Friday, September 27, 2013


“We want to hike the Queen’s Garden trail; will we run into any dangerous animals in the canyon?” “Just tourists”-- the group laughs. I would say that old joke gets laughs every time but that’s not true; it isn’t a joke. “The other animals are smart enough to stay away for the most part, but if you see a bear let us know.”

“Do I have to take the bus?” a man wearing a utility vest asks. “No, you’re also free to circle the parking lots at each viewpoint for an hour looking for parking” He thinks about this for a little too long. “Does the bus take me to the trails? I want to do some hiking.” “It sure does; now if you’ll just pull your car across the street to our overflow lot and then walk down the hill back to the shuttle stop on this si…” “I gotta walk to the stop?!”

“What’s a hoodoo?” “voodoo.”--“What’s that?” “It’s like a curse.”--“How is that a name for a rock?” “You should ask the guy who has to explain the name all day”

“Where’s the best place to see the sunrise?” “Bryce Point”--“Not Sunrise Point?” “Nope, too sunny”--“Well I’m gonna go to Sunset Point to watch the sunset, what time should I get there?” “6:30 and you shouldn’t go there for sunset”--“Well why’s it called Sunset Point then?” “Clever marketing ploy by the guys who run the lodge”--“Well where should I go?” “Bryce Point”--“The same place as I’m going for sunrise?!”

“Do they sell beer at the general store?” “They’ll sell you half a beer; if you want the other half you have to drive to Nevada.”—“huh?”

“At sunset we saw a bright light on th…”—“Venus”.

“Hey is the government going to shut down and close the parks?” “We trust that our representatives in congress are working hard to avoid a shutdown and are hoping for the best!” The real jokes never get laughs at the info desk.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Navigating Night

“Hey, this is that place where they have the lights in the canyon right?” “No those lights are our neighbors in Tropic”--“Nah-nah they have like different colored lights between the rocks and they do a light show at night” “I’d certainly hope not”--“Yea…I was here a few years ago and I coulda sworn I seen that here” “When you saw this are  you sure you weren’t actually underground in South Dakota? Wind Cave lights their cave up with purple and blue lights…”--“Nah it was here…” I tug on my beard a bit and when a silence of adequate length and awkwardness has passed, he continues; “…well you guys should do that” and turns around to peruse our rack of T-shirts advertising “dark skies” at Bryce.

Of course I was lying, we do have a light show at Bryce Canyon every night; fusion powered, no less. When the moon is out, we even light the rocks up too. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the night sky at Bryce almost every night for the past month. Some nights the clouds blocked out the stars and the night was so dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face; other nights the moon was full and bright enough to hike down in the canyon by. The other nights, I would drive out to Bryce or Yovimpa point and walk along the rim in the cool silvery light of the milky way arcing straight overhead. 
Sometimes my friend and co-volunteer KL would join me. We were both working on astronomy lectures that we would be giving to visitors for the first time before the end of the month and the stargazing helped remind us what we were trying to promote. Not just promote, but protect. We had both seen the case made countless times; shield your lighting, help the animals, leave the sky uninhibited for others to enjoy. Those arguments tell you why it is important to preserve the dark sky; but I think if one doesn’t already have a reason to care about a dark sky then no argument can sway them.

KL and I both set out to make programs that would help people discover their reason, trusting that the rest would follow. Despite this similar goal; our programs were quite the opposite of one another. In her program she quoted poetry about the night sky and displayed images that showed what a source of inspiration the night sky had been to humans. She showed that appreciation of the stars and planets and galaxies wasn’t a purely academic pursuit. My program on the other hand was almost entirely academic. I thought if I could just show people how fascinating the workings of the universe were then they would want to see it for themselves and once they saw it for themselves they wouldn’t want to give that view up again when they left the park and went home. In the end, we learned from each other. I decided to include a personal section at the end of the program and close with a few words I wrote about why the night sky is important to humans on a personal, emotional level:

“Man has discovered just a few blank canvases in the universe. Cavernous receptacles into which he can project his hopes, fears and desires. The dark caves where paintings show the joy of the successful hunt, the fear of the teeth and claws of the predator and the longing for companionship. The sea, with its elusive 12 mile horizon and its fickle churning and breaking, personified in Poseidon and countless other thalassic gods and goddesses that reflect their human creators. And the stars that have been perhaps the greatest of shores over which human thought and emotion have washed. Every culture has stories tied to the position and motion of the heavens. The simple patterns of the stars have been invested with the characters of these peoples in the form of hunters and beasts and women. It’s no wonder that so many people look to the sky when they look for their God; where else would God exist but amidst the great gallery of such potent dreams and nightmares.

The stars have been our companion; marked the passage of time and held portents of what was to come as man emerged from prehistory. You will find few depictions of the stars outside of academia that are not invested with the contents held most deeply in the author’s soul. The catalogue of work inspired by the stars needs no chronology because its messages are timeless. The feeling of smallness and solitude that one feels when under the countless worlds known and unknown shining in the night sky is just as incomprehensible now as it was to the men in the caves 20,000 years ago or the ancient Egyptians or the great thinkers of the Renaissance. I know that we will continue to be inspired by the twinkling of the stars in the dark and I hope to preserve that dark so that humans can not only continue to find their way by the north star but find their connection to one another through the images they project onto the heavens.”

I finally got to present my program on a chilly Thursday evening. It’s understood that most of the people that come to our talks are there to find out where the telescopes are going to be afterwards and seeing that it was such a cold night we didn’t expect many takers for the telescope viewing. I was set up at the lodge in a ballroom that seats about 150 people; we don’t usually get more than 50 for talks this time of year though.
About an hour before the talk as I’m setting up, a couple comes in and calls out to me as they make their way down the aisle to the front of the room. “Well that hike you recommended today was exhausting, we’re in pain!” “I’m glad to hear it!”--“We’re going to push some chairs together and sleep here until your talk! Don’t mind us!” So much for practicing…

I decide instead to pace up and down the aisle trying to rehearse the talk in my head. As I’m stepping back up on the stage from one circuit of the room the side door opens and a line of kids walks in. The first one reaches the front of the room and sits down and the line is still coming in the door. Finally some adults come in with the middle of the line and walk up to me to explain that they’re a 7th grade class from a local school; just about 80 kids. I nod and stand quietly at the podium trying to get my head around this when I hear the teachers shushing all of the kids and the room gets completely silent. I realize they’re all looking at me assuming that I’m about to begin the talk and I quickly blurt out “Oh! We’ve got about 35 minutes before the program begins so feel free to continue talking to each other and making as much noise as you want!” seeing some concerned looks from the teachers I add “or remain completely quiet; whatever your teachers prefer!”

I head to the back of the room to greet the guests as they come in; the same people who, earlier in the day at the information desk, I told to show up whenever they wanted because the show wouldn’t be crowded. With about 10 minutes to go and the seats full and people standing at the doorway, the lights go out. Once again the teachers assume the program is starting and shush their classes. I sprint up from the back of the room and start to tell everyone once again that we’ve still got a few minutes to wait as I turn the lights back on. I look around though and see the restless students and the tired looking guests standing at the door in the back and don’t see much point in waiting, so I begin.

The program goes by quickly, coming in 20 minutes short of the hour I promised. But the kids are still awake by the end, which is encouraging, and they begin to ask a bunch of questions. “How big is a black hole?” I explain singularities and schwarzchild radii.  A girl in the front asks “How long have you been doing this?” I tell her about my work at the planetarium in Chapel Hill. “When is the Pleiades meteor shower?”—“The Pleiades are a distant star cluster, meteors are chunks of debris in the path of Earth’s orbit; perhaps you mean the Perseids!”. The girls up front raise their hands again “How old are you?”—“29”. A faint call from the back of the room, “At sunset we saw a bright light on th…”—“Venus”. Another hand shoots up from the crowd of girls in the front “Are you married?”—“If I were, I probably wouldn’t be here doing this; so, thankfully no.” A teacher stands up, “Alright, no more questions! Back to the buses!!” and the kids march out. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Whenever a visitor comes in at 4pm and tells me they’ve got 2 hours to see the park I always give them 3 hours’ worth of things to do. I know that once they get out of their cars and out onto the trail away from all the reminders of their normal daily life, the importance of getting to the hotel before the pool closes will evaporate from their mind even faster than the water on their hat from the afternoon shower they walked through along the way.

An exhausted looking man rushes up to the information desk around 7pm. “I’ve got 30 minutes, what viewpoint should I stop at to watch the sunset?” “Well, you see, the edge of the plateau faces east” I point to the map on the desk in front of me with my left hand and imitate the sun setting to the west of the map over the edge of the desk with the pen in my right hand “So the canyon is dark well before sunset” I see a look of dismay on his face; he’s likely travelled 3 hours to get here hoping to see one great sight to make up for all the stress he’s endured along the way. Ignoring his deadline I say “I’d take the next hour and get dinner. Then come back to the park and drive up to Paria View; it’ll be dark by then and you will be able to see the milky way and more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life!” “Is that a good view of the canyon?” “There’s no moon tonight so you won’t be able to see a thing in the canyon” I see the stress rising again. “Tell you what, I’ll be up there too and I can show you where you can see an entire galaxy separate from our own; it’s so dark here you can see it without a telescope. Then you can get up early tomorrow and see the sunrise before you leave.” As he walks off I can see the disappointment weighing him down. 

After my shift is over at the visitor center I put on my park jacket and hat and drive up to Paria View. I’d been wanting to take some photos of the night sky and I set up my tripod while I wait for the light from the sunset to fade and a few clouds to clear out to the north. As the light fades stars start to appear; the first is Vega directly overhead, then I start to make out the big dipper towards the west. With the big dipper in view I can find the north star. This is what I was waiting for; I put an 8mm fisheye lens on my camera and aim it so that the north star is slightly right and bottom of center and I can still see the surrounding trees in the periphery of the frame. I wait until it’s dark enough to see the milky way stretching from horizon to horizon, south to north across the sky and then I lock the shutter of the camera open. It’s dark enough now that the glow from the small town of Tropic is noticeable past the canyon under a cloud.

I hear a car coming up the road and I rush over to put the lens cap on my camera just as the headlights swing around the corner. I keep the lens covered until the car turns its light off then I remove the cap to let the picture continue to expose. I have to do this a few more times as more cars come and go and I imagine that the star trails in my photo will appear to have some hidden message in morse code. Finally a car comes and parks right in front of my camera and leaves its lights on as its occupant searches for something in the back seat. I decide to give up on my star trails and flip the cap off quickly to add the car to my photo before closing the shutter. 
The driver of the car finally turns his headlights off and emerges with a bright flashlight and walks up the path to where I’ve got my camera set up. It’s my hurried friend from earlier at the visitor center. I greet him as I turn on my red light and point it at the ground, assuring him that it’s all the light he’ll need and the flashlight will only ruin his view of the sky. He fumbles a bit with the light and manages to turn it off. We talk while I wait for his vision to adjust to the dark (and for mine to recover from his lights) and he seems much more at ease than he had before.

I show him how to find the teapot in Sagittarius with the Milky Way rising like steam from its spout and the swan Cygnus flying overhead with Albireo on its beak. The three hunters tracking the bear, Ursa Major, in the handle of the big dipper; the middle one a double star-- the camp cook Mizar with his frying pan Alcor. Now that his eyes have had time to adjust I show him Cassiopeia and trace an arrow in the stars pointing towards Andromeda. He can see the faint disc of the galaxy hovering just over the imaginary line. He asks if that bright red star to the south is Mars. “It’s actually the star Antares, a name which literally means “not mars”, and that’s the constellation Scorpius.” He says he saw a bright star in the west at sunset and I tell him that actually was a planet; it was Venus. I walk back over to my camera to set up another picture and let him enjoy the night sky without my yammering on. We stand there in silence for a few minutes until he exclaims that he’s just seen a meteor over Tropic to the east. He then says that he really must get on his way but that he’s so happy that he took the time to come out tonight. I knew he had more than 30 minutes, most people do, they just don’t realize it. 

Monday, September 9, 2013


Lightning used to be the number one killer of tourists in Bryce Canyon; but after an intensive campaign of education by the rangers, tourists have gone back to being killed by each other’s vehicles more often than by the storms of the monsoon season. Still, it’s hard to convince a visitor of the urgency of seeking shelter during a thunderstorm. Some are so used to industrial tourism resort vacations with comment cards and comp’d meals that it seems an awful inconvenience to have to work their vacation around the weather. Surely the park would have some countermeasure in place to bar access to every exposed cliff and lightning rod pine tree during a storm, and the rangers have cut a deal with the bears to stay away from the campgrounds in exchange for half price pizza at the lodge; and if the worst should happen the unlucky charred or mauled visitor would at least expect a refund of their entrance fee and a free night’s stay at the lodge.
The expectation of what is perceived as fair is rarely met by the reality of the park. Whether it’s trails blocked by rock falls, roads closed to protect prairie dog towns, or even overwhelming crowds at the best viewpoints when all those kids were supposed to be back in school; it’s the price you pay nature in exchange for those unexpected moments of beauty when the sun first peeks over the distant hills in the morning or the clouds finally clear after sunset to reveal the milky way stretching overhead.
Lightning strikes near the parking lot outside the visitor center, so close that it shakes the building and sounds like a canon firing. The next couple that walks through the doors comes straight up to the info desk and asks the location of the nearest church. A tourist that had been lingering in the bookstore seeking shelter from the rain outside comes to the info desk and asks me if the weather will be better tomorrow for a hike in the canyon. I tell him that he can expect a storm much like this one some time between the hours of 1 and 8pm the next day and every day after. “Then I should hike in the morning”. “There are thunderstorms in the morning sometimes too”. “Well what can I do to be safe hiking if there’s a thunderstorm?”. “Stay in your car” He doesn’t like this answer. “Well what if I’m hiking and a storm comes up while I’m down in the canyon? I know not to stand under a tree, I can just wait in an alcove for the storm to pass right?” “Actually that’s worse than being under the tree, the hoodoo is taller than the tree and the lightning that hits it would rather take a shortcut through your head than trace a path around that alcove.” “Then where am I supposed to stand?” He’s getting frustrated as he starts to realize there’s no good answer to this question. “Get to a low area away from trees and squat with your feet close together”. “And what if it’s raining?”. “You get wet”. He likes this even less and exhales meaningfully as he folds up his map and walks off to look at a rack of postcards showing the canyon lit by the fire of perfect sunrises.
It’s a paradox of the national park; he’s frustrated by the inconvenience but the inconvenience is the very thing he’s come 1000 miles and paid $25 to see. It is the mission of the national park service to preserve that inconvenience for all to enjoy. The inconvenience of mule deer and prairie dogs nonchalantly crossing the road, rock falls and trees blown over on the path and even the afternoon thunderstorm. He should be happy to be so inconvenienced; for one weekend he isn’t expected to trudge through a storm to the grocery store or get up early to shovel his driveway so he can get to work. He’s free to be delayed without penalty. It’s only the residual stresses of his non-vacation life that are making him view his vacation as a mission that this storm is preventing him from accomplishing. I should have told him to go up to the general store on the rim and buy a big pretzel and as many 3.2% beers as it takes to sit back on the patio and enjoy watching the clouds roll off the edge of the plateau. During which time he can think about all the things he could be doing but isn’t and perhaps he might even start to enjoy it. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


I wake up this morning and grab the map and stare at it trying to decide where I’ll go today. Then I remember that I’m “home” for the next month just where I am in Bryce Canyon. I get ready, brushing my teeth and eating some breakfast and then I grab the map again and start to study it seeing what order I should stop at things on a path across southern Utah before I catch myself again and put the map back under the bed. It feels strange to just stop wandering; the way your arms want to keep rising when you put down a heavy load you’ve been carrying for a while. I’ll have to learn to stay still again in the coming weeks.

My cousin’s girlfriend K and her father are passing through Bryce on their way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and I meet up with them for a hike around Navajo Loop in the morning. I like to hike the loop backwards and start out descending a massive series of switchbacks carved into the rock between two fins. The trail turns faster and faster as the space between the fins tapers towards the bottom where the trail disappears into a dark corridor in the rock. I always imagine that the hikers with their packs trudging up the switchbacks out of the dark are involuntary parts of some earth moving operation, mining for silver, carrying bags of mud up the slope to be sifted like at Serra Pelada.

We hike through the loop and it’s fun to have someone to talk to while I hike but I’m not used to trying to talk while I’m out of breath from climbing and it makes me feel extra exhausted. We say our goodbyes back at the parking lot and they head off to the bigger canyon.
The sky is blue with little puffy clouds but each little cloud brings a 10 minute rainstorm as it passes. I decide this will be good practice for staying put and spend the hours around lunch sitting on the tailgate of my car under the cover of the trunk door reading. During a break in the rain I go down to the store in town to get some meat and vegetables to cook for dinner and discover a free source of wifi that I can use to post some entries on this blog.

After dinner I lie in my bed as the water that the pine needles accumulated from the day’s storms falls from the trees in big drops onto my roof. My neighbor has a fire burning made from illegally collected juniper branches that would be a shame except it smells so nice and sweet.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Through the Black Canyon

The salt flats flow along the highway towards Salt Lake City. I see a sailboat floating on the flats and realize I’ve reached the lake. In town I see an unnerving billboard that says “Thanks for all the laughs, Brian. 1980-2013” At least it wasn’t 1984. I take a route that breaks off from the interstate and follows state routes through Aurora and Antimony. This shows me a green Utah with grasses and cattle among the trees in the valleys of the Fish Lake forest. A house is decorated with old forestry implements; axes and two-man saws. A man moves his horses around a caved in shack with slaps on their rumps.

The road then goes through the Black Canyon and there is no centerline so I come carefully around the blind corners of the river tracing road. The rocks of the canyon are black and purple and grey laced with silver sagebrush and rabbit brush. When I emerge from the canyon the pink and white rocks of the Claron Formation can finally be seen on the edge of the plateau where the weathering of water has pitted and sheared cliffs and hoodoos down through the layers and the ponderosa pine and juniper grow wherever they can get a foothold. This is the landscape of Bryce Canyon and the Paunsaugunt Plateau. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Folded Road

I cross the ridge and I’m in the desert again. The high desert is a sparse forest of twisted trunks of juniper. The road curves through a mountain pass and then straightens for 50 miles to cross a valley to the next mountain pass.

Around a bend a town of six houses called Fields lies down the road. I coast through and almost miss the gas pump, the last for 100 miles, across a dirt lot. I pull up to the pump and am scolded by the attendant as I once again forget it’s illegal to pump my own gas in Oregon. She forgives me and invites me inside for a milkshake at their bar. I start to decline and she counters with the suggestion of a raspberry-chocolate shake and when she sees the look on my face she tells me to pull around the side of the diner while she gets it started. As I come in she’s pouring the shake from a steel tumbler into a cup to go. It overflows and she hands me a spoon and the tumbler and tells me I’m not leaving until I first finish what’s left in the tumbler.

Back on the road with my melting milkshake I descend a hill into a valley on a 20 mile stretch of straight road. The road in the distance at the bottom of the hill is reflected by the shimmering road in front of my car and it looks as if the highway folds back on itself and drives into the earth. The road finally bends and I’m over a hill into Nevada and I see the air conditioned, windowless big box houses clustered on the hills above sand dunes. The billboards on the roads advertise the beginning of adventure over the towns that hold Inez’s Dancing and Diddling Bar and all breed of ranch.

At Wendover the flashing lights make one last attempt to hold you back from the dark void of the salt flats below in Utah. Steak dinners and guaranteed winners shine on the floodlit billboards and the main street stretches out in line with the highway so you can see every car parked in front of every casino. 
On the salt flats the lights of the potash plant shimmer through the heat as it rises from the salt after the sun sets. The highway that skirts the flats is a train of headlights and taillights that give the only hint of where the ground and sky meet. One pair of lights is bigger than the others, it breaks off from the train and I hear a sound like someone pulling a continuous piece of wet fabric off of a rock. It looks like the car is driving on top of water until it gets close and I see the salt and moisture that its tires are kicking up. It drives right at me and hops back up on the paved road and drives back toward the highway.
I stand out on the cracked flat white earth and the sunset light fades into the lights of the casino town in the distance and a storm builds across the flats. The heat of the ground warms my legs while I shiver in the breeze on top. Under the clouds a policeman chases speeders all night long on the highway while above the clouds the milky way runs up and over my head into the mountains that contain the basin.