The Northern Lights have a special place in the pantheon of my history. They are the ever-sought, ever-elusive prey of family adventures and lore. I have yet to see them dance across a dark horizon, but one of my fondest family memories was a six hour quest for them that brought us over mountain, through desert and back home again.
My family has been here for the last several weeks. It was only supposed to be about ten days, but thanks to JetBlue I got an extra week with my mom. Their presence brought out the Johnstone in me, a bit like Gandalf brought out the Tookishness in Bilbo. And so, when I heard that the Northern lights might be spotted in darker northern exposures tonight, I looked at my eight year old son and his five year old brother, and my patient and loving husband, and I packed them all in the car.
Since the aurora was not considerate enough to fall on a Friday or Saturday, I was forced to keep my peregrinations reasonable. I headed up to Cape Ann, as my best hope for a dark northern exposure in an hour’s drive. We wound our way through Manchester-by-the-Sea, then up to Essex and through to Ipswitch. We kept our eyes glued for inexplicable dancing lights on the horizon, while Adam gave the boys a crash course on the magnetosphere and explained radiation poisoning in a preschool appropriate way. (“Those electrically charged particles make leetle tiny holes in your body…”)
In the shadow of Castle Hill, I found hoary flat ground and a northern exposure. I pulled the bumper of the car to where salt spray would have bedecked it in summer. Thane and daddy braved the cold to go outside and count the stars – greatly multiplied from their paucity in Stoneham. Grey and I snuggled in the front seat and waited for our eyes to grow large enough to see the elusive waves of color and light. The moon, half-full and spilling light, illuminated the cracked ice along the shore of Crane Beach. The approach to Logan was busy with planes, each looking like planets until they made their turns. We argued which direction was North (Google and I disagreed on this point) and talked and watched and talked and watched.
We did not see the Northern Lights. We saw no such thing. Before long the windows blurred with foggy breaths and tired children drooped in their seats. Tired tires turned towards home. I was secretly satisfied by the quest begun, but not completed. Where is the joy in a quest completed on the first try? Quests should be hard, so that we value them correctly.
On the way home, Adam and I sang hymns to the children. We sang the old, evening hymns that struggle to find a place in the modern morning worship: Abide With Me, Be Still My Soul, Be Thous My Vision, Peace to You. We sang the great hymns of joy: Great is Thy Faithfulness, Come Thou Fount, How Great Thou Art. We sang Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. We sang, as we crossed again into our town, the Red River Valley. And we remembered those we love, gone before us, and we felt their love. We looked at those small children, crumpled into sleep in the back seat, and we see the future of love, leading on ahead of us.
I look forward to hunting the elusive aurora on future nights, with my growing sons. Perhaps some day we shall catch those dancing lights – those leprechaun high-energy, high-atmosphere particulate impacts that make it through our magnetosphere. Or perhaps we shall not. Perhaps, some cold January night, my beloved children will bundle their wee ones and their spouses into a car with a glint in their eyes and a promise that the quest for the Northern Lights is one worth the undertaking.