Looking Up: Stars and Solitude in New Mexico


Collin Bonnell, a former Ram Opinion editor, spent the last summer in New Mexico, staring at stars and traveling. (Courtesy of Collin Bonnell for the Fordham Ram)

Collin Bonnell, Opinion Editor Emeritus

My routine this summer was simple. I’d wake up around 7 a.m. and make the long walk from my canvas tent in the orchard up to the ranch house. It was cold at 9,000 feet, but I usually avoided wearing layers since the New Mexican sun would make it sweltering well before noon. The route went through a dirt road, which transformed into a shallow river when the midsummer rains came. When I made it to the house, I brushed the mud from my boots.

The next steps were to put the French press on the burner, make breakfast and then brush the floors. If one of my coworkers had overslept, we’d ring the old rusty bell which had a string leading into the house. Then we opened all the doors, gave a few tours of the ranch house, broke for lunch, gave some more tours and closed at four. We spent the next few hours working in the gardens, making dinner and occasionally baking.

My favorite part of the day was when the sun would set and reveal a tapestry of stars, their light rivaled only by the occasional halo of lightning in the distance — thunderstorms are a near-daily occurrence in New Mexico during the summer, although the geography of our canyon meant they often missed us.

Without the luxury of the internet, our only sources of entertainment were books and music with the occasional fire, so I tended to head in early. I’d fall asleep with one of my tent flaps open, revealing the stars above the canyon wall.

We worked in shifts of nine days on, three days off. When my off days came, I’d hitch a ride on one of the buses delivering campers or a passing truck back to base camp, where I’d visit with my brother when our schedules lined up. I spent the days at base camp resting, reading, planning and coordinating expeditions with other staff, and taking evening walks.

On one of our walks, my brother and I ran into an adult crew leader — we called them “advisors” — positioned alongside the road. The advisor was taking pictures of the sky, and when we greeted him we realized what he was photographing. The moon was rising over the prairie, and it had taken on a blood red color unlike anything I had seen before or since.

Company is a treasured rarity in New Mexico, and as usual we started a long conversation with this advisor, who we soon learned was from New Jersey. He told us about his fascination with the stars, which my brother and I had gotten used to during the prior two months, but which were quite alien to the advisor and his troop.

The advisor was up because he spent the nights taking photos of the stars. It was worth the sleep deprivation. On his first night on the trail, he explained, he woke his entire troop up at 1 a.m. to look up. The milky way had risen. His son had never seen it before. This exchange occurred a month before I left New Mexico and returned to New York after spending about 48 hours back home in Boston.

I had prepared myself for the ascetic lifestyle of living in the wilderness before leaving for New Mexico, but I hadn’t thought to prepare myself for my return to civilization.

I woke up at 4 a.m. on the morning of my departure. Although I had spent an hour looking up while laying down on a picnic table the night before, I wanted to see the stars one last time. It was cold, but I willed myself to drag all my belongings across base camp in the dark.

I spent the next hour looking up, seeing the stars fade at last and waiting for my shuttle to Denver as dawn broke. Even while leaving, I was amazed by the colors emitted by the sun rising over a mesa as we traveled northeast on the empty highway. There was no one in sight.

I spent my first night in New York on my friend’s couch in his apartment. There was no air conditioning but it made no difference to me. I hadn’t slept in a room with air conditioning in months. The next day I moved into my new dorm room, of which I was the only occupant for the next few days.

I was used to being alone by this point, and it didn’t really bother me that no one else was there. When I did venture to my friend’s apartment in Belmont, I usually left after a few minutes. I wasn’t used to being around people and craved solitude after a few minutes of crowd anxiety.

On my way back to campus one of those first nights, I noticed I was again taking a quiet walk. The air was cold. I remembered the stars and looked up. They were gone.

There are many wonders I experienced this summer. I climbed mountains, braved the surprisingly heavy rains of July, evaded mountain lions and scaled canyon walls.

None of these compare to the sublime sensation I felt while looking up at the stars.