Everything goes in cycles. This is one of the great truisms of life. Whether we are in the pits of despair, or the heights of joy, we know that change is inevitable. Life tends to follow a Sine Wave, oscillating up and down from +1 to -1. Like a sine wave, the zenith and the nadir are the moments of stasis, where time seems to sit still, and our mood hangs in the air, before it slowly begins its swing to the other extreme, accelerating through zero, before slowing as it reaches the other extreme. Rinse and repeat.
The sun also follows this cycle. Every 11 years the solar activity on the Sun peaks, and begins to decline. We are at the bottom of a cycle right now, preparing to begin the climb again. You can look it up. Years of peak sun spot activity play havoc with radio communications, as the Earth is bombarded with waves of solar wind, resulting in the creation of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. For those that have ever been lucky enough to see the aurora, the unearthly display of dancing curtains of light in the night sky is something you will never forget.
As I’ve said before, my senior year at Clarkson saw me rooming with 3 friends in an old farmhouse about 5 miles East of Potsdam on route 11B. It was 1989, during one of the peaks on the great sine wave of solar activity when the earth is awash in the great solar wind. In my own life, it was a time of great uncertainty and change. College was ending, and my world hung poised at a moment of lethargy, waiting for gravity to begin pulling me back towards zero. As I arrived in Potsdam in September, and moved into our apartment in the North Country, I had little idea of the great changes that lay ahead. All I knew was that the life I was living was inert, and stagnant, like the August heat. It was the year of the Nynex phone company strike, which only seemed to amplify the solitude of living outside of town.
The farmhouse was old, and our upstairs apartment was drafty in the winter, and a sweatbox in the summer. With no fans in our possession, we stewed in the late summer heat. Sleeping on the old mattress on the floor, beneath the window in my bedroom, I would awake to the sounds of houseflies buzzing against the window screen, and the snorting of horses below. Rosie and King, the sway backed old workhorses our landlords summered on the property, would stand in the early morning shade beneath my window, swatting flies with their tails.
The first few days were given over to trips into town to buy books, and register for classes, followed by evenings sitting outside on the deck, watching the darkness creep out of the foothills of the Adirondacks. One night after a dinner of fried sausage, and Utica Club, we decided to pile into my roommate’s car and head into the bars in town . Potsdam being a village of 9,000 people, a good half of whom are college students, was well appointed with bars along the length of Market Street.
My roommates and I were contrarians for the most part. As misfits, and avowed anti-Fraternity types, we tended to avoid the dance clubs, and stick to a more sedate place called Maxfield’s, that even back then in Pre-Micro brew America, stocked Bass and Guinness on tap. But it was the first night back in town for all of us, and we deviated from our norm, to bar hop down the street to try to catch up with as many classmates as we might run into. With no phone service, chance encounters were about our only way of catching up with friends.
Despite being vehemently opposed to the Frat boy culture that permeated Potsdam, I still had a fair share of friends that belonged to different fraternities. And it wasn’t long before we ran into some of them at a dive noted for selling the cheapest pitchers of cheap beer in all of the North Country. I hung out in the back of the bar where they were playing pool, before wandering back to the place where my roommates had been standing. It was then that I noticed they were gone. Mildly annoyed that they had left without telling me, I walked outside to the next bar down the street in the hopes of catching up with them. But they were nowhere to be found. I began checking out each and every bar along Market street getting angrier by the minute. Finally, after a half hour of searching I walked back to where we had parked the car only to discover that it was gone.
Now I was pissed. How the hell could they ditch me like that? We didn’t live in walking distance of the bars anymore, and I had no idea how the heck I was going to get home. Rather than go back into one of the bars and hang out with some of my fraternity friends, and spend the night at their place, I decided that I was going to go straight home and confront them. I began walking out Elm Street, planning to hitchhike back to our apartment, despite the fact I had never hitchhiked anywhere in my life.
Now keep in mind it was the tail end of the 1980’s, and the “peace love and understanding” of the 60’s had long since faded. Potsdam isn’t a big town, but it is the biggest town in all of St. Lawrence County, and the nearest village of any size to the East of us was over 30 miles away. A hand full of cars drove right on past me as I made my way out of town. That should have been my first hint that the likelihood of any local stopping to pick up an obviously drunk college student was pretty slim. In my drunken and agitated state it never occurred to me that the only people that probably would stop to pick up a drunk hitchhiker at 2 am in the morning were either cops or serial killers.
I walked, and walked. Out past the airport, past the salvage yard, and into the pitch black countryside. As I walked in my stupor, my anger began to fade, and I began to be aware of the world around me. It was a moonless night, and the darkness was unnerving. Looking to the North I could see the faint glow of lights over the horizon. At first I thought it was the lights of Massena, 20 miles away. But as I walked I slowly became aware that the lights were moving. Now I was really confused. It took me quite a while before I realized that I was seeing the Northern Lights.
My walk home took two hours. It was past 3 am when I climbed the stairs to the apartment, and walked through the door swearing. To my surprise, my roommates, and their girlfriends were still awake. As I let into them for ditching me in the bar, they looked at me like I was crazy. Only when I had completed my profanity laced tirade, did they tell me the real reason that they had left.
While at the bar, a couple of thick necked frat boy bouncers had started giving a hard time to a scrawny little underclassman, that was undoubtedly trying to sneak in with a fake I.D., (along with about half of the kids in the place). My roommate Chris, seeing this, walked up to them and said “Why don’t you pick on someone your own bleeping size”. At that point he was jumped from behind by a couple of frat boys, and pushed out into the street. Falling onto the sidewalk, they started kicking him in the head, as his girlfriend screamed, and my roommates rushed out to his aid. By the time they broke things up, he had been roughed up pretty bad, and they decided to take him home. All of this had happened while I was in the back of the place talking with friends, oblivious to the events.
By now I felt like a first class jerk, and my anger subsided into guilt and embarrassment. They all assumed I would do the rational thing and just crash at a friend’s place. No one expected me to walk home five miles through the dark countryside. That was my first experience with the Northern Lights, but it would not be the last.
Later in the month, I awoke around 2 am to a buzzing sound coming from outside. At first I thought it was a fly against the window screen, until I realized that it was night and not the time for houseflies. Slowly coming to my senses I looked out the window and saw a green glow in the sky. I pulled on a shirt, and walked out onto the deck. There, in the sky above was the most ethereal display of light I had ever seen. It took me a minute to realize that what I was seeing was the Northern Lights, blazing so brightly that they seemed to cast a glow over the earth.
I sat down on the deck, and watched the light show for hours. At times the Aurora filled the whole sky, changing from green, to red, and surrounding me like the walls of a giant tee-pee, flapping in the breeze. I didn’t know it then, but my life was to begin picking up speed again on it’s downward trajectory along the sine wave. By spring it would be approaching zero, and unraveling at a speed that I could never have dreamed possible. Sitting there in the dark, as the invisible solar wind blew in from millions of miles away, and lit up the sky in green and red filaments, it seemed as if the whole, dry, world around me was about to burst into flame.