Ask scientists about the Aurora Borealis, and they’ll explain that the spectacular display of lights we see in the wintertime sky is caused by solar winds that send charged particles into the earth’s upper atmosphere, where they smash into gases. But witness this otherworldly show yourself, and ancient beliefs about magic often feel more true. It was the magic that mattered to Hugo Sanchez, a self-taught photographer who fled civil-war-torn El Salvador and moved to Canada. But tragedy followed him, and it was chasing that perfect shot of the aurora that gave him a new sense of purpose.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.
Peter Frick-Wright (Host): So this was supposed to be our last episode of 2019. But, for complicated reasons, here we are in January. What it is the last of, though, is it’s my last episode as the host of this podcast.
Now, I’m not going far. One of the reasons I’m taking a step back is to work on big long-term, deep dive projects. And surely a lot of those are going to end up right here, on the Outside Podcast.
But, overall, I am going to hand off things to all the other people that bring you this show. Robbie Carver, Mike Roberts, Stephanie Joyce, Alex Ward, and everyone at the magazine, who feeds us story ideas for the podcast. They’re not going anywhere.
Making this show for the last four years has been incredible. I grew up reading Outside, and idolizing its columnists and contributors. I still can’t believe that I got to do this for a job. That they said, ‘Make a show, from scratch, every week.’ It’s been so much fun. But I idolized other kinds of writers and journalists too, so it’s time to move on.
Over the years this show has grown and changed and there are a lot more of you now than there used to be. And seeing that growth—getting so many emails and tweets that say you like what we’re doing here—that stuff matters, and I appreciate it. I mean, I’ve thought about some version of you every day for four years. And I just wanted you to know that. And say thanks for coming along. It’s meant a lot to me.
It also means a lot that I get to end on this story, about the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Because it’s based on the work of a good friend, who wrote something beautiful.
Do you know what causes the Aurora Borealis? Could you explain it to somebody else? If not, before you google it, just sit with me here for a second and think about how crazy it is that, if you’ve got your phone with you, you’re about fifteen seconds away from knowing exactly what causes the Aurora Borealis. Also, it is a completely brand new thing to not have to put up with not knowing something for more than a few seconds.
But historically, these gaps in knowledge—the things we saw but couldn’t explain, like shooting stars, solar eclipse, earthquakes—these kinds of things were huge open questions. Societies told stories—often about magic and sorcery—to try and explain them, and once a group of people had a story they could agree on, that’s a culture.
For cultures near the north and south poles, the aurora borealis is that thing. Every culture has a myth or legend about the magic that brings you this incredible light show. And if you’ve ever seen the aurora, it’s so otherworldly that the magical explanation, deep down, kinda feels more true than the science.
But writer David Wolman has been talking to scientists about the Aurora for his story in the January issue of Outside, and this is how scientists describe it.
David Wolman: Aurora Borealis is caused by nonstop nuclear fusion on the sun. As these unimaginably huge and powerful events are happening all the time on the sun, they send charged particles out into space that come zooming toward Earth. Those electrons and protons will smash into oxygen, nitrogen and other molecules in the upper atmosphere and those collisions emit visible light.
And it's usually this icy green, but there are reports of seeing lots of other colors. I certainly saw a lot of pink. But it's really this kind of crystal ice, super cool, neon green.
Frick-Wright: But David’s story isn’t about how the Aurora works. His story is about photographer Hugo Sanchez, who describes the Aurora this way.
Hugo Sanchez: I would say, you know, it is just magical. It's the sky dancing. There's nothing like it. It’s just unreal.
Frick-Wright: Hugo is a custodian at an elementary school who takes photos of the Aurora in his spare time. David is a contributing editor with Outside, so he’s always kind of looking around for interesting people to write about. But he didn’t start out looking to write about Hugo, or the Aurora Borealis. When David started out, he was trying to write about STEVE.
Wolman: I first got interested in it because of this Aurora-related phenomenon I was reading about that has been nicknamed STEVE and I can't remember what it stands for. But, of course, a bunch of Canadians came up with it.
Frick-Wright: STEVE is a phenomenon that you can see in roughly the same places that you can see the Aurora Borealis, and to the average bystander, it kinda looks like aurora. But to experts, or passionate amateurs, it’s completely different. So different that its name comes from a scene in the animated film Over the Hedge, when a group of animals encounter something completely unknown.
[Over The Hedge sound clip begins]
Animal 1: I would be a lot less afraid of it if I just knew what it was called.
Animal 2: Let’s call it Steve!
Animal 1: Steve?
Animal 3: It’s a pretty name.
Animal 2: Steve sounds nice.
Animal 1: Yeah! I’m a lot less scared of Steve!
[Over the Hedge sound clip ends]
Wolman: It's very similar to Aurora, but it is definitely not Aurora. And it has this neat scientific backstory because as far as I understand, some citizen scientists or Aurora enthusiasts were spotting this phenomenon and making some kind of claims that it was not exactly Aurora. But it's still this neat lines or columns of visible light.
Frick-Wright: Turns out, STEVE is the result of electrons entering the ionosphere, which creates friction, and heat, causing particles in the atmosphere to glow. But back in 2016, no one knew that.
Wolman: Blah, blah, blah, there are some back and forth. I think they were pooh-poohed by the scientific community. And then lo and behold, it turns out they're right. And it's this neat, but slightly different thing.
Frick-Wright: And that's not what this story is about at all.
Wolman: Not at all what the story is about. But this wonderful thing about journalism and story hunting.
Frick-Wright: What this story is about is a photographer that David discovered when he started emailing with a NASA researcher.
Wolman: We got to talking a little bit about STEVE. And what happened is in a magazine article in a popular science-type magazine. I saw a picture of STEVE. But it was actually a self-portrait of a guy dressed in, like, all white. In like a painter's suit out. in the snow with his tripod, shooting pictures of the Aurora and/or STEVE. And I thought, who the hell is that guy?
Sanchez: I always had crazy ideas. I call them crazy ideas, that’s the name that I give it. I had an idea, one day...
Frick-Wright: That guy, was, of course, Hugo Sanchez. Out taking this otherworldly photo of himself in what looked kind of like a space-suit, with the Aurora glowing all around him. And David thought to himself: This guy might have a story.
Wolman: Hugo wasted no time as far as telling me his life story and welcoming me into what I thought was an incredible story.
Frick-Wright: Hugo’s story, it turns out, is the story of why people go out on terrible, frigid nights to shoot pictures. And it has nothing to do with STEVE, or electrons in the ionosphere. Hugo was out there because the sky was dancing. And he needed some magic.
Wolman: So Hugo Sanchez grew up in San Salvador, in El Salvador's capital. And, you know, by his accounts, up until he was ten or eleven or twelve, he had a very happy childhood.
Sanchez: ...Went to school like every day. And my parents were like, married. There's seven brothers. And I'm number eight.
Wolman: You know, the family would buy a watermelon on the way to the beach on the weekend and come home with crab and fish. And he played soccer like every other kid. And then, from age twelve or so and for the next decade, his life was really defined by the civil war that gripped the country.
Sanchez: So I had like a normal ten years of my life. What do you say? What kids do, and all that stuff, until like 1980. That's when the civil war started in El Salvador. So that changed many things.
Wolman: As Hugo told me, as a kid, when you’re twelve years old, at first he was more fascinated than frightened. You know, the fighting is pretty distant. And he told a little anecdote about going to visit his grandma. And he and his cousins would sit on a hillside and watch the gunfire from helicopters and stuff on a distant mountain. You know, it's this kind of peculiar image of Hugo looking up at the sky and sort of dazzled in a completely different way.
Frick-Wright: As Hugo grew up, however, things kept getting worse. The fighting moving from distant hillsides to the streets outside his house.
Sanchez: Things were getting… As I was getting older, they were getting tougher. And tougher. Because like I say, I did not want to be… I’m against violence. So I never wanted to be in the army. I never wanted to be on like the guerrillas either, so…
Frick-Wright: At what point did you start thinking about leaving?
Sanchez: So what happens is along the way I found… I was, I was young. Yeah, I was eighteen years old. But I found, you know, this one girl, you know, that I loved. You know. We had a kid and we got married. We had a kid. And I was just eighteen years old. And we still didn’t want to leave.
Wolman: And so at first they thought they could kind of ride it out, but then they knew of different people who were fleeing. His wife’s mother was already in Canada. And through their church, they started--once the walls were closing in too much on him, he could tell they had to get out of there.
Sanchez: It was the end of 1989, so 1990, we apply...
Wolman: And it wasn't like an overnight thing, or rushing for the border. There’s still like paperwork, and medical exams, and just everyday bureaucracy steps that are required before they could finally get residency in Canada. And then they flew 3000 miles north to start a new life in Edmonton, Alberta.
Frick-Wright: He was going in search of a better life for his daughter. But a better life for himself was going to be a stretch. Because at the time he was basically a kid, starting over in a new country, without any connections, or skills, or a firm grasp on the language. Even his wife’s family—which was the whole reason they were in Canada—they were leaving them on their own.
Sanchez: The mom was here, the uncles and all that and all those people were here, but they were not being helpful. Well, we're new. We don't know this. We don't know that. We don't--We don't know anything. So it’s like, you know, you need somebody to grab your hand and hold you and say, well, this is like this. This is like that.
Frick-Wright: How long did it take to start to feel a little a little bit at home or has it ever happened? You feel at home in Edmonton?
Sanchez: Well, you know, like for me was different. Right? I got used to like everything more than my ex-wife.
Frick-Wright: Hugo says that as the provider for the family, he had to assimilate. It was a matter of survival. So he did it. His wife, he says, didn’t adapt as well.
Sanchez: I had my daughter, right. Over the years, I have another son. And then, you know, like things between my ex wife didn’t go well. And we ended up breaking up and we got divorced. So after like, you know, so many years living together. So it was the end of my story with her. So now, you know, I was single for a few years. A certain time. I can’t remember... two years, three years, whatever it was. So I then I met Emilio’s mom.
Wolman: He meets a woman named Jamie, and they fall in love. And about a year later, they have a son named Emilio. But unfortunately, right from birth, it's very clear that Emilio's condition is incredibly serious. He was born with this ten-car pile-up of developmental disorders. SO he’s rushed into emergency surgery right away for surgery on his, I think, his trachea, and his abdomen. And through the following five months or so—he doesn’t even leave the hospital for five months--he endures more surgeries and it becomes clear that he will never walk or talk or live independently. His hearing and vision are severely impaired.
Frick-Wright: Just before we go any sort of further in time, I was wondering if you could tell me just a little bit about Emilio. Like, you know, what was he like? I mean, it sounds like he had profound developmental problems. But I guess, what what are your memories of him?
Sanchez: Well, you know, he was... he couldn't talk, right? He couldn't. He couldn't talk. But you could see this… you could see this sweet little boy, right? It's not because he's my son, but he was so handsome, like his hair. And almost he wanted to--You could tell he wanted to communicate and say something, but he couldn't.
Wolman: One of Hugo's really good friends who also had a child with a similar condition. He told me that having a child like this is like trying to tread water with an anchor around your neck.
Sanchez: It is hard on the family. It’s hard for the kids. For the other kids that you have, if you have any. It's hard for the wife. It's hard for the husband. It's hard for everybody. So we couldn’t. We couldn't cope with Emilio’s sickness and all that stuff. So we ended up breaking up and Emilio had to go to live in a clinic.
Wolman: So Emilio goes to live in a place called Rose Crest, and it's difficult on both the parents. But I think for Hugo, it provided a little bit of an opportunity to go back to living. Just a little. And, at that time--or really by that time--Hugo had already really fallen in love with photography.
Sanchez: I bought a camera. Not going to say I became a photographer. I bought a camera to take photos.
Wolman: He went out to a park. And, in typical Canadian fashion, he started taking pictures of Canada geese. [laughs] And he even says it with a laugh, like, you know, typical stuff that any amateur photographer is…
Frick-Wright: Just starts walking around with a camera.
Wolman: Icy pond. Birds flying. Bird perching. Goose, geese swimming. Whatever. Just simple stuff. He kind of makes fun of his early years of photography.
Sanchez: So and then some learning new things. I love taking photos I made. So I'd remember one day... There was a meteor shower.
Wolman: So he goes out to try and take pictures of the meteor shower, and he comes back, uploads his pictures, completely, came up empty. Nothing. But, accidentally, he did capture the aurora borealis in one of these images. Just faintly.
Sanchez: So I took photos of the northern lights without knowing that I was taking photos.
Frick-Wright: That was his first photo of the Aurora, but the moment that really changed everything came later. We’ll be right back.
Frick-Wright: So, before the break, Hugo Sanchez had gotten a camera and started taking photos of the Aurora. But it had been on accident. He didn’t really see the Aurora until he was driving back to Edmonton from Calgary with Jamie, Emilio’s mom. They had split up, but were still on good terms.
Sanchez: So we went there. But on the way back, we saw the most amazing northern lights.
I never seen... I've seen so many auroras, and so many shows, but I never seen nothing like it. It was just, oh, it was amazing. We could almost touch it. It was just incredible. It was just, I don’t know, the light... I don't know where went, but it's in my heart. In my soul. I don't know. But it was like, wow. That's that's that's something that I want to see again. Like. Yeah. I'm looking forward to seeing these again.
Wolman: And he's really hooked. Like right away, by this idea. He gets online, he starts researching Aurora, learning about the science, takes out books from the library about taking pictures at night
Sanchez: I went there. I started like looking, you know, for YouTube tutorials, about the lights and settings and all that stuff. But another reason why I'm doing the Auroras, that’s because Emilio is half native.
Frick-Wright: Emilio’s mom, Jamie, is Cree First Nations. And she told Hugo that in the Cree tradition, the Aurora is believed to be the spirits of dead ancestors, dancing in the night sky. And this idea became even more important to their family when Emilio died. He was ten years old.
Sanchez: He loved watching TV. He was just, you know, there enjoying cartoons. And actually, when he died, he was watching a movie. He was watching Kung Fu Panda, and he passed away.
Sanchez: Like, I know. I know about science. I know this now, the science behind it. I know why they're created and all that stuff. But as a belief, for me, that ancestor, that’s Emilio, dancing for me.
Frick-Wright: After losing Emilio, Hugo missed his son. Pretty bad. He wanted to feel closer to him. But how? Science couldn’t much help with that question. But the Aurora could. On one of his first nights out taking pictures after Emilio passed away, Hugo snapped a picture, and when he looked at it, he dropped to his knees.
Sanchez: And I was crying. I was like crying. Like, I can't believe it. And in that photo that I took, there is an angel in that photo.
Frick-Wright: It was the Aurora, dancing into the shape of an angel on his camera’s sensor. An angel that, I gotta say, kinda looks like a little boy.
Sanchez: I only have one angel. Right. Which is Emilio.
Frick-Wright: It’s like this little boy who craved attention in life still wanted it after life. And he got it.
Frick-Wright: How much time would you say that you spent photographing the Aurora?
Sanchez: Well, you know, like, I'm so in love with Aurora, that if everyday it comes out, I would go every day. Yeah. So every time the sky is clear, I go.
Frick-Wright: After learning all this about Hugo, David Wolman decided he wanted to go too.
Wolman: So I wanted to see if we could go catch it together in Alaska and Outside editors said yes. Which was great.
Frick-Wright: They started their trip in Anchorage, and actually caught a decent show of Northern lights their first night out at an old mine. But it wasn’t quite the magical display that made Hugo feel like Emilio was there with him.
Wolman: You know, he had mentioned to me how he likes to talk to Emilio when he sees the Aurora. And I had asked him something to the effect of like, ‘Is this like the kind of time when you would talk to Emilio?’ And he kind of looked and laughed. He's like, ‘No, no, no, this? This is nothing. Like, it has to be legit.’
Frick-Wright: David wanted to see Hugo in action, photographing the night sky, and communing with the memory of his son. But a huge part of chasing Aurora is waiting around doing nothing at all.
Wolman: The way it works with Aurora chasing is if you're working with a guide, he or she will be watching the forecast and maybe nine thirty or ten o'clock, give you a call or send you a text about, like, it's dumping snow outside. It's supposed to snow another foot and you could never see the sky at all. You should just go to bed and have a nice night and let's connect tomorrow. Or, things are looking half decent, etc. Right? They're going to give you their own unvarnished assessment of whether it's worth it to take a shot. And Hugo was always wanting to go. I mean, his view was the only guarantee is that you're not going to see it if you don't get your ass out there.
Frick-Wright: You can think of Hugo’s story as a beautiful tribute to his son. He braves the cold and skips whole nights of sleep because the Aurora makes him feel close to him again.
But when David got to Alaska, there was more to it than that.
Wolman: He wasn't just game for Aurora. He was game for anything. You know, should we ride the tram at that ski area just to do it? Sure. Let's go do it. You want to ride old snowmobiles? Yes. Let's go do it. And there’s this hot springs, place, and ‘Oh, yeah, I love hot springs,’ and cause you kind of have a lot of time to kill during the day…
Frick-Wright: So when David was describing this trip, he told me that you're always up for anything, you’re just palpably having fun and enjoying yourself. And I guess I just wonder where that comes from.
Sanchez: Photography. It cleans my soul? Right? So all the problems, all the pains, all the sorrow, it's there. Like, you know, it's a way out. It’s like, I don't want to have this weight. So I need to find a way to get it out, and by me, like, doing photography--me doing all these things--I'm like transforming all the bad stuff, all the bad vibes, all the negativity, and all the hard times, and the struggles. I’m making them in a good way.
Frick-Wright: And are you saying that the fact that you can go do this photography and sort of clean your soul, as you say, are you saying that leaves you open to these experiences? Or are you saying these experiences are part of are part of a kind of cleansing, and getting rid of the bad vibes?
Sanchez: Yes, I would say both, because at the same time, I'm cleaning... I'm trying to be happy. Let's say I'm trying to be happy. I'm trying not to think about something that I can't change. At the same time, I'm looking for an opportunity to do better. I want to show, because, I also want to show the people that it doesn't matter what's going on in your life. You can make it better. Right? Because I'm not going to cry. Instead of me crying, I'm gonna go and do something positive out of something negative.
Frick-Wright: Almost like you're turning tears of sadness into tears of joy when you do cry.
Frick-Wright: It was about a week into the trip, near an old mining town called Wiseman, that Emilio finally showed up.
Sanchez: So we were there waiting. We're kind of walking around, and my eyes are in the sky. Dave is like, you know, talking to a person. He's getting info. And my eyes are in the sky. And as soon as I see the Aurora--one point that is coming down--I was like, ‘Oh, there it is.’
[Audio recording of the moment the Aurora comes into view]
Wolman: Look at that. Gosh. Eat your heart out, rainbows.
Sanchez: See, remember? I said maybe? I said we will.
Wolman: He’s an Aurora whisperer.
Sanchez: Now I can tell, like, that’s why…
Wolman: What’s that?
Sanchez: That’s what I told you.
Wolman: That what?
Sanchez: That now I can talk. Now I can say, you know, I’m happy to see you, Emilio. Miss you, buddy. And I love you. Mom loves you, too. That’s for everything you’re doing. Big hugs, big kisses. I love you, buddy.
[Long, whispy musical interlude]
Frick-Wright: That’s Hugo Sanchez, in conversation with his son, Emilio.
This story was written and produced by me, Peter Frick-Wright, and David Wolman, based on the article “The Man Who Chases Auroras to Push Away Darkness.” You can find it on Outside Online, with some incredible Aurora photos by Hugo.
Music, as always, by Robbie Carver. Michael Roberts is our executive editor. This episode was brought to you by Visit Arizona, home to incredible natural splendor and powerful human stories. Learn more an unrealaz.com.
The Outside Podcast is a production of PRX and Outside Integrated Media. That’s it for me.
We’ll be back soon.
Follow the Outside Podcast
Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.