Historic train takes passengers stargazing in the Great Basin Desert

American Wonders: Nevada's star train

In our summer series "American Wonders," "CBS This Morning" is exploring places that make America wonderful, from majestic natural landscapes to spectacular creations. This week, "CBS Sunday Morning" correspondent Lee Cowan hops on board a historic train bound for the remote Great Basin Desert in northern Nevada. Its passengers aren't there to see sunny landscapes – instead, they're focused on the views after dark. 


The tracks of the Nevada Northern Railway have existed for over a hundred years – and to this day, they're about the only man-made objects in sight.

"If you leave Ely, there's a sign that says, 'Next gas 164 miles,'" said the Ely railway's president, Mark Bassett. "And they mean 164 miles."

Bassett said that Ely's remote location is the town's strength and its weakness.  "If we were near Las Vegas right now… it would have all been bulldozed down," he said. "But because of our remoteness, it was preserved."

The trains have been running ever since copper was discovered in the area.  There's no ore to haul anymore, but the railroad does offer passengers something as black as coal: a night ride under the stars.  Just before sunset, it heads out for a three-hour ride toward Great Basin National Park, which is certified as one of the darkest regions in the lower 48 states.  No lights are allowed.

Way up ahead is park ranger Charlie Reed, who races the sun to set up telescopes before the train arrives.

"You just kinda let the sky do the talking for ya," Reed said. "You don't have to do much for it because once you see it, you see it."

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A view of the stars from Nevada's Great Basin Desert CBS News

"The first time I came here… the first night I was outside my house and I looked up and I go, 'Uh oh!'" he added. "… I can't find my marker stars, I can't find any of the stars I use to navigate throughout the sky, because there were so many!"

As the train creeps to a stop in the dark, passengers are greeted by the eerie glow of red lanterns. Then, they see it: the view of our universe the way most have never experienced it.

Suzanne Tatis and her 10-year-old nephew James were spellbound. "This is incredible! I've never seen the Milky Way in my life," Tatis said. "I couldn't believe my eyes, I've only seen things like that in pictures!" James added.

Sue Middendorf came all the way from St. Louis for the view. "It's just beautiful. It really is," she said. "It just makes you feel so small."

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Stars fill the night sky in Nevada's Great Basin Desert CBS News

A hundred years ago, a night sky like this was relatively ordinary. But now, more than a third of the planet's population can't see the Milky Way with the naked eye, because our world is increasingly polluted with light.

"The more darkness we lose, we're going to lose the universe, quite literally, and all the secrets that that universe holds," Reed said.
  
The race to save all of this darkness is gaining steam, but time is of the essence. As modern lighting becomes more powerful and cost effective, even remote places like this may one day be in danger of living under what some call an eternal twilight.