Travel Column: Hotels Cut Light Pollution, See Stars

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated March 19, 2004

Sometimes a lasting travel memory comes at the oddest moment. The one that made me a dark-skies fan came at 3 a.m., courtesy of a full bladder—not mine, my wife's—at a remote roadhouse on lonely U.S. 50 across the high desert of Nevada.

Running out of daylight, we had asked for a room. We got one—in a trailer parked out back. To reach the bathroom, you had to step outside and reenter by a separate door. Nor was that the only oddity.

The toilet had been hooked to the hot water tank, so that every flush filled the bowl with scalding water. The sensation when taking a seat above this cauldron, while painless, was … startling. But I digress.

At 3 a.m. my wife felt the call, pulled on some clothes, stepped outside, and stopped cold. "Come here!" she whispered. I did. She simply pointed up.

"Blazing with stars" doesn't capture it. Stars upon stars upon stars, a million far-flung suns, in a night so silent it seemed you could almost hear the sky.

Most of us rarely see such stars. They hide shrouded not only by cloud and haze but by the reflected glare of excessive lighting, even when we travel to countryside destinations.

Hotels, motels, restaurants, and shopping centers have seen fit to bathe themselves in wattage far beyond the need for safety or utility. Having discovered that bright lights draw us like moths, service stations compete to bruise the night with stadium-strength floods.

So it's reassuring to hear of a few moves to reclaim the sky that our great grandparents knew. In Las Vegas, New Mexico (not Nevada!), the Plaza Hotel has shielded all its outdoor lighting. (Notably, hotels that refuse to mute their external lighting are also refusing to lower their own utility bills and, thereby, our room rates.) Yellowstone National Park is starting to replace the upward-leaking lights around Old Faithful and other major sites. And in June 2003, in that tourism mega-center, Orlando, Florida, the county board imposed light-pollution regulations on new commercial facilities.

Geo-savvy tip: If you find yourself inadvertently in a hotel with bright, unshielded, or upward-aimed lighting, comment to the management. Hotels sell ambience. Tell them the moon and stars should be part of it. (One arguable exception: Nevada's Las Vegas, where outlandish amperage is as emblematic as dark skies should be elsewhere.)




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