It’s after 1 a.m. and I’m semi-lost. I’m also very sleepy and considering blowing through every red light in this shady town so I can escape its tricky streets that keep landing me in the same intersection. At the last red light, a low-rider packed with trouble and pulsating loud music pulled alongside my family wagon, confirmed this as a questionable, if not outright irresponsible, parenting moment. I willed us, a car of two women and one young child, invisible.
How did I get here? Driving in circles through the maze of one-way streets in this downtrodden burg? How is it I’m watching the contents of several nightclubs spew onto the streets while keeping a peripheral eye on the vagrants weaving along the curbs instead of gazing at the heavens above for signs of magic? I glance in the rear-view mirror to see my four-year-old slumped in her car seat, her bowed lips slightly parted in deep sleep. What are my children doing out on the streets when they should be home in their beds?
Aurora borealis made me do it.
It started out so innocently. A radio report that afternoon promised a rare view of the northern lights in Michigan. Solar flares and all the other magical stuff that goes into aurora borealis meant I could show my children something special on an otherwise boring weeknight.
I hatched the plan quickly: We’d go around 11:30 p.m. and just head north out of the city. I’d drive until I could see more than two stars. I had a quarter tank of gas, my water bottle, my digital camera, my cell phone and my keys. Left behind: my wallet and my common sense. I drove with my window down and every so often gazed upward to see if I could see anything glowy or shimmery. That was my whole plan. It was the plan of a 12-year-old child.
See, some of it is based on the last time I answered the call of the hypnotic northern lights. I lived in what once were the outer suburbs. It was easy to drive an hour to a purely unpolluted night sky. Ten years ago I moved close to the city center. I’m lucky if I see ursa major in the sky on a clear night.
I love the northern lights. I love them so much, I lose all common sense to view them. I’ve only seen them four times in my life, which is probably more than most folks who live below the 45th parallel can claim. My husband has never witnessed their otherworldly beauty. Neither have my children.
My first sighting was as a college student. I stumbled out of the student newspaper office well after midnight, red-eyed and wired on caffeine. I don’t know what made me look upward, but when I did, I had to rub my eyes and slap my cheeks a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating on this brisk night. I knew northern lights were awe-inspiring, but I had no idea how much so until I stood in that empty parking lot staring at the sky. Within minutes, other newspaper staff members joined me. We found a bench nearby and sat, shivering, watching what looked like giant celestial curtains puffing in the breeze.
Over the next decade I saw them three more times: in the outer suburbs of Detroit and twice while camping in northwest Michigan. Each time the display was bigger, more colorful and dramatic than the last.
I react to the northern lights the way some people do to seeing the face of Jesus on a potato chip or when alphabet soup inadvertently spells your future spouse’s name. I am moved. Moved to stupidity.
I can’t help it. I realize that piling my children into the car in the wee hours of morning without a plan, with less than a quarter tank of gas, and ending up turned around in a dangerous town was not one of my shining parental moments.
Eventually I found the right road to get us home.
When we pulled into the garage and the automatic door rolled down, thereby restoring us to a sense of safety, a let out a heavy sigh. Relieved we’d made it home. Embarrassed that my promises of magic were duds. Annoyed that an hour’s worth of driving didn’t get me any farther away from the urban sprawl and light pollution. Disappointed as hell that I didn’t get to see those celestial curtains blowing in the breeze.