US Mainland

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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Hawaii Sky-O

We return to the Big Island in a couple of days, and will be there and in Honolulu for about a month. Now, reading those words, you may think that our time in Hawaii consists of watching the sunset from our lanai as we sip absurdly sweet drinks with little paper umbrellas in them, or swimming among riotously multicolored fish in an azure tropical lagoon. And you know what? You’re exactly right! HAHAHAHAhahahahahaaheeeeeheeeee…..

Ahem. Sorry. The weather has been miserable in the Washington area for the past few weeks — snow, sleet, and Arctic cold — so I am feeling somewhat uncharitable about the fact that we are able to escape it. Pardon my schadenfreude. I will try and make it up to you with some cool photos. Speaking of which —

I hope that my photo reporting from the islands will have a new flavor this time: an aerial one. In preparation for this trip (and because I succumbed to a spasm of self-indulgence) I have purchased a snazzy drone with which I hope to take a lot of aerial photos and videos. The drone itself, for those of you interested in the details, is a DJi Mavic Pro. You can click the name to see all of its wonderful properties, but two of its most important ones for my purposes are (1) it shoots very high quality, rock-steady 4K video and 12 MP still images; and (2) it weighs only 740 grams (26 ounces) and folds up into a little rectangular brick that fits easily into a backpack. It has a 4-mile (7 km) range and can stay aloft for about 25 minutes.

Here are some shots (4 stills and a video) from its maiden flight, only a few days ago. You can tell at a glance that we are not living in a tropical paradise: this is an area called Kent Narrows, at the upper end of the Chesapeake Bay, where the one-word description of the environs is “icy”.

…And here are three minutes of video from the flight:

Cool, huh?

In the sacred tradition of guys anthropomorphizing their favorite toys, I have christened the drone Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, the swan. Cygnus flies along the Milky Way during the northern hemisphere summer months, so it’s kind of apt. (Astronomical Fun Fact: Deneb, a.k.a. Alpha Cygni, is also one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy, roughly 100,000 times as luminous as the Sun. If it has planets, you could get a helluva tan.)

My good friend, travel buddy, and “dronemate” Steve, whose own purchase of an identical model filled me with envy and techno-lust and ultimately inspired my own purchase, has in Yoda-like fashion chided me for my attachment to ephemeral physical objects. This from a guy who named his drone “Icarus” and recently installed  a 10-foot-wide 4K video display in his living room that plays a continuous loop of swimming jellyfish.  Steve is my hero but I may have to slap him around a little. (If I can reach him: he’s about 6″ taller than me.)

I seem to be digressing. The point is, we are very excited about our return to Hawaii, so watch this space for some eye-in-the-sky photos and videos over the next several weeks. Aloha!

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Nerdstock: Eclipse-o-Mania

Well, the eclipse has most spectacularly come and gone, and as you can see we were dressed for success: 2017-08-21 08.49.13

 

Anyone who sees this picture — notice the NASA logo on my left arm — immediately recognizes that we are serious people who are not to be trifled with. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Having made the wise decision to push on to our B&B in Bend on Saturday night, we could take a relaxed approach to our preparations on Sunday morning while keeping an eye on traffic via Google Maps. The normal drive time from Bend to Madras is about 50 minutes, and we figured we’d hit the road once we saw that number starting to creep up.

Our warm and wonderful B&B hosts, Deb and Kevin — seriously, look for Duck Hollow if you ever overnight in Bend, Oregon — equipped us with pillows, blankets, sleeping bags and a backpack filled with utensils, paper plates, etc., to help us weather the ardors of sleeping in our Macho Mobile out in the desert with a gazillion other people. They bid us a cheery “Namaste” (they’re like that, and this is Oregon) and off we went at 10:15 AM.

And a good thing too, because our traffic planning turned out to be just right, and had we left even an hour or two later we would have gotten badly bogged down in Traffic Hell. Alas, our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper (the “exotic” applies to both “travel” and “buddies”) were an hour or two behind us and ended up bailing out before ever reaching the parking area in Madras, opting instead to find an “unofficial” field or parking lot a bit further south in which to overnight. But we did successfully connect with my old astronomer friend/colleague/grad school flatmate John, who drove up from San Francisco with his partner Marianne and his telescope. Here’s the man, the setup, and the setting, about an hour before the eclipse started:

Solar Eclipse 2017-015 You will immediately note three things: (1) John looks like Santa Claus; (2) there are a lot of cars; and (3) there are clouds in the sky. The latter mostly disappeared in the nick of time, fortunately. As for the cars, yes, there were a whole lot of them, and quite the panoply of people as well, e.g.,

Solar Eclipse 2017-020

Solar Eclipse 2017-019

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That’s Mt Jefferson (10,495′ / 3200 m) in the background in the middle photo. The bottom photo (taken by Marianne) speaks for itself. I’m not sure what it’s saying, or who those people are, but it definitely speaks for itself. Note that in addition to the metal hats and ray guns, the three men are all wearing metallic, um, crotch protectors. They explained the choice thusly: “It’s to protect future generations.” All righty, then.

You can tell from the photos that the terrain was basically a fallow field. Well, not basically: it was a fallow farm field, three of them in fact, all baked to dust in the high desert sun, with endless row of shallow farrows stretching to infinity. They covered about 100 acres (40 hectares) in total and held row after row of cars, the occasional food stand, and the definitely-too-occasional portable toilet. By the time we arrived, the first two fields were full and we were one of the first arrivals in the third.

The temperature was broiling in the midday sun, the air filled with lightly blowing fine dust that got into absolutely everything… and the sky was cloudy and smoky. Oregon has been plagued by serious wildfires whose smoke has blanketed parts of the state, and there was a real worry that our view of the sun would be impeded by it. Happily, it blew away overnight with a change in the wind. But smoke or no smoke, the atmosphere was nerdily festive to the point of surrealism (see “protect future generations” photo above). There was a nearby small airport housing a skydiving school and a collection of World War II warplanes, and we were treated to both: large teams of skydivers (nearly 20 at one point) periodically dropped from the sky to land in a field diagonally across the street from us, and we were occasionally overflown by squadrons of WW II warbirds, half a dozen 1940’s fighters and bombers circling the sky above us.

I found the WW II planes kind of reassuring, Nazis being a thing again these days, apparently. You can’t be too sure.

We were comfortably ensconced in the Macho Mobile with our blankets, sleeping bags, and a few kilos of windblown dust, but it was not a comfortable night. A goodly fraction of those thousands of cars were rentals (including ours), operated by people who were not yet accustomed to all the little buttons on their car key fobs. And thus the desert night was punctuated by one or another car alarm going off about every five minutes, as some hapless driver attempted to exit his or her vehicle in search of a Port-a-Potty, pressing the panic button instead of the unlock button. (Full disclosure: I was one of these.)

But we survived the night, and the day dawned clear. We joined up with John and Marianne (and several members of her family) and set up our equipment together. My camera having a big snazzy looking lens, and John’s telescope being snazzy in all respects, we attracted the occasional onlooker, most gratifyingly a gaggle of three seriously cute twenty-something girls who were dazzled enough by our gear, astronomy pedigrees, and our advanced conversational skills to hang around with us for the duration of the event.  (It has been decades since cute twenty-something girls thought I was cool. In fact, it may never have happened before. I can recommend it highly.)

The onset of eclipse arrived quite exactly on schedule at 9:06 AM. (Eclipses are notoriously punctual.) The moment when the moon’s shadow first impinges on the solar disk is called First Contact (no, not the Carl Sagan sci-fi novel or subsequent Jodie Foster movie). And here it is, taking a little nibble out of the upper right part of the sun:

Solar Eclipse 2017-062

Yes, those are clusters of sunspots, four near the middle of the disk, and two more at lower left, near “7:00”.

Thirty-five minutes later, the Dragon God had consumed those central sunspots and advanced significantly further:

Solar Eclipse 2017-065

Thirty-five minutes after that. things started to get really interesting. The sky darkened and Venus and the bright star Regulus (in the constellation of Leo) appeared. The lighting was like a deep twilight, and the air temperature, which had been dropping slowly, nosedived another 10 F (~5 C). An orange sunset glow began to envelop the entire horizon — a 360° sunset! — and the sun looked like this:

Solar Eclipse 2017-081

That reddish glow around the slim crescent of the sun is not a camera artifact: it is real, a part of the sun’s atmosphere, normally invisible to the eye, called the chromosphere. A few moments later it was more pronounced:

Solar Eclipse 2017-082

Notice also how the crescent is petering out into a sort of dotted line at the edges. That’s real too: you are peeking in between the mountains on the horizon of the moon!

And then: the moment of totality! Here is my awesome photo of it.

2017-08-23 21_43_12-

Gentle readers, I blew it. Because if there is one thing that anyone photographing a total eclipse must remember, it is to remove the solar filter from the camera lens during totality. Even in the late partial phase, the sun is very, very bright, and you continue to use a filter — like those goofy solar sunglasses for your eyes — until the last minute. Only during totality is the scene dim enough to safely behold with the naked eye — or camera lens.

And I forgot. I was so excited by the reality of the thing itself — the corona, the red splash of color in the chromosphere, the sharpness of the shadow disk — that I just plain forgot to remove the filter. I clicked the shutter a few times then looked down at my review screen to see the picture, and was instantly discombobulated to see that it was black. I spent about 30 seconds fiddling around with various settings in a desperate attempt to figure out what was wrong, never even noticing the obvious. So I gave it up.

And you know what? I’m disappointed but not crushed. The actual fact of the matter is that with rare exceptions everyone’s totality images, taken with decent equipment and preparation, look pretty much alike. And so mine would too. The important thing was seeing it, experiencing the chill and the sheer other-worldliness of it all. I am more distressed about having wasted a solid 30 seconds or more of a two-minute event than I am of having blown the shot. Those were precious seconds, but I’m happy with what I got.

Once totality passed — 2 minutes and 3 seconds at our location — it was though it had never happened. The sky brightened immediately, the desert temperatures returned with their dusty teeth, the horizon glow vanished… and a whole lot of cars sprinted for the exits.

We knew in advance that that would be a pointless endeavor, so we hunkered down in the car — sweating and roasting in the sun — until the traffic thinned a bit. Even so, it took us over three hours to get back to the B&B, where Deb and Kevin namaste’d us home, listened to our stories — they had watched it from a kayak in the middle of a lake, and more power to them — and encouraged us into the hot tub. Which, after visiting one of Bend’s countless legal marijuana dispensaries, we did.

(Weed dispensaries are as ubiquitous as Starbucks here, with cutesy names like Doctor Jolly’s, Oregrown, Cannacopia, etc. They sell the traditional dried plant, oils, and assorted edible forms such as mints and chocolate bars. And they are staffed by cheerful — really cheerful — twentysomethings who happily explain that this type makes you mellow, and this type makes you energetic, and this type does something else, and on and on. It’s a total hoot.)

And so our day, and principal motivation of this sojourn, ended. The next total solar eclipse visible in the continental US is nearly seven years from now, on April 8, 2024. Like this one, its swath will include a significant fraction of the populated area of the country, though on a path running northeast from Texas to Maine. And, health and circumstances even remotely allowing, you had better believe that we are going to be somewhere along that path.

 

 

 

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Eclipse-ward, Ho!

By now, unless you have been living in an undersea lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, you are aware that there will be a total solar eclipse tomorrow, August 21st. We have planned our eclipse expedition for about a year and a half and have made our way to central Oregon, since the state is more or less bisected by the totality path.  We flew into Portland last night and made the three hour drive to our unexpectedly lovely AirBnB in Bend, which is about 40 miles south of the center of the totality path. Later today we will make our way to the normally sleepy hamlet of Madras, which happens to be almost dead center on the totality path and is expecting its normal population of 6500 to swell to slightly under 11 billion. See the map!

Totality Map

Oregon and neighboring Washington (part of our flight route) are home to a number of famous peaks, starting with the iconic Mt Ranier, which practically waved to us as we flew over it yesterday. Here’s Alice’s photo of it, taken with her cell phone:

Oregon Mts-1

More notoriously, Washington hosts Mt Saint Helens, which famously blew its top in 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of homes.  Here was our view of the guilty — and clearly headless — volcano.

Oregon Mts-2

Prior to our departure from Victoria, the local TV newspeople insisted on regaling us with horror stories about the crowds descending upon Oregon to view the eclipse. Thirty mile traffic backups! Cannibalism in the airport! We witnessed none of this. The airport was certainly busy, but not pathologically so, and the good folks at Enterprise Rentals had laid in a large supply of extra cars so that we were even able to upgrade our vehicle.

That last was not a trivial consideration. Traffic between Bend and Madras tonight and tomorrow is pretty certain to fulfill all the dire warnings, so we have elected to get there a day early and sleep in our car tonight. This put a premium on obtaining a comfortable vehicle, and the Enterprise folks delivered in spades. We are now the proud renters of a jet black Dodge Durango, a hulking 23 mile-per-gallon behemoth that has its own telephone area code and is fueled by testosterone instead of gasoline.

With reluctance we will shortly depart our comfy B&B in Bend, called Duck Hollow, operated by the delightfully New Age-y Debbie and Kevin. We have our own good-sized paneled cabin with a full kitchen and sitting room, and a hot tub. Not so easy to trade for the back seat of the ManlyMobile, but we’ll be back tomorrow night. (Debbie and Kevin have kindly supplied us with sleeping bags for our night in the car.)

That’s about it for now, since I doubt I will be able to post from Madras, whose communications infrastructure is likely to be strained to the breaking point. But before I go, please bear in mind these Important Eclipse Safety Tips:

  • Smear SPF 50 sunscreen on your eyeballs so that you can look safely at the sun. (Ignore the stinging, burning sensation: that just means its working.)
  • Remember that water magnifies sunlight, so do not drink any liquids during the eclipse. Also, if you have goldfish, wrap the bowl in tinfoil.
  • Remember that the demon god Zuul demands blood sacrifice in order not to permanently consume the Sun. Sharpen a big knife, find a slow neighbor, and get busy.

Hey, stop looking at me like that. These aren’t any dumber than a lot of stuff that’s circulating on the web.

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Sons at the Beach

For about the past 30 years, my family has enjoyed a reunion week at the beach. The gathering has near-religious significance; we didn’t even miss the year my father died. It’s very gratifying to watch the family grow over the years — we’re up to four generations now — and since this year is Alice’s and my 20th wedding anniversary we splurged on a more elaborate setting, an 11-bedroom house right on the dunes at Virginia Beach. Here is our temporary Gatsby-esque mansion:

Virginia Beach 2017-031-Edit

How did this whole vacation-at-the-beach thing start, anyway? (I mean the whole cultural concept, not just my family.) Turns out it’s mostly a phenomenon of the past couple of hundred years. Although there are records of elite ancient Romans taking the waters at the coast, the historical reputation of the ocean was traditionally a little dark and intimidating: mariners lost at sea, biblical Jonah-eating whales, and so forth.  Plus, for most of recorded history, outside of Polynesia the hoi polloi were too busy starving and/or dying of the pestilence du jour to do a lot of vacation planning or practice body surfing.

But when it comes to not fearing the sea, it’s hard to beat the Dutch — they’ve basically fought it to a standstill for the last several centuries — and it was Dutch landscape artists of the early 17th century whose pastoral seaside imagery started establishing the beach as an attractive place to visit.

Things really stated rolling in 1778 when French nobleman and chemist Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen. Yes, really. Assorted hucksters and promoters of the day seized on the discovery: oxygen is good for you! And the sea air has more and better oxygen than whatever hovel you’re occupying at home, so come to the beach! Oddly enough, there was some truth to this, the Industrial Revolution having recently taken hold, and the air quality in cities like London ranking somewhere between “toxic” and “carbonaceous solid”.

So here we are. Virginia Beach is officially the largest city in Virginia, with a population of about a half a million, but it has grown largely by accretion, having absorbed a number smaller seaside suburbs. There is a downtown resort area with a big boardwalk, but we are a little farther down the coast in an area called Sandbridge, on the northern end of an enormous barrier island that extends southward for roughly 150 miles (250 km) down through North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The Guinness people cite it as the longest pleasure beach on the planet.

Virginia Beach 2017-070

Barrier islands, as you probably know, are threatened by the rising oceans, “threatened” in this case being the reassuring first cousin of the more accurate “doomed”. They are designed by nature to be ephemeral: sand and silt accumulate on the inland side as the ocean washes away the shoreline, causing them to migrate inland and merge with the mainland as the tide creates replacement islands further out to sea. Beach houses are not so mobile, however, so every property owner is fighting what must ultimately be a losing battle against flooding.

A related problem, of course, are storms. Virginia Beach is extremely lucky in that regard, being generally far enough north to be mostly out of reach of the tropical-forming hurricanes, and too far south to be touched by northern storms. So it is in a meteorological “Goldilocks zone”, being jusssst in the right place to perpetually avoid being blown away. (The rising seas will still get it in the end, though.)

Our weather this week has been mostly good, if a little windy on the beach. That can be good news if you’re flying a suitably heavy kite.

Virginia Beach 2017-063-Edit

We’ve also had one or two ominous looking days, which if nothing else make for nice dramatic photos… black and white of course.

Virginia Beach 2017-071

Virginia Beach 2017-057-Edit

 

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Round and Round We Go

First off, a hearty welcome to the nearly 200 (!) of you who started following this blog in the past few days. WordPress picked up my Finger Lakes post about waterfalls in Watkins Glen, NY as one of their “Discover” favorites (see the cute little medallion at right), whereupon my email inbox immediately exploded with hundreds of views, “likes”, comments, and subscriptions from an astounding 41 countries. The power of the Web! But now I feel obliged to feed the proverbial beast with a new post.

If I had been alive in about 1890, I might have had the insight that people would pay money to get a panoramic birds-eye view of their surroundings. And so I would have built an open-frame tower with some kind of elevator-like platform. People would buy a ticket and I would hoist them up and down maybe a half dozen times. Maybe I’d called it “Rich’s Tower”.

One day, a guy named George Ferris might come along, ride up and down a few times, then come up to me and say, “You know what, Rich? You’ve got the right idea but you are a moron.” Then he’d punch me in the nose and go invent the Ferris wheel.

Natl Harbor DC Ferris Wheel-001

Well, the last four words of that tale are basically true. George Washington Ferris , Jr. (1859-1896) did in fact invent the modern version of the Ferris wheel, building a 264 ft (80.4 m) iron behemoth for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. He was motivated by wanting to “out-Eiffel” Gustave Eiffel, whose eponymous tower (which is much taller) had opened in Paris four years earlier. Ferris’s original wheel could carry over 2100 people at a time.

Natl Harbor DC Ferris Wheel-006

So-called “pleasure wheels” had actually been around for centuries, made mostly of wood and usually quite small by modern standards. Ferris’s contribution was an all-iron design and construction — particularly the central axle — that could support much more weight and thus be made much bigger. Here’s a view of a contemporary bit of Ferris’s handiwork, the hub of the 180 ft (54 m) “Capital Wheel” just outside Washington DC. (All of the photos in this post are from that wheel, which is about a half hour drive from our home.)

Natl Harbor DC Ferris Wheel-019

Ferris’s name is thus famous throughout the English-speaking world, entirely because of its association with his wheel. But most other countries have left him out of the nomenclatural picture: in most languages, the object is simply called the equivalent of “giant wheel”, or something similar. One of the exceptions is Spanish, in which it is a rueda de ferris. But as for most of the others, see for yourself:

  • Dutch/German:        Reuzenrad/Riesenrad
  • French:                      Grand roue
  • Italian:                       Ruota panoramica
  • Russian:                     колесо обозрения (koleso obozreniya, “overview wheel”)
  • Japanese:                   観覧車 (kanran-sha, “viewing wheel”)

…and so on. But my favorite is definitely Farsi, in which it is چرخ فلک, pronounced charkhe-falak. It means “wheel of the universe”, which I find very poetic. (Shout-out to my friend Mo K for telling me this!)

Natl Harbor DC Ferris Wheel-005

The name notwithstanding, the world seems to be engaged in some kind of Ferris wheel arms race to see who can build the biggest one. The famous London Eye, built for the Y2K millennium celebrations in 1999, was a wonder of the world at the time, 443 ft (135 m) high, but has since been eclipsed by 476 ft (145 m)  and 525 ft (160 m) ones in China and a 541 ft (165 m) giant in Singapore. But this is America, dammit, and if we’re going to Make America Great Again we need the biggest Ferris wheel on the planet. Which is why the tallest in the world at this moment, at a stratospheric 550 ft (167.6 m), is in… Las Vegas! It is called the High Roller, which I must grudgingly admit is extremely clever. But there’s an even taller one being planned for New York City.

Of course, the world being what it is, this won’t last. As I type this, the oil-rich sheikhs in the Middle East are with characteristic understatement constructing the Dubai Eye, which will give a panoramic view of sand — lots and lots of sand — from a dizzying 690 ft (210 m) height.

Alice and I are Ferris wheel fans, though not obsessively so. We’ve been on a few famous ones, e.g., in Vienna (which has appeared in a number of movies), Santa Monica, and Capetown. As it happens we will be in London in late September and will certainly ride on the Eye. So I will close with this shot from the Capital Wheel, in which a (literally) reflective Alice surveys her domain from on high.

Natl Harbor DC Ferris Wheel-015

 

 

 

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Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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