Another image of the Milky Way. Here it’s “rising” above the cliffs of Zion NP in Utah. Those who know the park might recognize The Watchman formation on the extreme lower right. This is also an example of how minimal light pollution can be more of an aid than a hindrance. The detail visible on the cliff walls is the result of light coming from the small town of Springdale, Utah – a town that sits at the western entrance of the park. Neat!
As some of you might know, we’ve been on the road for the past few weeks. One of the main objectives was to return to Death Valley. Because of the recent rains they’d had there, an explosion of wildflowers was expected. And yes, there was an abundance of flowers, even in places where one wouldn’t expect to see them. We also experienced something else that most probably never do: we had heavy clouds – and short periods of rain – for 2 of the 4 days we were there. Not that we minded; it made the whole park look dramatically different.
But it was the night-sky photography experience that really made it interesting. Death Valley is one of the darkest night-sky areas in the world. There just isn’t a lot of artificial light around once the sun goes down. It’s flat-ass dark! Especially on a moonless night. While walking to this particular spot I was carrying a good sized Maglite and still had trouble seeing where I was going. The darkness just seemed to devour the light. Disoriented would not be too strong a word. And I’d scouted the area during the day.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen the sky look as beautiful as it did that night. (By the way, we’re talking 4:00 AM here.) And this was my second night out. It was just an extraordinary experience.
Sadly, the places where these types of experiences are possible are diminishing. Light pollution is on the increase, especially across the United States. If you look at a light pollution “map”, you’ll see that the eastern half of the U. S. is essentially blanketed with light during the nighttime hours. There are places where the Milky Way is visible, but you might have to drive a ways to find them. You really need to be west of a line that, generally speaking, passes through Kansas to have the best chances of seeing it. The further west, the better. When you think about it, you have to wonder how many people have actually seen a sky that looks like this. How many kids have never seen the Milky Way, or even know where to look for it in the night sky?
By the way, we’ve entered Milky Way “season” here in North America. From what I’ve read, the best time to see it – with the Galactic Core visible – is between March and October. You can see it in other months but it’s not nearly as bright and the GC can’t be seen.
For anyone interested, my exposure settings on the EM-1 were as follows:
ISO 3200, Exp. time 25 sec., f/2.8
The lens I used was the Olympus 7 – 14mm f/2.8 PRO. The actual focal length used was 8mm (effectively 16mm on the EM-1). Given that focal length, the 25 second exposure yielded no star trails. A good thing in this case.
The “light painting” was down with a small, red LED flashlight. I’d tried doing it with a white light but really didn’t like the look. The amazing thing is that I couldn’t even see what the light was doing. The sensor obviously did, though. In fact, the exposure with the red light was only about 10 seconds.
Still learning, though. And I’ll say this: At 4:00 in the morning you don’t have to worry about anyone else getting in the way. There’s just you, your camera, and a sky full of stars.
For us older dudes, it’s hard to believe that another year has disappeared into the ether. Gone to the same place as the dodo bird and the phone booth. Just another piece of history. Not that anyone is likely to miss 2015. In the overall scheme of things it wasn’t that memorable. Crazy, perhaps. And bizarre. But we didn’t exactly bring peace and happiness and sanity to the world, did we. More like the opposite. Again.
So I have some questions. About 2016, that is. Chances are that no one else gives a damn about my questions, but I’m going to throw them out there anyway. Just because they’re bugging the hell out of me (and I have little else to do).
#10. Will Fox News continue to shorten the dresses of their female news people so that us old farts can more easily see their undies?
(Not that I watch Fox News all that much. But it can be amusing. Especially around noon when I’m getting really bored. That’s when I can watch the 4 airheads on “Outnumbered” who seem to be trying to see which one of them can wear the shortest dress and put on the most makeup. If it was me, I’d call the show “4 Hookers on a Couch”.)
#9. Will the northeastern United States ever get any real snow this winter?
(Not that I’m complaining. We had enough last year to cover the next decade. For us, El Nino’s been a good thing. But it seems kind of weird. You actually feel a little guilty about it, like you’re cheating Mother Nature or something.)
#8. Will Death Valley actually have a “once-in-a-millennium” wild flower eruption this spring?
(This one is important to me. If I’m going to drive 6,000 miles or so – again – I’d like to think that the flower prediction will come true. A silly wish, I know, but hey, I’m not getting any younger……)
#7. Will gas prices continue to drop, or at least stay where they are?
(Yeah, I know. Another selfish question. But 6,000 miles at $2.00 a gallon is a whole lot better than 6,000 miles at $3.00 a gallon.)
#6. Will the Cleveland Browns ever become a real football team again?
(Admitting you’re a Cleveland Browns fan is tantamount to admitting that you’re a loser. Because that’s all they do.)
#5. Will Donald Trump win the Republican nomination for President? Can he actually become President?
(Well, we’ve all been wrong about him up to this point, so why not? He’s riding some kind of populist wave that the political experts apparently don’t understand. If he does go all the way I’ll make this prediction: the Trump-led U. S. government will merge with Barnum and Bailey and truly become the greatest show on earth.)
#4. Will Hillary become the first woman President?
(I’ll vote for her if she wins the Democratic nomination and Trump or Cruz is her opponent, but I’d honestly rather have another choice. Like Jeb, I think her time has passed.)
#3. Are all those people who are texting while driving really trying to kill me?
(Really, are they? Somebody has to invent a smartphone that sends a lethal jolt of electricity through the user if they try to operate the phone while driving. You gotta admit, it would be fun to watch. By the way, if you believe in multitasking, you’re an idiot.)
#2. As a species, are we getting dumber or smarter?
(See question #3.)
#1. Who’s Rey?
(This is the real question. The first 9 don’t really count. If someone could answer this one – correctly – I’d probably pay real money for the answer. If you don’t understand the question, then you’ve been living under a rock somewhere……)
“A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at them because we are human?’ Pointless, really…….. ‘Do the stars gaze back?’ Now that’s a question.”
Like the previous “night-sky” images I posted a while back, this photograph was taken just before dawn in Monument Valley, with the East Mitten and Merrick’s Butte in the foreground. What struck me about this scene was the visible pillar of light that appears to be projecting from the top of the butte to the so-called “morning star” (Venus). In reality it was light from the sun, still a good distance below the horizon, that created this effect. The view, of course, is to the southeast.
You can also see two other planets in this photograph: Jupiter is the next brightest “star” (below and to the left of Venus) and the reddish dot just above Jupiter is (I think) Mars. What you’re seeing is a conjunction (or near conjunction) of these 3 planets. At certain times during the year these conjunctions bring two or more of the planets in our solar system into close proximity of one another. Well, at least from our perspective here on earth. They only appear to be on top of one another. When that happens, it creates a very, very bright object in the sky. An object that clearly moves with the earth’s rotation.
I bring all this up because of the season. Anyone familiar with Christmas knows the story of the 3 wisemen or magi who supposedly followed a very bright “star” to the birthplace of Christ. A plausible secular explanation of this event is that the star they saw was either a comet or a supernova or, more likely, two or three planets in conjunction in the morning sky. An event that would have looked something like what you see here. Looking at this image one can see that such a planetary conjunction might have appeared to be a guiding light in the sky. Especially to people who were a little less than astronomically enlightened.
Perhaps a sight like this inspired the story of “The Star of Bethlehem”. True or not, it is how such stories are born, embellished, and passed on from one generation to the next. Whether religiously inclined or not, we need stories like this. At some level such stories are the very essence of our existence. They are what connects us across both time and distance. They are the one thing that all humans have in common. Which makes them kind of unique. Take away our stories and you take away our humanity.
“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, and live by love though the stars walk backward.”
E. E. Cummings (“Dive for Dreams”)
If you’ve ever visited any national parks you’ve no doubt seen people crowded around the signs near the entrances – taking pictures. I guess it’s so they can show people that they were, in fact, at the Grand Canyon or Death Valley or wherever. It’s not unusual to see people standing in line, waiting for their opportunity.
Utah is not a national park, of course. It’s a state. But people stop at these signs as well. We got lucky here (Barbara, my wife, wanted a picture of this sign so we stopped). She had it all to herself. Almost immediately, though, a whole bunch of other vehicles arrived to take pictures. Not to mention a bus.
To me this is an interesting phenomenon. Interesting because I’ve never seen anyone do it on the New York state border (a State Trooper would probably arrest you for loitering if you did). I’ve also never seen anyone do it at most other state borders. So why Utah?
I guess it’s a good question. Maybe it’s because folks want to remember that they’ve been to Utah. Or maybe it’s right there on the sign: Life Elevated. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it’s catchy. I suppose it could mean that if you’ve seen all that there is to see in Utah, or at least some of it, your life has been “elevated”.
Personally, I like that interpretation; it makes sense to me.
One of the biggest “discoveries” we’ve made over the last 10 years of travel, I think, is the existence of badlands. Before that, the only thing I personally knew about badlands was that there was a national park somewhere in the Dakotas that had that name. I also believed that that was the only place where badlands existed in this country. I remember my son and daughter-in-law talking about driving through some badlands (on their way to their new home in Las Vegas around that time) and me telling them that they hadn’t really driven through actual “badlands”; they couldn’t have, I said, because the badlands were in South Dakota and they didn’t drive that far north.
My statement was, of course, very wrong and very ignorant. Badlands can be found in many parts of the southwest (as well as in South Dakota’s Badlands NP). You can find magnificent examples of badlands in Arizona, Utah, and certainly in eastern California at Death Valley.
And so I keep looking for them.
The Bentonite Hills, just to the east of Capitol Reef NP, is one such place. And yes, when you get up close to these structures, they look kind of crunchy. Mainly because they’re essentially made of clay. And it’s the clay that is one of the reasons that plant life can’t grow in most badlands. Clay tends to expand and contract significantly when it gets wet, a process that’s not conducive to plant growth in general and seedling survival in particular. It’s also true that badlands aren’t exactly resistant to erosion. The top layers will literally wash away during a heavy rainfall. Which is why you see delta-like formations at the bottom of many badland hills.
They can also be very colorful. That’s because they easily absorb minerals (or so I’m told). But then I’m not the world’s greatest authority on badlands. I just like to find them and photograph them. For the moment I’ll let someone else worry about the science of badlands.
With all due respect to Snoopy (from the Peanuts comic strip) and his limited literary skills, there aren’t all that many “dark and stormy nights” on the Colorado Plateau. Which makes getting to see one a photographic treat.
In my experience, storms in the American southwest differ from more “normal” storms in two respects: First, they’re usually slow movers. They like to take their time moving across the landscape. That’s not always the case, of course, but I think much of the time it is. If you see a storm off in the distance, don’t worry about running for cover or looking for your umbrella. It’s probably hours away. Or it may never arrive at all.
Second, southwestern storms tend to dump their rain (if they dump anything at all) over mountainous areas. If you want to stay dry, don’t go up into the hills. Stay in the valleys. Just don’t park your butt in a slot canyon if it’s raining in the hills. That would be an incredibly bad idea.
And I think that clouds (and storms) have more “personality” in this part of the country. They’re more aloof, if that adjective can be used to describe weather. They’re certainly not ubiquitous; they tend to “hide” just over or on the horizon, and they release water sparingly to the parched earth below. The clouds, lightning and thunder can be ominous, but it’s often just bluster. The moisture is literally eaten by the atmosphere.
That’s the case in this image. Rain is coming out of the clouds but most of it never reaches the ground. That can happen anywhere, of course, but it’s very common on the Colorado Plateau (except maybe during Monsoon season). You stand there looking up at the sky figuring you’re about to get soaked. But nothing happens. Not surprising, I guess, when the dew point is in the 10 – 20 degree range.
You just gotta love the desert……..
Goblin Valley State Park lies between Arches and Capitol Reef National Parks on one of those routes in Utah where you can drive for miles without seeing another car (my kind of road!). It lies just to the west of Route 24, a 2-lane road that runs south from I-70 to the small town of Hanksville, Utah. If there’s such a thing as “rural” Utah, this is it.
You might remember that Goblin Valley was in the news a couple of years ago – 3 Boy Scout leaders decided to topple one of these 200 million year old Entrada sandstone structures because it represented a “safety hazard”. They even made a video of it and posted it on Facebook. I don’t know how all that played out but I hope they’re not still working with kids. Dumb.
It is true, though, that these formations are fairly fragile. You can easily chip away at them, even with your bare hands. I think if it rained here more often a lot of these structures would have washed away by now. Fortunately, these goblins “live” in the desert.
The only downside to this place – and I’m being a little picky here – is that just about everything is the same orange-ish color. On one side of the park there are some green colored formations (limestone perhaps?), but most everything else is the same color you see here.
If I have a favorite park in New York State, it’s Watkins Glen. It’s a place that still brings out the kid in me, a place that can make me forget whatever troubles I might have, and a place that makes me look in wonder, no matter how many times I see it.
The gorge trail, where I spend virtually all of my time, runs about a mile and a half from bottom to top. Over that short distance Glen Creek falls between 400 and 500 feet as it cuts through shale and sandstone (yes, sandstone, although it’s not red or yellow or even white – it’s just gray).
The deeper you get into the gorge, the more it seems to wrap itself around you. It’s not just what you see; it’s what you smell and what you touch. The gorge is always cool and it’s always moist. Add autumn’s fallen leaves and the smell is intoxicating. Just wear some shoes that can stand a little water because you’re going to get a little wet from time to time. But what kid doesn’t like that?
Like any worthwhile gorge (or slot canyon for that matter), Watkins Glen gets dark in a few places, even in the middle of the day. You might even call it “spooky”.
Almost certainly the most well known spot in the gorge (and the most photographed) is Rainbow Falls. This series of cascading waterfalls, with adjacent plunge pools, is near the top end of the gorge with a walking bridge that crosses the stream and leads to a parking lot and picnic area.
I honestly don’t know why they call it “Rainbow Falls”. Maybe, if the sun’s position is right, a rainbow forms behind the water that drops near the walkway on the left. If that’s the case I’ve never seen it. I do know, however, that you’re likely to get wet there. As will your camera gear.
Cavern Cascade is actually near the lower end of the gorge. Since the walls around this waterfall are concave, you can walk underneath the falls (so long as you don’t mind getting wet – again). Because the walkway is narrow, setting up a tripod isn’t easy. And believe me you need a tripod. But if you do you’re going to block traffic. Except for this particular spot. There’s a small area just above this part of the “trail” that’s out of the way and pretty much in the dark. Nobody knew I was here until they walked past me. Some of them were clearly startled when my tripod and I suddenly became visible. That was kind of fun…….for me, anyway.
Sand Dune Arch is not nearly as well known as Delicate Arch (you won’t see it on any Utah license plates), but it’s far easier to get to. It sits between two large sandstone fins at the end of a very short trail. Walking to it is a lot like walking on a beach, a beach with very fine reddish sand. And if you visit this little arch in the middle of the afternoon you might see the “glow” effect, where light reflected off the fins give the arch and surrounding sand an orange / red appearance.