Whereas languages die, paintings fade, buildings fall and entire cities crumble, the visible celestial plane exists almost exactly as it did when the dinosaurs were munching on treetops and one another. Of course, satellites, rovers and space junk endanger the constellations, seemingly mimicking their glimmer until you stare long enough to realise they are but unfixed nomads. And even with these blemishes, the night skies continue to dazzle; it’s no wonder every civilisation since the dawn of time has braided its origin within the stars, or that we continue to look to them to tell our fortunes.
The following evening, just over the Utah border, we sat around a fire at Camp Sarika, a recent addition to the Amangiri hotel. Eli Secody, a Navajo storyteller, was unravelling the wisdom of the Só Dine’é, or ‘star people’, as his kin refer to the constellations.
Finally, the stars emerged and the Milky Way blazed over the frostbitten earth. As Secody tells it, Folding Darkness Boy (who is responsible for rejuvenation and healing during sleep) is the first to appear in the blue light after sunset. Next comes First Man Náhookos Bi’ka (the Big Dipper) and First Woman Náhookos Bi’áád (Cassiopeia), who are connected by a fireplace, Náhookos Bikó (the North Star). Then Folding Darkness Girl shows up just before dawn to wake sleepers. But the star people are more than shapes loosely drawn around one another. The Navajo relationship with the skies is highly spiritual, and as Secody explains, each constellation contains within it not only lessons of guidance and the power to heal, but also a piece of the universe and the entirety of the universe itself. It would take nights upon nights to trace the interconnected web of the stars and the Navajo. Secody ended by singing another story, his voice carried across the canyon by the breeze.
Several hours north at Kodachrome Basin, near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and surrounded by sienna sandstone spires, park ranger Nathan Martinez unloaded a massive telescope from his truck along with a canteen of hot water, sachets of hot chocolate and a can of ready-whipped cream. The sun descended, making a creepy chiaroscuro of the topography as the soft-spoken, red-bearded ranger plugged in the coordinates of Saturn and we waited for darkness to come. When it did, he gestured for me to look through the lens. With one eye squeezed shut and the other wide open, I pressed my face to the eyepiece. What looked like a glow-in-the-dark sticker I might have applied to the ceiling of my childhood bedroom – tipped on its side, rings and all – was an actual planet, 746 million miles away, its icy aura spinning in perpetuity. A few minutes later, a star shot through the Hercules Globule, the Pleiades blinked on and we all stared into our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda, pondering the fact that one day it will collide with the Milky Way, destroying and rearranging absolutely everything.