Little Tent on the Prairie

Part 4 of the Florida Trip

From Key Largo I headed up to central Florida to the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve, where I hoped to see some Dark Sky. I’ve been depressed for some time about the lit-up state of our skies. As a kid, we could go across the street to the cemetery to watch meteor showers, and actually see a lot of stars and meteorites! That is no longer possible. Now we’re in Repo Man 1984 Los Angeles all the time: “It’s a beautiful night. You can almost see the stars.” Even our own house in the country has light pollution from the school next door. It’s killing me. So Dark Skies parks are what I’m after when I travel now. Sigh. It’s come to this.

I googled Dark Skies Florida and came up with Kissimmee. It wasn’t quite where I was heading, but I couldn’t resist the detour. I reserved an Astronomy Pad site because it sounded cool. Like a launch pad, right?

The drive into the park was pretty long, on a slow road. I set up my tent immediately, and befriended my nerdy older guy neighbors on The Pad. It definitely felt like an X Files episode.

There were only four sites, and the dudes set up there were regulars. The first guy I talked to sets up there twice a month. He’s retired, natch. His gear allows him to record the movement of the stars (I think it’s the movement of the earth, amirite). He’s buddies with the other regulars, and they get together regularly. The regular guys are in their 60s or so or more, white middle-class Americans. I quizzed them about rattlesnake and alligator activity. They said once an alligator was hanging out right outside their RVs, but usually not. One of them was happy to talk with me, the other seemed to treat me as an interloper. Which I guess I was!

It was cloudy, and the weather forecast wasn’t good. Naturally. This is always how my stargazing life plays out.

I arrived in the afternoon, but the Rangers’ station / store was already closed, so I couldn’t get fresh ice. Oh well. I walked around some sites, recommended by the neighbors. It was pretty darn beautiful. This was landscape very different from my previous Florida adventures. I didn’t see the wild hogs, but maybe next time. This is a park where you can bring your horses! Unfortunately, there were no horses. I wish I had one to bring, or one to rent! I tried to sign up for a buggy tour, but it wasn’t happening until the next month. Boo!

I retreated to the tent, had some dinner, tried to sleep. But the neighbors were up partying, looking up. It didn’t seem very clear out, but eventually I got up and the sky was pretty good! The horizon all around was bright, but the straight up sky was darned dark.

There was a new guy on the pad from Guatemala or something who had a nice telescope he let me peer through. He was pretty excited to be there – at his home (like mine) there was way too much light pollution to get a good look at anything. I pulled out my thrifted beach chair, and we both saw a fantastic fireball, probably the best meteorite I’ve ever seen. It took a long time to shoot across the sky, and created many colors and a firey tail. It was so bright! My pal and I were pretty stoked. “Did you see that!” It’s the kind of thing you can’t be looking through a telescope to see. You need the naked eye. Anyway, it was pretty unforgettable. His telescope was hooked into his camera, which was cool. He showed me a bunch of celestial gems he’d photographed, and some comparison photos from his house and the park. Very dramatic, and I was appropriately impressed.

In the morning I visited the rangers, who had some good information. And they were funny. There was the super chatty guy who I connected with, and then there was the lady who said to me, “You’re a long way from home,” in a sort of Deliverance accent. Why yes I am! said I. Zoinks!

I took a hike on the way out, didn’t see much wildlife, but saw plenty of beautiful prairie.

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