The Horsehead Nebula is four light years high and I’m only 5’9″ (5’8″, 5’7″??? I’m shrinking!)
I find that thought comforting. Not the part about me shrinking. The part about a giant horse head made of dust and clouds, backlit with sheets of neon pink, billowing out into existence. With all those light minutes infinitely unspooling across the universe it’s nice to have a guidepost. Need a quick check on how big something is? Hold it up to this horse! About a fourth of the way up old Space-Seabiscuit is one light year.
Massive! And then you consider the illuminated curtain and stage our horse prances across, a profoundly larger structure.
I can’t even imagine the 238,900 miles to the moon, yet, if it helps (it doesn’t), traveling to the moon at light speed would take 1.3 seconds. Those distances can leave the mind spinning, but when we get nice examples left for us by mother nature we need to take advantage. We need to pay attention to what she highlights.
If you’ve ever been around really big mountains. Real peaks. You might’ve noticed they can sneak up on you. At first, so far in the distance, they appear to be hazy clouds over an ocean. The curve of the earth hides their base so they look squat and underwhelming.
That’s when you learn that something can be so big it can be hard to see.
On hiking trips, my dad and I would drive a dusty road to a dusty parking lot. Unfold our bodies out of the truck at 9500 feet. My map would regretfully tell me our destination was at 12500 ft of elevation. So we had to gain three thousand feet on our climb. That ascent was hard to imagine.
One summer I got a majestic lesson in distance, incredible depths and soaring heights. We visited the Royal Gorge Park in Colorado. It’s like a mini-grand canyon with the Arkansas River at the bottom. The park’s pride and joy is an amazing bridge that spans the gorge and, thankfully, it stretches across at a very helpful spot. It’s just about 1000 feet above the river. So as you walk over that bridge, as flat and steady as a city street, you can look down to get a sense of what one thousand feet of air looks like. What it might look like if you had to slowly pad out several thousand feet on a snaking trail. Slowly gaining the elevation you need to make your campsite. You can see and feel it. And it’s a sad sight, seeing how much work your legs will have to do.
So why did I take us on a trip out towards Orion’s Belt and swing back for a flight down a red canyon, all while shedding light on the debilitating affects of male pattern shortness? These measurements have always been a comfort to me when times get tough. Part of it may be how we tend to focus on the small dark spots in our lives, taking our eyes off the massive backdrop encompassing it all. How that much larger web may be the positive we forget about when we look at the temporary bumps along life’s journey.
On a final note, according to my calculations, in 20,000 years the HorseHead Nebula will have kept expanding so that it would then look more like a chunky giraffe. At that point I’d like someone to remind me to update this post with a new pic and perhaps my thoughts on how inspiring giraffes are.