Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed in Death Valley. It is a vast expanse, miles by miles, of dried mud cracks. It is flat and nearly level, the north end merely inches higher than the south. The occasional stone can be found on the playa, delivered by erosion forces on the surrounding mountains, falling down and rolling out onto the lakebed. They are stones, not boulders, maybe a foot or two across, heavier than is convenient to carry away, but not heavy enough to protect them from magic seekers.
And the magic they seek is that many of the stones are found at the end of a long, physically engraved trail, recording their traversal of the ancient lakebed. How could these stones have moved across the dry playa? It has been a mystery to geologists for years. Various theories have been proposed, and some have been tested, but it is a difficult research project. The stones lie inert for years, and then, when next inspected, they have moved. With new trails marking their path! This is the magic that the stone thieves are after.
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!
A mostly clear night, and a new lens to try out! A lens I was hoping to use to capture wide-angle views of the Milky Way, and of northern lights, should I ever be in a position to do so.
I headed to Baylor Park, which is the home of Eagle Lake Observatory, operated by my astronomy club. I wasn’t there to use its facilities (though others were). I just wanted a clear view of the sky outside the city, somewhere I could practice techniques for making timelapse sequences, preferably alone, where I could make mistakes without an audience.
Having placed my cameras and committing them to their posts for the night, I returned to my telescope at the upper end of the boat launch. The tasks of drift-aligning the mount and finding the exact film plane focus occupy me for the next hour. During this time, another visitor arrives from the campground, a man in his late twenties, early thirties perhaps–it’s harder to assess the character of my visitors after dark. Mike, a laid-off telecommunications worker, was a victim of the industry’s own productivity during the boom of internet and telephone excess. He was a “fiber-puller” and now that the country had connected every hub to every other hub with more bandwidth than could be fully used, there was no more work for him. I wondered if there was a similar moment when the major cities had finally been connected by railroad. Did we then have a surplus of steel men, unaware that the tracks they had just laid would serve for the next century?
Mike was content to talk and ask questions as I was performing my setup, and also content to look through the eyepiece at the nondescript target star I was using to do my alignment, without pressuring me to see anything more significant. I think he had the same desire as Holly to connect with the sky; he had found his way to my circle of equipment, but his interest was more diffuse. Like most who make an effort to be outdoors in remote places, he enjoyed the grandeur of the night sky, and wanted in some way to share his feeling with someone he suspected would be sympathetic.
Mike’s stories of camping out with his brother, of the locations he’d been while installing fiber lines, and other topics kept me company during the otherwise unexciting wait periods while drift-aligning. He didn’t mind that from time to time I would divert my attention to the faint target in the eyepiece’s crosshairs and make slight adjustments to the azimuth and elevation of the mount. Eventually I could reward him with a view of the Pleides, rising in the east, taking the opportunity myself to drink in this cluster of bright stars before beginning the next phase of the night’s session.
Sentinal Point is one of the high spots on the crater rim, providing a commanding vista of nearly the entire caldera of the ancient volcano. I selected this location, a turnout that would mostly avoid oncoming traffic, to setup my equipment that night. I brought out the works, everything I had, telescope, sky tracking camera, and fixed tripods. I planned to take some prime focus deep sky pictures that evening, as well as some wide-angle views of the Milky Way. This meant polar aligning two mounts, which kept me busy until astronomical twilight, some two hours after sunset.
I also placed two fixed tripod cameras for startrail pictures. I spent quite a bit of time trying to find that photogenic angle that included sky, crater, lake, and the star groupings that I wanted to capture; there was just no vantage point that had a clear view. The withered pine trees that grew on the rim surface were just dense enough and sprawling enough, that they always intruded in my viewfinder. If I could just get down to that exposed rocky point on the rim wall, I could get my clear shot. Of course, scrambling down the rim wall is highly discouraged. The barrier at the edge of the turnout is the limit of sanctioned range for tourists, and exploring beyond is prohibited.
Yet down there was the perch that I sought. While it was still light out, I ventured out onto the hybrid surface of rocky talus and weathered soil. A few plants held it together, and some tenacious trees had made outposts. I found a suitable location that contained my target view and planted the tripod. I setup the camera in preparation for later when it would be dark, and I could start the exposure.
Yes, later, when it would be dark. I wondered how I was going to find my camera later when it was dark. It was one degree of risk to climb out of bounds in daylight, another to do it in the dark.