How Stargazing Changed My Life

Michelle PiñonNPF Blog
Milky Way over Joshua Trees
– Andrew Domanski, Share the Experience

I was pretty sure that I was being lied to.

For reasons unknown, all the scientists, teachers, authors and natural history museums of the world had conspired against me. They had woven together an elaborate lie to fool me – supposedly, there are stars in the sky. But, for the first 17 years of my life, I never saw them. So, I thought…

“They must be trying to trick me.”

Michelle Pinon as a child

Why was I so skeptical? Well, I was raised in a valley of noxious fumes known as Bell Gardens in Southeast Los Angeles. You can’t see the stars there. Growing up, I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and adventure that my mom cultivated via day-long bus trips (on the notoriously troubled LA bus system mind you) to museums, libraries and cultural festivals. But the stars...the stars remained a mystery no matter what article, documentary, exhibit, or book I consumed.

Supposedly, the sky was teeming with stars – there were supposed to be meteorites, constellations and shooting stars up there every night. But they were never there. They were supposed to be the most attainable natural feature – scattered across all night skies, visible to all regardless of income, race or religious creed.

So, then, why not me?

Of course, one’s natural impulse at that age is to think someone’s lying – which is precisely what I did.

Until I turned 17.

That winter, my sister, without warning, announced one evening that we were driving out to Joshua Tree National Park just for the stars. I was skeptical, but went with it. We muddled our way through LA traffic, snaking past stalled vehicles and lone desert highways. We passed the park gates a little past seven. We didn’t get very far before my sister pulled over to a turn out, turned off the car and headed out. I followed her closely, still skeptical and very much disorientated. We walked a couple yards out onto the desert floor past Joshua Trees and over desert shrubs.

And then, we looked up.

Oh pues wow.

There they were. As brilliant, beautiful, and luminous as promised.

Milky Way over Joshua Tree National Park
Daniel Gross, Share the Experience 2015

Finding the stars, resolving this lifelong mystery, changed me.

I got lucky - through a series of chance events, my sister was introduced to Joshua Tree and dragged me along with her. But what about others? What about the thousands of folks just like myself growing up in the inner city who weren’t as lucky? Would the stars remain a lie for them?  

That moment also ignited within me an intense desire to share the awe and mystery of wilderness con mi comunidad. This awe is what carries me forward - it compels me to continue asking questions about how we share this country’s wild places and unravel life’s mysteries together.

Michelle Pinon sitting on the ground at Joshua Tree National Park

I spent 17 years convinced that wild spaces existed for others - convinced that wilderness was the enchanted property of the well-off where fantastical things like stars existed. Yet now, now I know that my park is wherever the stars shine and I intend to keep exploring.

Photo credits: Joshua Tree National Park, Daniel Gross/Share the Experience photo contest

Michelle Piñon is Latino Outdoors’ Regional Coordinator for the Pacific Northwest. Outside of Latino Outdoors, Michelle is also the Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator for Puget Soundkeeper and a Natural Leader. Michelle spends the vast majority of her time either outside or plotting how to be outside. She also loves Justin Bieber in a non-ironic way. Be sure to follow along with Michelle’s adventures by keeping up with her on the Latino Outdoors blog.

If you’re looking to plan your own stargazing adventure, check out our blog post, “Tips for Stargazing in National Parks.”

Last updated June 28, 2016.

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