Author Archives: richandalice

Lights, Camera, More Lights

Baltimore is one of those cities that has enjoyed a real renaissance in the past 30-40 years or so, sparked by the arrival of the Tall Ships as part of the 1976 Bicentennial and the development of its renowned Inner Harbor area in the subsequent few years. The city still has a pretty well-deserved reputation for grittiness, part of its blue-collar ethnic character, but it’s a lively place with a lot to offer. City officials have taken full advantage of its gentrified areas, and the Inner Harbor in particular, in addition to hosting two major sports teams, is the frequent site of one multimedia event or another. This past week’s extravaganza was the annual “Light City” festival, a high voltage — literally — celebration of technology and innovation. And lights. Lots of lights. Spinning lights, blinking lights, flying lights, motion-sensitive lights, color-changing lights, and so on.

It is surprisingly difficult to get good photos in a setting like that. The surroundings are dark, which means that there is plenty of time for people in the bustling crowd to walk in front of the camera during, say, a 2-second exposure. And the lights are bright (being lights and all), which means that the scene is all brights and darks with little in between, which is a photographic challenge when it comes to setting the exposure. Nonetheless, here are a few samples from last night.

Baltimore Light Festival 2018-026Baltimore Light Festival 2018-029-EditBaltimore Light Festival 2018-037Baltimore Light Festival 2018-050That’s Alice in the top photo, taking a video of the rotating prisms. (Remember the part about the lights moving?) And the odd-looking blue-lit sculptures in the bottom photo collectively form a drone racing course — the Drone Prix (really) — where guys with much faster reactions than me steer their little high speed racing drones around the course, occasionally crashing into the nylon mesh fence that you can see across the picture. You can see the drone as well, or at least its running lights: it’s that double track of green and yellow that is swirling around the image over the course of its 5-second exposure.

Speaking of which…

I almost lost my own drone last week by making the most stupid rookie mistake possible, i.e. not flying higher than the surrounding trees while making an aerial video of a friend’s house. Fortunately a tree service and a $200 check got it back to me. Here’s the whole drama, boiled down to a one-minute video complete with dramatic soundtrack:

Lesson learned. A subsequent test flight the next day reassured me that despite its misadventure the drone still works properly. But Alice still gleefully imagines what concessions she might extract from me had it been destroyed and I wanted to replace it.

 

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Saguaro Lake

Speaking of lakes, since we are wrapping up our stay in Scottsdale, Arizona, before heading home tomorrow, I thought I’d throw in one last very brief blog post from our current venue.

When you think of Arizona, you probably think “unbearably hot desert”, and in general you’d be right. But the weather has been unusually cool these past few days, with highs in the low 60’s (around 16 C). It was especially beautiful today, up close to 70F (21C), so our very dear longtime friends and perpetual Scottsdale hosts drove us on an outing to Saguaro Lake, about a 20 minute drive from home.

Saguaro Lake is artificial, the result of damming up the Salt River in 1930. It’s long and skinny, only about 2 square miles (500 hectare) in surface area and about 100′ (30m) deep. It’s a beautiful deep crystal blue, surrounded by several hundred foot high sedimentary cliffs. There are about 10 species of fish — trout and that sort of thing — so as you’d suppose it’s a popular boating and fishing spot. There’s a even a tour boat that brings you around the lake and into some of the narrow canyons on a 90 minute excursion. (We took that boat tour a few years ago on a blistering summer day with temperatures in the 105 F (41 C) range. It would have been a lot more fun today.)

The lake sits in a region called the Tonto National Forest (no Lone Ranger jokes, please). There was a uniformed ranger-looking person sitting in a white pickup truck in the parking lot, so I asked her if it was allowable to fly my drone. “Beats me,” she said, “I’m a Forest Service biologist and have no authority over anything.” That sounded like permission to me, so here is the drone flight. The video is a little under 5 minutes long, and you can see the tour boat starting at about 2:45.

 

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The Salton Sea: Only the Weird Survive

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive. …” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about 100 miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
                                                             — Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Driving through the Sonoran Desert in California and Arizona is more than a little hallucinatory on its own, even without a pharmaceutical assist. The Chocolate Mountains gaze invitingly across the Salton Sea, but the landscape between you and them is anything but. It’s a sere, unwelcoming rockscape, a coarse desert of scrub brush and stunted palms, not as homicidally hostile as Death Valley or the Sahara but rather more like an unwelcoming failed xerogarden. And despite the distant mountains, the land through which we drive is as flat as the surface of the alkaline water itself, so unvarying that even on a cool day the air shimmers, mirage-like, above the road surface ahead.

Salton Sea 2018-117-Edit

Our destination was the Salton Sea, a major geographical oddity insofar as it is the product of a mistake. In 1905 engineers from the California Development Company dug some irrigation canals from the Colorado River into the nearby farming valley. The canals silted up, so in their wisdom the engineers decided that they could essentially flush them out by breaking through the banks of the Colorado itself. Bad move. The torrent from the Colorado overwhelmed and overflowed the canals, flowing unchecked into the nearby Salton Basin for two years, filling up a previously dry ancient lake bed and creating a whole new sizable body of water. The newly extant Salton Sea — which is actually a lake — is about 15 x 25 miles long (24 x 56 km) and averages about 31′ (9.5m) deep. That’s a 2.2 trillion gallon mistake if you’re keeping score. (Or 8.5 trillion liters if you’re keeping score outside the USA.)

For a while this looked like not too bad an outcome. Birds moved in, the lake was stocked with fish, and for decades fishing and boating became popular activities there.

Salton Sea 2018-007-Edit

Thing is, when Mother Nature creates a lake she generally supplies a continuous source of inflow as well as some kind of exit port, generally in the form of streams or rivers, to keep things all fresh and clean. Absent any of those, your shiny new body of water just sort of sits there, collecting runoff from the land and otherwise evaporating. In other words, it is not so much a lake as a gargantuan stagnant puddle.

Which is exactly what the Salton Sea is. Lacking any inflowing rivers, the only source of water is salt-rich, phosphate-rich runoff, and the only way that water leaves the lake is by evaporation. Consequently the lake becomes increasingly salty and toxic. Today, the Salton is about 25% saltier than the ocean and a rich source of heavy-metal goodness like arsenic. Adding to the fun, the desert winds kick up the toxin-laden dust on the shoreline and spread it around for all to enjoy: the surrounding Imperial County has the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the state of California.

So in other words, despite those two pleasing photos in the above paragraphs, you do not want to plan a camping trip here. For one thing, it stinks. Literally. The air is rank with dead fish, and the shore is lined with them, mummified in the desert sun and so numerous that they crunch as you walk around. So as a counterpoint to the soothing landscapes that I gave you above, here’s what much of the beach looks like.

Salton Sea 2018-027

And here is Steve once again, experimenting with found art and asking the eternal question, “Do these earrings make my head smell bad?”

Salton Sea 2018-026

(Answer: no, not by the time they get to that stage. So wait till Thumper sees her next birthday present!)

But go back up to the fish photo for a second and look at the ground around the skeleton. Interestingly, it’s not sand, but rather a vast collection of billions of delicate fish bones and barnacles, each a few millimeters in size. Here’s a close-up.

Salton Sea 2018-014

Upon close inspection it is ironically beautiful, considering that the whole place is basically a poisonous witch’s brew. All of which leads to the obvious questions, “Does anyone live here and, if so, why?” And the answers are (1) yes, and (2) because they don’t fit in anywhere else.

Case in point is the waterfront town — such as it is — of Bombay Beach. I am not quite sure how to describe Bombay Beach. In fact, I am not quite sure how to describe any of the human settlements in the vicinity of the Salton Sea, because they all reside in some alternate universe that melds the shantytowns of South Africa, a trailer park designed by Salvador Dali, and Mad Max’s world.

As I reread that last sentence I am pretty satisfied with the description, with the exception of the word “park”, which implies that — somewhere — there is at least a measurable plot of green space to be found. There is not. Bombay Beach is all dirt and rocks and corrugated metal, broken-down trailers and RVs and the occasional land-bound boat whose hull hasn’t been wet in years and never will be again.

But there is nonetheless an ineluctable cheeriness to what objectively resembles a collective of post-nuclear-war survivors. Because practically every structure has been transformed to some kind of  found-art installation. Rusty bicycle wheels spin on the end of car springs; Christmas lights festoon sheets of corrugated aluminum with odd nongeometric shapes cut into them; stuffed animals are duct-taped to arrays of old car antennas.  It’s beyond weird, but curiously whimsical given the harsh surroundings. And even though situated 50 miles into the desert away from Palm Springs, Bombay Beach has embraced Mid-Century Modernism, in the form of a nearly full-sized parody of a 1960’s drive-in movie theater populated by an impossible collection of derelict cars: Studebakers, AMC Pacers, and God knows what else.

Salton Sea 2018-038-Edit

Salton Sea 2018-043

Steve returns to his youth.

A little ways down the coast from Bombay Beach brings us no respite from the oddness but rather eternal redemption instead, in the form of the gaily-colored and transcendentally earnest monument to brightly-colored religion that is Salvation Mountain.

Salton Sea 2018-061 Salvation Mountain is the multi-hued brainchild of one Leonard Knight, born in 1931 and metaphorically blinded by the spiritual light in 1967. In that year, while working in Vermont, Leonard was suddenly struck by the revelation that religion was way too complicated and could be boiled down to a single sentence: “Accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved.” This 11-word sentence represented a substantial 99.9986% savings over the official 783,137 word count of the King James Bible, but the staid New England clergy were unimpressed by his eschatalogical efficiency. So Leonard decided to spread the word on his own by building his own gigantic hot air balloon, which failed to get off the ground.

Leonard relocated to the Southwest, where he tried to build yet another hot air balloon, which also remained stubbornly earthbound. In 1984 he fetched up on the banks of the Salton Sea and decided to paint a hillside instead. This saved a lot of time on the road as an itinerant preacher, not to mention gas and tolls, although the latter savings are substantially offset by the coast of 100,000 gallons of latex paint.

You can walk around — and up — Salvation Mountain, which is still a work in progress. Adjacent to the main mountain, there is also a hogan-like adobe structure — another riot of primary colors — where you can walk through precariously-supported tunnels plastered with variations on the same inspirational message and biblical quotes. The tunnel through the hogan looks like the interior of the guy’s brain in the movie “Fantastic Voyage“:

Salton Sea 2018-070-Edit

…although as I look at the photo now, it also reminds me of a brightly colored, slightly less ominous version of the creepy parallel world (the Upside Down) in the TV series “Stranger Things“.

Several derelict vehicles dot the grounds at Salvation Mountain: a couple of trucks, a motorcycle, and even a front-loader. The trucks in particular have a certain 1930’s Dust Bowl look about them, which I tried to capture in this photo.

Salton Sea 2018-075-Edit

The John Steinbeck “Grapes of Wrath” model

The vehicles all have that same design scheme, i.e., they look like they were driven by a crew of drunken Okies through the wall of a paint factory, and then caromed, Wile E. Coyote-style, into an evangelical revival tent meeting.  I can imagine the scene: horn honking frantically — AH-OO-GAH! — the out-of-control vehicle, shedding paint cans and splattering latex blobs everywhere, tears through the canvas wall of the revival tent! The crowd screams HOLY JESUS and scatters as the truck careens across five rows of folding chairs, skidding 90 degrees and sending airborne a little old lady who, crippled by arthritis, had only one minute earlier stood up from her wheelchair for the first time in 17 years after a laying on of hands by the preacher! The truck crashes to a stop at the altar, and the enraged crowd charges the vehicle, deciding spontaneously en masse to use it as a billboard of their faith and smearing the paint with their hands into words of holy praise! Then they drag out the Okies and tar and feather them.

It was definitely inspirational. We donated a dollar.

Which is why our next stop was East Jesus. Well, technically, East Jesus is part of Slab City, another outpost of creative desolation very similar to Bombay Beach. (It gets its name from the concrete slabs which once supported snowbirds’ vacation homes but which are now occupied by rusting mobile homes, tents, and other semipermanent residences.) But whereas Bombay Beach acquires its actuarial risk factors by being situated on the shore of the Salton Sea itself, Slab City is a few hundred yards inland, adjacent to a US Army artillery range. It’s very easy to find the official town limit: it’s the barbed wire fence that says “Do Not Enter. Unexploded Ordinance.” I am not making this up.

Apparently the barbed wire and expanse of corrugated aluminum was insufficiently unsettling to the local artistic community, which as a result created the outdoor art installation/museum/portal to Hell dubbed East Jesus. Here is the entrance:

Salton Sea 2018-077-Edit

…and here are some cheery scenes from around the grounds:

Salton Sea 2018-088Salton Sea 2018-086Salton Sea 2018-089

Take a close look at the doorway of the collapsed house in the middle photo. There is a pair of legs wearing striped red and yellow stockings sticking out of the doorway, with a red shoe on one foot. Seems familiar. Where have we seen that before… striped stockings and a red shoe sticking out from under a collapsed house? Holy moly! Dorothy’s house has apparently migrated from Oz to East Jesus!

It’s that kind of place, weirdly fascinating but best avoided if you’ve recently been on the fence about committing suicide. Other objets d’art scattered around the grounds include a crashed Cessna, protruding from the ground at a 45 degree angle, and a toilet whose seat is ringed by 6″ glass shards, all pointing straight up. Ouch. We wandered around until we had had our fill of good-natured existential angst, then moved on.

Our last stop of the day was a more natural phenomenon: boiling mud. California is tectonically active, as you know from endless dire warnings about its eventual doom by earthquake. There is a geothermal power plant near the shore of the lake, and on its property is a mini-Yellowstone, a small field of boiling mud pots perhaps 100 meters off the road. They look like anthills or African termite mounds from a distance, blobby grayish cones sticking up out of a sparse brown field.

Salton Sea 2018-112-Edit

Some look like mini-volcanos, perhaps two meters high, with small craters at the top where you can peer into the pool of bursting grey mud bubbles going bloop – bloop – bloop, like this:

Salton Sea 2018-mud bubble

You can stick your hand into it. It’s a little sticky (being mud) and is about as warm as a hot shower. It’s not unpleasant, especially if you’re into spa days.

Some of the mud flows are curiously artistic. Squint at this one (below): Steve observed that it looks like any number of Renaissance Madonna-and-child paintings.

Salton Sea 2018-111

I have deemed the photo “Mudonna”. And that was our day at the Salton Sea.

We left Palm Springs the next morning and arrowed across the desert at 80 mph (140 kph), a straight shot of 260 miles (420 km) to Phoenix, and thence to Scottsdale directly to the east of it. We’re staying with our old friends Larry and Jean for a few days before heading home for real next Tuesday. We’ve been away for nearly six weeks… time to have some down time with the grandkids!

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Time Warp in the Desert

Palm Springs, California was one of the many places that boomed in the decade or so immediately following World War II. Unlike the nascent suburbs on the East Coast — say, the proliferation of Levittowns in the Northeast — Palm Springs’ economic growth was fueled in part by its proximity to booming southern California, as the desert resort became the postwar playground of Hollywood. The little desert town nestled against the San Jacinto mountains became the go-to place for luminaries of the silver screen to cavort, gossip, and pretend to be heterosexual.

Hand in hand with that ambiance, Palm Springs became the epicenter of a style of architecture and design that later became known as Mid-Century Modernism. The late 1940’s through early 1960’s was the era of right-angled walls and acres of glass, i.e. houses that looked like this…

PS art house

… of sweeping incredibly uncomfortable furniture that looked like this…lounge_chairs_2and primary-colored clothing and cats-eye glasses, i.e. people who looked like this:

MSDPARE EC029

Palm Springs has embraced this part of its history — and this aesthetic — with a glee bordering on mania. This is not unusual for cities, of course: you can’t swing a cat in my birth town of Philadelphia without hitting something named after Benjamin Franklin. And our current home of Annapolis was the nation’s capital for about 45 minutes in 1784 and has been making bank on it ever since. As it happens, with populations of 45,000, Annapolis and Palm Springs are about the same size. But Annapolis does not have 150 abandoned personal bomb shelters in peoples’ back yards, remnants of the duck-and-cover era of the Cold War. Nor does Annapolis have large numbers of — or possibly any — Mid-Century Modernism-style houses. And Annapolis most certainly does not have an annual “Modernism With a Twist” design and performance festival, which we attended last night with our hosts Steve and Thumper. More on that in a moment.

Steve and Thumper are our “Exotic Travel Friends”, with whom we have now traveled to various places in Africa three times. Steve is tall and lanky, a highly creative engineer with a penchant for tech toys and an outre sense of humor that closely matches my own. Thumper is spiky-haired, mordantly impish, and — when passing judgment on just about anything — has only two settings: “This is the worst thing in the world and it makes me want to vomit,” or “This is the best thing in the world and how can anyone not love it?” Since she will be reading these words I will find out tomorrow morning which side of the coin comes up, and whether or not we have to leave prematurely. Anyway, here they are in poses from earlier today that give you an idea of what you’re dealing with.

As you can see, in photos Thumper likes the enigmatic look, though in actual day to day life she is about as subtle as a lightning strike, and equally energetic. And if you ever meet her and ask her about her Disney-esque nickname, take my word and do not believe her story about having been a pole dancer in Laramie, Wyoming.

Anyway, Steve and Thumper are very delightful friends and generous hosts whom we have been visiting in their absolutely gorgeous home. Here’s a pan shot of their atrium-like living room, complete with a looping hi-def video of jellyfish swimming in a  7 1/2-foot long (2.3m) virtual aquarium underneath the painting on the right.

Pal Springs house 2

Steve and Thumper enjoy but are not consumed by the pervasive Mid-Century Modernism design gestalt that permeates the town. And in truth, it is not ubiquitous: the streets are wide and the buildings low and adobe-colored, so on average the sense is more Modern Desert than 1950’s Surreal. And nobody has to pretend to be heterosexual anymore: Thumper informs me that the entire city council is LBGT. They are no doubt advancing their nefarious communist homosexual agenda, which as nearly as we can tell involves clean streets and a thriving downtown area.

But back to the “Modernism with a Twist” festival. This is a week-long multimedia grab bag of home design displays — want a $100 birdhouse that copies a Frank Lloyd Wright house? — art exhibits, and performances. We attended one of the latter, a presentation of five fifteen-minute lecture/slideshow/standup comedy routines, all of them entertaining and insightful and often informative. One was a riotous first-person account of (and by) a tube-dress, cats-eye-glasses-wearing fictional 1950’s housewife who finds fulfillment in her harvest-gold-colored appliances. One was a history of those 150 bomb shelters I mentioned above. One was a very “meta” discussion or confession of one woman’s obsession with Mid-Century Modernist memorabilia. And so on. It was a hoot, though I am not yet ready to comb my hair into a ducktail, partly because I do not have enough hair to do so.Ducktail-Hairstyle-hairstyle-latest-lMfI

Today we made an expedition to the Salton Sea, about 50 miles to the southeast of here. That was quite the experience in itself, which I’ll save for my next post in a few days.

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Oahu and Aloha

We left the Big Island 2 1/2 days ago with our usual reluctance — meaning that a commando team was required to get Alice onto the plane — but as usual have arranged to ease our transition back into non-tropical life by spending three days with our old friends Laura and Brian in Honolulu.  This having become part of a pleasant yearly routine, we by now have a certain number of haunts on Oahu that we visit with them.

The first of these — it having impressed us so much in the past that we now schedule our visit around it — is the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Kapiolani Community College. Trust me, if you’re used to farmer’s markets on the mainland this one is a revelation. Here’s a panorama of a small piece of it:

Honoulu 2018-002-Edit

The sign on the left says “Kimchi Poke Bowl”, which already tells you a lot about Hawaii: kimchi of course is Korean, whereas poke (pronounced poke-eh) is a Hawaiian specialty, basically marinated sushi (and most wonderful, I should add).  At this market you can also enjoy (among many other delights) sushi sliders, lilikoi (passion fruit) popsicles, grilled giant shrimp, and kimchi sausage on a stick. And we did. In fact, the entire time we are visiting our friends here we eat very exotically and very, very well. And very excessively.

Most non-Hawaiians’ mental image of Honolulu is probably dominated by visions of Waikiki, and it is true that that iconic strand is a very visited place.

Honoulu 2018-012-Edit

But there are in a sense really two Waikikis: the tourist one that you see in the picture above, and the one frequented by the locals, from which the photos above and below were taken.

Honoulu 2018-023

The “local” part of Waikiki is smaller, dominated by an old World War I memorial and a decrepit and long-since-disused public swimming people, long gone in disrepair . But there is also a pleasant beach with no hotels hard upon it, and a large park filled with exercise classes, picnickers, and — on this particular day — a gathering of the Aloha Koi Club, presumably there to compare their respective decorative fish. It’s a pleasant place with a family atmosphere. There is also an old concrete jetty, perhaps 40 meters long, extending into the shallow green surf and offering an excellent platform from which to throw bread crumbs to the waiting fish. The water is clear as glass, and it’s a lot of fun watching the surgeonfish and the triggerfish (“humuhumunuknukuapua’a!”) go after their targets.  That abundance of fish makes it a pretty good place to snorkel; you can see two snorkelers in the foreground of the photo above.

The central part of Oahu, north of Honolulu, is overlooked by the 550′ (16m) high Punchbowl, an extinct volcanic crater that is now home to a military cemetery. A little further north than that, perhaps 10 miles north of the city and about twice as high as the Punchbowl, is “The Pali”, or more formally the Nu’uani Pali Lookout. (Pali means cliff in Hawaiian.) It’s an overlook on the volcanic side, overlooking the central valley of the island and and flanked by the crenelated basaltic cliffs, long overgrown with vegetation. The wind howls up the cliffside from the valley below, and on especially windy days requires you to lean forward to avoid being blown over. It was unusually calm when we visited, and afforded us this view of the plain below.

Pali lookout

Those craggy hillsides are completely typical of eroded volcanic landscapes, and make every setting a dramatic one.  (On rainy or foggy days, they become looming and ominous, as you’ll see below.) And as you can see from the picture, from this 1200′ (360m) vantage point, you can see all the way to the ocean to the northeast.

Heading eastward from Honolulu quickly brings you to the eastern end of the island, Makapuu Point. It’s a commanding viewpoint from which you can easily see the islands of Lanai and Molokai on the horizon, with a glimpse of Maui as well on a really good day. Closer to shore, especially in the winter months, you can see whales, and indeed we saw a handful of them, including one performing a spectacular breach perhaps 200 meters from shore below us. We don’t see a whole lot of those around Washington DC.

The lookout spot where we parked offered an ideal spot from which to launch my drone, but I hesitated because of the cop directing cars into the lot. My hesitation vanished about a minute later when we saw a guy flying a drone about fifty feet from the cop, so off I went. I flew along the coast for a mile or so, keeping both a drone and a protoplasmic eye out to see in case the opportunity to fly above a whale presented itself. It didn’t. (It would have a lot of patience and a lot of drone batteries to pull it off; the whales do not stay on the surface for very long, and it is unlikely that I would have been able to get the drone position before the beast dove again. Those BBC and National Geographic guys have a lot more patience than I do.)

Makapuu Point is dominated by the Makapuu Lighthouse, activated in 1909 and still in use. It has the odd distinction of having the largest lighthouse lens in the US, and is also the third highest lighthouse in the country at 422′ (129m). (The two higher ones are both in California, in case you were wondering.)

Makapuu Lighthouse

There is a fairly steep trail leading up to the lighthouse. Last year we were ambitious enough to make that hike; this year I let the drone do the work. Here’s the video:

We had a gorgeous day for it, as you can see. And yes, the water really is that color, so feel free to hate us.

However, not every day is gorgeous here — only most of them — and today, our last day in the islands, was emphatically not. It rained buckets for most of the day, a relentless drenching of the sort that you only get in the tropics. Unusually, we had thunder and lightning as well. But hell, it was our last day here and we weren’t going to let a little rain stop us. Or a lot of rain. Or an insane nonstop deluge that left us cowering in the car saying, “What were we thinking?”. But we pushed on anyway, Laura bravely navigating her new car through flooded roads whose Stygian depths may well have harbored entire new species of sea life.

But we were not seized by the kraken, and made it around the coast to the North Shore, stopping at a beach whose famous landmark is an offshore island with the condescendingly racist (but nonetheless apt) name of Chinaman’s Hat. You can see why:

Chinamans Hat Oahu-028-Edit

Trust me, those pendulous clouds represented a break in the weather. Turning 180° from this scene to face inland revealed this vista:

Chinamans Hat Oahu-001-Edit

And now you know where Darth Vader goes on vacation.

The rain kept up all day and into the evening, our phones screaming out flash flood alerts every hour or two as they were broadcast by the authorities. (No incoming missile alerts, though.) The downpour finally tapered off about 9 PM, after we got back from our farewell dinner with our friends.

So I guess it is time to leave the islands. We’ll be spending about a week visiting various friends on the mainland before getting home for real at the end of the month. But we’re already talking about next year’s visit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Hawaiian Sky: Addendum!

My friend Jim observed that I overlooked an impressive deep-sky object that I captured by accident in one of my sky photos. Remember this image from yesterday’s post?

Saddle Road Night Sky-008

Jim is an avid astrophotographer and noticed the little fuzzy blob at the upper right, about 1/4 of the way in from the right and down from the top. He claims that that’s the Andromeda galaxy. Let’s zoom way in on that blob and take a look:

Andomeda

Sure looks like Jim was right! Here’s an actual big telescope photo of Andromeda to make sure:

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Yep, that’s the real deal. Amazing what a small but good-quality camera lens can capture if the viewing conditions are favorable. Andromeda is in some ways a special case. It’s actually quite enormous, nearly the size of the full moon, but is quite spread out and dim and so you need a nice dark sky to see it. But if you have that dark sky, you can see it even with the naked eye!

 

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Hawaiian Sky

It is for several very good reasons that Mauna Kea is the premier astronomical observing site in the world: the summit is above half the atmosphere and its attendant water vapor (astronomers hate water vapor); it is accessible with good local infrastructure; and — I know this will shock you — it is dark. Very dark. The entire population of the Big island is only 150,000, and the nearest towns are tens of miles away from the telescopes, their lights often concealed under a layer of clouds. And so the night skies on the Big Island are nothing short of glorious.

You do not have to be atop a mountain to enjoy the stellar show — in fact, in some ways it’s better if you’re not. (And despite our plans, we have not made it to Mauna Kea’s summit on this trip: conditions have been too cold and windy.)  So my friend Jim and I struck out from Kona with our cameras and tripods, to a point well away from town about 10 miles inland and about 2500′ (760m) up. With the exception of a couple of hillside dwellings, it was, as they say, as dark as the inside of a dog. Dark enough, in fact, that the unwary photographer can stumble around blindly and knock over his tripod at the end of the night. Fortunately the tripod mounting mechanism made the supreme sacrifice and absorbed the blow of the fall, sparing my camera with its rather expensive lens. But now I need a new tripod mount.  In any case, here are some samples of our work from two nights ago:

Saddle Road Night Sky-005That tongue of stars sticking up from the middle is indeed the Milky Way, as you no doubt suspected. The dots of light at the very bottom of the picture, about one-third of the way in from the left, is Jim setting up his camera by flashlight. And the red glow that you are wondering about is real, neither a Photoshop fake nor the incandescent lava from a distant volcano. It is the actual color of the night sky in the opposite direction from the Sun, i.e. eastward at 9 PM when this picture was taken. I’ve exaggerated it in intensity (thank you, Photoshop) so that you can perceive it in the image. It is a well-known celestial phenomenon called gegenschein, the reflection of sunlight off of interplanetary dust orbiting in the plane of the solar system. In very dark locales it is just barely visible to the naked eye, but a long (6 second) camera exposure of the dark Hawaiian sky brings it right out. Pretty cool, huh?

If you don’t believe me — and I don’t know why you wouldn’t, since I am a professional and not to be taken lightly, dammit — here’s an equally long exposure taken in the opposite (westward) direction:

Saddle Road Night Sky-008No red glow. If you are wondering why you can see the spooky tree and the grass since I earlier stated that the scene was pitch dark, the answer is that I was standing off to the side shining my cell phone flashlight onto the tree in order to get this precise effect. (Photographers call the technique “light painting”.)

One of the things that we tend to forget in this age of crowded cities and light pollution is that there are a surprising number of glorious astronomical objects that are visible to the naked eye or in small binoculars.  The camera sees them just fine in these dark island skies, though. Here is zoomed-in portion of a shot of Orion, the hunter:

Saddle Road Night Sky-099

Those are the three stars of Orion’s belt at upper left, visible even in cities. But what’s that big blob in the middle? It is the Orion Nebula, a.k.a. M42, an enormous cloud of gas and dust 12 light-years across, a stellar nursery where massive, hot stars are condensing and igniting. Here’s what M42 looks like through an actual telescope.

M42LRGB10combLg

Obviously one cannot see that kind of detail in a photo taken with a conventional mid-sized camera with a 17mm wide angle lens, but if you look at it in my photo you can  clearly see the shape and a bit of the color. Slightly below the nebula in my picture you can also see two bright stars. The upper is called Iota Orionis. The lower is actually a double star system called Struve 747: if you look carefully at it you can see the dim companion star.

So it was a photogenic night. Here I am in situ, taking the above pictures and illuminated by the light of Jim’s flashlight:

Saddle Road Night Sky-007

You’ll note that I’m wearing a sweatshirt and long pants, not my usual attire here. But it was an unusually cool night and we were a few thousand feet up; the temperature was about 55°F (13C).

I’ll close this post with a photo that has nothing at all to do with the sky but which I feel like throwing in because it is a night shot, albeit not looking heavenward. The Aloha Theater is a venerable performing arts venue in the nearby delightfully-named town of Kealakekua (pronunciation lessons available for a small fee). It was built in 1932 and is still in use — they’re performing Beauty and the Beast as I type this — and its architecture is typical pre-war (and thus pre-tourist-boom) Hawaii. It has a pleasantly anachronistic feel to it that I tried to capture.

Aloha Theater-002This year’s stay on the Big Island is winding down; we go to Honolulu in 4 1/2 days, followed by eight days on the mainland (California and Arizona) and then home. We’re going diving tomorrow, and in the following day or two I hope to shoot some drone footage of downtown Kailua that I can post before we depart.

 

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Hapuna a me ka Lapakahi

…which is not as complicated as it looks. It simply means “Hapuna and Lapakahi” in Hawaii, those being the names of two places on the Big Island that we visited yesterday.

Hapuna Beach is one of the best known beaches on the island, an achingly photogenic stretch of dun-colored sand caressed by a gentle turquoise surf, and framed by two jagged lava promontories at either end. Here’s a panorama from the drone, taken during yesterday’s visit:

Hapuna Beach drone-001

Besides the obvious beach and surf, there are two other features of note: Kohala mountain bulging gently above the horizon at left, and the luxurious Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel at far left, regally overlooking the scene. The hotel is enormous and beautiful; several years ago we had the privilege of staying there for four or five days on someone else’s dime while attending a boondoggle conference. The mountain is also enormous: a mile-high, 200 square mile (500 square km) extinct volcano that essentially is the entire northwest corner of the Big Island.

Conditions are not always this idyllic at Hapuna. The surf can be rough, although the bottom is sandy — unlike the other, rockier beaches on the island — and so a rough surf is far less dangerous than elsewhere. And if the wind is high you can get sandblasted whilst attempting to enjoy yourself. But these are the exceptions. Most frequently the place looks like a postcard and it is a popular destination for sunning and body surfing. Here’s a 2-minute drone flyover video to give you a sense of the place:

(As you can tell, I’ve gotten heavily into flying my drone on this trip. But I dare you to tell me that this is not seriously cool.)

Neither Alice nor I are sunbather types. For one thing, when I am in strong sunlight my mottled pasty complexion moves the state of my skin almost instantly from “Anemic Vampire” to “Crimson Crispy”. In the words of Woody Allen, “I don’t tan, I stroke.” And Alice grew up in Oregon, where one’s best opportunity to get a tan requires dodging the raindrops. So we hung out for 45 or minutes or so with our visiting friends, then moved on.

Our next stop, further up the coast in Kohala, was a little more cerebral: Lapakahi State Historical Park. It’s the ruins of an ancient coastal village, about 600 years old. The name means “single ridge” and it is an array of ruins and reconstructed structures spread out along a rough lava coast and threaded by a mile-long interpretive trail. Like so many archaelogical sites it seems to make the most sense when viewed from above, so here are a couple of aerial shots:

Lapakahi drone-002Lapakahi drone-001

In addition to the ruins, the offshore area is a Marine Life Conservation District. The interpretive path takes you past a variety of structures in various stages of deterioration or, in some cases, reconstruction. There are dwellings, canoe storage houses, salt-making pans, and a couple of kōnane games, the latter being a lot like Chinese checkers. It’s played on a lava “board” with a grid of hollowed out pits, with alternating black and white stones placed in the pits and variously moved around per the rules.

The aerial views give you a sense of the layout of the place, but, truth to tell, when you are following the path it mostly feels like you are walking among a random collection of low lava walls of uncertain purpose. Which, I suppose, is why I am not an archaeologist. Nonetheless, the place has an enjoyably eldritch feel to it, the susurration of the surf and the dark rough lava walls invoking a real sense of mystery and age. Or to put it another way, it feels just a bit like being inside the beautiful old computer game Myst. Here’s a video that I took by flying along the coast, so that you can see how large and spread out it is.

The surf has been high and the weather on the windward (eastern) side of the island rainy for the past few days, so we have confined our roamings to the Kona coast and the western side of Kohala to escape it. But things look better for the next few days. Tomorrow we will try and make it to the 13,802′ (4205 m) summit of Mauna Kea where the conditions are expected to be clear, provided one is willing to tolerate sub-freezing temperatures and 20 mph winds. They’ve had a lot of snow up there this winter, so if we are lucky then I will have some “snow in Hawaii” photos to post.

 

 

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Waipio? Wai not?

The oldest part of the Big Island is its northwestern corner, a 15 mile (25 km) long, 10 mile (16 km) wide peninsula called Kohala. It is, in fact, a single giant extinct volcano, the first part of the island that formed. That makes it about a million years old, and it last erupted about 120,000 years ago. So it’s old; eroded and overgrown, it’s now cattle grazing country, a huge grassy hill dotted with overgrown volcanic cinder cones and commanding a view down the coast.

When the clouds are not in the way — which they are, more often than not — you can see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well.  Today we had — what is for this part of the island — uncharacteristically beautiful weather; the day was clear and warm, though distant clouds kept Mauna Kea out of view most of the time.

At the southeastern end of the peninsula, on the windward side where Kohala joins the rest of the island, is one of the Big Island’s most paradisaical  locales: Waipi’o Valley. A 1000-foot deep, half-mile wide slash in the lava-stone coastline, Waipi’o’s striking appearance is matched by its comparable inaccessibility. It was the home of ancient Hawaiian chiefs and is still considered a “cultural seedbank”, dotted with taro fields and threaded by a shallow river that flows down to a black sand beach. The nearly vertical green walls are punctuated by waterfalls, giving the place a serene Edenic feel. I wrote about it a year ago in this blog post.

It’s tough to get down to the bottom: you need a good four-wheel drive or really strong thighs and cardiovascular system to tackle the intimidating 25% grade. We did it for fun when I lived here, 35 years ago; today I sent a drone in my place.

The cranky “Resource Ranger” (that’s what it said on his name tag) wouldn’t let me launch the drone from the lookout point and admonished that I must not fly into the valley at all. So I walked a few hundred yards back down the approach road and launched from there instead, being careful to stay out over the water and above the rim of the valley. Here’s what it looked like from my airborne proxy, nearly 500 meters above the beach.

If you’d like a greater sense of immediacy about the place, here’s the video from the same drone flight:

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Superdupermoon

If you are reading this in the US, then you have probably been bombarded with overwrought moon-related informational detritus over the past few days due to the simultaneous occurrence of (1) a total lunar eclipse (“blood moon”); (2) the absurdly-named “supermoon”, meaning that a full moon coincides with the moon’s monthly closest approach to Earth; and (3) a so-called “blue moon”, which — though there are varying definitions — is simply the second full moon in a calendar month.

Individually, these events are not rare and carry pretty much zero scientific significance. But when they all happen at the same time then….. they still carry pretty much zero scientific significance. However, NASA and similar space-related organizations love them because it’s easy to get the news and social media all wound up so that everyone is suddenly interested in astronomy and agrees that those organizations need funding increases.

And when I say “wound up”, I mean “wound up”. My friend Michelle Thaller is a NASA spokesperson and frequent (and very ebullient) astronomy talking head on the Discovery Channel and news programs, and she reports with amazement and exhaustion that she did seventy interviews in the 24 hours leading up to the eclipse. I will have to ask her how that is even physically possible.

Totality began at 3 AM in Hawaii, and skies were clear, so we set the alarm to wake us up in the middle of the night and get this picture:

 

Lunar Eclipse 2018-021

Feel free to insert your own lame werewolf joke here.

It was a spectacular sight, nestled in a crystalline sky where, unlike during non-eclipse times, the disk of the full moon did not wash out the many, many stars. We oohed and aahed in genuine delight.  Our oohs and aahs, however, were perhaps a little on the loud side, as a few moments later our next door neighbor’s window opened and he reminded us with understandable peevishness that did we realize it was 3 AM, fer chrissake? Oops… many apologies. I will have to ply him and his wife with malasadas later as a peace offering.

 

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