We Went Deep-Trail Stargazing With a Jeep Gladiator in America's Darkest Spot

© DW Burnett   The best way to make a massive truck feel small? Park it under the rest of everything.

By Kyle Kinard, Road & Track

ON FEBRUARY 14th, 1990, on the fringe of our solar system, Voyager 1 fixed its camera on Earth. The vessel was roughly 4 billion miles from home, rocketing away from us at 38,000 mph. The image it captured, known as Pale Blue Dot, was Voyager’s last. Our planet is smaller than a quarter of a pixel in the photo, an insignificant speck. More than 20 years ago, Jerry Seinfeld posted a copy of the image above his desk, a reminder not to take this whole disco too seriously (and that, in space, nobody can hear your jokes bomb).

That humility can be elusive. Life is busy; times are trying. And with our eyes perpetually locked on various screens, we rarely look up. Even if we do, it’s hard to see the stars. Light pollution—the cumulative unnatural glow of buildings, cars, and streetlights—washes the night sky in a fluorescent din. That means millions of us will grow old and never see the Milky Way. We should, if only to experience that same feeling of smallness.

But how? Even rural Americans are flanked by over-lit towns, and it’s rare to lie under a sky truly devoid of artificial light. So the International Dark-Sky Association began logging “dark sites”—places far enough from manufactured light that the cosmos is as visible as it can be from the ground. A brief glance at the association’s maps reveals several directives for finding dark sites: head west, chase the voids between big cities, and bring the right equipment, because the roads won’t be paved. Something like the 2020 Jeep Gladiator.

© DW Burnett   Stargazing in America's Darkest Spot

PHOTOGRAPHER DAVE BURNETT and I loaded up the cab of our Gladiator just outside Phoenix. It was the first act in a five-hour odyssey to New Mexico’s Cosmic Campground, one of the best dark sites in America, deep in the rugged Gila National Forest, nearly 200 miles southwest of Albuquerque. 

The Gladiator is Jeep’s first pickup in decades. The truck arrived like Beatlemania, to fanboy screams, unironic joy, and slow-motion TV commercials. But for all the internet enthusiasm, the Gladiator looks gawky. Jeep stretched the two-door Wrangler’s wheelbase 21.6 inches to build the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, then stretched that wheelbase nearly 19 inches to create the Gladiator. Your brain grapples with the visual length of the thing, and the Wrangler’s boxy, charming body doesn’t jibe with the changes. Tacking on a pickup bed skews the look further. The Gladiator is relatively narrow, too, so it lacks the hulking charm of long, large four-door pickups like the Ram 1500 or Ford F-150.

Fortunately, the Jeep’s length delivers civility. At 70 mph, wafting along Arizona’s glass-flat asphalt, the Gladiator rides more like an S-class than a Wrangler—in part because its wheelbase is longer than an S450’s. Our tester arrived in Sport trim with a humming 3.6-liter V-6 engine, 17-inch wheels, and all-season tires. That combination of long legs, commuter-friendly rubber, and suspension travel conspired to make this Gladiator an excellent cruiser.

The wind picked up as we approached the western edge of the Apache National Forest. Great heaves and gales racked the Jeep as the White Mountains rose before us, their peaks looming under the dark threat of rain. My mind flashed back to cross-state drives through the grasslands of central Washington State when I was a kid. I rode shotgun back then in my mom’s Jeep Cherokee Sport. The winds whipped across those plains, each gust lurching the old Jeep halfway across a two-lane road. 

© DW Burnett   Stargazing in America's Darkest Spot

But there’s no tossing here, even under those heavy winds. The slab-sided Gladiator may as well be a block of granite. The truck weighs 4651 pounds, and that heft makes it feel solid on the interstate. The steering chips in, too. A huge dead spot rests at the center of the wheel. On the arrow-straight highways of east Arizona, lazy steering inputs kept the Gladiator true, whereas shorter Wranglers would have required constant fettling. The drive east was effortless.

We crossed into New Mexico three hours after setting out. As we probed further, the state revealed a kaleidoscope of terrain: rolling plains rose to become mountains. Jagged peaks fell into ridges where cacti stood tall as telephone poles, and then the land gave way to grasslands like oceans, flat and distant.

A couple of hours later, just before sundown, we wheeled the Jeep into the parking lot of Los Olmos Lodge. The hotel sits at the northern end of Glenwood, population 143, the closest town to the Cosmic Campground and five hours from any major city.

Kerry and his wife, Carla, run Los Olmos, but if they’re out when you arrive, cross the road and check the gas station. They run that, too.

“Don’t know why you came stargazing in monsoon season,” Kerry chuckled as I signed the receipt for our stay. In America, “monsoon season” is a seldom-heard phrase in the same vein as “grenade!” They both spark recognition, followed by panic. Conditions are unpredictable this time of year, Kerry explained. “If you don’t like the weather, wait a half hour for it to clear,” he laughed. “Then wait another half hour and you’ll hate it again.”

He pointed toward a break in the treetops separating Los Olmos’s property from the mountains beyond. The peaks were wreathed in soggy clouds. “If you see buzzards flying in that clearing, it means there’s a thermal column that’ll shove the clouds out from the area.” I watched for a second, hoping to conjure a bird. No luck.

© DW Burnett   Stargazing in America's Darkest Spot

THE NEXT MORNING we awoke to clear skies. Dave and I loaded bags and hard cases into the Jeep to scout photo locations. Dave brought a heaping pile of equipment—a drone, cameras, lenses, lights, and tripods. The lot wedged neatly in the Gladiator’s back seat, leaving the truck bed conspicuously empty. I imagined strapping a couple of mud-flecked dirt bikes back there, but we settled for the Jeep’s roof instead.

Two T-top panels separate via hand-operated latches. A tool kit in the center console will unfasten the rear hardtop and doors. Those tools also unbolt the top of the windshield, allowing the glass to fold forward on its hinges so driver and passenger can collect bug splatters in their teeth. We’re chuffed that the Gladiator allows the melanoma freedom essential to Wrangler identity, but bring a friend if you want to strip this Jeep past its T-tops; the process is tedious.

We pointed north, windshield firmly affixed, and left Glenwood in a cloud of dust, aimed at an observatory 124 miles away in Socorro. The roads narrowed in the first miles along Highway 180, then coiled. The asphalt turned lumpy and cracked, and the dead spot in the middle of the Gladiator’s steering wheel seemed to grow. While the Gladiator thrives on the interstate, it postures like a lump of Jell-O on curvy back roads.

It’s workable. You can generate a rhythm with the Jeep, turning the wheel in a half second early, allowing the Gladiator’s body to roll and set on the chassis, then throttling through the curve. That rhythm is good fun, too, so long as the road is flat. But when there’s a bump midcorner, it’s back to Jell-O mode. The body and chassis rarely felt copacetic in these tight turns, and at an as-tested price of almost $50,000, our Jeep was nipping at the heels of a pickup with bona fide handling chops: the $52,800 Ford Raptor. Cruise control made the disconnect worse, downshifting and hammering throttle at each incline. There was a heaving, sinusoidal response for every midcorner adjustment—a rolling wave that unsettled the truck. 

I wrestled the Jeep through the curves outside Glenwood, then leveled the truck out on New Mexico’s Highway 60, due east. The Plains of San Agustin stretched before us, 55 miles of grassland sprouting from an ancient, dried-up lake bed. The antennas appeared like tiny white buttercups on the horizon, small parabolas craned skyward on delicate stems. As we drew closer, each antenna grew larger, then larger still, until the buttercups had each become three-story giants.

The Very Large Array (VLA) is a collection of 27 antennas that form a giant radio telescope. They’re spread across the vast plain, arranged in a Y shape where each leg conga-lines to the horizon. Each dish weighs 230 tons and spans 82 feet—larger than any optical telescope on earth. Every one of them looks like a huge white fruit bowl perched on a frail stepladder—not elegant, but so massive and distinct against the barren landscape that standing in the shadow of one inspires awe.

Each antenna scoots along a length of railroad track, allowing researchers to expand or contract the distance between the dishes. At full spread, the VLA can create a radio telescope spanning 22 miles in diameter. Each dish is aimed toward the same point of interest, deep in space. They collect radio waves, data that’s stitched together into wondrous images of distant curiosities. Black holes turning, galaxies forming, the birth and death of suns, you name it. The story of our universe plays out before the Very Large Array. 

Construction on the VLA began in 1973, in the fresh afterglow of America’s space mania, at a cost of $78.6 million to taxpayers. Next to the Apollo or Mercury programs—or Voyager—the VLA was a drop in the bucket. But by the project’s 1980 completion, America’s lust for space discovery had waned.

Follow that trend to today. In 1966, NASA’s funding was nearly 4.5 percent of the federal budget. In 2017, it was less than 0.5 percent. The VLA was built by the National Science Foundation, another organization hamstrung by decades of budget cuts. It’s a reminder that science funding still struggles in America. Under the shade of one of the array’s antennas, that trend feels like great injustice.

There’s something essential to humanity in these dishes. It feels like lust, our source code grasping at things we’ll never hold. Conquering continents, crossing oceans, probing space we’ve always looked for more. It’s important to recognize that drive within us and to feed it as often as we can. Or at least that’s what I was thinking when the first fist of lightning cracked above us.

It was time to leave. Fast. Monsoon season had arrived. Grumpy, mile-wide clouds were closing in, dumping rain like upended hydrants. Dave snapped a few quick photos and we loaded up in a hurry. Our last glimpses of the array were caught in the rear-view mirror while I hammered away on the Jeep’s throttle. The downpour tussled behind our backs, but there were clear skies ahead. We had a sunset to catch.

© DW Burnett   Stargazing in America's Darkest Spot

THE ROAD to the Mogollon (locals pronounce it moe-go-YONE) ghost town is narrow and curled. It doubles back a hundred times as it rises, with sheer rock walls lining the inside of each bend and vertical drop-offs opposite. The speed limit sign at the trailhead reads “15 mph.” I’d recommend five.

I clawed the Jeep up to our photo spot: a clearing among the cacti and aloe and brush. A scrape of steep dirt led down to the pad of rocky, patchy grass. The Gladiator clambered down to the clearing without trouble. Earlier in the day, during photo scouting, I’d speared the Jeep off this same road onto a rugged, unknown trail. The path was paved with shale, rutted and scarred, and it ran along a ridge to an overlook miles away. Our Jeep scrabbled upward, pirouetted at the overlook, then pointed back down. I feathered the brakes the entire descent, palms damp, as the truck’s ABS groaned. When we reached the bottom, Dave was asleep in the passenger seat.

© DW Burnett   Stargazing in America's Darkest Spot

That moment sprang to mind as the sun set on the Gladiator, the truck’s white paint softening in the glowing sky. I hadn’t scratched the surface of the Jeep’s talent with dicey trail runs, even if I’d pushed boundaries of my own. We love Wranglers because they allow us to reach for the world’s frayed edges and pull them closer. If you embrace this truck’s faults, and leverage its capabilities, the Gladiator will take you almost anywhere you can put your eyes on. Same as any Wrangler.

Back at the lodge, dinner was pulled-pork tamales from the gas station. If you’re thirsty in Glenwood, you won’t find a six-pack in town, but rumor has it that if you tip Los Olmos management well, a few cold Buds may find their way to your doorstep. After sunset, I tucked into bed and set my alarm for 1:45 a.m.—the opening of our window for clear, dark skies at the Cosmic Campground. 

We hit the road just after 2:00 a.m. and aimed the Gladiator north along that nowfamiliar highway. The folks who run the campground recommend approaching without lights, so we dimmed ours and crept down the dirt path in silence. That seemed right. “Make sure you close your eyes for at least three minutes before you take in the stars,” I told Dave, echoing what Kerry had told me the day before.

© DW Burnett   Stargazing in America's Darkest Spot

Those minutes were among the most peaceful of my life. I smelled sage and dust. Coyotes yipped and whined in the distance. Cool air filled my lungs. All in total darkness. My mind wandered to an unexpected place, a grassy campsite in Montana where I’d first sat under life-affirming starlight. That was more than 15 years ago, and one of the friends who was there with me is now gone. Melodramatic, I know, but a reminder that stillness and silence tend to go missing from our lives as much as starlight. 

Three minutes down. Eyes opened. Absolute wonder. The stars an explosion above, seemingly infinite. The Milky Way arced from one end of the horizon to the other in a great ribbon of celestial cotton candy. Venus, Mercury, Mars, satellites, airplanes, shooting stars—brighter and more glamorous than the Vegas strip.

In this rare darkness, I was overcome with the sense that this place—our Earth—is precious. And quite small. It’s the same feeling that Pale Blue Dot has always stirred in me. We take this place and the people who share it with us for granted. It’s out there, if you just go find it. If cosmic revelation isn’t your jam, just go and find a dark site for the beauty of it all. And if you’re chasing darkness from the cab of a Jeep with a pickup bed, well, you could certainly do much worse.



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We Went Deep-Trail Stargazing With a Jeep Gladiator in America's Darkest Spot
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