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Winter's Tipping Point

Astronomy probably isn’t high on your list of daily concerns. But one celestial date tends to stick in the heads of those who live anywhere in the northern half of the country. That’s December 21, the winter solstice. Or, more relevantly, the moment when the days start getting longer. Even if spring is still two or three months away, when daylight starts melting the night by a few minutes each afternoon, we find hope long before the first daffodil pops out of a snow bank in March.

Events like the solstice were critical annual markers back before electric lights and central heating, which is to say most of human history. And occasionally, you find a modern person who still holds the fascination. One of those was Jack Olson, who spent his career as an aerospace engineer and his retirement plotting a way to track the heavenly calendar from a North Dakota bluff.

Jack’s vision, known as Mystical Horizons, stands in a grassy patch of the Turtle Mountains, which are a little surreal all by themselves. They’re one of those geographic anomalies—a raised stretch of swampy forest dropped into the vast flatness of northeastern North Dakota.

Back in the ‘90s, Jack lived in the Turtle Mountains and started the meticulous work of planning stone structures (“obelisks,” if you want to sound like you’ve been to Stonehenge) that would align with key events and elements like the solstices and the North Star. Jack never got the thing built, but locals in nearby Bottineau took up the project after his death, and today Mystical Horizons stands watch from the hills, poised between the sky and endless prairie.

Mystical Horizons counts on visitors doing a lot of the work. There’s very little guidance by way of signs. Just a series of oddly shaped concrete slabs covered with faux stone. The sundial is easy enough to understand, as is the sighting tube that helps you find Polaris, the North Star. As for the rest of the slabs, you can guess that they all somehow point to or line up with something, but you’ll be hard pressed to figure out what.

If you happen to visit with a knowledgeable guide during a celestial event, you can see heavenly bodies synch up with the obelisks. But on most days, you’ll be left to quietly contemplate the woods, the prairie, the wind, the sun and the fact that time has many scales that are very different from the minutes we carefully watch each day. You won’t walk away from Mystical Horizons with all your questions answered, but you’ll leave aware of rhythms much bigger than us. And that, of course, may be what Jack was after all along.

You can read the full story of Mystical Horizons as told by Jack’s son at this blog.

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