I’m sure we have all been asked the question: what is your idea of a perfect date?
Answers vary of course. Some people want to do something exciting and adventurous like jet skiing in the buff, and some go for the more traditional of dinner and a movie. For many a’year, I threw out the walk-along-the-beach-talking-nonstop fantasy.
But after this past weekend, I have a new idea:
A beautiful night. In Angeles National Forest. Watching a full moon rise over the mountains with a pizza, a root beer, my fiancé, and my dog.
Life doesn’t get much better than that.
I have always had a passing interest in the moon. Not astronomically or astrologically, really; more just an appreciation for how incredibly beautiful it can be. I lived in the Southwest for many years, where the skies are so clear, and the moon can be so bright, it casts shadows on the ground. And to this day, those nights are what I miss most about the deserts. The world really does look different under the silvery blue light of a full moon.
In June 2014, J and I went to watch the super moon rise over the smog-enshrouded city of LA from the Griffith Park Observatory. It was beautiful. It was fun. We brought a picnic dinner, and Charlie, and our little point-and-click camera. And we really did have a blast. But it was crowded (GPO is always crowded). And noisy. And we couldn’t get decent photos of the super moon since we kept trying to take long exposure shots, and four thousand other people were taking flash photos at the same time. And poor Charlie was getting heckled by some obnoxious kids who didn’t have anything better to do.
So it could have been better.
When J bought his new high-totin’ camera several weeks back, we talked about going back to GPO to take photos of a full moon. We saw the next full moon would be this past Friday, July 31, and set a date.
The morning of, however, I started remembering our visit to GPO in June, and the chaos of it. I called J at work and asked him if there was some place else we could go. Some place quieter. He did some research and we settled on Angeles. The 700,000-acre wilderness spreads across most of the San Gabriel and Sierra Pelona Mountains, and in addition to its host of recreational activities, offers some incredible views of the greater LA area.
J wisely mapped out a route that would take us high up into the mountains in Angeles Forest, and away from the lights and smog of the city. He wanted to see the moon surrounded by the stars.
I wanted to watch the moon rise. Sit and be quiet and watch the moon come up. That idea sounded so incredibly beautiful, and peaceful.
In preparation, I did go full-fledged Moon Nerd, though. I wanted to make sure our spot would be a good one for actually seeing the moon. Darn thing feels like it appears on the horizon wherever it wants at whatever time it wants! I had downloaded a lunar calendar app some time ago so I could keep a passing eye on when the next full moon would be, and it turned out to be an app I woefully under-utilized.
I pulled up the home screen, where I could learn, among other things: the moon’s phase, the moon’s rise time, set time, transit time, and the moon’s azimuth, altitude, and distance.
Don’t worry; I didn’t know what most of that meant either.
Luckily, there is Almighty Google, and some very fruitful online searching during the train ride home taught me some very interesting information about the earth’s only natural satellite.
First off, rise time and set time are pretty self-explanatory: the times, respectively, the moon rises above the horizon and sets below it after completing its arc across the night sky. Transit time is the time the moon crosses an imaginary north-south line bisecting the middle of your location. In other words, the time the moon will appear straight above your head in the night sky.
Azimuth and altitude required tapping into the rusty part of my brain that stores everything I tried to forget in geometry. But essentially, azimuth is expressed in degrees, and it indicates exactly where on the horizon the moon will rise.
So, imagine you are standing in the middle of a perfect circle. The circle being the horizon around you. True north is 0 degrees; true east is 90 degrees; south is 180 degrees; and west is 270 degrees. Since the moon does always rise somewhere on the eastern horizon – although thanks to orbits and rotations and axes and all that other astronomical jargon, it does not rise in the same location every day – the azimuth will be expressed as a number between 0 and 180 degrees. The number itself tells you where exactly in that range the moon will rise. So, for example, the azimuth for the moon rise tonight (August 3) in Los Angeles, is 63.9 degrees. That means the moon will rise in the north east, about two thirds of the way from true north to true east.
Altitude is similar, but rather than having a 360 degree circle around you imagine a 180 degree half-circle over your head. 0 degrees is the eastern horizon; 180 degrees is the western horizon. The altitude degree tells you where along that arc the moon is located. When it’s at 0 degrees, it is at the eastern horizon. When it’s at 90 degrees, it is right over your head (and crossing the transit), and when it is at 180 degrees, it is at the western horizon. Negative numbers mean the moon is below the horizon.
I was so caught up in all this new knowledge, I actually walked and surfed my phone’s internet at the same time. I tend not to do that since I can barely handle walking all by itself. But I felt so nerd-ified! Azimuth. Altitude. I couldn’t wait to show off to J – hey hon, I know exactly where the moon is going to rise tonight. And what time.
Lo and behold: I was spot on. We found the turnout J had pinpointed, and set ourselves up to face 104.7 degrees southeast. I tracked the moon’s altitude on my lunar calendar app, and knew when the bright disc was scheduled to appear over the mountains…
But I didn’t spend much time on the app once we had parked ourselves and started gorging on cheese pizza. Then it became about the beauty and serenity of my surroundings. The smoothly broken crests of the San Gabriels, covered in shrubs and yucca. The quiet of wilderness – sounds like cicadas strumming, bird wings whooshing, and coyotes howling being the only ones we could hear. As the sun disappeared behind us, the clouds turned bright pinks and purples before they steadily faded to grays and dark blues. Then, the moon appeared. A glowing disc of white light that made the clouds closest to it shimmer like silver.
It was so beautiful. It was so perfect.
The perfect date.