Notes on the Dead Reckoning

A decade ago, in a February, I was standing in knee high grass well before dawn on the side of a two-lane highway miles outside of Te Anau waiting for a ride. It is four in the morning and my body is stuck in that hungover moment where I can’t stomach the idea of eating even though the day ahead requires a ton of calories. The shuttle was a requirement from the place we rented our car from: there are a few roads in New Zealand that will absolutely destroy the braking systems of most normal sedans – highway 94 to the Milford Sound is one of them. The kayak company says it’s no problem, more than happy to accommodate, just be waiting at the end of the drive by 4 and we’ll swing by and get you.

In the meantime, enjoy the stars.

It was a crystal-clear morning and the sky was the closest thing you could imagine billions looking like. My sense of unease grew tenfold as I looked up. Yes, there was the rich splash of the Milky Way across the purple-black of the sky, but everything else was alien. There was no Ursa Major or Polaris in this sky, nothing to align myself to, nothing to remind me where I was. The Southern Cross doesn’t look like much when it’s not printed on a flag. When it is this dark, when you are this far away from the city and the lights, every celestial body is as important as the one right next to it a million miles away.

The science behind Celestial Navigation didn’t come about until the 1850s, but the practice has been around for as long as humans have found a way to get around. It is in all of the folklore about how our ancestors sailed around the world with little more than the stars and a few bits of iron to find their way. In the late 1500s, Danish Astronomer Tycho Brahe sketched out the first inklings of what would become a sextant – the device used by sailors to this day to navigate the seas.

In traditional orienteering, you can get an approximation of where you are on a map by triangulating your position in relation to two landmarks. The open ocean is famous for not having many landmarks. When all you have is a steady horizon, you triangulate against the stars. At night you ensure certain constellations are to your starboard and aft, and in the daytime you track how your main mast throws a shadow over the deck.

Yet, even the most accomplished navigators are left to a dead reckoning of where they might be. Between the heading, your approximate speed, and your relation to a celestial body that moves through the night sky, there is no “direct path” from where you are to where you think you need to be.

A fully grown adult human is still in awe of the stars. I think it’s because they rarely see them. Stars vanish in the city because there is a light on, somewhere, all of the time in the name of safety or insurance policies or…something. Driving from Fort Collins to Denver 15 years ago, you could see the glowing swell of the city lights long before you arrived at your exit – like a dawning sun right on the horizon, about to flush out the night.

I never saw the stars in Denver. Asheville is a little better. If I stand just right I can block out the string of lights our neighbor uses to decorate their porch. They stay on all night. Most nights, the usual suspects are somewhere above and you can make out a handful of planets.

In December we set up in Edisto beach, on a campground that is little more than a sandbar between the inland marsh and the Atlantic Ocean. This is a dark sky preserve – where light pollution is minimal to protect the sea turtle habitats. Also, it’s the off season and nothing stays open or illuminated past 8.

Here, you can lay on the beach and look at the stars. Nothing to do but just look. The more you gaze, the more you see.

You will never see everything.

The five-year plan. The career path. The way forward. A sense of direction. Your life’s purpose. It’s as if humans can’t do much of anything without an instruction manual.

The employee manual is to protect the company from lawsuit. And here you thought it was to help you keep your job! There are a million and one accreditations, certificates, qualifiers, or requirements to get into positions, places, or titles. Scratch at the surface long enough and you see that no one really knows what the hell they are doing.

Every standardized test is written by a committee to determine the best average answer. Your success depends on how close to average you can get.

It’s not always about mastery or even understanding. I think this world is meant to be translated. Look at the stars and find your own way. Collect the variables and make your own story.

There’s no right way to do any of this.

The van was packed and the road to the Milford Sound wound through the Southern Alps. Everyone was relatively quiet – some were sleeping, others were doing all they could to level themselves out so they wouldn’t get motion sickness. We clear the final pass just as the skies are starting to lighten, only to dive into a long, straight tunnel. The driver stops on the other side so we can get some air and take photos. It was beautiful. I was nauseous and without a decent camera. For the entire trip, we made do with cell phone captures.

The drop into Milford is sudden. As soon as you exit the van the sandflies come at you with a hungry vengeance (they are federally protected, and you can be fined a few hundred dollars for even swatting at them). It gets better when you’re on the Sound – which is really a fjord, but don’t tell the Kiwis that.

The sun comes up and the fog burns off, the vistas reveal themselves and the shuttle ride back is smoother even as the mountains looked more dramatic. Maybe you’re not meant to move so much in the darkness – like an all-night road trip where your car seems to eat up miles of asphalt under the passage of your headlights. Maybe, when it’s dark, the point is to just look around and decide that is where you are – determine your dead reckoning.

And if you have a few stars to triangulate from, all the better.