“This is cool, Mom,” my 12-year-old son, Max, says as he steps off the safety ladder after peering into a telescope at Eagle Lake Observatory in Norwood Young America. That’s a high compliment coming from an almost-teen. “It’s like — an orange.” He’s talking about the planet Mars, and makes the shape of a ball with his hands to show me. I feel joy just looking at his face.
We’re stargazing at one of the Minnesota Astronomical Society’s public Star Parties, which run every other Saturday night from March to November. It’s best to come when skies are clear, and we’re in luck on this March night. The stars are shining brightly in a mostly cloudless sky. Without urban light pollution, the sprawl of darkness that has settled over Carver County’s Baylor Regional Park makes it seem even later than 7 p.m. It feels like the sort of place where you’d want to catch fireflies with your kids: peaceful and safe and still.
“This is like ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ ” says Max’s friend Lucas, also 12, as red light glows from the three buildings at the observatory. Unlike white light, red is said to help preserve night vision. The four boys with me crack perfunctory jokes about Uranus.
I brought them here to see the night sky, to feel a mystical, ancestral connection to it, to be reminded that the world is bigger than it may feel in junior high: There are always new possibilities; don’t let anything stop you. I’ve become acutely aware I’m no longer the central character in my son’s budding life narrative, so I do my best to influence when I can.
The buildings that make up the Eagle Lake Observatory feel futuristic in shape but simple in material. In the Onan Observatory, I feel like I’m in a steel garage given its barrel shape and retracted roll-off roof. My daughter Anna, 8, and her friend Abby, 7, stand in line to use each telescope. From one, we see Venus. From the other, Mars, which will set at 9:15 p.m., followed by Jupiter’s rise. I try taking a photograph of my daughter and the white light from my flash makes the crowd cringe like vampires shocked by daylight. “We don’t even like car headlights, but I guess we have to deal with those,” mutters one guy. I put my camera away, embarrassed that I’ve brought harshness into their tranquil space.
We go inside the HotSpot Classroom to hear Dave Falkner, a retired U.S. naval officer and author of “The Mythology of the Night Sky: An Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to the Ancient Greek and Roman Legends,” make a presentation on what the night sky holds. He’s been a member of the Minnesota Astronomical Society for eight years, and his knowledge is vast. He fields technical questions about telescopes like an Apple Genius Bar staffer.
Nearly 60 of us sit in his audience (he estimates 200 showed up throughout the night), close enough to feel one another’s heat, and it’s a diverse group of star trekkers. I’m surprised by how many people seem to have come out alone on a Saturday night. It makes me wonder what they find here that they connect to.
The audience is quiet and serious as Falkner shows slides on comets (“dirty snowballs”), nebulas and the upcoming Aug. 21 solar eclipse. They laugh only when he cracks a joke about a fly landing on his screen. (“Look! There is life on Mars.”) The girls attentively sit on the bench in the front row, while the four boys elbow one another in the chairs in back.
And then Falkner says it. He has to say it. “We can have somebody put a telescope on Uranus so we can see Uranus, as well.” I cringe, looking over my shoulder for cackling boys, but they’ve already slipped out into the night, drifted off into the dark field, alone with their jokes, their pacts to guard one another’s secrets and their private Snapchats. And just like that, my son is out of reach again.
Eagle Lake Observatory is located in Carver County’s Baylor Regional Park. The address is 10775 County Road 33, Norwood Young America.
Star Parties are held every other Saturday from March to November. No reservations are necessary. In addition, the Minnesota Astronomical Society hosts events such as Astronomy Day on April 29, the 10th annual Camping With the Stars on July 28-30, and Fall Astronomy Day on Sept. 30. For more information, see mnastro.org.
Star Parties are free, although Baylor Park does charge $5 for parking (arrive a few minutes early to figure out how the pay box works under a dark sky; it’ll be to your right as you enter).
Nightlife in town
Before hitting the observatory, there weren’t many choices for dinner aside from fast food in Norwood Young America, a town of slightly more than 3,500. We ended up at the Pour House Pub (325 W. Elm St.; 952-467-2112), a place that felt familiar even though I’d never been there before. I wasn’t sure it was entirely kid-appropriate, but a sign on the door stated minors must leave by 8 p.m. Once in, our hardworking server, a mother herself, assured us we were fine.
The girls sat with me, unnerved by the dive-bar atmosphere, while the boys seemed delighted by it — it felt like the right way to spend a Saturday night when you are 12 and aching for freedom. They played pool and darts while an old Pac-Man game blinked in the corner. We ordered two pitchers of Coke drizzled with cherry syrup and three Heggies pizzas.
I participated in my first meat raffle at $1 per ticket and lost twice. Behind me, Charlie Storms, a 59-year-old former owner of a welding company in nearby Cologne, where he grew up, showed me a picture on his phone of his group’s haul. They had started at a bar in a neighboring town where they won 13 pounds of meat, and they won another package at the Pour House. I had no such luck, so I rounded up the kids and headed to the observatory.
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of “52 Fights.” Find her at unplannedcooking.com.