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Chasing northern lights: A personal essay

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APRIL 16, 2022

We knew, even before we set off for Indian Rock Park, that there would be no lights when we got to the top.

I had sent Riley a Slack message on a whim: “Have you heard the thing going around the (that) the norhtern (sic) lights might be visible in the bay / how would you feel about / going up to indian rock park / at midnight”

He’d written back with: “Bro”

Seeing as it was April Fool’s Day, the ensuing conversation did acknowledge the possibility of this claim about auroras being visible in San Francisco being a prank, but we thought we should find that out for ourselves (at some point in the night, I might have called it investigative journalism). Either way, we concluded that it would be a fun walk — and maybe a good story. I said I wanted to get something to drink first, and he agreed to meet me at a boba store before we headed up north together.

It was my first time meeting Xuan: It took me a moment to distinguish her from the shocking number of Plentea patrons at 11 p.m. She came outside to meet me, and I apologized a few times for being late. She grabbed her roast oolong tea, and we were off. After Xuan and I had covered the introductory topics — pronouns, majors, hometowns — the journey began. 

We walked up Telegraph in the dead of night, me sipping on a large cup of Plentea. As we crossed Durant Avenue, Riley filled me in on what he’d read — that, for the photons from solar flares to travel down to the Bay Area, they would need to travel faster than the speed of light.

I laughed, and we kept walking.

We wandered through campus and eventually found ourselves navigating a residential street in North Berkeley, tripping over uneven paving and dodging low-hanging branches. The area was lit only by the dull yellow light from the occasional street lamp, and I could barely see the ground beneath my feet. “I’ve never been here,” I remarked. Then, after a brief pause, “No, actually, I have. Last time I could see, though.”

“That just adds to the adventure,” Riley answered, and I didn’t disagree.

At one point, we saw the silhouette of a deer on the other side of a tunnel of trees and potted shrubs. It was looking right at us, but the moment I pulled my phone out for a picture, it was gone.

It was a cruel minus 7 degrees Fahrenheit (or something like that). By the time we had reached the edge of campus, my fingers were red, and the wind had dried out my eyes. The northern lights must have brought the North Pole with them to Berkeley. Xuan and I beat on, made it across campus, taking a route I had never taken before. We wound through topics of conversation and North Berkeley. 

We made our way toward Shattuck Avenue — which would take us nearly all the way to the park — and looked at all of the shops, hours past closing time. Riley pointed Saul’s out to me, a Jewish diner he said had delicious pastrami — or was it salami? — cut so thinly they were almost julienned. We came across Chez Panisse, which I was excited to recognize from Weekender staffer Isie Bollinger’s piece on farmers markets. And then, when we got further north, a free library: a birdhouse-esque case of books open for the public to take from and give back to, including titles such as “If Roast Beef Could Fly,” “Mortal Prey” and “Alcohol and Illicit Drugs: Myths and Realities.” 

“I need this one,” Riley joked, pulling the last book out of the case.

I laughed and snapped a picture. “College, you know?”

At this point, we were in the Berkeley Hills, and it was completely quiet save for the occasional hoot from an owl. “We don’t have owls in Singapore,” I said after hearing one.

“Really? I’m sure you have things we don’t have here,” Riley replied.

After a moment’s thought, I offered: “We have monkeys.”

We found our way down Terrace Walk, a thin green line on Google Maps — a steep and narrow alleyway between large suburban homes. Riley kicked a pebble into a shrub by accident, and I shrieked. After I recovered, we entertained the thought of someday, maybe, living there — how quiet, how much like a fairy tale it must be.

The rest of the walk was much of the same — steep climbs, empty streets, ominous-looking entryways into pitch-black paths. We found ourselves at a roundabout with a fountain in the middle — “The Fountain at the Circle” — and six different exits, and with minor difficulty, found the one that would take us to Indian Rock Park.

A poorly illuminated staircase; 2 miles; and we’re there. Except this isn’t what the pictures looked like. 

Xuan checked Google Maps on her phone. We were there. Definitely. So we look around for the promised view, or the Indian Rock itself. I wonder if it’s acceptable to call it an Indian Rock as we look for it. We can’t find the probably-not-politically-correct rock.

Spoiler alert for those who haven’t been: The rock was across the street. I’ll blame the mix-up on my exhaustion and the lack of northern lights.

After a brief moment’s confusion on the wrong side of the park, we found the rock we were looking for around midnight and scaled it with (nonminor) difficulty on my part — climbing rocks has never been a strength of mine. Eventually, though, we found a comfortable perch at the top overlooking the Bay.

“Don’t turn around,” Riley cautioned. Naturally, I turned around to see a huge drop behind us, jagged edges at the bottom. All I could do was laugh nervously and assure myself that I was seated steadily enough not to fall.

We settled into a comfortable silence, a slight breeze blowing and the sounds of the city far, far away. As we looked out over the trees and across the water, we were unsurprised to see no aurora borealis; just the city lights reflecting off of a light fog in the air.

Yeah, April Fool’s hahahahahaha… I walked 4 miles because of your joke — so funny! I’m kidding, I’m not actually upset at all. I hadn’t really fallen for it. After all, the website said the solar eruption traveled faster than the speed of light.

It had just sounded like a nice way to spend an evening.

The street lamps twinkled from atmospheric interference, and a glance upward revealed more stars than we could ever see closer to the heart of Berkeley. It had been a pleasant walk, albeit a long one, and I was in the middle of nowhere with a staff writer I had never met on a Friday night, chasing northern lights we had already expected that we would not see — and something about it all sat right with me.

It wasn’t what I expected, nor what I wished had happened, but looking back, I suppose I didn’t gain nothing from the experience. The night was pleasant (I may have exaggerated a bit earlier), and I got to walk through residential neighborhoods, something I haven’t done since beginning college. Xuan took photos for some football players as we left. We sat under the stars, forgot a jacket and made some stupid jokes that I don’t remember. 

That was last week, and I’ve been sitting on my hands, refusing to type. I’m a serial procrastinator, and Xuan is on top of things. I got a text from her nearly every day asking if I was done, to which I replied: No, I’m so sorry, Xuan; I know I make your life as an editor harder. But I had to sit with it, let it rattle around like an egg for a while until it cracked. And today, my dad came to visit and misquoted a lyric from Steve Earl’s “Time you Waste” — but it was close enough.

The time you’ll miss is the time you waste.

I feel this constant pressure of what I “should” be doing: Finishing essays, running, writing articles. Again, I’m so so sorry, Xuan. I haven’t escaped that feeling in a long time. But was our hike a waste?

Well, we didn’t see the northern lights; it took me a week to write the piece; I had to pee the whole time; or I could have been doing homework, instead.

Even the guise under which we decided to hang out was to write this piece, and I realized: Every moment of my life must be spent being productive. I haven’t asked a friend just to hang out in a long time; I only see them to play Magic or watch TV. I listen to music while I walk to class. I only get ice cream to celebrate. So was our hike to Indian “name-should-be-changed” Rock a waste? 

Absolutely not.

The entire walk had been an irrational one: a journey justified by ends we both knew weren’t real. Or perhaps the journey had always justified itself. Perhaps the possibility of seeing the northern lights over the Bay at the end of the walk was nothing but an April Fools’ prank neither of us had really fallen for. Perhaps we had just gone for a walk in the middle of the night because we’d wanted to; and because we could; and because, sometimes, in college, you should.

The time you’ll miss is the time you waste.

It’s part of the time I’ll miss. Between the texts checking in on my progress, Xuan told me to go to bed and that she would come see me at work. (She didn’t.) What really did I need to be doing? Looking back, I can say with confidence that my time was spent exactly how it should have been spent. After Xuan graduates, after I graduate, when the stakes aren’t just a letter on a transcript, this will be the time I miss: sitting under the stars, forgetting a jacket and making some stupid jokes that I won’t remember. 

Lee Xuan is the deputy Weekender editor. Contact Riley Nichols at [email protected] and Lee Xuan at [email protected].

SEPTEMBER 10, 2022

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