Amidst the towering redwoods, an unexpected 2 AM awakening introduced me to a breathtaking world beyond imagination.
Back when I was about 8 years old, my dad, my older brother (I'm the baby of three), and I headed out on a camping trip in the redwoods near our home. My father was no stranger to these woods; he'd spent his early years here, helping out at the family's pack station. He'd entertain us with tales of guiding people on multi-day journeys into the mountains, setting up camps, and returning weeks later, as promised.
On this particular summer adventure, we followed our usual routine. Dad would set up camp upon arrival, while my brother and I made a beeline for the lake, fishing and exploring the nearby trails. We'd seek out the "Indian Bathtubs,"
mysterious granite hollows where food was once prepared, play in and on a fallen redwood we'd turned into a fort (our infamous yellow jacket encounter still makes us shutter and laugh), and explore every nook and cranny we could find. It was the stuff of childhood dreams, full of excitement and wonder.
As daylight began to surrender to the fast approaching darkness, we'd make our way back to camp. We'd be exhausted and starving, eagerly waiting for the delicious campfire-cooked meal Dad had in store for us. There's something magical about food cooked over an open flame, and sometimes even including freshly caught trout.
We'd gather around the campfire, sharing our day's findings and fishing tales, wrapped in our sweatshirts, savoring the comforting crackle of the fire. Occasionally, we'd break out and then eat the have-to-make S'mores, although I can't quite recall if we did so on this particular night. All I knew then was that sleepiness had settled in, and it wasn't long before I was ready to call it a day.
Strangely enough, the night sky wasn't a frequent attraction during our camping trips. Possibly because the campfire and lanterns cast a warm, inviting glow, competing with the starry night sky. The redwood canopy above seemed to capture our attention more than the celestial spectacle beyond it.
After some time, Dad, seeking some peace and quiet, instructed us to hop into our sleeping bags. The plan was to get some sleep before sunrise, ensuring we'd be well-rested for another day of fishing in the lake and onto more exploring. We complied, and sleep was quickly upon us.
When my mom wasn't with us, we preferred sleeping beneath the open sky. If she was around, we'd opt for a tent, as camping wasn't really her thing. Her parents were avid hunters and campers, but that gene didn’t seem to pass down to her. Oh she loved the outdoors, but not so much sleeping in it. Too much dirt, maybe… and bugs. Oh, and bears.
As I lay down, I fell asleep in an instant. The sleeping bag always felt like a cocoon of comfort after a day of adventures and a satisfying meal. Though it wasn't yet 8 PM when we “hopped” into our bags, it was nowhere near sunrise when something stirred me from my slumber.
My watch read 2:13 AM, and to this day, I don’t know what woke me from such a deep sleep. Was it the rustling of a bear rummaging through someone's ice chest? A chipmunk's curious exploration inside my sleeping bag (unlikely, but who knew)? The cause remained a mystery, but I'm eternally grateful it happened, even though my initial reaction was sheer fright.
As I slowly peeled open my still-heavy eyelids, an incredible sight was waiting. The night sky, darker than I'd ever seen it before, offered no trace of the moon's gentle glow. All the lanterns and campfires having long since been extinguished, left only an abyss of darkness. But then, as my eyes adjusted to the inky blackness, an astonishing phenomenon unfolded before me. It was as if thousands, no, millions of tiny lights twinkled just four inches from my face! I couldn't comprehend it—what in the Sam Hill was going on?
In my state of confusion and fear, I ducked beneath the thick protective layers of my sleeping bag, leaving only my eyes exposed. As my 8-year-old brain gradually woke up, I came to a startling realization. Those weren't little lights inches from my face; they were thousands upon thousands of stars, each one millions of miles away. I was awe-struck, wishing desperately that I could wake my dad and brother to share this incredible sight. However, I was only 8 years old, snugly cocooned in my cozy sleeping bag. Waking them would have meant braving the chilly night air and entering the mountain’s natural food chain where bears and other predators were at the top. For what it’s worth, I did share my experience with them the next morning.
For what felt like hours, I lay there, absorbed in the fascinating starry sky above. It was magical, a touch intimidating, utterly overwhelming, and yet so much to take in. My whispered words to myself were simple but heartfelt: "Whoa!!!"
Fast forward a few years, possibly more than a few, and I can still recall the excitement I experienced on that extremely dark night, surrounded by the towering redwoods under a mesmerizing night sky. On that night, my love affair with the stars began, a passion that has stayed with me as I've grown older. To this day, whenever I find myself under a moonless sky, far from the city's artificial lights— whether it’s during a camping trip or on a long drive—I take a moment to stop or pull over. I look up, gaze into the vastness, and I experience the same feelings of magic, awe, and overwhelming wonder wash over me.
Around the year 1998, in an attempt to capture that same feeling I felt the first time, I painted my first night sky on the ceiling of our rented apartment (fortunately, the stars aren't very visible in the daytime). It was a modest attempt, featuring little glowing dots. But as time has passed, I gradually perfected my skills, discovering how to paint not just stars, but, in fact, recreating the look and feel of a real, 3D night sky on my ceiling.
Today, I share those honed skills of capturing the night sky with people around the world by painting their night sky for them, or by offering them a DIY Stencil Guide that they can use to paint their own professional-quality night sky themselves. There's something uniquely captivating about the night sky; it has a way of easing your worries and rekindling your inner child.
Off in the distance, just above the horizon, a shooting star quietly appeared, then vanished.