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. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Fabulous shot! and the first one I've seen, since I am new to your blog as of today :) I work with your Mom