July 20, 2015

Mt. Messiaen

Yesterday, I drove down highway 143 in search of Mt. Messiaen. Somewhere between Brian Head Ski Resort and the town of Parowan is a cluster of sandstone cliffs that were named for the French composer after he completed “Des Canyons Aux Etoiles,” a work composed for America’s bicentennial and inspired by the sights and sounds of Cedar Breaks, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. 

Google gave me a basic map, and my Utah Recreational Road Atlas showed a trail in the vicinity. I knew there’d be a plaque, and had seen a few pictures of the area online, so though I expected to have to keep my eyes peeled for a quick turn off, I thought it’d be reasonably marked and noticeable.

This was not the case.

Fortunately, the sandstone formation itself is fairly recognizable from the road, but I almost drove past the small unmarked trail that winds up from the highway to the base of the ledges. Once on the trail, I wandered up around and through the towering pillars and ridges I thought for sure must be Mt. Messiaen, but I needed to find the plaque that could confirm my guess.

Though I discovered lots of strange and lovely patterns in the sandstone...

...and a few creatures willing to pose for photos...

...the plaque eluded me entirely.

I called Rob for directions and he read off some information that had been posted online by a previous visitor. The plaque was supposedly on the southeast side of a small boulder hiding in a grove of trees about 40 yards up the trail. I searched and searched—went WAY past 40 yards just in case the previous visitor’s measurements had been off. I wandered around shelves of sculpted sandstone through dense knots of trees…maybe it had become overgrown since its installment 30-some-odd years ago…maybe it had been stolen, or vandalized beyond recognition. I drove up the road a few miles to see if I’d taken the wrong trail, but came back again after it was clear the first trail was the most likely option.

I kept searching for over 2 hours.

And then wandered back to my car resigned to the fact that I’d just have to keep using someone else’s plaque photo in my presentations.

But then, of course, there it was. Hiding a little ways off the trail was a flat-ish slab about the size of an average gravestone surrounded by grass and brush—very unassuming. I only noticed it because the way it was propped up seemed a little more than what nature would've managed.




AUGUST 5, 1978

Today it seems so unlikely, but simply awesome, that an arts committee in a small out-of-the-way rural town would, of its own volition, choose to honor the work of a modern “classical” composer in such a tangible way. For the average listener Des Canyons is a challenging piece to appreciate. When I talk about it in my programs here, I include a lot of setup—a lot of explanation and illustration—in order to prime people’s ears for the startling harmonies and non-traditional rhythms that Messiaen used to portray the red rocks, bird songs, and vast star-scapes he experienced in southern Utah. But with the right set-up (particularly in my rim walk, where I have more time to go into detail), I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive reactions people have to the piece.

These experiences remind me of when I was taking my first serious music theory courses and was introduced to difficult modern pieces by George Crumb, Elliot Carter, and others. If I’d heard them on my own—out-of-the-blue with no set up—there’s no question I’d have wrinkled my nose in disgust and scoffed, “Who could ever call this noisy crap MUSIC?!” But I was fortunate to have some truly wonderful theory teachers who invited me into the music—put it into context, helped me learn what to listen for, and allowed me to have a first experience with modern music that was as magical as the first time I heard Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, or Debussy’s La Mer.

Standing there at the base of Mt. Messiaen I was suddenly grateful the plaque had been so hard to find. As I’d wandered the area I’d been able to enjoy the sculpted rock with its fantastical shapes and swirls of color. I recognized bird songs that Messiaen had used in Des Canyons—white-throated swifts nesting high up in the sandstone eaves, a clark’s nutcracker ratcheting away in the distance, and the warbling trills of the hermit thrush echoing through the trees. I don’t know if Messiaen was ever able to visit this spot, but I think he would’ve liked it.

May 29, 2015

Bryce 2015: Day 2, sunrise

The sun appears,
Silhouetting a tabled horizon
Fringed in virga.

Roving crepuscular spotlights
Burnish cliffs of white, and yellow
...and mottled slopes of tangerine.

Clouds yawn,
And a blush of emerald blooms
Amid the desert shadows
To bow beneath the specter
Of a sleeping giant.

May 21, 2015


Lately I find myself thinking a lot about deep time—about thousands and millions and hundreds of millions and billions of years. In discussions of astronomy and geology we toss around those lines of zeros about as casually as we talk about what we had for dinner the night before. I had a Thai-chicken stir-fry, dinosaurs died off 65,000,000 years ago, and the universe is 13,800,000,000 years old…give or take 100,000,000. We’re so used to hearing these big numbers that we don’t really consider what it is that all those zeros stand for, and we forget just how big they are.

Even when we try, it’s really hard for creatures that live only a few decades to even begin to conceptualize what one billion years, or even one thousand years, feels like. So when we think about certain places and events—the carving of the Grand Canyon, the formation of the solar system, the evolution of life—we tend to scratch our heads in disbelief. Rock is hard, how could flowing water carve through a vertical mile of solid rock in only a few million years? Everything in space is so still, how could it be that in just 5 billion years a bunch of gas and dust condensed, swirled, banged around, and then, voila, we have the sun and all the planets? Humans are humans. How could I evolve from something that looked like a fish, or even an ape? Little changes happen, for sure. Maybe some people are taller or shorter, or you inherit your grandfather’s nose, or your mother’s broad shoulders…there’s variation and change, but not enough, and certainly not enough time to transform an amoeba into a walking, talking, thinking human being…is there?

But yes, actually, there’s been plenty of time for all of these things to occur. And the teensy-tiny almost unobservable changes that will become the next epoch’s marvels are happening all around us today. So as I’ve been thinking about deep time, I’ve also started looking for these smaller more human-scale occurrences that can help me account for the passage of years and get a sense for the kind of time that’s wrapped up inside all those zeros.

Yesterday I got into precession.

I learned about precession soon after I got into amateur astronomy several years ago. Someone in SLAS was giving a constellation tour and said that Polaris—the ever-constant North Star, the one little starry beacon that stays put while everything else spins around it—had not always been the North Star. !!!WHAT!!! And not only that, but in another two thousand years, the north star will be Gamma Cephei…some random star in this totally different constellation that I’d never even heard of. My mind was blown.

Our Earth spins on an axis once every 23 hours and 56 minutes. The tilt of that axis is what gives us the seasons, and those lost 4 minutes per spin are what makes the constellations appear to rise and set 4 minutes earlier than they did the day before. Because the Earth is not perfectly round and is constantly tugged on by the sun and the moon, it also wobbles as it spins. Earth is often compared to a spinning top that traces out little circles as it moves across a tabletop. And here I’m always reminded of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception: the totem he used to tell him whether or not he was dreaming was a little top. If he set it to spin and it wobbled, the world around him was behaving normally, and he knew he was awake. If it didn’t…he was still trapped in a dream world…the dramatic music would go up a notch and we’d all grip our seats a little tighter.

Wobbling is natural. And Earth’s wobble is called precession. As the Earth spins day after day, year after year, century after century, its axis traces out a slow circle across the sky. It takes about 26,000 years for Earth to trace a complete circle and it is purely by chance that at this point in history, our axis happens to be pointing near the 45th brightest star in the sky: Polaris.

26,000 years is a long time to trace a circle, but there’s still enough movement over a short enough period of time that precession has been observed and documented by individual human observers. Yesterday, I wondered if I could find a way to observe it myself. First I wanted to figure out how much the pole should be expected to shift in one year. If the observed change is, say, only an arc second—about the width of a human hair seen from 10 meters away—then forget it…there’s no way I could get that kind of precision with the tools I’ve got on hand*.

*My tools: ruler, pink protractor, bic pens, string, duct tape…you get the idea.

To figure this out, we know there are 360 degrees in a circle, and that it takes 26,000 years to trace them all out. That means there’s a movement of about .014 degrees per year. What does that mean visually? Well, the full moon takes up about .5 degrees in the sky, so we can already see it’s quite a bit smaller than that. How much smaller? Well, there are 60 arc minutes in a degree, and 60 arc seconds in an arc minute. So multiplying our yearly progress of .014 degrees by 60 gives us .84 arc minutes traced per year. Multiply that by 60 and we now have about 50 arc seconds traced per year. 50 arc seconds is about the diameter of Jupiter as seen from Earth…or a little less than the thickness of typical birthday-card stock held at arm’s length. That’s pretty small. But it’s something—especially if my dad keeps sending me birthday cards every year! All those little layers are going to add up.

Now imagine if I had a little more than a century’s worth of precession to work with. That’s more than a typical human lifetime, but it’s still a time span most of us can relate to. At the dawn of the 20th century, there were 1.6 billion people living on Earth, America had only 45 states, automobiles had been around for a decade or so, and the Wright brothers had just made their first flight. It was a pretty different world, but my great grandparents—some of whom I was able to know as a child—would have been kids around that time.

I remember being a kid, and I’ve seen movies of my parents as kids, and my grandparents as young adults. As I age, I understand more and more how time can slip away. One moment you’re in grade school playing on the swings at recess—you think, “I’ll never be old enough to…” drive, or date, or fill in the blank with whatever grown-up dream occupies your fancy. And then suddenly you’re in high school…and then it’s your 10 year high-school reunion…and you’re working and paying bills and dreaming about all those just-yesterdays at recess. You can think of a century as being about three or four generations.  And though technology has advanced rapidly in the last century, I imagine that the experience of living an individual life still feels similar. So, what did the North Star look like to my great-grandparents when they were children? And how does it compare to where I see it today? I decided to Google that…and this is what I found.

A photo published in 1902 of star trails centered on the North Pole, featured in an article by George Ellery Hale.

Another quick Google search yielded numerous spectacular star-trail images from more recent years, including this one from 2012.

It took me quite a while (and a good number of accelerated polar spins in Stellarium) to figure out which stars were which in each image, and was a lot harder than I thought it would be. They both use different exposure lengths, are taken at different times of the night (and probably different seasons of the year), one is color (helpful for figuring out stars), one is not (not helpful for figuring out stars), and both have their own visual idiosyncrasies that conspired to fool my eyes. I finally inverted the colors, which seemed to help, and after enough comparison I was finally able to nail down a few stars.

I used a protractor to find each circle’s center, which marks the location of the true North Pole in each photo. Looking back and forth between the two images, though they’re at slightly different scales, I thought I could see a pretty clear difference in the pole’s location relative to Polaris and the other stars.

But to be sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me, I made a triangle between the same two stars and the North Pole as they appear in both images and measured their angles to see how they'd changed in 110 years.



Though I can’t measure the actual number of degrees the pole moved from the limited information I have in the photos, they do very clearly show that the pole is moving. In fact, In 110 years, the pole has moved about 1.5 degrees closer to Polaris—the diameter of 3 full moons—and it will be as close to Polaris as it can get—a little less than one full moon away—in the year 2100.

Now, I’m not an astronomer and I’m not a mathematician, so to the pros, my little observation here might seem trivial. A real astronomer could do much more calculation than I can muster, but I’ll be honest, I was pretty excited when my measurements showed something!

Try to picture it: in about 200 years, the North Pole changes by about the diameter of 4 full moons. I wasn’t around in 1900 to begin the period of observation I’m focusing on here, but my great-grandparents were. I won’t be around in 2100 to see Polaris make its closest northern approach, but my sister’s kids—one of whom will just be starting kindergarten next fall—just might. By that time, they might even have their own grandkids. That would make me the legendary crazy great-grandaunt (is there such a thing?) that was alive at the turn of the 21st century. So in 200 years—and about 8 generations—there’s a chain of acquaintance and memory (and, yes, these days we also have photos), that bears witness to an observable change in a celestial point that I grew up believing is constant and unchanging.

Now think about this:

In the amount of time that it took for Earth to complete its last full precession:

9,490,000 sunrises warmed the Atlantic coast (though only about 3,600,000 occurred over the eastern shore of Lake Michigan…it only arrived on the scene 10,000 years ago).

26,000 winters melted into spring.

10,400 generations passed on their memories, and humanity advanced from making its first clay pots and fibrous baskets, to sending mobile science laboratories to the surface of Mars.

The rim of what would become Bryce Canyon National Park receded about 6500 feet.

and the Himalayas rose by 1 mile.

And on into the future…

Polaris will precess back into its current position 3,800 more times before Amasia—the next great supercontinent—will form.

9,600 more precessions will occur as the sun makes its next trip around the core of the Milky Way Galaxy.

We’ll get to complete an additional 192,000 precessions before our sun swells into a red giant with a diameter of Earth’s current orbit…and any life that remains on Earth is toast.

And again, my mind is blown.

April 13, 2015

Drawing the Great Nebula

This past Saturday, I indulged in some quiet time alone under a dark sky, and spent a couple hours sketching the Orion Nebula before it disappeared behind a lacy horizon of budding spring trees. I've had a soft spot for star-forming nebulae--especially M42 in Orion's Sword and The Lagoon in Sagittarius--ever since I started observing. Even though they're not hard to find, and flamboyant photographs of them are so ubiquitous they've almost become a cliche, I've never tired of spending long minutes at the eyepiece soaking in the depths of their faintly glowing obscurity.

At a BRAS public observing session a couple weeks ago, I trained my year-old 12 inch Dob on the Orion Nebula and was stunned to see it glowing a pale green. Detecting color during low-light observing is not the norm. Except for the planets and some stars, deep-sky viewing is typically a low-contrast black-and-white affair. This has never been a problem for me. In fact, I've always preferred the aesthetics of what my eye sees over the oversaturated astronomical photographs that have become the norm. Still, catching that new hint of color with my own eyes...a translucent sea green edged by the barest whisper of maroon (the glow of ionized oxygen and hydrogen)...it seemed almost magical.

I wanted to look all night.

But, it was public observing. People want to see other stuff. And everyone else around me was bouncing around to different objects as well. My desire to keep up with the hunt overrode everything else. So, I resolved to find some other night when I could go out on my own, undistracted, take a sketchpad, and shamelessly delve into Orion's jeweled sword for as long as the horizon would allow.

I borrowed my first telescope in 2007. It was an 8 inch Dobsonian loaned to me by the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. One morning before work, I woke up in the dark hours before sunrise, set the telescope on the back porch of my condo in Holladay, trained it on Orion's sword, gathered some drawing materials in a lit hallway around the corner, and started sketching. I'd look through the eyepiece for several seconds, memorize the view, and then dash into the hallway to record what I'd seen. Here's the result (with diffraction spikes added to the brighter stars...just because).

I didn't see any color that morning...not a big surprise...8 inches probably doesn't collect quite enough light for that, and my neighbor's porch light was shining in my eyes the whole time...and yes, I was going back and forth between my porch and my own lighted hallway. In other words, conditions were not ideal. Still, I found the view utterly enchanting. And though I lost the original sketch in during one of my many recent moves, it remains one of my favorites.

This Saturday's observing was a whole different animal. Now equipped with 4 more inches of telescopic aperture, I was parked outside in a relatively dark place (for norther Ohio), and kept the white lights off so as to allow my eyes to fully dark adapt. I had a small red flashlight, but trying to sketch white-on-black under a dim red glow was quite a challenge. I soon found that attempting any kind of color would be impossible. My best bet would be to sketch for contrast, and then add finer nuances of color by memory at home later. I sat with my sketchpad on my knee, and a bag of colored pencils in my pocket, studying what faint details I could make out through a low-magnification wide-field eyepiece, while slowly nudging my telescope forward with the earth's rotation. A shrill chorus of spring peepers bloomed in the distance, occasionally punctuated by the strange hoots and calls and trills of night creatures in the surrounding woods.

After finishing this sketch, I got curious about how others have interpreted Orion in the past.

Charles Messier, the infamous non-comet-hunter himself, published this drawing in 1771:

And here's what Sir John Herschel saw in the 1830s--note the trapezium at center:

Lord Rosse had an interesting eye for it in the 1850s:

And recording Orion in unprecedented detail was the final work of George Phillips Bond, the second director of the Harvard Observatory. While enduring a terminal case of tuberculosis, he sat in the frigid observatory night after night desperately trying to complete a series of sketches and surveys. He died in 1865 at the age of 39, his work on Orion still in progress.

Etienne Leopold Trouvelot--one of my favorite astronomical artists--made these charcoal sketches a few years later...

...so interesting to note the subtle differences in each one. Imagine using a series of images like this for real scientific inquiry. This was the height of technology at the time...but not for long.

In 1883, Henry Draper made this first photograph of the Trapezium and vicinity:

...followed soon after by this long-exposure image by Andrew Ainslie.

With the advent of photography it was now possible to see details far beyond those allowed by the human eye.

And the rest, as they say...

Truth-be-told, I still much prefer what my eye can see. And sometimes I like to imagine there are others who feel the same way. Doing a search for "Orion Nebula" on the Astronomy Sketch of the Day website yeilds a treasure trove of modern interpretations of this ancient wonder. Maybe you'd even care to add your own.

December 1, 2014

Paria Milky Way

Ever since I came back to Ohio after my unforgettable summer at Bryce Canyon, I've been itching to draw impressions of my experience. I've had a bunch of images floating around in my head, but for various reasons have been totally unable to get them down onto paper. Finally, today, I finished my first. I'm calling it "Paria Milky Way" for now, until I either come up with a better title, or forget about it for long enough that this name sticks.

Paria viewpoint is a little less visited than the main amphitheater, but it's a superb spot for stargazing. I went there many times. The formation I've roughly pictured is actually one you see looking out from Paria overlook. There's no trail leading onto it, so the figure I've placed there comes out of imagination. And though I may have fudged a bit as to the placement of the Milky Way (this is more of an eastern view than a southern one, so the Milky Way would actually appear off the right side of the page), I included stylized depictions of real constellations (Sagittarius, Scorpius, and Corona Australis) and a few "faint fuzzies" (curly-cues that represent Ptolemy's cluster, the Butterfly Cluster, and the Lagoon Nebula).

This scene could've taken place on a night when a waxing crescent moon illuminated the rock face, casting deep black shadows against subtly shaded limestone walls. On such a night the bright Milky Way would still have arched across the sky with barely a hint of dimming. The absence of warm hues is intentional. One thing that's always bothered me about popular photos of the Milky Way over landscapes is that there's just too much color. Though these photos are, of course, gorgeous, I always feel that they aren't nearly as rich as what I see with my eyes--even though they show more texture and detail in the starscape than eyes could ever perceive. Even on the brightest of full moon nights, the brilliant oranges, reds, pinks, and yellows of Bryce Canyon are paled to bluish grays. This transformation of landscape under moonlight and starlight is magical. Though I can't claim to have perfectly captured that here, I've made my best effort.

*please forgive the bad photos. I have an aging mediocre camera, and terrible home lighting. 

A few weeks ago, I came across a beautiful prose poem by composer John Luther Adams entitled "The Place Where You Go to Listen." His words, which so poignantly describe a deep experience of and connection to the natural soundscape, inspired me to write my own variation on the poem. My intent was not to plagiarize, but simply to elaborate upon his poetic framework, just as a musician might improvise a tune over chord changes. And now it seems an appropriate text to accompany this new drawing.

It strikes me that natural soundscapes, and natural darkness (along with the skyscape it reveals) are both resources that are commonly overlooked, easily disrupted, and vitally important to the ecosystem. Having the luxury of spending a long period of time at Bryce provided me with the time and space I needed to learn to look and listen more closely. I can only hope that some of the work I did this summer also enabled at least a small taste of that experience in others.

Bryce Canyon: A Place Where You Go to See

I remember how I could see there.

I stood at the Rim, a place where you go to see. Rising darkness on the horizon and long shadows between the hoodoos held their stories. The first stars glinting overhead smiled in mystery.

I looked.

And I saw.

I spent many days and nights alone—and in company—poised with the deep reverence of an observer, my eyes and my body attuned to everything around me. Before the witness of stone and the great desert, I hoped for myself this blessing: always to see.

I looked at the Earth beneath me, for its story arrayed like the pages of an open book. I looked up toward the light of the Milky Way, caught within its ancient dance like frozen flame. I looked around at midnight for the echoed presence of others who’d also come to see. In time I could understand the movement of the sky. I traced the silent march of planets through the stars. I watched distant shadows move over the face of the moon, and measured the passage of time from lunar morning…to midday…and into nightfall. The light awakened in me an ancient longing for the wonder and wisdom to be found within the great vastness that lives between Earth and Sky.

As I watched, I read the story of the land; rocks and sand and soil telling the origins of place—recording the history of life here and now, and preserving remnants of life gone before.  As I looked, I came to discern a landscape of time—how limestone emerged from beneath a cloak of sediment, how water scoured and waxed its faces, and how ice broke it away into a forest of pinnacles. How if you were to look long enough, the land would change before your eyes—Earth calmly spinning away beneath an endless universe of stars, and dust, and unseen gravity. The edges of my vision clouded at the scope of it all—a particular confluence of sight and sensation that can be found in but few other places.

I long to show others where and how to look for these things; to invite them to read the stories of the sky and the land—stories not told through ordinary words, but through light and shadow; color, texture, and shape; the movement of clouds; the changing of seasons; and the observations made by life and of life on this tiny blue speck of a planet.

Darkness falls—heavy, luminous with stars. The Aquarius plateau, in silhouette, stands sentry. There are no clouds. The dry air is transparent, thin, and brittle. It breaks open the sky like a hammer on dirty glass. The motions of visitors awaiting their turn at a telescope are like the chaotic sway of ants over bread.

We stand, each a bit apart, gazing up into the pale star-speckled arc of light overhead. A meteor gasps across the wings of Cygnus. Mirrored eyes penetrate the darkness as new stories reverberate through the crowd, feeding curiosity with insight and memory.

Now, together, on this land, and under this sky, we learn to see.

July 29, 2014

Grand Canyon Thunderstorm

I visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for my birthday. Thunderstorms prevented any extended hiking...or viewing at the rim for that matter, but I did manage to squeeze in a quick peek at Cape Royal on the Walhalla Plateau between storms. This quote from geologist Clarence Dutton (who explored the region in the late 1800s) pretty much sums it up:
In all the vast space beneath and around us there is very little upon which the mind can linger restfully. It is completely filled with objects of gigantic size and amazing form ... everything is superlative, transcending the power of the intelligence to comprehend it. Dimension means nothing to the senses and all we are left with is a troubled sense of immensity. 

June 29, 2014

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival

Sunday June 29

Hummingbird and Crescent Moon from Cedar Breaks
It's the morning after the final night of the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival. I didn't get home till about 1:30 am, got to sleep about an hour later, and STILL I'm up at 7:30! Being a morning person has afforded me some wonderful sunrise experiences, but once in a while, I would love to just be able to sleep some extra hours. I shouldn't complain though, as I'm certain the Rangers got even less sleep last night than I.

The Festival was a crazy, hectic, and exhilarating experience. On Friday, our busiest night, we had well over 800 guests visit the observing field. I gave the first laser-guided constellation tour that night and had about 85 people listening in as I pointed out bright stars, traced prominent constellations, and told stories about the characters from Greek mythology. The night was phenomenally gorgeous as well. I don't think I'd ever seen the milky way as bright and defined. The deep-sky detail visible toward the galactic core in Sagittarius was mesmerizing. The Lagoon Nebula, Butterfly Cluster, Ptolemy's Cluster, Sagittarius Star Cloud, Pipe Nebula, and a whole fuzzy mess of Messier numbers were easily discernible within the glow of the Milky Way. The skies around our home galaxy were black and steady, and every so often I almost believed I could even see color in those billowing clouds.

I was given a fair bit of responsibility during the festival, leading two planisphere classes, several star-lab planetarium programs, guiding a 1 ½ hour “planet walk,” and providing two laser constellation tours. The rest of my time was spent at the VC desk, helping with odds and ends of set up, a few hours of solar astronomy, and ushering throngs of star gazers onto the observing field at night.

SLAS members set up scopes on the observing field
The funny thing is that other than gaping for hours at the rising Milky Way, I hardly did any observing myself. The telescope field was mostly manned by members of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society while all of us Bryce people helped more with crowd control. On Thursday I did get one TRULY spectacular view of Saturn in one of the SLAS scopes. Through a member's large refractor I saw the rings as big and crisp and clear as I've ever seen from ANY land-based-telescopic photograph. The Cassini division was obvious of course, but several other loops and shades were also distinctly apparent in the ring plane. The shadows and colors visible on the planet itself made what usually appears as a flat yellow disc pop into 3-D...it REALLY looked like a sphere! I was so distracted by the sight of the planet that I forgot to count how many little moons I could make out...definitely more than the 4 I typically see through my own scope.

It's been wonderful to catch up with some of my old friends from SLAS. It is truly because of their influence and support that I find myself here at Bryce today. When I first joined SLAS I could identify the Big Dipper, sometimes the Little Dipper, Orion, and the Pleiades....though I couldn't tell you when they'd be up in the sky. I loved the Pleiades and was always pleasantly surprised when I looked up and happened to see it, but its whereabouts during the rest of the year were a mystery. I think I assumed that I was just bad at finding things. I had no idea you could see planets with the unaided eye, and I supposed telescopes were only available to wealthy people who were also really good at math. In other words, I knew...nothing.

In a few minutes I'm going to a special pancake breakfast for festival staff where we'll all finally get our turn to see the keynote speaker from Friday night. An eminent astrophotographer, Alex Cherney will be regaling us with stories from the dark skies “down under” and talking about the unique relationship aboriginal Australians have with the Milky Way. Should be fun!

June 18, 2014


Friday June 13

The skies are darker at Bryce Canyon and the full moon is brighter. In this high elevation, the thin dry desert air is conducive to sunburn and moon blindness. Last night while showing people the nearly full moon through my telescope (using a polarizing filter at its darkest setting), I looked back along the line and perhaps 80% of them had their hands or a hat held up to the side of their face to block the moonlight. As each stepped up to the eyepiece, I did my best to cast a shadow over their faces as they observed.

Though the full moon is the bane of every deep sky observer, I quite enjoyed showing it off. The prominent ray crater Tycho appeared in full bloom—its striking splatters reaching far across the surface, bisecting dark Maria and bright Highlands alike. People's eyes were very naturally drawn to Aristarchus—a brilliant white crater sharply contrasted against the Ocean of Storms—and Grimaldi—a deep gray crater set apart from the larger seas by a swath of highlands. More astute observers enjoyed the shadowy terrain approaching the moon's southernmost edge—the only place that betrayed any sense of depth and topography.

Tonight I'll be leaving the telescope at home to shadow Geoff's full moon hike. One of the most popular programs here at Bryce, these limited Ranger led excursions fill up less than an hour after the visitor center opens in the morning. I'm excited to go wandering below the rim to see how the hoodoos are transformed in the silvery moonlight. Some kind of magic is inevitable!

Saturday June 14

Met up with an old friend for breakfast yesterday morning. Chris (a violist in the Utah Symphony as well as an artist), and I had exchanged a series of art postcards years ago. It was nice to catch up and discuss a few of our recent adventures.

In the afternoon, I quietly barricaded myself in my room, put on some music, and DREW for the first time since I've been here. To a soundtrack of Terry Riley (“A Rainbow in Curved Air,” and “Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band”), John Adams (“The Wound Dresser,” Christian Zeal and Activity,” “Five Songs by Charles Ives,” and “Eros Piano”), and Sibelius (Symphony #5 and #7), I drew an imagined recollection of an old crescent moon just before sunrise above the varnished cliffs at Calf Creek. It felt FANTASTIC to draw again. I think I've been needing a creative outlet. Though it's just a sketch—done using ball point pen and a touch of pencil—I may decide to do a more polished version when I get home.

The full moon hike was every bit worth the hype. I was assigned to be the Caboose to Geoff's group of 30—bringing up the rear and making sure no one got left behind. On full moon hike nights, a couple telescopes are also set up on the rim so people can view the moon and other bright objects up close when they come back out of the amphitheater. Radar and I grabbed a couple armloads and helped Richard get all his equipment up the hill. It's hard to imagine a more stunning observing platform.

At the beginning of the hike Geoff led the crowd up to a nice spot on the rim near Sunrise Point, gave some safety information, and introduced the focus of his talk—the “superpowers” of Bryce Canyon's nighttime plants and animals. And yes, plants DO have super powers. The Bronze Evening Primrose produces a flower that blooms on only one night. In order to ensure pollination, it virtually glows in ultraviolet and lures in giant moths with a pungent odor. Bats pursue insects (including the giant moth's) using sophisticated sonar. Glow worms—females of a particular species of beetle—light up the back segments of their bodies to help attract mates. Rattlesnakes see in infrared. Great horned owls crush their prey with hundreds of pounds of force in their powerful clutches. And the list goes on. A fascinating topic. I wish I'd been taking notes to help remember more of the specifics.

But before he got in to all of that. Geoff finished his introduction with a dramatic proclamation. “Ladies and Gentlemen...on behalf of the National Park Service...I give you...the Full Moon!” At that moment a bead of crimson broke the horizon over the distant landscape. Oohs and ahhs broke out among the guests as people scrambled for their cameras and the best vantage from which to capture the rapidly rising disc. A windy day had stirred up a lot of dust, and this “Strawberry Moon” was very dark ruddy orange. A spectacular sight above the painted geometries of the high desert.

We continued along the rim for a while and then headed down below on the Fairyland Loop trail toward Tower Bridge, stopping periodically to take note of a particular organism's “superpower” and enjoy Geoff's engaging storytelling. The sky got darker and darker, and the trail along with it. The moon was now behind a ridge and I found myself struggling a bit to place each step securely.

It was right around this time that Geoff started talking about Mountain Lions. They hunt by staking out a heavily used game trail, climbing high up on a nearby ridge, and then pouncing as deer amble by. But they won't go for the first deer in the group. They'll instead wait till a slower one...maybe sick or injured...comes by in the very back of the line, and then go straight for the neck. You can imagine how that made me feel as the designated caboose! When it's made a kill, a lion will drag the carcass high up into a tree. Then for several days it'll eat, guarding it's stash from other scavengers who may try to score an easy meal. A few years ago some visitors went to the rim early in the morning and were horrified to discover a deer hanging high above them in the branches of a tree. They immediately complained saying it was a most cruel and tasteless practical joke. But it was no joke. A crew of wildlife specialists and law enforcement officers armed to the hilt were immediately sent to the scene. A lion kill so near to the park's most heavily trafficked area posed a serious threat to public safety. The deer was removed to a more remote location. A near tragedy averted.

We continued down the trail and finally into the moonlight. Stars were coming out now, and the hoodoos appeared as immense black silhouettes against the bluish night sky. As we approached the “Hoodoo Graveyard,” moonlight struck the great white limestone walls like a spotlight, casting sharp cool shadows, and encouraging the imagination to conjure up a whole host fantastical creatures. Geoff told us of nights he's travelled out to this spot with starlight alone to guide his path—the grand arch of the Milky Way sweeping overhead—bright enough to cast shadows of its own. Even in the full moon light, the sky was full of stars fainter than I'd have guessed. Is that the Milky Way? Or am I just imagining it. Nah...this time it's imagination...I think.

Sunday June 15

Thanks to Dad, Carol, Mal, Ryan, Cid, Zoey, Todd, Yumi, Aaron, Ardis, Joel, Crystal, Robyn, and all the kids for visiting me at Bryce Canyon (and buying me ice cream:) It was great to see you all...even for just a few minutes. 


Tuesday June 17

So much has happened. Too many details to be thorough. Some of the specifics meld into what has become a sort of routine—though in a place like this I hate to use such a word. It's the kind of routine where discovery is the norm. Where I increasingly admire the skill of those with whom I work, and from whom I hope I am learning a trick or two. Where the same places visited day after day never lack for enchantment. A wild Iris on the walk into work distracts my eye so that I almost fail to notice a mother and two baby pronghorns grazing in the morning shadows beneath the pines. I freeze to watch. She stamps her feet and eyes me with a resolve I pray won't lead to a defensive charge. Mother and babies: a lovely...nervous kind of sight I don't know whether to relish or cautiously avoid.

The work comes with its own set of challenges. I make mistakes. Deal with awkwardness and tension here and there. Remind myself (with mixed success) not to complain about trivialities. Take deep breaths. Call Rob for a kind word and a loving ear. Forgive myself for things I could've done better...and then try to do them better next time. Remember to let things come as they may. Take a break now and then.

Yesterday I visited “Spooky” and “Peekaboo,” two slot canyons in the Grand Staircase with Don, one of the Interpretive Rangers here. We stopped in at the Escalante Visitor Center—interesting being on the other side of the desk after weeks of playing informal tour guide—to check on road conditions, hiking maps, and trail information. The Ranger said getting up to Peekaboo would require a moderately technical scramble up about 10 feet of sandstone. The directions I'd read online that morning said it would be more like 20 feet. Sucking in my old nervousness of heights, I pressed for more details. She said we'd have to help each other through a few tough scrambles, but that no ropes would be needed. Don and I were not well acquainted, but I imagined we could muddle through well enough together.

Don is good company. On the surface it seems we both tend toward a quieter approach to interaction. Politely inquisitive. Casually interested without ulterior pressures or motivations. I appreciated being able to probe his deeper knowledge of the area. Glad a more experienced professional would allow me to tag along for a little adventure.

The “Dry Fork Slots,” are located about 27 miles south along the Hole-in-the-Rock Road. It was heavily washboarded and high-clearance vehicles were strongly recommended. I was grateful Don had agreed to drive us in his pickup. A few miles in we made a brief stop at the “Devil's Garden” to wander among a different kind of hoodoo (and take a final bathroom break). Comparatively low to the ground and voluptuously smooth, these wind-carved sandstone hoodoos were an interesting contrast to the towering, brittle, and multi-faceted, rock gardens of Bryce Canyon I've been familiar with of late.

The last stretch of road leading to Dry Fork looked as though it was molded from mounds of clay. All guides state emphatically that the route is impassible after even the slightest rain. On a map, several roads lead south from highway 12 through the Grand Staircase—Hole-in-the-Rock, Cottonwood, Alvey Wash, Smokey Mountain—and look to many visitors like excellent alternative routes to highway 89 south toward Page. Seeing the conditions of these roads firsthand brought home the warnings I'd heard from other Bryce volunteers that one should ALWAYS check in at the GSENM visitor center before using them for travel. Scenic? Yes. Practical? No.

Once parked, we followed a series of large, widely-spaced cairns down a steep slick-rock outcrop. This “trail” leads down to a broad sandy wash into which Dry Fork, Peekaboo, and Spooky canyons empty. Dry Fork is a section of “narrows” (a little wider than a “slot,” but not by much), that can be followed for several miles. Maybe we would check it out on our way back. The entrance to Peekaboo was nearby to the left where a small group of people was clustered about its mouth. A young family who'd just come down its length watched excitedly as a number of twenty-somethings prepared to ascend.

 I looked up at the smooth sculptured sandstone with a bit of trepidation. A series of shallow hand and toe holds were carved into its surface. It was definitely more than 10 feet of climbing. I motioned to Don to go first, hoping to observe his technique. The first bit seemed fine enough. A stone ladder—a quick pivot over a thin vertical ledge—then a gradual chute where a little wedging between hips and feet would carry you up. Don struggled a little, but seemed relatively unfazed by the awkward motions. A knot had built up in the pit of my stomach, but, I thought, if a 67 year old man could manage it,- there's no reason I shouldn't be able to. Right?

A tall energetic German youth arrived suddenly, and virtually leapt up the whole way, stepping right over the top of Don who was just completing the last bit of his ascent. His girlfriend stopped beside me. “He's a real mountain goat!” she said. The German held out a hand to Don and helped him up the rest of the way. He then tossed a rope down to his girlfriend and offered to hoist up both our packs. “It will make it easier to balance,” he encouraged. I gulped and clipped on my pack. It was my turn.

I cautiously stepped up the pile of stones leading to the first toe hold. A little wobbly for my taste. One step. Hmm. Wrong foot. Step down. Switch feet. Start with the left this time. Umm. Still not so comfortable. It looked so easy for the others. Right foot it is then. Ok. Left. Sort of. Hold on. Pull up. Sit down. Ok! Two thirds to go. Take a breath. Now how to manage that pivot. I wish there wasn't so much sand in these toe holds. 6 feet looks a lot taller from up here. Lean into the rock. Swing my body around. Ok, sit! It's so slick! Can't seem to make the wedging work. There's nothing to hold onto. My feet just want to slide. No traction. I can feel the pull of gravity. Not sure where to hold. The smallest shift of weight could send me sliding down to the ground. The German can see my fear and throws me the rope. It's such a thin little thing. Just a string. Holding onto it gives me no assurance. Their hands are only a couple feet from my grasp, but I can't seem to push myself higher. Mom and kids are watching below. “You can do it. Just a little bit higher!” But my legs are shaking now. I can feel my broken bones below. Hear the sound. A dull crack.

“I'm going to make a decision for my own safety. I'm not sure enough on my feet. I should head down.”
“I don't accept that!” insisted the German. “You can do it.”
“I've got to be honest about my ability. If I'm struggling here, it will be worse further up.”
A wave of disappointment.
I resolve to indulge in minimum apology. I won't wallow. This is a practical safety decision. I have to understand and accept the limits of my ability.

With guidance from Mom and kids below, I shakily make my way back down the stone ladder. The German girlfriend takes her turn. Struggles a little, but slowly makes it up. They send down my pack. Don descends. I'm embarrassed, but feel I've made the right decision. I make my apologies, say thank you and good luck to Mom and kids and the German couple. I'm grateful Don seems to be easy going enough to not be too put off by my backing down. “There was a real danger there,” he says reassuringly.

We walk along the sandy edges of the giant mound of rock from which Peekaboo was formed. Climbing slowly now—one step forward, half a step back in the hot slippery sand—we eventually top the sandstone bulge and begin to explore. Cairns! An alternate route around the canyon perhaps? Soon we are looking down into the narrowly winding, knife-edged slot. It's an easy descent to the bottom from here...

...and now I hear voices! Our German friends are squeezing their way through the sculpted zig-zags. “What took you so long?!” I say.

They don't have a map so we share ours, along with the directions for finding Spooky from the upper exit of Peekaboo. Now it's our turn to descend into the zig zag. It's hard to believe that an adult human body is capable of gliding through the contortions of sharp-edged sandstone that lead us deeper into the canyon. We take off our packs and bend, slide, bump, and lean through the one-way maze. 

As the walls rise around us, I imagine a flash flood sweeping through—filling the canyon to its top and rushing over its edges—the water thick with sand and broken bits of brush. We reach a point where Don judges the descent a little too steep—a hoop of rock showing a sandy bottom many feet below— and then head back up the way we came. Here and there I give him a push up from behind, and he offers a hand up in return.

Back down in Dry Fork Wash, we head toward the entrance to Spooky. Temperatures are mercifully mild, but a fierce wind whips up billows of sand that make my teeth grate like sandpaper. The gale is desiccating. I can almost feel the moisture wicked from beneath my skin. What would it be like to travel across this landscape with limited provisions? What must those early pioneers have endured along their journey south to Hole-in-the-Rock—a passage they had to carve out themselves to enable travel by wagon team? 1880. That's not all that long ago. My grandparents would have been old enough to have spoken with someone who made the trip.

 Spooky's entrance is much more inviting—sort of. There's no steep climb. The trail remains level as you enter this slot. But the high walls close in rapidly. Packs must be removed, and travel through the canyon is only possible sideways. Our chests and bellies slide over bumpy sandstone conglomerate. “This is the slottiest canyon I think I've ever been in,” quipped Don. Shadows are deep and hues of reflected light cast an eerie glow over the rock. Spooky indeed!

...and not ideal for hand-held photography as you can see from the blurry pictures...just think of them as action shots!

Voices ahead. Our German friends once again. We hurry to a slightly wider cutout in the rock and allow the couple to pass. Smiles all around. Continuing on there's a hint of...music? We meet a photographer with tripod set for a long exposure, earbuds in, no doubt preparing to take a classic shot of light cascading over elegant sandstone curves.

I honestly never thought I'd actually be able to see one of these picture-postcard desert-calendar slot canyons in person. I'd always assumed that the photos I'd seen were captured in secret corners of wilderness shared only among elite climbers, adventurers...people infinitely more well-equipped and more in-the-know than little old me. But I am actually here. Feeling the rough stone scrape my skin. Willfully trapped within a world of pale light, rich shadow, and fanciful geometry, lit by nothing more than a thin line of deep blue overhead. Looking way up we see huge boulders suspended in mid fall. Wedged between the canyon walls, piles of plant debris has collected around each point of contact—a sobering reminder of the violent floods whose currents carved out this channel just wide enough for a medium-sized adult to navigate.

Finally we reached a point where further squeezing might have caused torn shirts and uncomfortable scrapes. I can't say we turned around—there wasn't room for that—we just reversed our sideways shimmy and headed out the way we came.

The climb up was hot, sandy, sunbaked, guesswork. I downed the last of my water, happy knowing I had a third full bottle back in the truck. At one point we lost the trail of cairns, so just kept climbing till we reached the top of the hill and could see the parking lot in the distance. Stepping gingerly so as to avoid the fragile cryptobiotic soil growing all around us, we made it back. My water was hot enough to brew tea and tasted like plastic, but who's complaining? After another noisy bumpy drive up the road, we rewarded ourselves with cold drinks and pizza at Escalante Outfitters, and relaxed to an old tape recording of “The Hobbit” on our way home. In spite of my embarrassing bout of acrophobia, it turned out to be a very enjoyable and rejuvenating day. Thanks Don for the idea and the invitation!