Most attendees had given up and gone to bed with the cloud cover at midnight. A few of us accidentally enjoyed its clearing after 2:00. We took in views of galaxies, nebulas and star clusters until the near-dawn when Saturn, and then Jupiter and Venus appeared. This was the intoxicating finale of the evening, and with the brightening sky, I staggered to my tent sometime after 4:00.Continue reading
I started lugging stuff out of my car and was struggling with my oversized tent when I met my neighbor to the east, Barry, a friendly bearded fellow who reminded me of a mild-mannered graduate student. In reality he was a programmer, but his interests fell strongly in the areas of ham radio and astronomy. He was modest about his beginner status in astronomy, but he had attended prior years of TMSP and enjoyed them immensely, hence his return this year.
Barry felt responsible for letting me know that the rear tire on my car was flat. I was surprised at this news, since I had just arrived and had not experienced any sort of tire problems on my way up the mountain, but there it was. It wasn’t just low on air– it was dead flat! Had I been driving on a rubber-covered rim all the way up that road? I suppose it’s possible, but let’s instead think that it must have happened as I maneuvered into the field. A sharp rock maybe?Continue reading
2.1 The Approach
I had embarked on this “Nightscape Odyssey” to search out dark sky locations in the western U.S. and to hone my astrophoto skills. Although the Table Mountain Star Party (TMSP) in Washington’s Cascade Mountains was a long way from Minnesota, I had selected it as a fitting launch point for my ambitious summer plan.
The “star party” is an interesting concept, especially to those who are not close to amateur astronomy circles. For them it creates an amusing image of revelers eating and drinking outside, occasionally looking up at the sky, pointing to various stars and having a good laugh over them.Continue reading
It wasn’t long before the clear nights of photographic activity and subsequent days of driving took their toll. I camped in the remote Sage Creek area of Badlands National Park, where the campground was an oasis in the middle of those badlands, an oasis with no water and no open fires allowed.
The sky was dark and clear, but I was exhausted. I made a feeble attempt to ready my equipment for what promised to be a beautiful evening but decided to nap instead. As I “rested my eyes”, I could hear a neighboring camper who, with more energy and an eager audience, had set up a telescope and was conducting a tour of the night sky. Someday I will return to this unusual and remote site; maybe then that night sky guide will be me…Continue reading
I returned to the campground as the sky lost its deep darkness to the dawn. I was tired now and falling asleep was an easy matter. Staying asleep was not. Campgrounds come to life at an early hour and become noisy collections of waking families preparing for a new day. The commotion subsided when most campers had driven off to their destinations. The midmorning sun, radiating through a cloudless sky, heated up my tent. Even after moving the tent into the shade I found it difficult to sleep. By 10:00 I gave up and decided that I might as well start traversing some more of the miles toward my appointment in Washington.
Heading west on blue highway 14, I share the road with rural traffic and the occasional bicyclist. I enjoy seeing the bicyclists; they ignite the memory of an earlier epoch in my life when I would bicycle for weeks through beautiful countryside, carrying everything, and camping along the way. Bicycling is just the right speed to experience the land. A car travels too fast, there is not enough time to truly let in the details of the terrain. Walking is too slow, the details become stale before you reach the next vista. But a bicycle brings you close, living and breathing the environment you travel through, giving you options to linger or to move on.Continue reading
Even as one exits daily life, its anxieties drag along. I headed west on highway 12, a route that could take me to Montana and beyond. The interval between rural Minnesota towns was a consistent five miles, a day’s round trip in the days of horse-driven vehicles. Although I had no need or desire to stop, I found these distances between oases of civilization annoying–my progress seemed so slow. As I crossed into South Dakota however, and the distances started getting longer, I found my tempo slowing to match. The rhythm of the car on the pavement was beginning to seem more natural. I had no appointments or obligations, other than my desire to reach Washington for the Table Mountain Star Party. And even that was not an obligation, I could change my plans at will!
Go west! Ride the road and make my plans on the run. I could go as far as I wanted, stop where I felt like it, and make my way, my way. And like the title of the book by William Least Heat-Moon, I was traveling the blue highways. Except by the conventions of today’s maps, the lesser traveled roads are marked in red, not blue. The two-lane roads serviced the rural business, farms and ranches, and the segments between the small-town hives of activities became longer as the hives themselves became smaller.Continue reading
My family has never travelled light. The weeks prior to my scheduled departure were hectic as I figured out how I could transport all the usual camping equipment plus telescopes, cameras and tripods. I had a very ambitious list of photography projects which required nearly all of my accumulated gear. I might not be able to try every experiment on my list, but at least I would have the right stuff with me.
A mental calculation showed that all of it couldn’t possibly fit into my minivan, even using the cartop carrier that we had overflowed into in previous years. I also had to keep in mind that I would, for part of the time, have two passengers, including my teenaged son who had recently grown into a large-scale young man. Hauling a trailer was a skill I didn’t want to master. Acquiring a larger vehicle was not an option. So I decided to add additional cartop storage. I went out to find a left-handed version of the “Yakima Rocket Box” I already owned so I could carry them side-by-side on my roof. Alas, they no longer made them in their original white color; the new ones were black. I hesitated, but after learning that there was only one remaining in stock, I decided that this was actually a desirable feature; I would be able to distinguish them by their color… for all those moments where I might otherwise be confused about where I had stowed what. Ok, maybe it’s not a strong benefit, but I didn’t need much to make the purchase decision.Continue reading
1.1 The Windfall
A windfall is a sudden, usually unexpected, influx of wealth. Winning-the-lottery windfalls are rare. Smaller, but still welcome, are an employee bonus, an inheritance, or a lucky run at the casino. People react in different ways to the experience of unexpected wealth or “found money”. It tells something about a person: the easy-come, easy-go gambler versus the frugal saver who salts it away for an indefinite future.
I have experienced a windfall not of money, but of time. A new company benefit designed to attract and keep employees in a climate of dot-com employment frenzy was announced. It seemed like an inexpensive benefit to advertise: employees of five years or more could take a one-time additional 3-week period, a sabbatical, of “disconnect time-off”. Combined with conventional vacation time, one could be absent for six weeks! But it would never happen. What high-tech California company had employees that stayed long enough to collect such a benefit?
But I wasn’t a California employee. I had held on for over twelve years in stoic Scandinavian style at a small Minnesota company, a company whose flicker of success first caught the attention of, and then was acquired by a Silicon Valley company desperate for people to help it grow, and eager to retain them. It was an unexpected gift, and I now had the dilemma of how to spend it.Continue reading
I’m about to start a series of posts that are a travelogue I worked on after a remarkable summer in 2001. I concatenated our traditional family summer camping trip with a personal journey aimed at photographing the night skies. Some of the descriptions will seem anachronistic today, with the subsequent advent of smart phones, ubiquitous GPS, and the demise of photographic film, but I hope the narrative of the adventure still holds up.
I intend to review my old writings (with the assistance of my skilled copy editor), filling in some of the gaps I left, and submit them to this forum. I invite you to enjoy them at your leisure, and if you have reactions, or if you find something unclear, let me know!
The subtle details of the night sky fade away with the dawn, but the brightest remain: the planets Jupiter and Saturn rise above a windbreak on a prairie farm. The sky will brighten and they will eventually be lost (though if you know where to aim a telescope, they can be found again in broad daylight)!
On this occasion, the clear skies held through the night. The distant haze provided the right conditions to spread the long rays from the sun. It’s an unusual transition of colors from orange to blue, a combination not found in many other places in nature. The planets poke holes in the otherwise smooth shading.