Tecopa Springs, revisited

If you were unable to see the previous post about the date farm (because of my WordPress settings error), I encourage you to go back and check it out (use the “previous” links).

On the way back to the hot spring resort after visiting the date farm, we passed Tecopa Springs township, where a hot spring facility next to the road looked vaguely familiar.  I wondered if this was the same place I had stopped at almost twenty years ago during my escape from Las Vegas visit in 1995.  At that time, it was an isolated building along the side of the road, operated by the county or state and offering the hot spring pools to local residents and passing tourists, for free! 

There were two sets of pools, men’s and women’s, with no-soap pre-showers, and nude bathing a requirement.  I recall there were a sequence of pools, starting hot, and getting hotter at each.  I also recall no towels were available.  I had to do some hand squeegee removal of water before getting dressed again.  I resolved to bring a towel next time.

Well, this was next time; I had my towel, but the setting had changed.  The government-run pool building that once stood isolated like a roadside “point of interest” marker, was now surrounded by other, more entrepreneurial hot spring facilities, with motels and campgrounds providing overnight accommodations.  An entire community now surrounded this former hot spring outpost. 

I stopped and asked the attendant if this was indeed the place I remembered.  Yes it was, and it is still operated by the county (but not free anymore), and yes the pools are still separated for men and women.  And I would still need my own towel.

But I was on my way back to claim our next hot spring soak at Delights Resort before we checked out.  Which we did, using the towels they provided.

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The Date Farm

Sorry for the error that initially restricted this blog post to “subscribers”. The WordPress setting should now be fixed and visible to “everyone”. If you wanted to read the full post and see pictures of the date farm, please try again!

We had a nice long sleep in the decrepit trailer home at Delights Hot Spring Resort.  On the previous evening at the nearby brewery/barbecue, we met a vivacious young woman, Kayla, at a shared table on the patio.  Kayla works as the Field Manager at a date farm (yes, there is such a thing), and when we peppered her with questions, she not only answered them enthusiastically, she retrieved a date sampler package from her car to gift us so we could try them.  She invited us to visit her at the date farm the next day.  She is clearly a date ambassador.

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Tecopa Springs

The eclectic landscaping at Delights Hot Springs Resort

It was a miserable night in the car.  My air mattress deflated (probably user error—my misunderstanding of modern inflation valves. We could not find a comfortable position.  According to my measurements, my six-foot-one frame should have fit in the space available. It did not.  We did not sleep well.  What had once been an unremarkable event in our youth (spending a night sleeping in a car during a road trip), had in the decades since become physically challenging!  What happened?

Revived by our morning coffee, and with the sky clearing to blue, we enjoyed a wonderful hike up Mosaic Canyon, the trailhead just “across the street” from the campground.  We had a little trouble with the occasional short scramble over the smooth marble-colored geology of the canyon, which narrowed in several places to just a few feet across.  It widened to broad washes as it continued its climb, but eventually choked down again, eventually presenting a boulder wall, stopping our progress.  There was a designated route up them, and with help from fellow hikers, we could clamber up and continue.  But beyond the wall, the canyon remained narrow and twisted with yet more obstacles.  We decided to turn back; we were feeling at the “halfway point” anyway and didn’t want to take risks.  Another thing that has changed over the decades.

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Charcoal Kilns and the Panamint Loop

Stone kilns from 1877.

Unlike our previous visit which was part of an extended road trip, we planned a more streamlined experience this time:  flying to Las Vegas, renting an SUV, and “car camping”, literally, in the desert.  We brought the essentials:  sleeping bags and pads, collapsing camp chairs, a minimalist stove for heating water and canned or dried food, and of course, our French press coffee maker.  The idea was to shift our gear around at night to make room in the back of the car so we could sleep there.  All we needed was a place to pull off the road far enough to qualify for “dispersed camping”, and we could roam freely in the back country of Death Valley, hiking and exploring by day and capturing pictures of the sky at night.  It was a romanticized image which we didn’t quite achieve.

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Death Valley Days, and Nights

At Dante’s View, overlooking Death Valley

Death Valley Days” is the title of a long-running television series that I vaguely remember but did not watch.  Now I wish I had.  Thanks to my early-adopter dad, we had a small black-and-white television, the only kind available back then. It would have been just fine since the episodes were shot in black and white. There was no color in those days

I have since had the pleasure of visiting Death Valley, several times.  My first visit was in 1995,  a brief weekend departure from a trade show that involved stealing a blanket from the hotel.  I spent the night with it in my rental car, at Dante’s Overlook, which provided a bitter cold but spectacular view of sunrise on the Panamint Mountains across the valley.   

I wrote about a more recent visit, experiencing the magic of Racetrack Playa, and I was excited to return this year and explore the park further.  Over the next few essays, I’ll try to convey some of my experiences in this unique place on the planet.

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The Roving Photons (warning: nerd humor)

The Roving Photons on the steps of the Physics Building (now the Tate Laboratory of Physics) ca 1975.
Standing, left to right: Kevin Loeffler, Richard Dorshow, Thor Olson, Jeffrey Harvey, John Bowers, Kevin Thompson.  Squatting: Greg Hull, Curt Weyrauch.

I first attended the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1971.  I was accepted to the Institute of Technology, IT (now College of Science and Engineering, CSE) but faced the difficulty of narrowing my interests which ranged from science to art, from mathematics to theater.  My initial major, architecture, was inspired by a desire to combine art and science, romanticized by the Ayn Rand novel “The Fountainhead”.  That idealistic goal was punctured by the first lecture of Architecture 101, where in retrospect, I recognize that the professor portrayed the profession in its worst possible light in order to weed out students who were not fully and utterly devoted, focused, and dedicated to the field. 

It worked.  I changed majors the next day. 

But I was still registered for all the courses required for training in architecture, including math and physics, important for structural analyses to guarantee the strength and safety of buildings.  I continued these courses, and even while shifting my major to Fine Arts, I still wanted to learn “the secrets of the universe”.  Eventually, I found the reliability of science to be more aligned with my internal quest than the apparent arbitrariness of the art world.  Don’t get me wrong, I admire artists and consider them to be explorers, and the reports from their journeys inspire and motivate me.  But I realized that I did not have the qualifications to lead or undertake those journeys.

Instead, I focused on how Nature works; this is the domain of physics.  And I found myself in a small group of classmates that were similarly enthused.  Somehow (I don’t remember the details), we became members of an informal club, “The Roving Photons,” whose motto was “A roving photon gathers no mass”.  We attended the same classes; were confronted with the same contradictory anomalies of quantum physics and we all struggled to make sense of it.

I like to brag about the classmates I studied with.  One of them, John Bowers, went on to become a leader in the field of photonics (appreciate your fiber optic internet connection) .  Another, Kevin Thompson, contributed to the corrective optics for the Hubble Telescope.

My freshman dormitory colleague Craig Holt, discovered an important physics-mathematical relationship, now named after him, as is an endowment for a scholarship at the University of Minnesota.  My roommate during our junior and senior year, Jeff Harvey, went on to become a physics professor and contributor to string theory.  Others became teachers and engineers, extending our knowledge of the universe and demonstrating how to utilize it, to the next generations.  It all started in our undergraduate classes at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s.

Here is the recollection of one of my classmates and Roving Photon member Richard Dorshow (who later contributed to the development of medical devices and pharmaceuticals), as reported in 2010 by the newsletter of the School of Physics and Astronomy.

…One of my favorite memories was from my sophomore year.  A small group of us formed an undergraduate physics club, The Roving Photons.  I was elected Executive Director, mainly because I wrote the rules for election and eliminated the competition.  It was a very friendly group of comrades (Greg, two Kevins, Jeff, John and Thor).  We were given a small, narrow room in the sub-basement of the Physics building. 

“There was an exit sign in the hallway outside the door.  Thor, who was also an art major, somehow put the club name on two pieces of glass and we replaced the exit sign with the glass such that we had a lighted club sign.  I think the sign lasted less than one night as it apparently violated the fire safety code.  We had a refrigerator in the club room and arranged a delivery of pop every so often. 

“Our main impact was a faculty lecture we sponsored and arranged.  We would take the faculty speaker out to lunch on the day of the presentation.  I remember we used to go to Sammy D’s.  I think our first speaker was Professor Gasiorowicz.  [He was] a favorite, whose explanations of probability usually involved some sort of food analogy: a tablespoon of peanut butter spread over a cracker, many crackers, and then the entire universe to explain probabilities.  I still have an autographed copy of his book written and completed during my time at the university. 

“The school used to get audited by the American Physics Society and a group of distinguished physicists came to do the audit.   This included William Fowler, then president or president-elect of the APS, and also the famous physicist Herman Feshbach.  Because there was an undergraduate physics club, the distinguished group talked to us too.  Here we were with this group of esteemed physicists and we were telling them about the lunches at Sammy D’s, and the soda pop delivery.  In hindsight, this seems a very surreal event.” 

Rick’s description captures only a small portion of our experience as students during the 1970s, a turbulent but productive time in physics.  A “zoo” of new subatomic particles were being discovered, all of which would be clues leading to the now famous “Standard Model” of quantum mechanics.  We were in the middle of it all but didn’t really know.  To me, it made little sense.

And it is still challenging.  Although I was distracted from my study of physics by the exploding field of electronics brought on by miniaturized transistors (and because just about any physics experiment requires electronic instrumentation), I continued to follow the developments in physics throughout my career.  Reading their Wikipedia entries, the inspiration from my superstar classmates of 1975 is part of why I am still curious enough to engage in online courses for learning how to program a quantum computer. 

The quantum “measurement problem” has not yet been resolved to my satisfaction, but Schroedinger’s cat is being cornered.  The recent measurements of gravitational waves, the unexpected acceleration of the universe, dark matter, dark energy and other fascinating observations may be today’s equivalent of those confusing 1970 particle zoo clues, pointing us to a “New Standard Model”.  I hope someday to learn about it!

Trivia du Annuel

A sample question at a New Year’s party trivia station

In an earlier life I hosted an annual New Year’s Eve party.  It had the usual party elements: holiday decorations, elaborate food, and refreshing beverages.  It also featured a trivia game, something that started as a simple mixer to help our eclectic set of friends from the different avenues of our life to meet and engage, with the intent of adding to the good will and good cheer of the evening.

We created a series of “stations” throughout the house, each with a set of questions.  Our guests were organized in teams of two and they would do their best to answer them.  The questions were selected and designed to fall in the category of “common knowledge” and “things everyone should know”. It was surprising how many we don’t, and the newly formed duos would try their best to compete for the “fabulous prizes” (usually a trophy coffee mug) presented to the team that got the most right.

The annual trivia game was often described as a frustrating or humbling experience, but as embarrassing as it might have been to our guests when they could not answer our simple questions, they kept coming back each year.  Perhaps they thought that next year they would be partnered with someone who would actually know the figures featured on each bill of US currency, or the numbering convention behind the interstate highway system, or the counties that make up the metropolitan mosquito control district.  I eventually learned that everyone wanted to partner with my friend Rich, who may not be up on the latest trends, but seemed to know the other questions on topics we all learned in grade school but somehow forgot.

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Notes for Ninety

I was a teenager when asked to help stage this photo for my grandparent’s 1967 Christmas card.

I recently ran across some speaker notes that I used almost 30 years ago on the occasion of my grandfather’s 90th birthday (1994). I recall that a large white party tent had been set up on a backyard lawn and was filled with four generations of my grandparents’ descendants and their remaining lifelong friends. Here are my comments for that day.

I’ve been blessed by not only knowing, but sharing in my grandparents’ lives for many years (I am over 40!)  Many of my friends and colleagues do not even remember their grandparents.

They told me I would be speaking at this gathering, but did not tell me what to talk about, so I just picked something that appealed to me.  I’m going to tell you a little about an activity that my grandfather undertakes each and every year and we are all the beneficiaries of—their annual Christmas greeting card.

He’s been making photographic Christmas cards for over… well, I don’t know how many years.  I was planning to make copies of some of the great ones over the years as a slide show, but then I found out that this party would be in the afternoon, outside! 

So instead, I made some posters, and if my assistants will help hold them up I will describe them… 

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The Rock with Wings

Blending all the frames of the time lapse reveals the star trails above Shiprock (click for full size)

Many of my photographic ventures are purely serendipitous.  Yes, it is important to be at the right place, or the right time, and sometimes both, but there are so many things that can go wrong and prevent the shot that you were planning.  But there are also many things that can happen that are unexpectedly magnificent.  If you have a camera ready and waiting – even for something else—you can capture the unexpected event.

This describes my attitude when setting up a camera for a long nighttime shoot.  Lately, I have been exploring timelapse photography, making exposures every few seconds and then creating a motion picture (mp4 video) from them.  When traveling alone with no fixed plans, I like to head to photogenic landscapes where the skies are clear.  But a joint road trip itinerary with lodging reservations does not permit this flexibility, and I often encounter overcast skies.  I accept this as just one of those challenges to the practitioners of this arcane hobby.

And so, when our homeward-bound trip from a Thanksgiving in Los Angeles took us through New Mexico, and the day’s route ended near Shiprock, a city named for the nearby geologic feature that the Navaho call the “Rock with Wings”, our plans shifted to take advantage of the unexpectedly clear skies.  Although exhausted from a long day on the road, I left the comfort of a cozy Airbnb apartment to go set up cameras in the desert and wait in the cold for hours, hoping to capture something interesting.

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16mm Home Movies from Mid-20th Century

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I inherited a collection of 16mm movies made by my two grandfathers, each an enthusiastic amateur and early adopter of photo technology.  I have been struggling with their fate, as they consume a not-inconsiderable amount of space in my archives.  Space that could be used to store other useless artifacts.

They have now been (mostly) digitized. And one can find them summarized at this page.

I have great difficulty getting rid of things.  As someone who respects the historical path that brought us to our current time, place, and relations, it is hard to discard mementos, especially (for me) photographs that captured moments along that path.  As a scientist, I am loathe to delete “data”, that might someday be valuable.

I have to acknowledge the slim likelihood of such artifacts becoming valuable.  I hold no conceit that some biographer will ever be looking for scraps and clues identifying the influences on my own childhood.  I like to think that my contributions to society have been positive, but probably not worth much more than an oblique reference in an obituary (“he was a curious man”).  But maybe there were things in those movies that would be of interest to someone else. I didn’t know how to find that audience.

So the movies, spooled on metal reels of various sizes, lay dormant for years.  When I wondered about their ultimate fate, I realized that eventually, they would have NO meaning to anyone, even if it were possible to view them.  If there was any value to be extracted, it would have to be now, by me. 

I described that initial effort in the previous post on this topic.  Here is what has happened since.

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