s right in front of you. Spring is here; the natural world goes on: the gift that’s ever present.

I long to return to our seasonal home in Cedar. On that first starry night, I will go outside, beer in hand, and look up. It’s my new habit. One that should go viral, shouldn’t it?