Horseshoe Bend Meets its Future

It was a cold night on the rim of the Colorado River canyon as I waited for my camera to record the passage of stars and clouds.  I passed the time making notes and reading with my red headlamp.

In 2006 I was given a travel tip by a coworker:  there was a dramatic view of the Colorado River available to those willing to hike a half-mile to the canyon rim from a roadside rest area just south of Page, Arizona.  While on a trip to the state, I searched for it and found the barely marked spot described by my friend, and then found hints of a lightly used footpath across a barren expanse of desert to a rocky crest that hid the sudden drop-off behind it.

It was indeed a grand view, and I returned that night with my camera to attempt some long exposure star trails.  The conditions were not optimal: the moon was lighting the sky, but worse, clouds were interfering.  Still, it was a beautiful setting and I have learned that unexpected results sometimes occur, so I stayed several hours to record whatever happened. 

The results were not “stellar”, but the composition was strong enough that I include it among my nightscape favorites.

I have not had the opportunity to revisit that site until this year, when I looked forward to showing this hidden treasure to Poldi on our road trip through the area.  As we traveled toward Page, the obscure rest area sign we were looking for had been replaced by huge billboards. I was stunned to find that the parking area, previously able to accommodate a dozen cars at most, now had a capacity for hundreds!  And tour buses!  There was an admission gate where fees were collected by multiple lanes of toll workers!  Horseshoe Bend had been “Disneyfied”!

No longer was it a broken footpath to an exposed canyon ridge; a paved sidewalk had been installed to a fenced overlook, with benches at shade stations along the way.  Hundreds of visitors flocked to the viewpoint and took selfies with the same backdrop I had used fifteen years earlier (before “selfie” was a word).

I flowed with the crowd, amazed at the transformation.  I guess this is what happens at natural wonders as they become discovered and shared.  And I guess it could be worse.  It is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service.  For an example of “could be worse” look to Niagara Falls, the south bank managed by our NPS, preserving a beautiful park, but the northern Canadian side, with arguably a better visual vantage, is spoiled by unrestricted vendors catering to tourist sideshows and amusement parks.

The Horseshoe Bend overlook today (May 2021)

It is no longer possible to take the picture I made in 2006.  The expansive parking lot, which overfills during the day, must be empty by sunset according to Page city ordinance (which owns the land outside the national recreation area).  There is no easy access at night.

Although I feel like I have witnessed a historic change, a 15-year transition from patch of desert to parking lot is much less than a blink-of-an-eye in the geologic time scale that created this wonder.  In another million years, I expect the parking lot and the fenced overlook will be condensed to just another narrow but colorful band among the sedimentary layers displayed along the canyon walls.

Salt Flat Tracks

1968 was a big year for me.  I turned 15 and I went on a date, my first, with a girl who would later–45 years later, become my late-life partner and constant companion, road trips included.  But that is another story.  Earlier in that big year I experienced my very first road trip adventure.

My uncle Bob had completed his medical school training and had been accepted for the next stage on his path towards becoming a practicing physician:  an internship at Oakland Medical Center.  In 1968, Oakland California was a long way from Minneapolis Minnesota.  Yes, an expensive plane ride could get you there in three hours, but if you needed to bring more than a weight-limited suitcase, a three-day overland drive was required.

And Bob was fully ready for it, having recently acquired a 1968 model year Ford Mustang convertible, into which he packed the possessions that would support him for the next year in a remote setting.  The car was symbolic, a vehicle to take him to that next phase of his career.  It was freeing.  With the top down, the wind in his hair evoked that sense of traveling to far off destinations holding unknown new experiences.  It was a big year for him too.

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A Night on the Playa, Part 2

A sailing stone, the path behind it showing the route it took to get here.

There was a second wide spot in the road at the south end of the playa; we parked and continued our explorations.  This time we found stones sitting on the surface of the lakebed.  There were not many, and we had to hike a mile or so to find them.  Some sat happily contemplating their position in the uniform semi-infinite plane of mud cracks.  Others showed a faint trail of disturbed, and now solidified mud, leading to their current position.  These were the famous sailing stones! 

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A Night on the Playa, Part 1

Life highlights are those you can list on a single hand.  They are indelible events that exceed the normal range of our experience.  They may include a first kiss, the birth of a child, recognition of a career accomplishment, or the challenging hike to reach a beautiful mountain pass.  This is the story of adding one more of those outlier life experiences to my list.

Years ago, I had read about the geologic mystery of the “sailing stones” on the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley.  Death Valley is an intriguing place and not just because of its ominous (and deserved) name.  It is a geology and biology classroom, displaying the impacts of volcanoes intruding on sedimentary layers that have been shape-shifted into ribbons of colorful escarpments with water and wind-eroded features.  Somehow, the valley has fallen below sea level, and the water, when there is water, dissolves minerals from the mountains and finds its way to the bottom, where it evaporates and leaves the residue behind as a salt flat.

In the spring, the water also nourishes an intense flowering of desert plants, desperate to reproduce. For a few brief weeks, colorful plants and flowers adorn the roadsides and cover the otherwise barren hills.  I have been to Death Valley during this season, during a “superbloom” following an unusually wet winter.  It was a stunning display of flowers in this otherwise arid and nonviable setting, something I had never expected to see.  As impressive as this floral show was, I had really hoped to visit the famous sailing stones on the playa.

Flowers during the 2005 superbloom, in front of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west of Death Valley.
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Stonehenge and Solitaire

My visit to Stonehenge in 1994

When Management Graphics adapted their film recording technology to support motion picture film formats, it was quickly adopted by movie studios to bring special effects from their computer memory images on to film.  There were some problems however, and one of the most serious was the difficulty in obtaining the full brightness range found in typical scenes, especially when they included lights—candle light, desk lamps, car headlights, streetlights.  Any light source, even a glimpse through a window to the bright outdoors, would cause a large flare in the final film frames, washing out detail in the scene.  Our customers complained, and we started down a path to research and solve the problem.

We understood what the fundamental issue was: halation, an effect caused by the glass faceplate of the cathode ray tube used for creating the image.  The bright spot on the phosphor screen was internally reflected at the glass surface which then illuminated the phosphor coating.  If phosphor were black, this would not be a problem, but phosphor coatings are white, as are most materials made of fine powder, and it resulted in this internal reflected light overexposing the film.  In the absence of a black phosphor, there were few other ways to mitigate the halation effect.

An example of halation on a photographic film plate.  The circular haloes and flare are apparent around the street lights in this 1910 image.

One of our customers was incorporating our film recorder into a full workstation system.  Quantel, a company in Newberry, England, had become successful in the early years of digital video and was looking for a way to expand its editing tool offerings into the motion picture market.  Quantel’s engineers understood the halation problem as well, but they didn’t want to rely on our figuring out a solution: they had an aggressive development schedule. 

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Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Enjoying the beauty of the BWCA in Superior National Forest. See https://www.sylvansport.com/go-field-notes-boundary-waters/

Andy Warhol, the celebrated pop artist of the 1960s, is credited with the quote “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Well, I guess we have reached the future, because here is our fifteen minutes.

We are the proud owners of a trailer that converts into a tent-like camper. It’s made by a US company, Sylvan Sport. We first learned about it from my cousin Bonnie Norman, an early adopter of nearly everything, and when I finally relinquished my VW Eurovan Westfalia pop-up (to a deserving family eager to enjoy and care for it), this was the obvious replacement. We have enjoyed our “Go Trailer” for several years now and somehow (from Bonnie?), Sylvan Sport learned of our enthusiasm and wanted to feature us on their website.

Our travel plans this last year were modified, along with everyone else’s in this time of covid rules. We didn’t make the cross-country trips we expected, but substituted numerous short trips to our wonderful Minnesota State Parks. I also redeemed a coupon from the Gerard sisters, to guide me in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a destination I was embarrassed to admit as a lifelong Minnesotan, I had not yet visited.

It was a beautiful fall week and I took my usual collection of cameras. Sylvan Sport sent a photographer to capture it as well, and a writer later called to interview us. The result is a promotional piece on their website that depicts the experience nicely, despite being truly impossible to portray the full beauty of Boundary Waters.

Nightscape Odyssey Goes to Press!

By the miracles of modern technology (a technology I contributed to!), it is possible to self-publish a book without a minimum printing run of thousands or more.  I recently took advantage of one of these services to make a limited edition of my collection of stories and essays, Nightscape Odyssey, posted previously on this site. 

It was tricky to get the layout just right; it took two proofs, but I’m happy with the result and the experience was satisfying, especially taking delivery of the final copies.  Even more satisfying was giving them away as gifts. 

If you didn’t get one, it was because you probably aren’t one of my nephews or nieces, whom I felt should have some artifact of their odd uncle’s interests, and stories about what road trips were like way back when.   Don’t worry though, if you really want a copy of this book, the same company that published them for me can make one for you!  You’ll have to pay the going rate however, and you may find it more than you want to shell out for just another coffee table book. (https://www.blurb.com/b/10435240-nightscape-odyssey)

But if you don’t insist on an actual physical hard-cover book, Nightscape Odyssey can be had for free!  A pdf version is available for download (20MB).  I hope you enjoy it!

Watching for Perseids

Extracted from a frame in the timelapse series showing a Perseid meteor streaking along the path of the Milky Way toward the current position of Jupiter.

Every year in August the Earth passes through a comet debris field, and when a grain of comet dust falls through the atmosphere it heats up and vaporizes, showing as a streak of light and sometimes leaving a glowing trail.   We enjoy seeing them as “falling stars”. 

This year, as part of our Covid-coping strategy, we were on a two-day camping trip to a state park during the meteor shower.  It was a fortuitous coincidence, unexpectedly accompanied by clear weather.  I set up some cameras hoping to capture the meteors, but they were elusive.  As a consolation, I assembled the frames into a timelapse and although only a few frames caught meteors, they did capture some of the other beautiful elements of the night sky.

The brightest star is actually planet Jupiter, and it has a bright companion to the left, Saturn.  The Milky Way is visible as it moves slowly across the sky with them.  Some of the bright spots move more rapidly.  The steady ones are satellites, the others are airplanes.  Mid- and high level clouds form, move, and evaporate over the duration of the timelapse (3-1/2 hours).

A meteor itself is a momentary flash, leaving a faint streak on the image frame.  A sharp-eyed observer may find some in the video, but it only shows as one frame among the 30 per second.  One such frame has been extracted, showing a meteor strike seemingly aimed at Jupiter.

I have accidentally enjoyed the Perseids throughout my life, as I have often been on camping and backpacking trips in August.  The night sky is awe-inspiring in any dark sky site and it is all the more so when accented by the long bright streamers created as we travel through comet dust.

Swedish Candelabras – Finis

It is considered good practice to finish up the old projects before embarking on new ones, but that doesn’t seem to be my way.  The new one gets started and the old one languishes in its nearly complete state, sometimes for years, until I grant amnesty, allowing it to fade into memory.

I had reached the point in the Swedish candelabra project where the challenges of woodworking had been solved, a working prototype had been made, a dozen pieces had been crafted, and all that was left were the trivial details of wiring the electric LED candles.

It turned out that, while not technically challenging, it was incredibly tedious, threading wires, stripping insulation, soldering the bulb contacts, splicing connections and gluing the simulated plastic candlesticks in place.  The first one I assembled took hours.

With eleven more to go, I found lots of excuses to not do them.  Eventually however, when the summer heat advisories provided reason to retreat to the cool workroom in my home, I would complete one, or maybe two, each day.  Eventually I reached the last one, by which time I was proficient– only an hour of assembly!

I can now declare this project complete, and I look forward to displaying the candelabras in our windows when the season shifts once again to long cold nights.  I hope they are seen by the passing neighbors as signs of hope, warmth, welcome, and good cheer, just like the ones we enjoyed in Sweden.

The ancestral home of my great-great-grandfather Sven Johan Lundberg in Mulseryd, Sweden, during a light snowfall last December. If you look closely you will find that each window hosts a welcoming candelabra.

Swedish Candelabras

A modest Swedish house in Skalo, Poldi’s ancestral home. Nearly all the houses are in this traditional red color with white trim.
A close up shows the candelabras in the windows, a wintertime custom here.

While in Sweden over the Christmas season, we noticed the popularity of candelabras placed in the windows of people’s homes.  In these northern latitudes where the darkness of the winter night dominates the few hours of daylight, the distinctive chevron of lights provided a cheery greeting from the windows of the traditional-styled Swedish houses.  

I thought it would be a nice accent to our own home with its not-so-traditional windows cut into a mansard roof.  Surely Ikea would have such an item, with some suitable unpronounceable name, but I was disappointed.  Perhaps I needed to shop the Ikea stores in Sweden rather than our Americanized versions of them.

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