Here in the Midwest, in our lovely state of Nebraska, we say "it's not for everyone".
Most visitors are "fly-overs" or just use I-80 as a means to pass through this seemingly uninteresting state. Little do they realize that on our northern border lies a place that could be one of the darkest night sky places in the continental U.S. of A.
What the heck?
We seem to be forgotten among the great national parks of the Southwest and Western coastal regions...just like how our small but mighty state and national parks are undervalued compared to the mountainous parks to our west.
But maybe it's because we want to keep it a secret? A secret that only a few know about. Is that why they changed the tourism motto to "it's not for everyone"? To keep this small little reservoir of darkness to ourselves?
Enter...Merritt Reservoir... 40 miles south of Valentine, Nebraska.
Every summer, around the week of the New Moon in either July or August, a relatively small (I say this as we can see upwards of 300-500 people each summer, but I grew up in a small town of 1200), devoted and very excited group of observers makes the trek to this little known place in the middle of the Sandhills.
Ahhh...the Sandhills. Those vast stretches of skinny grass strands, cactus bushes, and rolling piles of sand. I DO love them, truly. I always try to take photos of every view when I come around the next curve in the road, wondering if this next picture will do the environment justice, but alas, I've yet to get one.
In the middle of our lovely Sandhills we have what I (a capital "I", but with a lot of support from fellow night sky observers who frequent this place) think is the darkest spot in the continental states. Even check out this Dark Sky Map for evidence...
See Nebraska there in the middle? To the East of us, an abusive status of light pollution.
To the West of us...not so bad until you hit the coast. But they also have to deal with smog, constant overcast, tricky mountain weather, and all that fun cloudy stuff. There's an astronomy term called viewing - which simply means how clear your sky is. Not just from clouds, but from all the atmospheric crazy winds, disturbances, and such that make things seem fuzzy, out of focus, blurry, and shifting from side to side.
Once the weather fronts drop down from the mountains and cross our rolling prairies, the clouds seem to dissipate. Besides our intense thunderstorms and winter storms, the viewing in Nebraska is actually pretty good!
Now zoom in a little on good 'ol Nebraska. See that really dark splotch across the middle? Merritt Reservoir is inside that area. We have all this light pollution around us and then SPLAT in the middle is this dark spot - isolated from alllll that annoying light.
And guess what...it's our little secret!
That group of amateur astronomers and night sky enthusiasts that travel from all over the Midwest (from Texas, Minnesota, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, and more) gathers up here for a week of ultimate night sky viewing and camping. We have fun exploring the Sandhills, Valentine, and Northern Nebraska during the day, and then wait for the clouds to disappear and the stars to come out.
This whole event is called the Nebraska Star Party.
And it's definitely a party!
From cookouts, hangouts on the water, tubing down the Niobrara, entertaining and educational talks at the Valentine high school, and just catching up with friends you don't see but once a year...we make sure we go all out for the entire week.
We're a fun bunch to hang around, especially at night. There's always a little competition between the guys and gals on "Dob Row" (the area of the viewing site termed for all the Dobsonian-style telescopes that hang out there) on who can point their telescope to the most interesting thing of the night.
I kid you not...the sky is SO dark up there, that the Milky Way (you know, our galaxy that we float through in outer space) is SO bright that it lights up the ground you walk on. Your night vision automatically becomes better up here because you don't have to hold a flashlight all the time. And if you do, it HAS to be a redlight flashlight, or else be prepared to have disgruntled remarks from a neighbor with their telescope.
A week of viewing the sky up here and you're transported to other worldly realms, where all the societal norms and expectations don't matter. Instead of going by the regimented scheduled of a daily workday, we turn our minds towards the sun and stars passing overhead.
It's definitely something that everyone from the city should experience at least once in their lifetime - a truly dark night sky. You think you can see stars in Omaha? Think again. You'll see so many stars up here that you'll lose track of what's sky and what's ground. And don't be afraid to ask one of the many observers what that "star" or "object" is in the sky, they're always happy to share their love of stars with others.
I know there's other "star parties" around the states, but ours seems so unique because it's in a place that no one would ever expect. It's in a place that most people simply visit for Omaha...for business meetings at Fortune 500 companies. It doesn't seem like the place you'd find such a breathtaking and wide open view.
We don't have the grand towering mountains as backdrops to create the perfect scenic photo. We don't have the large cities nearby like in the southwest that draw hundreds of spectators to the event. We're just a small community of passionate stargazers that work hard to ensure our little site in Northern Nebraska stays dark.
And it's our little secret.