There's nothing like the universe to make you feel puny and afraid

Feb 22, 2012
Outside Magazine

INSIDE THE CITY, the night sky is more or less a backdrop, benign and one-dimensional. It comes on predictably, like the streetlights, and I pretty much ignore it. There is the moon. Some planets. That spread-eagled hunter who likes to show off his "belt."

Then I go backpacking. Without warning, the stars go thick as gnats and the blackness has ominous depth. You can see the other side of our galaxy. The sudden hugeness overhead unhinges me. I'll look up and practically drop my ramen. It's The Universe. What frightens me, I think, is the abrupt, mind-slamming shift in scale. Like Alice after the "EAT ME" cake, I am instantly, alarmingly diminished—tiny to the point of disappearing. The longer I look up, the smaller and more vulnerable I feel, dwarfed by something huge and unknowable: God, the evil in men's hearts, infinity. I suppose, on some level, that the fear I feel is a fear of death, of insignificance and nonexistence. Or else I'm just a sissy.

Falling stars in particular unnerve me. Forces are at work out there, and they are not human. If there's that kind of weirdness in space, God only knows what's in the woods ten feet away. I spook easily in the wilderness, and I blame the stars.