Quickly adapted from an email to Cindy Barbara (mostly just deleting the parts that aren't applicable if you're not cute and French.)
I thought this weekend I was going to spend cleaning my house, but I woke up way too early this morning and went downstairs to lay on the couch for awhile. I left my cellphone sitting on my coffee table last night, so I was right next to it when I got a call asking if I could cover for a sick colleague down at Goddard Space Flight Center (just outside of Washington D.C.)
So, here I am, once again, mostly bored sitting next to a gigantic cryo-vacuum chamber (with very loud pumps.)
I must have mentioned it when we were in Michigan, because we still had not finished the second round of testing until my birthday in October. This is the third (and final!) set of tests for the brand new camera going into the Hubble. It's very exciting to be a part of, but it's also very, very boring. I guess that's a good thing- the only time there's really much to do is when things go wrong. So boring is good.
One benefit is that I get to attend the launch of the space shuttle so the astronauts can install it this summer. One of my earliest memories is of my older brother waking me up on a Saturday morning when I was maybe 4 years old saying "The space shuttle is launching!" Now, this was just a year or two after Star Wars had come out, and I recall not knowing what a "space shuttle" was, and not quite grasping that spaceships didn't go into outer space all the time. But seeing that I was hooked. I saw lots of news coverage about it at my friend's house across the street the rest of the day (I think that first mission just went up, orbited a few times, then landed) and grew to understand that it was the first time anything like that had been done.
Needless to say I always wanted to see a launch in person, but never got the chance. When I moved back to Toledo and started graduate school my best friend and I vowed we were going to go to the next one we could. Unfortunately that was a week or so before the terrorist attacks in 2001, and after that I don't think they let anybody anywhere near the space center during a launch. Then Columbia, that first shuttle I had watched on T.V. as a little boy, burnt up on re-entry, and it looked like there would be no more launches to ever see. Eventually they resumed, but under much tighter security. The public can no longer watch from the space center itself, only from beaches and parks many miles away.
But, I am no longer "the public". NASA employees can request passes to be present for a launch (and I'm a psuedo-NASA employee). Plus, being even a minor member of the team building and operating the new camera gives me a sort of V.I.P. (Very Introspective Person? That doesn't sound right...) status.
So unless they run out of the allotment of passes before they work they're way down to my level on the totem pole, I'll finally get my chance to see one. And I get to bring friends to Florida with me. Unfortunately they have families and jobs now, and can't just up and go whenever like me the crazy stargazing bachelor, but hopefully at least a few people will get to go with me.
And most of you probably already know that I finally made it back to Hawai'i.
The first night we were there we were just too jet-lagged to do anything, and just went to bed. The next morning we had contract negotiations with the university about our continuing to use the observatory. We were really worried about it, but it went very smoothly. They seem to really like us being there and want us to stay.
When we were finally ready to head up to the summit we were told that the road had been closed all morning due to some ice, but that it had just opened. We made it up and quickly got to work.
At some point long after the sun had set I stepped outside for a moment and the ground felt "weird" under my boots. I went back inside and came out with a flashlight. It was covered in snow! Even there, at the highest point on the entire island, it had only snowed a few times in anyone still living's lifetime.
We were mildly concerned at the start of our drive back down the mountain, but it looked like it had stopped snowing and only the wind was blowing some flakes around in open areas. We stopped at a turn off point part way down and Peter took a picture of me with the snow blowing all around in our car's headlights just to proof to everyone we know that it did actually snow.
When we made it back to our rental house there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and it was a warm, dazzling night. I'm always shocked by how clear the sky is there. The stars look like jewels suspended in dark blue ink. I hate to say it, but it even puts our walk out onto the lake in Michigan to shame.
The next morning it was raining. We were impressed to see that it had snowed enough to put a white cap on the volcano. We went to the grocery store to pick up food for the observatory, and all the locals were amazed at the sight of snow on the mountain. People couldn't believe it when we told them we had been up there while it happened.
We hadn't given it any thought, but of course we quickly learned that the National Park rangers had closed the entire mountain area due to the snow. It was a bit of culture shock. We tried working from our house, but realized quickly that we didn't have enough of the observatories computer systems configured just right yet, and therefore couldn't do too much work from the ground. So, we decided to forgo our beautiful house overlooking the ocean and try to get back to snow covered summit. The snow would surely melt by the end of the day and everything would be fine.
At every roadblock the rangers gave us horror stories about four wheel drive vehicles turning around in frustration, but let us continue, anyways. Even though the road was steep, winding, and nothing but sheer drop offs to the side it wasn't a bad drive up in our little rental car.
Too make a long story short, it snowed off and on for several days. We had warm clothes, sleeping bags, and plenty of food, so we were OK. Everybody at all of the other observatories live there, so they didn't bother trying to work during the snow. We had a week, so needed to do whatever we could. As a consequence for a few days we were the only two people on the entire mountain. If our electricity had gone out, which it does all too often up there, we would have been in serious trouble. But it didn't, and in the periods when it wasn't snowing I went for short walks. It was eerily beautiful. When the sun came out all the ice around me glimmered like the rocks were covered in diamonds.
Eventually it warmed up above freezing, then we were buried under fog from all the snow melting. We extended our trip a few extra days, but it never did clear. And all the snow melting, plus the rain, caused flooding further down, which closed the road up and down for even more days.
Finally we just accepted that we weren't going to get clear skies, and booked a hotel in this old whaling village on the coast just to relax and enjoy ourselves. Now instead of ships hunting whales scientist study them from there.
The shallow waters between the islands, so far out in the otherwise impossibly deep Pacific make the area the favorite mating and birthing grounds for humpback whales. We went out on a boat with a bunch of marine biologist and other tourists and it was almost like trying to float in a bowl of "whale soup". There were so many of them that they seemed to be everywhere you looked. Highlights of the trip were when we put a microphone down in the water and listened to the whales sing to each other, and then on our way back into port saw a mother and her calf, who the scientists determined was only a day or two old. While we were just patiently watching the baby decided he wanted to try what he must of seen some of the adults do, and LEAPED into the air! Most of the scientist were women in their 20s, and they all squealed like little girls in happiness. Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of it, but it was so cool to see one so small (I mean for a whale!) do something they thought only older whales did.
Now, from one ocean to the other! (Typical American- I only ever think of two of them...)
It occurred to me last week that I had lived here for over a year, but still hadn't been to the coast. I'd spent so much time in the Pacific the past few years, but was ignoring the Atlantic just a few miles away. So I decided to spend the day in the resort town of Ocean City.
I know people who's greatest joy is spending every summer of their lives in such places. I'm definitely not one of them. It's a terrible thing to think, but I always picture them as very old women trying to hide their wrinkles and age spots with garish makeup.
Architecture of such towns I always think of a Mid-20th Century American Vomit. I'm not sure why. It's not the artificiality (fake castles, fake trees, etc). There's just always a feeling of rot and decay being barely hidden behind a cheap facade.
The first time I ever encountered a resort town was Niagra, Canada when I was around 8 or 9. It was a busy place with lots of people, but all of these places with big amusement park rides that I would have wanted to go on were closed. And looked like they hadn't been open in years. Museums filled with wonders and oddities were just falling down buildings with "shrunken heads" and "mummified mermaids" that were clearly fake even in the dim lighting to a little kid.
I always wonder if there was a Golden Age at some point of Ferris Wheels and Mini Golf. My entire life I've only encountered them in advanced states of decay and surrounded by a sense of melancholy. I've begun to suspect that they, in fact, spring into being sad and decaying. I never saw anything like these in Japan, until just a few years ago. Suddenly they were popping up in pictures from all over the country- supposedly wildly popular in the late 80s, but all abandoned to rust when the economy tanked in the mid-90s. But I've never located evidence of them in their popularity. Throngs of happy people at Tokyo Disney, yes. But no trace of these seaside parks until they were ghost towns along the coasts.
I know this is all turning very negative, and some of it is because I'm getting very tired, but it also has a point. I was walking along admiring the seagulls, and the waves crashing into the shore, and trying not to get depressed about constantly being stopped by smiling couples stopping me and asking me to take their pictures. I thought about how beautiful it was, as long as I kept my eyes to the sea, and not to the wall of hotels and decrepit stores selling cheap trinkets. I wished I could have seen what it looked like centuries ago, before we built all the junk all over the place.
Then I realized that not only was that a very elitist sort of thought, but it was very wrong. 200 years ago no one would have went to that beach to walk just for the fun of it. It would have been a shallow sandbar along a very treacherous coastline. Instead of smiling couples (and me) walking along admiring the gulls, the only person foolish enough to venture that close to the ocean might have been a young women whose husband was weeks overdue from his last voyage, dreading that every piece of driftwood that she found would be identifiable as a wrecked ship's timber.
The hotels and overpriced condos grown thick as weeds are what made beaches like that safe for people to visit and have a good time, and even children to play in the ocean. And maybe even the garish fantasy architecture and faux tropical trappings, the wild drunkenness and having sex with strangers in a seedy dance club that go hand-in-hand with such places is all just a way to laugh in the face of death.
I pondered that for a long while, and walked several miles along the shore, unable to get Bruce Springsteen's "4th of July, Asbury Park" out of my head.
But I did get my wish to see what that all may have looked like in the past.
Unbeknownst to me until I got there and saw a tourist map, Assateague island was just a few miles south. Right on the border with Virginia, it and several other islands have been made into State and National Parks. Almost completely undeveloped, their most famous residents are a population of horses that have been wild for generations.
It was fantastic. Miles of uninterrupted coastline, and the horses know they rule the island. They'll stand right in the middle of the few roads leading to the camping areas and just stare at you until they damn well feel like moving out of the way. Or just casually walk over and check out your car, probably hoping you'll give them something to eat.
The deer and the birds are nearly as fearless.
After that wonderful detour I headed back to Ocean City to catch the sunset and had a very good dinner at a restaurant in one of the hotels. Then I made the long drive in the dark back to Baltimore.