Monday, 20 October 2008

Lowell country

While in the slow process of turning into an American I promised myself to spend more time on the mainland visiting and learning about the country. Unfortunately, due to the increase in the cost of everything, I haven't kept that promise, although I did manage one trip about 3 years ago. Don't get me wrong, I've visited the mainland several times, but usually for work-related reasons or overnight layovers at airport hotels. It's rare I get to spend some vacation time there though.

That trip was to Flagstaff, Arizona, and although it was short, it was unforgettable. I visited Meteor Crater which although impressive left me feeling a little less than satisfied. I'm not sure why, perhaps I was expecting something bigger, but I'm still glad I can say I've seen it. By the way, why isn't it called Meteorite Crater?

Then there was the beautiful Sedona area and I really felt I was in cowboy country, all the memories of watching John Wayne westerns as a kid came flooding back! The picture above was taken on the drive from Flagstaff to Sedona City (it was autumn, so the colours were amazing) and the one below is of Courthouse Butte, at least I think it is. Sedona City itself was a bit too much of a tourist-trap for me, but it had a great Mexican restaurant!

The highlight of the trip is in no doubt; it was the Grand Canyon. My pictures aren't too good I'm afraid, a bad photographer coupled with a hazy day is a bad combination, but I don't think it matters. There's just no way you can capture the sense of awe you experience when you first see the canyon. It's indescribable; breathtaking doesn't even come close. For anyone who hasn't had the chance to see it first hand, make it your life's ambition.

On the last day in Flagstaff I took it upon myself to visit the Lowell Observatory. It was a bit of a busman's holiday but it is an historic site. For those without too much knowledge of the history of astronomy, or just astronomy itself, Percival Lowell was the man that pushed the theory of the canals on Mars more than anyone else by observing the planet and presenting his sketches around the turn of the 20th century. He thought he could see canals built by Martians as did many others although there was certainly sceptism at the time, and the observations were not repeatable by any means. In the early 1900s it was discovered that Mars was very dry and the canal/Martian theory started to fall out of favour, but it wasn't until 1965 with the arrival of NASA's Mariner 4 probe that the final nail was put into the coffin. It showed that the surface was barren and was incapable of sustaining intelligent life.

Lowell's observations and sketches are part of astronomical history and are displayed at the Lowell observatory. I felt privileged to see them.

The observatory is historic for another reason. It's where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Although that story deserves more than just a few sentences, the observations of the solar system's outer planets indicated that there was a discrepancy that had to be caused by another planet beyond them and the calculations showed where it should be. After some extremely painstaking observations Tombaugh discovered the planet, or at least he thought so.

Although Pluto was certainly real, it was a serendipitous discovery. Tombaugh just happened to discover what is now known as a dwarf planet after us evil astronomers demoted Pluto from planet status in 2006. In fact, the discovery of Pluto's moon, Charon, in 1978, showed that Pluto didn't have the mass to affect the outer planets and soon afterwards data from the Voyager 2 probe showed that there was no discrepancy to start with.

This is the telescope Tombaugh used to discover Pluto. I couldn't get back far enough to picture the whole structure, but the astrograph he used is shown (the tube with the metal plate-holder at the end - an astrograph is simply a telescope designed purely for old-fashioned astronomical photography). It brought back memories of one of my final-year undergraduate projects when I also used an astrograph to learn about unsharp masking.

I've more trips planned albeit rather vaguely. Next year I'd like to either 1) take an Amtrak train across the Rockies, 2) visit Montana or 3) drive Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. Any tips?


Lou Minatti said...

First time I was at the Grand Canyon was in 1998. My experience was just like Bill Bryson's. We got there and it was cloudy and we couldn't see anything from the South Rim. Then the clouds parted and it was "Holy sh....!"

Meteor Crater is interesting from a geologic standpoint, but the displays are lame.

Better, drive north through Monument Valley and up into Utah.

Last time I was at the Grand Canyon I felt sorry for the busloads of German and Japanese tourists. Arizona/Utah is normally crawling with them, but for tourists on buses it sucks. The bus stops for 20 minutes, then they're back on. They don't get to actually see anything other than a quick glimpse of a panorama. They don't interact with any of the Navaho people out there. Are they afraid, or does the schedule simply not permit it?

Tom said...

I tried to find my copy of Bill Bryson's book because I wanted to quote him, but couldn't. It's a sight I'll never forget and hope to see it again several more times.

Unfortunately we only had four nights in Flagstaff so it was all a bit rushed (not quite like the tour buses though). Next time I think I will follow your advice. I'd like to visit the north rim as well.

The only bad thing about the trip was having to stay a night in Lost Wages (in order to catch the flight home). It was my first time there and hopefully my last. That place just "isn't me".

Beep said...

You definitely should go to Utah sometime and see Zion and Bryce canyons and the Arches...I have only seen photos of Zion and Arches, but I went to Bryce when I was 12 and still remember it! Just don't go in the summer--very very hot. As for the Arches, I read about a collapse of a famous arch, but I hear there are still plenty left :)

As for other places you should see: Yosemite, but not during the tourist season. Autumn and spring are wonderful. Yellowstone -- I haven't been, but I hear great things. Same for the gorges between Portland, OR and California.