My artist’s rendering of our night siting.

It was around 4am, mid-September at the South Yuba Campground northeast of Nevada City. Natalie and I were sleeping happily. Then nature called (both of us—I guess it was a conference call). As we headed out into the chilly night air to take care of business, I said, “Hey, look, there’s Jupiter.” Fairly low on the horizon, east-southeast of us floated a bright white light. “Wow, it’s really twinkling.”

“It looks green,” observed Natalie. “Yeah, I does look like it’s twinkling green,” I said, struck by the brightness of it. I can’t remember exactly how it went from here. I think Natalie said, “It looks like it’s moving.” I looked again. “Oh my God, it does. It’s totally moving.” And we watched through the trees as this blinking, twinkling thing hovered and moved, paused and moved again.

It’s an odd sensation to be standing, half-naked in the cold at 4am, peeing on a tree, and realizing that what you’re seeing is not what you think it is. We were absolutely astounded. “Of course they’re out at 4am when no one is going to see them! What are they doing here!? What do they want!? Oh my God… I don’t believe it!” We were astounded. At the same time it didn’t seem like a good idea to be standing around outside waiting to see where it was going to hover next. We made a beeline for the tent. Peering through the window I spotted it again. “Geez, it’s still there!” Natalie and I retreated under the covers, held each other, and prayed they weren’t interested in exploring our campground, or us for that matter.

Strange hydraulic mining landscape near Malakoff Diggins State Park

This all started with our wanting to head up to the Sierra Nevada again. I had found a nice trail to the town of Allegheny in the Gold Country northeast of Nevada City. The next morning we shook off the previous night’s oddity and had breakfast in the drizzle. The rain changed our plan as the trail out of Allegheny is reportedly impassable in the wet. We decided to head to Malakoff Diggings State Park and ended up stumbling on to the sweet, little, semi-ghost town of North Bloomfield. The general store, pharmacy and other buildings were so well maintained it looked as if we’d arrived by time machine. It’s very much worth a visit, if you’re in the area. (See map below.)

The North Bloomfield General Store...

...looks as if it were still open and ready for business.

The pharmacist's store at North Bloomfield

Dragon-slaying elixiors

We were going to camp the next night too but we’d been heading east all day (in the direction of the previous night’s siting). We had actually set up our whole camp, hammock, had dinner, but then both admitted that, between the weirdly roiling clouds and the spooky moon, we were both getting really unsettling vibes from the place. Within half an hour we were packed up and bouncing out in the dark along rough, cliff-side dirt roads.

Head chef, Natalie, demonstrates a squirrel nibbling technique prior to our abandoning camp.

Strange, roiling clouds

On the upside we found a great hotel. I searched for a place to stay on my phone. We were up for anything but the Sierra Woods Lodge in Emigrant Gap had great reviews. We rolled up around 10pm and apologized for coming in so late but they were nothing but welcoming. The rooms were really nice and breakfast was included for somewhere around $100. The next morning we expected donuts but were presented with two delicious fritattas made with eggs from their own chickens — beat that! Check them out if you need a place to stay on your way to Tahoe.

After getting back, I told my friend Brookelynn of our strange siting. She said, “You know, Jupiter is the brightest it’s been in 50 years. Are you sure it wasn’t that?” Maybe it was. Later I went to Fourmilab’s excellent, web-based star viewer to see what was in the sky that night. When I plugged in the date, time and direction, there was Jupiter in the east-southeast. “Huh,” I thought, “I guess it was Jupiter after all.”

A few days later, I checked again, not being able to shake the feeling that what we’d seen wasn’t the normal, run-of-the-mill planet show, even if Jupiter was on a 50-year high. I plugged in the numbers again and realized I’d made a mistake the first time. To use their star viewer you have to convert local time at the viewing site to UTC (Universal Time, aka Greenwich Mean Time). The first time I had miscalculated this. Now, with the correct numbers, Jupiter was no where to be found.

All I can say is three cheers for listening to your gut. I’m glad we stayed in a hotel that night. Sheesh.


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