Friday, February 12, 2010

Dome on the Range

Total distance 5220.1 km

By Yana

Since our last post, Sundance and I have been doing the slow meandering thing, mostly.  Before leaving Sue and Matt's place, we put some work into replacing our normal tubes with the uber tubes that are hopefully everything proof.


As you can see, the box they came in is about twice the size of your normal tube box, because the things are just that thick.  Of course, this also means that they were significantly harder to wrestle into our tyres.  Let's just say that I hope they are everything they're cracked up to be, because fixing a puncture on one of these puppies would be an absolute bitch, just because they're so difficult to get in and out.  Well, time will tell.  As it is, I do carry some minor injuries from the process, but nothing a band-aid couldn't fix.
It was about 4 in the afternoon by the time we were done, what with the laundry we also decided to do at that juncture in the narrative.  A recurring theme for us, to be starting so late?  Yes, we know.  In fact, we thought we might just compound the whole thing by stopping into the local wholefoods-type shop for some sandwiches and soup, which were delicious.  It was actually 5:20pm by the time we actually got going, which was of course embarrassing, but hey, we were only heading for the McDonald Observatory, which was about 25 km away.  We were doing our best not to think about the fact that we were riding up a mountain, because hey, we trekked through Southern Indiana, right?  Those hills were obnoxious, and we still haven't seen their like again.
We actually chewed up the first part of the way reasonably easily, as things were surprisingly flat.  The remaining distance was well into the single digits by the time the sun set, and we were treated to another very pretty one.


It was of course once it was dark that the road got tough.  Well, actually, it wasn't even that bad a slope.  The climb out of Leakey was much steeper and more constantly up.  However, that altitude thing turned out to be a problem again.  Actually, Sundance seemed to be doing alright - naturally high iron levels, extra red blood cells, all that.  I, however, found myself only spurred on by the fact that there was no other choice but to keep going - no cars passing by, out of mobile range, nothing to do but get there on my own steam.  This has probably been my hardest stretch on this trip so far, and it very nearly set off the crybaby reflex.  Still, with Sundance making sure not to scoot too far ahead of me, I managed to push through the pain barrier, and we kept heading up that hill, which wasn't even that steep.  It was really just the thin air.

At some point, where it was already well and truly dark, I had moved ahead while Sundance had stopped to put on his jacket.  A car coming from the other direction stopped, and it turned out to be our observatory host, John.  He offered to take us the rest of the way up, but I declined, explaining that Sundance and I want to go the whole way ourselves.  Luckily, it turned out we only had about a mile to go, and John turned around, to, as he put it, pretend he hadn't come looking for us.  I rode on until I hit the spur we had to ride up in order to get to John's place, waited for Sundance to catch up, and we rode the last few hundred metres together.  It was getting pretty chilly by then, but at least the snow that the weather forecast had threatened us with wasn't showing itself.

We got to the place before too much longer, leaned our bikes against whatever leaning post we could find, and knocked on the door.  We were greeted by John, his wife Deb, and various small cuddly critters.  Deb set us up bed-wise, and we got stuck into preparing a quick noodle stir-fry for dinner, before turning in for the night.

The next morning dawned quite misty, and we crawled out of bed for some cereal while John and Deb got ready for work.  We indulged in our usual morning inefficiency, and then decided to go for a walk down to the Visitor Centre of the Observatory.  Just before we headed out of the door, Sundance spotted a doe standing pretty much right outside the door.

Amazingly, although she twitched a little, the doe actually didn't run away when we opened the door and stepped out.  Obviously, she was rather more acclimatised to humans than any wild animal should be.  She actually let Sundance come amazingly close, and cuted at us most effectively.  She almost let Sundance pet her before ascertaining that we were not going to feed her, and wandering off.

It was pretty bloody chilly as we headed down to the Visitor Centre, and we found ourselves thinking that we should have bundled up a bit more.  As it was, the walk was fairly short, and we had a bit of a look around the various nifty exhibits before deciding it was time to head up to the actual telescope to find John.  However, he found us down at the Visitor Center, and ended up taking us down to Fort Davis, for the sake of dinner groceries, general supplies, and more lunch sandwiches.  Afterwards, John drove us to a pretty bit of scenery known as Wild Rose Pass.

That being said, apparently all the wild roses have been picked.  Still, it was a pretty sight, and there were plenty of rocky cliffs that many a rock climber would have killed to scale, I'd wager.  Afterwards, we headed back to the observatory, deposited our groceries, and I got stuck into our various culinary exploits.  Sundance dug up those stupid green split peas we had acquired in desperation for food back in Mississippi, and turned them into a pretty passable dal, while I made the various things that go into the Power House rice bowl from the Fresh cookbook.  Thank you, Ruth Tal Brown.  Sundance also spent some time tweaking my front derailleur, as the fact that the rear one works now obviously means that something else needs work.  At some point, a few javelinas wandered past, rearing their cute little piggy heads.

A little before sunset, John spirited us off to the 107 catwalk on the Harlan J Smith telescope.  Apparently, by the standards of up there, it wasn't actually that windy, but it was windy enough to be cold and uncomfortable.

Still, after a few minutes of braving the wind, we were treated to quite a pretty sunset.

We also got to look at some of the nifty telescope-type stuff, and take the obligatory photo of ourselves in front of a small wedge of it, because the thing is just so darn large.  That being said, as John noted, nothing at the McDonald Observatory was ever number one, there was always something bigger out there.  Still, this is nothing to be sneezed at, in my humble opinion.


We then headed back down to finish cooking dinner, and ate very well indeed.


Deb prefers to take photos, rather than being in them, so it's three people and four yummy meals.

After dinner, Sundance and John headed back up to the actual observatory, in the name of checking out the awesomeness of people actually observing.  I decided to stay behind, as I felt I'd had enough of being reminded of what a tiny insignificant speck we are in all of eternity for the next little while.  I'll leave it up to Sundance to elaborate on the coolness of the observatory, as I'm sure I absorbed nowhere near as much as he did during the times that I was actually up there. 

Physics interlude by Sundance:

When John and I arrived, we firstly popped into the 82-inch telescope and I was introduced to a graduate student working on observations of variable white dwarfs (who was also excited that I'm an Aussie, because he's a huge Silverchair fan!). These stars are nifty, because they oscillate in brightness with an extremely precise period. By looking at the pattern of variations, you can see that there are often multiple overlapping variations - so you can clearly see beating between the periods of different oscillation cycles, for instance. In fact, the oscillations are so precise that variations in them can be used for astroseismology (studying the internal structure of the stars by looking at how vibrations and shockwaves propogate through them) and - possibly even more cool - to find planets orbiting them. Long-period planets. Not these weird things that whizz around their star in mere hours. Planets that take years to orbit their parent stars, like the ones in our solar system.

Afterwards we went across to the 107-inch telescope, where I met another couple of fellows testing out a spectroscopic system to be installed on the huge, fancy Hobby Eberly Telescope. They have a nifty system of fibre optic cables that spread the image coming into the telescope into a line (rather than across an area) which is then treated like an artificial slit and the light fed through a spectroscope, to look for high-redshift galaxies. And that means they can do dark energy studies. This led into discussions about sensitivity of the instrument, dark matter, the bullet cluster, and quantum gravity. And it turned out that one of these fellows was from Bill Bryson's home town, which led to a discussion of the Appalachian trail, Australia, and cross-country bicycle journeys. Eventually I started to get sleepy and we returned to John's place to turn in for the night.  

Back to Yana:

This made for a late night, and a somewhat late morning for everyone.  I actually had a moment of confusion at the fact that I had not heard anyone pottering around when I woke up, only to find the pottering around taking place after I had gotten up.  Strangely comforting, that.  In response to Sundance's suggestion, I made some apple and walnut pancakes for breakfast (well, I did most of the work, though he did sautee the apples for me first), and he had a preliminary look at our options when it comes to finding a cheap/free water vessel to take us across the Pacific.  It seems like there are some possibilities.

I actually spent the better part of the day on this blog post, which seems strange, but I guess things take longer when you multi-task.  Sundance did some more tweaking on my bike, and got it to a pretty satisfactory state.  We then hopped on our bikes and rode up to the HET, which sits on one of the other peaks, and it a crazy dome with mirrors and stuff.  Very nifty.  Again, I realise I am being somewhat crude in my description here, but it is late, and I am hung up on dinner and webcomics right now.  Have a picture though.

It was actually all very nifty, as we very much got the VIP tour, partly by virtue of being cross country cyclists.  We appear to hold a semi-celebrity status around here, as the population of this county is rather small, and many people here seem to be avid cyclists themselves.  It was certainly gratifying to see the actual tourists on the other side of the glass, unable to access the area we were wandering around.

And now, Sundance is making Moroccan chicken and olives, while John sits on the floor in the corner and talks science to him.  The hideously ugly, yet adorably cute little dog sits at Sundance's feet, seeking protection.  For some reason, the little mutt has taken a liking to us.  Weird.

Perhaps it's actually an alien, secretly studying Earthling astronomers.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Yana and Sundance,

    It was great to meet you at the HET yesterday. I enjoyed reading about your amazing ride, and I hope all the rest of your travels go well.

    Joel Barna
    (McDonald Observatory, Austin)