Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Honeymoon

After our wedding (blogged by C at https://medium.com/@corbett/aotearoaconf-2017-aka-christine-and-casey-got-married-d4640fdc3569), C and I went on an eclipse-themed honeymoon! 


One doesn't always get the chance to take a week of holiday, so we had grand plans. We had already driven Space Car up to the bay area, so after finishing up at the NASA Frontier Development Lab, I hit the road and got stuck in awful traffic and searing heat for nearly four hours. 

But I persisted and eventually made it to Davis, where I met C (just done with a public policy event at Sacramento) and another friend S. After a hearty dinner, we drove east, and a pigeon tried unsuccessfully to land on our car. We didn't stop, but shot up the Donner Pass and found the sketchiest hotel in all of Reno. We insisted on changing out of a room with multiple blood stains on the lamp shades (of all places!) to one with plastic bags over the smoke detectors. 

The next morning we left Reno in great haste and drove east, stopping outside Tesla's Gigafactory for breakfast. The road took us east and north past Winnemucca to, eventually, Boise. Boise has a bizarre hotel with themed suites, and we stayed in the Sleeping Beauty room. It had a castle, suit of armor, waterfall and large bathtub, and the bedroom was inside a cylindrical tower. We explored the city and had a dinner so late (8pm) that I fell asleep on the plate.
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The next day we drove a few more miles north west to Ontario, just over the Snake River in Oregon. We started to run into people who looked like they might be eclipse hunting, with telescopes, filters, and themed teeshirts. We did some eclipse spotting location testing, but mostly found a series of depressing towns around Weiser. Back in town we checked into a hotel, met our friend M who had flown into the airport, and eventually found a terrific Mexican restaurant behind the truck stop behind the other truck stop, where everything was cooked in lard. As it should be! 

Migrants on the Oregon Trail would travel down Snake River to Farewell Bend, the last place to die a good death before traversing hundreds of miles of deserts to the west. Today, it's a lovely state park and on this day it was full of cars and people all set to have themselves a wonderful time. 

We arrived at Farewell Bend about an hour before first contact, and the place was very busy. We parked Space Car about a mile up the road, loaded up with gear (inflatable couch, binoculars, filters, camera, camp food and cooking equipment, sunglasses, hats, water, drone) and walked in. We found a patch of lush grass between widely spaced trees (for shade) and got settled. A nearby viewer introduced himself as a 60s era Caltech alum working on cold fusion, and a few dozen yards down the hill were a bunch of amateur astronomers with all kinds of telescopes and fancy filters.

Farewell Bend is the place where people on the Oregon Trail left Snake River to cross the desert to the west, and to this day it has a great outlook over the river and some mostly barren hills opposite. The sun was high, and the sky was totally cloudless. We got our gear in order and settled in. I ran into another more recent Caltech alum by a line of suspiciously neat porta-potties. 

At every point during the event the crowds' collective murmurs kept us informed as to what was going on. Christine and I wore shirts with variations on "scientist! ask me anything" written on them, but everyone we talked to seemed to know more than we did. Later, someone said it was their 12th eclipse and not as good as the one last year!

Around 10:20am first contact occurred, when our filtered binoculars showed the edge of the moon touching the edge of the sun. The moon progressed toward the lower left, over the next 70 minutes covering more and more of the sun until, with just minutes before totality, the light got noticeably darker, the colours stood out like an overly-processed photograph, and shadows got sharper. Dappled shade behind trees was a total mess of overlapping crescents - the splotches of light in the shade of trees are, afterall, slightly defocused images of the sun.
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A minute before totality, the area of the sun was so reduced that ripples in the atmosphere bent the light coherently enough to get shadow bands, rushing streaks of black and white like the bottom of a pool. It was as though, in the last rapid fading of the day's light, the light itself was breaking into shards. 

The opposite sky darkened and the moon's shadow rushed towards us at the speed of the fastest military planes and, with the last diamond of the sun extinguished, the sky became totally black. Venus, Mars, and Mercury were all visible. The horizon was sunset colours in 360 degrees. The sun was now an inky black disk, like a hole in the sky, with the light coloured streaks of the solar corona shooting out from both sides, like a mustachioed devil. Through unfiltered binoculars we could see two solar prominences in vivid pinkish purple at about 2 o'clock and 5 o'clock on the face of the sun. 

Despite promises, birds didn't go nuts (though I saw this in an annular eclipse a few years back), but a few dogs and children lost their minds. 

Two minutes felt like two seconds, and the sun peeped out from the other side. The moon's shadow rushed away up the opposite hills, the sky steadily lightened, shadows returned and then began to gradually blur once more, though tree shadows looked weird for much of the next hour. By 12:44pm it was all over. We ate some lunch, crashed a toy drone 4000 times (learning!) and eventually drove out via some amazing windmills. Traffic was pretty reasonable - nothing like the horror we were yet to encounter in Yellowstone.

We returned to the crazy Boise hotel and this time stayed in the Treasure Island suite, themed as a sailing ship with a crows nest, plank, beach, and coconut palm shower. We found a local place with a secret vegan menu, did some work, and then passed out. Solar eclipses are amazing. I highly recommend them!
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The next day we headed further east, stopping at the incredible lava fields of Craters of the Moon National Monument (also full of people), and hiking through a huge lava tube. We had a freeze-dried risotto for lunch, then drove on to Jackson in Wyoming, which contained numerous examples of extreme mediocrity for extreme expense. But was rather pretty for all that.
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The next day we drove north to Yellowstone National Park, where we spent 2 hours in crawling traffic because a 3 mile section of road was reduced to one lane - but eventually made it to the geyser fields, which were pretty good. I have seen the geysers in New Zealand and Kamchatka, so I suppose the next stop is Iceland? We walked around all of them, watched Old Faithful do its thing, and eventually drove north and west out of the park, enduring only 10 more miles of stop-go traffic, and nearly running out of gas. Once back in Montana and Idaho, we stepped on the gas, getting dinner at Olive Garden (at least a pound of pasta) and staying the night in Pocatello. 
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The next day we drove south once more into Utah and got lunch in Salt Lake City. We listened to Book of Mormon to celebrate, then visited the library and the Grand American Hotel, which was staggeringly overdone. We had orange juice while a harp played! We left town, following wind turbines through a gap in the mountains to the east of the city and, after only the usual two or three hours at blazing speed, arrived at Canyonlands National Park in time for sunset, which was pretty fun. On the way out, we saw a fox and some deer, then spent the night at hotel in Moab. 
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Next morning we got underway early, visiting the busy and hot Arches National Park, which contained people, hundreds of stone arches, and balancing rocks, then cut west across rural Utah along the most mindbending Interstate (I70) I'd ever seen, eventually arriving at Bryce Canyon. C had never heard of it before so I got a picture of her face when she got to the edge of the cliff. We didn't have time to dispatch a long hike, so we headed on past Mt Carmel Junction to Zion, enjoying the tunnel and staying in the lodge, eating at the grill, and generally living the life. Once again we saw the Milky Way and some deer before bed.
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The next day we offset some of our enforced idleness by waking as early as 7 (!) and quickly strolling up Angel's Landing, a spectacular viewpoint looking out over the whole of Zion Canyon, accessed by a perilously narrow (4' wide) ridge with a 1000 feet drop on both sides. We followed that with a nice walk up The Narrows, took in lunch at the grill, drove back to the I15, down the Virgin River Canyon, then stopped in at Valley of Fire State Park. The Mormons also traveled through here, but I just love the red rocks, bluish plants, prehistoric carvings, animal tracks, dinosaur tracks, and weird shapes. 
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Heading south we also stopped at Hyperloop One's test track by Apex Parkway, where I pointed out to C what parts I'd designed. The most obvious feature is the subtle curve of the tube following the landscape, though the original design was 12x as long! Finally we got into Vegas, eventually managed to check in at the Rio (I wouldn't go back...), took in the Carnival World Buffet, the Penn and Teller magic show, then went to sleep. 
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The next day we flew the drone around the room, had a $50 room service breakfast (stale cornflakes), checked out, then drove back to LA via the Baker Thermometer and the Victorville Whiskey Barrel, another establishment with a secret vegan menu. The Cajon pass on the 15 down to the LA basin is one of the scariest roads I've ever driven, but soon enough we were back in LA, exhausted but happy to be home.

And that is how we conducted our #astrohoneymoon. 

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