So there I was, a budding amateur astronomer/astrophotographer trapped on an city island in blighted electronic night, "living" and working in downtown LA and Long Beach, CA. A bike commuter to boot with no car and at the whim of the adventurous inclinations of friends who might oblige my sorry butt with a few outings per season to soak up the dark skies, not to mention wilderness for its own sake. Hey, get me - I'm an anachronism! I had actually kind of forgot about wilderness for a minute there. Growing up in East Mesa, Arizona the wilderness was always just down the road a spell. Aside from skateboarding, outdoor recreation usually just wound up happening whether it was hiking, camping, mountain biking, trail running (you can't fall off a mountain), tubing down the dirty Salt River or wakeboarding and cliff jumping at the lake, up to SnoBowl or Sunrise for as much snowboarding as possible, and if you were smart/lucky you spent some of your formative years reading our patron saint of Southwestern wilderness and freedom for the human soul, Edward Abbey. But after living in LA for a few years I had failed to notice that the outdoors had somehow been scripted out of my experience, I guess made up for by living near and frequenting the beach?
I got out to Joshua Tree National Park for a short weekend with an old friend with the specific intent of getting to at least a blue/green zone on the light pollution maps. I made the mile hike in with a small Meade ETX-60 +tripod strapped to all my backpacking gear and long story short, clouds and cold because it was freakin' January. But the next morning after a hearty breakfast we hiked up a mountain and slowly over the afternoon trek back down I could begin to feel the city gradually get flushed out of me as I looked and looked at wild nature all around me. I felt drowsy and drunk and my eyeballs seemed to bug out as I hiked. I began to formulate hypotheses about the visual rhetoric of nature and its restorative effects on eyes too long trapped in the city looking everywhere at right angles and the stopped up movements of traffic. Hypotheses about the visual rhetoric of forgotten faint lights emanating from distant dim stars and emission nebulas and light from our own star brightly bouncing off neighboring planets and what that may do to out physical eyeballs and the brains attached to them. Hypotheses, not theories.
Then I got another friend to haul me out to the Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Site (GMARS) located north of J. Tree which is an amazing facility run by the Riverside Astronomical Society.
They really do it up right at GMARS. 2 houses with beds, bathrooms, and kitchens, 24 powered concrete pads in a U-formation (plus one pad in the middle reserved for a huge Dobsonian telescope) to set up and plug in to, 15 observatory huts with retractable roofs etc., and plenty of room for parking and tent camping and every walkway is lined with red lights every few yards. Like noobs we arrived 2 hours after dusk which meant two things: we missed the potluck/barbeque and we would have to search for this place with no headlights for fear of annoying the already dark adapted astronomers and astrophotographers. Cut to me leading the vehicle down the road to the west of the facility with my redlight head lamp for the last 1/4 mile.
A bit after setup one of the club members showed us around and introduced us to a few of the folks doing some imaging in the huts and in general made us feel real welcome. I loaded up a few times in the kitchen on coffee and snacks and proceeded to really open up my new (solstice miracle) 8" Dob under dark skies for the first time. Here's my observing notes from that cold dark night:
February 9, 2013. GMARS facility outside Landers, CA (blue zone). 8pm-3am /~30 deg. F / winds SW @ 6 mph /new moon.
Bagged M31 Andromeda galaxy, M42 Orion nebula, Jupiter + moons, C14 Double Cluster in Perseus, C13 Owl cluster and M52 open cluster in Cassiopeia, M35 - M38 open clusters, M101 Southern Pinwheel and M51 Whirlpool galaxies, The Leo Triplet, M104 Sombrero Galaxy (!), M13 globular cluster, a bunch of the random galaxies in Canes Venatici/Coma Berenices/Virgo, and Saturn before freezing the night away and trying to sleep in the van.
Back2Life Back2Reality Back2LightPollution
From the limited view of my front porch I continued to learn how to star hop using my dob+red dot sight and multiple star wheels, smartphone apps, reference books, and magazine articles and excitedly planned my next excursion: a grey zone camping trip near Desert Center, CA in the Chuckwalla and adjacent Orocapai Mountains Wilderness on BLM lands near the Salton Sea. We were coming up on summer and decided to make the 3.5 hour trip so we could see the Milky Way. Totally worth it. We slept outside in bags and a bivy sack in a cool 55 degrees F and dozed off while watching the center of our home galaxy blaze up thick in the southeast and roll westward over the Chocolate Mountain Air Force gunnery range. But before sleep I added M20 Triffid, M8 Lagoon, M17 Swan/Omega, M16 Eagle nebulas, M80 globular cluster, M81 Bode's and M82 Cigar galaxies to the list plus other previously viewed faves with my trusty Dob. The next morning we checked out sunspots with my solar filter and then spent the day hiking, 4 wheelin', exploring caves and old mining depots. complete with stone houses and cyanide solution tubs and setting up camp near a ~40 ft high abandoned railway trestle that we slowly crossed before sundown.
"The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness." John Muir. I think a desert may have to suffice Johnny, sorry.
I spent the next few months pushing my iPhone's imaging capabilities, finding double stars, learning the different mares, craters, and anomalies on the moon, getting to know my new Canon DSLR and generally wondering what to do about my situation and how to change my life. How to script wilderness and dark skies back into my life and get into rhythm with the real action of the world.
I guess Back2Arizona to figure it all out?