After I’d had my fill of the county fair, I corkscrewed back up the mountain, where the observatory dome rose above a copse of gnarled pine trees. I counted nine cars in the parking lot and creaked open the observatory door.
Stout greeted me just as his aide, Noble, a temporary summer employee, led 25 people out of the small theater. (I had seen Noble’s presentation earlier in the day—a witty script Stout wrote about the history of the facility and which includes a self-deprecating disquisition about how long Stout’s held the job of observatory keeper.)
In the round observation room, the telescope, big as a VW bug, poked out of the dome and toward the sky. Kids, parents, grandparents, teenagers on dates, middle-agers on dates—we all formed a line around the scope and one by one mounted a set of stairs to look through the eyepiece at the moon.
After the Sun, Jupiter ranks as the largest body in the solar system, Stout explained. Its gravitational pull is so strong that it has rescued life on Earth by diverting asteroids and comets headed our way. “Just about everything ends up on Jupiter—the solar system’s vacuum cleaner.” The crowd laughed.
“Let’s look at it,” he said. Noble adjusted the scope. We would be treated to a glimpse of the big planet along with four of its 63 known moons. I watched my fellow stargazers scale the steps and look. Their faces went slack in awe. The visitors had pilgrimed from all over the state, mostly from other small towns—Monroe, Mount Vernon, Cle Elum. They vote differently than Seattleites, yes. It didn’t matter. Not at the moment.
It was my turn. I climbed up to the telescope. Jupiter. A dime-size circle surrounded by four brilliant points of light, the moons—three on one side, one on the other.
Outside the observatory, at the bottom of the hill, Goldendale celebrated its biggest weekend of the year—visitors from around the county, rodeo queens, prize pigs. Fifty miles north lay Toppenish, with its murals and its hushed streets and Native Americans never forgetting. Farther north, in Tieton, the bleating of goats grew silent as two women dreamed of building a bed-and-breakfast. And much farther: big bright Seattle.
I stood at the telescope longer than I should have. It was greedy, I know. The people behind me fidgeted impatiently. In a few seconds I would descend the stairs, search my pockets in the dark parking lot for the keys, and point my car north. But for now I stared at those five celestial bodies. Especially the big one.