Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Under the Stars

In Stone and Silt, Nikaia spends a night alone in the wild as part of her spirit training - the coming-of-age ritual practiced by First Nations people. It's a transformative experience for her and marks her passage into womanhood.

While not quite as dramatic, I have my own memories of sleeping under the stars in British Columbia. The town I grew up in, Lytton, is hot in the summers, with highs in the 90s and 100s not being uncommon. Being a town of only 300 or so, with maybe fifteen hundred people on the nearby reserves, it was always a thrill to hear Lytton mentioned as "The Hottest Spot in Canada" on the evening CBC weather report. I was pleased that the nearby town of Lillooet, which I suspected was even hotter, didn't have a weather station of its own to usurp these rare mentions of our town on the provincial newscasts.

Located a hundred miles inland from the coast, Lytton is a place of bone-dry heat - no humidity whatsoever. I took full advantage of those hot summers, with outdoor jobs throughout my teens - mowing lawns, pumping gas, guiding river trips.

Days are long in that northern latitude. It wouldn't be until 10pm or so before twilight settled into the canyon. My four brothers and sisters and I would spread a canvas tarp on the grass. We'd lay out pillows and thick sleeping bags. Trixie, our black sheltie, would sit in the grass nearby, her protective instincts on alert for us. Soon the baking heat would give way to cool night breezes, feeling as fresh as a dewy leaf on our cheeks.

Lying on our backs, the musty smell of canvas in our nostrils, we'd see the first night star appear, then the brighter constellations: the Big and Little Dippers, the North Star, the W-shape of Cassiopeia, and the aligned triplet of stars making up Orion's Belt. The occasional shooting star would cause an excited stir among us. Our town was too far south to see the northern lights - except for one unforgettable night when we were treated to a rare display. Massive white bands of light flashed in the sky, then reappeared in different locations, like some elaborate stage lighting. Each band seemed to be thousands of miles long. We ran inside to wake up Mom and Dad so they could see it with us.

My childhood home was 200 feet from the tracks, and every few hours our dozing would be disrupted by the rumbling of coal trains on the Canadian Pacific Railway. In those days the boxcars were uncovered. We'd occasionally have to spray off the coal dust that accumulated on the siding of our home.

Awakened in those moments by the noise and vibration, I'd look up to see layer upon layer of stars and planets above me. An impossible crowding of faraway worlds. I'd nudge one of my brothers or sisters; it was too beautiful to experience alone. We'd point out satellites to each other, and follow them as they traced their paths over and over, tiny glowing spiders weaving an invisible web between the mountains to our east and west.

Our noses cold from the night air, we'd burrow back into our sleeping bags, and try to snatch little pockets of sleep before daylight.

Now that I live on the coast, finding a dry night to sleep outside with my daughters is a rare thing. Mostly we tent out, with carefully tightened tent flies to keep out the rain and heavy dew. I think it's time to see Grandma and Grandpa, and spend another night out in the old backyard, sheltered by nothing but a canopy of starlight.


  1. I kinda of want to go with y'all when you do this. Do you think it is ok to invite myself?

    1. We would love to have you! And you'll get used to the rumble of the trains. :)