BRYCE CANYON MAY BE IMPERFECTLY dark, but Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument surely ought to be the heart of darkness. To reach the interior of the monument, on the isolated Arizona Strip just north of the Grand Canyon, Moore and I jounce down 88 miles of dirt road, emerging - dusty and practically pureed - in a dead-quiet stand of ponderosa pines at the base of Mount Dellenbaugh.
With their camera system perfected and pared down to a relatively manageable 50 pounds, Moore and the other team members have gauged darkness at 55 parks, ranging from Acadia National Park in Maine to Death Valley in Southern California. The team finds a place with a 360-degree view, waits for a cloudless night, and stays up until the wee hours as the camera slowly rotates on its tripod, feeding its series of images into a laptop computer.
The resulting photos and measurements have inspired several parks to work with local governments on new and existing lighting ordinances - and to change their own lighting practices, replacing what some lighting specialists call "glare bombs" with shielded bulbs that shine only on the ground. Last April, Natural Bridges National Monument was the first "International Dark Sky Park" certified by the International Dark-Sky Association, thanks to the monument's isolation - the nearest town is 30 miles away, and only a handful of small burgs fall within a 75-mile radius - and revamped lighting system.
In the late afternoon, Moore and I load our packs for the hike up Mount Dellenbaugh, a long-spined volcanic mountain topped with wobbly, outsized boulders. We reach the peak just before sunset, in time to see the mountain's shadow stretching across the juniper and sagebrush flats at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The peak log has only a few entries, including one from an enthusiastic wandering lichenologist and one from a previous visit of the Night Sky Team. As the sky gets darker, the air gets abruptly colder, and we bundle up as if for a ski trip.
Isolated though it may be, even Parashant is no haven for the darkness. Above the western horizon, a string of planes line up to land in Las Vegas, 90 miles away. Moore points out constellations, but then turns to identifying the flying-saucer-shaped glow of Las Vegas, and the light domes of St. George, Mesquite, Page, and even Phoenix, almost 200 miles to the south. Together it makes the view from Mount Dellenbaugh about 14 percent brighter than the elusive pristine night sky - even brighter than the view from the edge of Bryce Canyon.
IN SOME WAYS, DARKNESS IS A DIFFICULT thing to rally around - it's abstract and scary, often seen as a geeky concern best left to astronomers. But for many, stargazing is also a source of wonder, the stuff of intense childhood memories. Moore hopes his work, and the attention it's garnered, will not only supply data to the Park Service, but also inspire more direct experience of the dark.
"A lot of people download a cool picture of some galaxy for their computer wallpaper, but that's a virtual experience," he says. "No one's life is changed by a picture they saw. Your life can be changed by a firsthand connection with the night sky."
And despite the Night Sky Team's initial focus on the nation's darkest parks - Capitol Reef in Utah, Natural Bridges, some parts of Death Valley - Moore argues that darkness doesn't have to be perfect to be powerful. "Acadia isn't as dark as Bryce, but it's awesome," he says. "The camera might say it's a B-minus sky, but if people are moved by it, if they find joy in it, then it's equally important."
While the camera atop Mount Dellenbaugh clicks and beeps its way around the horizon, my own wonder gradually gives way to exhaustion, and I curl up in a sleeping bag on the leeward side of a rock. When I wake up, Moore is red-eyed but grinning, thrilled to have had another night free of both clouds and cougars. "What a job!" he says. He clicks on his red flashlight, shoulders his camera gear, and leads the long, pre-dawn stumble down the mountain, intent on the next dark spot on the horizon.
The author is a High Country News contributing editor.