Wandering Amylessly: The same, but different Northern Lights experience

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By Amy Larsen
Wyo4News feature writer

For as long as I can remember, experiencing the northern lights has always been at the very top of my bucket list. There is just something about this magical light display taking place high above you that is unlike anything else you will experience. To me, there is such a romantic mystery around them, a feeling that there is still so much more to embrace and discover in this world. For those who have followed me for a while, you know that last year I had the incredible opportunity of traveling up to the Arctic Circle and got to experience the aurora borealis. To this day, I still cannot put that entire experience into words. Something in you just changes once you have stood beneath them. I knew then that if I never saw the northern lights again, it would be okay, but getting a chance to experience them again would forever be a bonus.

This past winter has been an incredible season for the northern lights, even making a few appearances here in Wyoming. Until this past weekend, I had missed every single one of them! I was either too far south, in an area covered with clouds, or just missed the alerts. To be honest, I almost missed my chance again, but this time it would have been my choice. As I write this, I am thankful my heart and soul were not on the same wavelength as my brain and body, and the heart and soul won this battle.

I had been gone for four days for work, and the days were full. As I pulled into my driveway, my body was screaming that I had put it through enough, and my mind was reminding me that over the next three weeks, I still had two trips and a family event coming up. So I didn’t unpack my bags but instead put on some lounge clothes and made myself at home on the couch for the night. That’s when it happened, the aurora alert went off on my phone, letting me know that there was a strong possibility the northern lights would be visible in my area that night.

I studied the app, the weather app, and even some Facebook groups, and it all seemed to confirm that parts of Wyoming were in for a night show. My mind, however, reminded me that it would be nothing like I saw in Alaska. If I was lucky, it would be a faint glow on the horizon justifying it was okay to miss out on this experience. So I grabbed some dinner, caught up with some friends and messages, and decided it was a good night to call it an early night, but first, a bubble bath. As I was soaking away the weekend, the second alert went off, letting me know there was strong aurora activity in my area. I again checked the app, and my first thought was, “Dang! The map has changed, and we are definitely in the zone now. Ugh!” Then I checked the radar, and a whole area up the 1-25 corridor was cloud-free, a miracle in and of itself this winter.

I jumped on Facebook, and the first thing I saw was a picture from someone in Western Nebraska, and there they were, and they were not a faint glow on the horizon. I debated whether I wanted to go out, knowing it would not be anything like what I experienced in Alaska, and finally thought, “Well, I have all the equipment: I might as well use it.” So, I grabbed my camera gear a bottle of water and, pulled a sweatshirt over my PJs, and headed north about 20 miles, hoping I didn’t get pulled over with my wet hair and PJ’s traveling up I-25!

As soon as I got out of the city light pollution, I could see a very faint yet unusual light just above the horizon. If I weren’t out actively looking for the Northern Lights, I most likely wouldn’t have noticed the subtle change in the color of the sky. I couldn’t help but think about the other cars on the highway that night as well, curious if they even knew what they were driving towards or recognized anything different about the sky. I guess most of them didn’t; they were just focused on getting to their destination for the night, unaware of the alerts and Facebook messages I had seen.

Northern Lights photo by Amy Larsen

I eventually pulled off the interstate onto a side road where I knew I would be away from any light interference, pulled out the iPhone and camera, and set the timer to see what really was out there. You see, what most people don’t realize about the pictures you see of the Northern Lights, is, most likely, what you are seeing in the photo is not what the photographer’s naked eye actually sees. In fact, photographers tend to capture more than what the eye can see. This is due to how our eyes work with the cones and rods and also because a photographer can keep their aperture open for 10-20 seconds or more, allowing more light in. This doesn’t make the photograph inaccurate; it just allows us to see more than what is right in front of us. It makes us take the time to let the whole picture come into focus. This, of course, is what I thought about as I was driving home.

Earlier that day, I posted a quote to my Facebook story: “The world you see is created by what you focus on. It is never too late to adjust your lens.” How nice it was for Mother Nature to reaffirm that statement later that night. With enough focus, I could see the faint northern lights, but by using a wider lens and adjusting a few settings, I could capture an image my mind couldn’t see. I had to step back and trust that, with time, something amazing would emerge, and it did.

As I have written about many times before, life has a habit of getting busy. We go from one thing to another, grabbing snapshots and quick messages along the way. It is so easy to say I’ll catch it next time, or I’ve already had a similar experience, or I’ll be okay if I miss it. Those are all true, but we don’t catch it the next time; the experiences are never the same, and while you may be okay if you miss it, we are often better because we didn’t.

There are a few things happening in my world right now that I have been all in on, completely focused on, gas pedal down, grabbing at whatever moment or opportunity I can get. Unfortunately, things are not coming into focus as quickly as I think I need them to. They are not developing into the image I have imagined, and the reality is that because I am chasing that faint light on the horizon, I am unaware of the bigger picture. I am like those cars on the interstate focused on the final destination, unaware of what the universe has in front of me. My reluctance to go out last weekend reminded me that it’s time to put on the bigger lens and allow things to take the time they need to develop. It’s okay to step back and pay attention as the universe does its thing.