Except for the glow of our campfire crackling underneath the sand-stunted pines, the sky was unpolluted. Billions of stars and galaxies dotted the expansive horizon, the Milky Way billowing overhead like a strand of celestial cobweb. The lights of the mainland were too far away over Lake Michigan for us to see them, and it felt like the whole of South Manitou Island was ours and ours alone.
“Let’s go down to the beach and look at the stars,” Dad had suggested. I was about ten years old, the age when friends are becoming a lot more interesting than parents, but something in my gut told me to leave everyone and join my dad. So we left the company of the bonfire, who were eating s’mores and rehashing the events of Operation Kill-A-Microbear, and wandered out to the rocky beach.
The sides of the bay arced inward like the perfect slope of a quarter-moon, and water lapped serenely on the shore. That was the only sound I could hear besides the wind sifting through the junipers and the faint laughter of ten-year-old boys. Without speaking, Dad and I lay down on a sand dune, looking up at the dazzling night sky. For a minute or so, we didn’t say a word and just stared up at the spectacular light show above us. After a while, we saw our first shooting star, and then another, and then several; each was met with a sudden gasp and a finger pointing excitedly.
“What’s that one, Dad?” I asked, pointing to a bright, reddish star to the east.
“Mars,” he answered simply. “That’s a planet.”
“And what about that one?”
He squinted at the sky for a while and then said, “I think that might be Jupiter.”
Dad seemed to know everything.
“Do you see the Big Dipper, Nick?”
I remembered that one. Dad had shown it to me years ago, and it was a cinch to point out. It was the one that looked like, well, a dipper. “Right there,” I said, pointing proudly at the four points of the dipper head.
“Mmmhmm,” Dad nodded his approval. “Now how about the North Star?”
I let the question hang there for a few seconds while I scanned the skies. “I don’t know,” I confessed.
Dad sat up in the sand and pointed back at the Big Dipper. “Well it’s easy, see. You take the two end-points of the Dipper there—the two that make up the front end of the scoop part—and you trace an imaginary line up to the next bright star. It’ll be right dead on that line.”
I followed his arm as it traced out a line across the Milky Way, severing galaxies and black holes in a light-speed race across the universe, and sure enough, hovering over the dark mass of North Manitou was another bright star, shining its own little burst of energy back at us. The kind of brightness you don’t pick out right away, but that seems unmistakable once located. Of course! It had been there all along!
“That’s it!” I exclaimed.
We sat in the sand for about five more minutes of silence. In my head, I was associating the North Star with North Manitou, and understood that that direction was north. How convenient!
“Isn’t God amazing?” Dad marveled.
He is indeed.
After more silent gazing, Dad said, “Hey Nick, pick out a star.”
“Pick out a star,” he repeated, eyes flashing. “Look for one that you’ll always be able to tell apart from the others, and that can be your star. Then whenever you look up at the night sky, you’ll see that star, and it’ll be yours.”
“Yeah!” I looked at my dad and he was nodding encouragingly. I grinned at the idea. A star to call my own.
Taking on the task with all the seriousness of a ten-year-old, I craned my neck to take in the whole sky. There were so many. Dad and I had once debated God’s analogous promise to Abraham, whether there were more grains of sand on the seashore or more stars in the sky, and I remember thinking he was crazy for siding with the stars. Surely all the beaches of the world held more grains of sand than, what, 500 stars? Give or take a dozen?
But then he told me that there were many, many more stars out there—the vast majority couldn’t even be seen by the naked eye—and that night I started to believe him. Every time I trained my focus on a patch of sky, more stars seemed to dance on the edge of visibility, tight-roping the line between existence and myth.
Finally, I settled on a bright orange one just above Orion’s Belt—another constellation I recalled—because I knew I’d be able to find it later.
I pointed it out to my dad.
“Oh sure!” he exclaimed. “That’s part of Orion. I think that star is called ‘Betelgeuse’…. Er, but you can call it whatever you like.” He added the last part quickly, like he had accidentally spoiled the magic.
“Nah, I like Betelgeuse. It sounds cool.”
“Well, that’s your star now, Nick.”
I continued to look up at my star. At Betelgeuse. I imagined a world, far away on the great star Betelgeuse, where bugs the size of elephants ran rampant, bugs that oozed slime and had wings that beat like helicopters. And pale-skinned aliens harvesting seaweed, and intrepid space explorers documenting their sights, and some sort of pall that had fallen over the entire planet’s populace because this far-flung space colony now belonged in the political jurisdiction of a ten-year-old earthling named Nick Meekhof on a whim. What a thought!
“Betelgeuse,” I said again, and smiled.
We sat looking at the stars until well past my normal bedtime. I continued watching the skies, dreaming up one cosmic fantasy after another, until I heard my dad snoring softly. He woke up, and without a word we walked back to the campsite in silence.
After fourteen years, I have never looked at that star without recalling that night on South Manitou with my dad, lying on the dunes and discussing astronomy. Every ski trip, sea-kayaking voyage, mountain climbing expedition, and backpacking excursion can be traced right back there. I still see Betelgeuse on camping trips with friends and family, and I still think of it as mine.
Because when I was ten years old, my dad let me pick out a star.
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.