Friday, August 9, 2013

From the Mississippi to the Missouri

Another difficult night sleeping in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart outside of Chicago. I was especially frustrated because I knew I had a long drive ahead of me today. I planned to go all the way from Chicago to Badlands National Park in South Dakota; a 14 hour drive over 800 miles.
After I crossed the Mississippi I took a break at Great River Bluffs State Park to hike a few short trails and take a nap. Where I crossed the river the span was filled with small green islands with trees half sunken in the water. The trails led along a ridge above the river to overlooks where I could see groups canoeing around the small strips of land that cut up the river.
In South Dakota the landscape changed; the trees shrunk, the hills flattened and the horizon stretched out until it merged with the clouds. I passed through fields of corn and soy and into a sudden storm that had bikers crowded under every overpass. The landscape changed again once I crossed the Missouri; the cornfields were gone and grassy hills dotted with cattle took their place. The green was vibrant where the light shone through the clouds and the contrast with the muted wet grass under the storm was beautiful.

In the distance I saw a brown cloud of smoke rising from the side of the road. Once I got closer I saw that there was a brush fire burning in front of a field. Tractors were driving through the fire tearing up the grass and dirt trying to break the spread while fire engines wet the unburnt ground.

I arrived at the campground just before dark and decided to remove the glass from the window through the roof of my car so that I could more easily see the stars. As I fell asleep Cassiopeia was rising overhead and I looked to find the Andromeda Galaxy, one of my favorite things to look at through my telescope. It’s very easy to find once you’ve located the “W” of Cassiopeia. If you’re under a nice dark sky in a national park you should be able to spot a smooth cloudy circle; that’s the center of the galaxy and what you’re looking at is billions of stars over 2.5 million lightyears away. Below is a diagram I drew over a picture I took last night of the constellations Cassiopeia and Andromeda showing how I always find the galaxy.

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