By the light of the Moon, we walk past the long-deserted Wolfe Cabin and cross the barely moving waters of Salt Wash. As we start the ascent to the park’s icon, Delicate Arch, there are few fellow hikers out on this cold February night. Patches of snow adorn the slickrock and are a fleetingly reminder of the winter season. They and the quiet will soon be gone as the visitor season gets underway. But tonight we are rewarded with the “place to ourselves,” an event as rare as a Blue Moon.
Known as “Luna” by the Romans and “Selene” by the Greeks, the Moon has kept its “best face” towards the Earth for millions of years. We track the Moon’s progress across the heavens and know its phases like we know our neighbor’s dogs. That is, pretty well. We go on Full Moon walks or become Moon-struck or howl at the Moon when the feeling is right or when the world feels a bit off kilter. Though thousands of miles physically separate the Moon from the Earth, the Moon is very much a part of the desert landscape.
I wonder what the ancient cultures thought when the Moon would go into a solar or lunar eclipse or where it “hid” during its dark phase. Did they cower in fear or watch in amazement? Mayan astronomers were very connected to celestial events, scheduling activities like war or marriage based upon the positions of the stars and planets. The Ancestral Puebloans were aware of solstice days and seasonal changes based upon the stars overhead. It would be interesting to chat with these ancient astronomers and understand their view of how the heavens changed.
And what would these early stargazers say if we told them that one day humans would go walkabout on the Moon? Would they think us crazy or would they say, “That’s all?” Only fifty years ago the first Moon landing occurred when an unmanned Russian spacecraft, Luna 2, plowed into the lunar surface. Ten years later, the first manned spacecraft, the Apollo 11, landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Setting down their lunar module in Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility, Neil Armstrong made his famous declaration, “That’s one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” He and his crewmate “Buzz” Aldrin planted an American flag and a plague that read, “Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” They left a four-leaf clover (for luck) and a falcon feather stuck into the lunar dirt as a talisman of the U.S. Air Force and like a prayer feather from the Ancient Ones. Of course, 15 percent of the American people polled during this time believed that the entire landing had been staged in a Hollywood warehouse. Skepticism two thousand years old.
Landing on the Moon must have been a feat comparable to Captain James Cook finding Australia or Columbus reaching the New World. The shear magnitude of the event must have been difficult for people to comprehend. President John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” One for the ages. Although I am all for space exploration, what naturalist wouldn’t be excited about yet undiscovered things, I am also content to just sit and watch the Moon glide by.
But not everyone is. Some people suffer from a malady called “Moon madness” or more technically, selenophobia. Suffers have a chronic and irrational fear to how the Moon will effect their lives. They are not “lunatics,” that’s another degeneration once thought induced by the phases of the Moon. Selenophobiacs are driven to anxiety and have an uncontrollable fear of the night sky. Fortunately, I do not suffer from “fear of Selene.”
If I were, I’d miss some great upcoming lunar events. In February, there will be a penumbral lunar eclipse on the 9th that will be visible, in part, across the western U.S. There will also be a Blue Moon, the second of two full moons in one month, on New Year’s Eve. I’m sure there will be some Lunar Madness that night, but not caused by any phobias. And if you’re worried about a month without a full moon, you’ll have a few years to get over this fear. The next time this will occur will be February 2018.
So if you do decide to enjoy a night hike by la luz de la Luna, remember to pack a flashlight, just in case. Clouds are also very much a part of the desert landscape.