Making Sense of The Very Large Array

The just announced discovery of the sound of black holes colliding a billion light years away has us, once again, in awe of scientists (and engineers and the other people who made this happen). Just like we felt on our visit a bit ago to The Very Large Array in New Mexico- oh if civilization had to depend on the meager thoughts and ideas that come out of our kitty brains, we’d be in trouble. Thank goodness for smart people!
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They Array was most familiar to us (in retrospect) as the set for a chunk of the Jodie Foster (based on Carl Sagan’s book) movie, Contact. (I credit my ever handy Lonely Planet USA for even knowing it existed and that we were near it.)

The Array is comprised of 27 giant antennas detecting radio waves from space, spread out for miles (hence the name) over a high (no radio interference), but flat expanse southwest of Albuquerque.

I think I have got this right – our eyes, binoculars and telescopes detect light on the visible spectrum. But these babies, radio antennas, detect light not visible, way on the other end of the light spectrum.  All of the antennas are synced together so their data can be combined to form higher resolution images – that we can see! (example below, right) of objects in space. The dishes are moved every few months into one of four configurations – depending on what exactly they are hoping to detect. But, don’t trust me: go to the source for a more thorough explanation about how they work.

 

We arrived late in the day (as is our wont) and the personable and welcoming staffer in the gift shop let us linger, shopping, and answering all of our questions. Though she herself was not an expert on the science, she had a really neat personal connection to the Array, which she shared. Her parents ram a motel in the small town of Magdalena – about 25 miles away – where all of the workers building the Array in the 70s lived. The town was so small, there weren’t many places to eat, so her family, in order to keep her hotel business bustling, agreed to provide meals as well. So for four years straight (during the length of the construction) she served breakfast and dinner in three shifts to the workers.

The visitors center has an excellent movie, narrated by Jodie Foster, in which we also learned that all of the dishes have recently been retrofitted with fiber optic cable. In fact, according to the VLA, they have “2557 miles of fiber in the ground, and an additional 3 miles of fiber per antenna in each antenna.”

There is a thoughtfully presented self-guided walking tour, outside, with stations where you can learn a bit as you go, culminating in a chance to go right  up to one of the dishes and pose for a picture that tries to convey their size (82 feet in diameter).  img_5667

They do a guided tour the first Saturday of every month.

Because they were in the midst of switching from one configuration to another (which they do quite carefully on transporters which glide and turn as needed, gracefully as ballerinas, on double train tracks (seen very clearly on the picture at the very top) we got to see a transporter (orange below) poised for action.
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We split our visit over two days – spending the night at the nearby BLM Datil Well Campground. We were kicking ourselves for not buying Contact, because with no cell service at all, we resorted to watching one of the DVDs in our small collection – Bridget Jones Diary – which has nothing to do with space exploration, and is just the kind of mindless fodder our kitty brains enjoy as a break from so much thinking and learning. But there is a lovely scene in the snow at the end, which portended what we woke up to – by far the most snow we’ve ever been in with the Airstream.

Luckily the road out of Datil was not too steep, and we went back to the Array to finish up our tour; it cooperated with lovely pictures, despite the very very cold temps and wind.

So while the folks at the Array may not be getting the credit this news cycle, their press release section can give you a sense of their amazing discoveries. My favorite? The discovery of water ice on Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. We did manage, once we got back to the land of cell service, to stream Contact (fair warning: Matthew McConaughey is in it too) and, though it felt a little dated, we enjoyed it very much. Even with (or perhaps because of) all the news lately, if you still aren’t quite feeling the excitement about how space exploration can impact humans, its closing scenes will take you there.

 

Joshua Trees and Rocks

We arrived in Joshua Tree squeaky clean – after spending Thanksgiving at home in Glendale, where we took the time to make a few tweaks, tackle some fixes and a conduct a general “clean up” (of us and the rig). The drive to Joshua Tree was a little over two hours and if you are coming from LA, either the West or North entrances will do. Joshua Tree is small enough (relative to some other NPs) that it’s worth trying drive through and hit all its corners as you plan your itinerary.

We believe we found the best site ever in Jumbo Rocks campground: #77. With an unobstructed vista of rocks and sand and desert scrub, and of course Joshua Trees.

Many of the sites there are tent-sized only, which leads to a good mix of tent campers and RVs (alas they do allow generators here at fixed times). As the sun was setting we took a walk.

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Ben and I passed the camera back and forth seeing who could take the best pictures. They are all winners, don’t you think?

Dinner was all the food I had bought intending to cook while at my parents, but didn’t. You see, if I left it there, my parents wouldn’t eat it. You know? Salmon, collards, rice and sweet potatoes.

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Mostly from Trader Joe’s, which, if I had to choose only one place to shop for Airstream cooking, would be the winner. Thank you mom and dad for stocking our fridge.

We watched the Caine Mutiny b/c some scenes were filmed in Yosemite. (Make no mistake, there is no cell service in JT, but we had downloaded it at my parents’ over the weekend.) It was a brief (and corny) scene but otherwise good movie. Got us thinking that would be a fun theme to follow – other movies filmed in National Parks. Any recommendations?

We woke to another sunny temperate day in California – but the first we’d had camping in several weeks! There is really nothing better. Here I am IMG_4108breakfasting outdoors – something we haven’t done in a while. Our breakfasts can get pretty routine, but I love them all: it’s either cereal, oatmeal or eggs. This must have been a cereal or oatmeal day. The only downside is Ben and I have to eat the same thing – due to just wanting to avoid two people in the kitchen, extra dishes, etc. Oh, what we give up to go on a once in a lifetime cross country trip!

We bopped over from the east side of the park to the West Entrance Station visitor’s center, which was small but staffed with super helpful rangers. They also had one of the coolest exhibits I have ever scene – a look inside the creative process behind the design of park PSAs. The PSAs were meant to promote appropriate park behavior to various types of visitors – the ad below is a mock up of the one aimed at campers. The “behind the scenes” revealed the editors wanted to be sure to pick a picture that included a tent and an rv/trailer. I don’t know how well this translates, but the English teacher in me just loved it and hats off to the staff for sharing it. Compare the draft up top (with editor’s notes) to the more final version below it.IMG_4114

IMG_4115After consulting with a ranger, we set a course to do several short hikes as we crossed the park from the West Entrance, past our campground, toward the south entrance. If fact, you may want to start calling us “Short Hike Barkers on Break,” we did so many. Feel free to follow along (from left to right) on the map below.

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First up, Hidden Valley. As the name suggests this expanse is hidden behind a ring of boulders. Rumor has it (not much confirmed historical fact in the stories here, but they are upfront about it!) cattle rustlers used to hide out here with their loot.

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Can you spot Ben hiding in the valley?

You will see boulders and Joshua Trees, and other trees and all kinds of shrubs and bushes (technical terms anyone?). The walk here, as throughout most of the park, is on sand, like being on a beach. You will see climbers. More of Hidden Valley below…

It was a clear day for the next stop, a drive up Keys View. You can see Palm Springs and  the whole Coachella Valley, and the Sultan Sea. Mexico too, they say, but hard to tell. Somewhere down there the San Andreas fault is biding its time. We ate our lunch on a bench overlooking the view.

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The view from the aptly named, Keys View

Moving east, we hadn’t really planned on stopping at Ryan Ranch, but the adobe remains can be seen from the road and called to us. Much graffiti and ranch “trash.” Climbers too. Enjoy my artsy pics.IMG_4167

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Next stop the Ryan Mountain trail head , not to hike the mountain (a “challenging” hike) but to see Indian Cave – not much of a trail but a cool IMG_4174rock that has campfire smoke from who knows how many eons of campfires.

We met Hash the van-cat there as well. He remindeIMG_4170d us of one of our cats, Gordo (who’s orange too).

When we told them about Gordo, Hash’s owners said: “Gordo! That’s such a great cat name!”

They were super hip, so we felt hip too. Not so hip to live with a cat in van though. Don’t worry, the windows were cracked and the temps mild. Shortly after this pic, he headed into the back for a nap while his owners hiked.

Moving east, Live Oak picnic site doesn’t advertise it-but if you drive a bit beyond the picnic tables on the dirt road you can see the growing, healthy live oak (below) for which the site is named. We hiked beyond it on a pseudo-trail and really enjoyed the views and the solitude and the ROCKS. If these pictures don’t convince you to sign our petition to rename this park “Joshua Trees and Rocks” then you are missing the big picture.

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Finally, timed for sunset, a bit toward the South Entrance, we visited the Cholla Cactus Garden. You can really see the terrain change on this drive. It’s not gradual. It’s abrupt. And the cacti literally glowed in the sunset while the views of now the Colorado (as opposed to the Mojave) desert mountains were lovely.

The next day we had a lazy-ish morning – Ben hiked around and I did yoga in the sand outside the trailer. I’ve done this a few times now – yoga outside is the bomb; yoga to combat aging muscles that spend a lot of time in the car is the bomb de bomb. From our campground, we hiked to Skull Rock – a popular spot, and sure enough someone offered to take our picture. See how relaxed I am from yoga? You’ll note I am holding my newly re-acquired fanny pack, which, unlike all my jacket pockets, is indeed big enough to hold my phone. It’s getting deployed a lot now.

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We had signed up for the afternoon tour of the Keys Ranch. The Ranch sory was interesting enough, but I found the site just very visually striking – these dark strokes of lumber and piping and machines against the Joshua Tree browns and sands and blue sky etc.

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And though any kind of private tour seems at odds with the concept of a National Park, it did feel special to be there, and as though the Keys family had just up and left in a hurry, and here we were sneaking a peek. No neat and tidy site is this – it’s the sort of place they’d love to find on American Pickers. Junk everywhere. And the life story of the Keys family isn’t tidy either – for example when asked what Mr. Keys’ profession was, the guide replied “A little bit of everything” which is what it took to survive in the desert. Mr. Keys – actually ended up serving a IMG_4230sentence in Alcatraz – I won’t spoil it by saying what it was for (think Wild West).  The oldest Keys son visited the site regularly until he died just this year. He will be interred at the family plot still on site. The tour cost 10 dollars, and is only offered three days a week, though they are popular enough that they will be adding some more. I imagine it’s a struggle for the hardworking public servants at NPS to have to limit access to such a cool part of the park.

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The rangers have access to a Library/Archives onsite to help them research and show “past and present” like with this old photo of an area of the ranch.

Afterward, we had time for one final short hike – Barker Dam of course. It hadn’t been heralded in any of the hike guides we perused, but of course we had to go. And it was fantastic! Again, maybe b/c of the time of day. It was flat, with rolling hills and the most incredible site in the middle – a dam that was built and rebuilt by ranchers who lived and grew live things here in the desert!

More pictures from Barker Dam….

Joshua Tree was a great way to launch our time in the southwest. And, though doing a bunch of small hikes and seeing more doesn’t always feel like the right approach, it worked very well for us at this park.  Like the Joshua Tree itself, we avoided establishing deep roots in any one part of the park, and instead attempted to absorb as much as possible through a broader approach.

 

Spit and Polish. And buffers, rags, spurs, muscles, and lemonade.

Casual observers of the Airstream restoration process might think polishing the Airstream would be the very last thing you’d do – sort of the icing on the cake after the cake was baked. Not so.

Cake awaiting icing

Cake awaiting icing

We chose to polish now – about midway – mostly because our polishing specialist, Collin of CFDetailing, was available to come down to Glendale from his home base in Santa Barbara for a few days; Ben was ready for a break from all the work requiring his brain power (designing, choosing materials, sourcing, watching Jeopardy reruns with my mom, oh and actually DOING ALL THE WORK); and I was back refreshed from several days off in DC visiting friends after a wedding back east. Ben and I would comprise the work crew, with Collin instructing and supervising.

When Collin arrived, he pronounced our Airstream “not that bad” and “in really good shape” compared to some that he has seen; many vintage Airstreams begin the process with layers of buggy grime, road filth, and deep oxidization to cut through. It’s true, ours just looked dull, as opposed to really dirty. He set out the tools of the trade – buffing machines, pads, spurs (for roughing up the pads when they get caked with polish), different grades of polish (think sandpaper in progressively finer grits), different rags for cleaning, wiping, etc.

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Tools of the trade: buffers, lambswool polishing pads, and spurs!

I won’t tell all of his secrets, but one of Collin’s most important instructions was to keep anything that would be in direct contact with the Airstream off the ground (eg rags draped on ladders) because gravel, leaves, rivet bits and other restoration detritus are likely to end up getting polished right into the trailer or, more likely, scratching it.

I made it through Day 1 – contributing a fair amount polishing aluminum panels at ground and eye level. It was hot. There’s really no shade in our driveway – just sun moving from east to west, from curbside to street side of the Airstream. And I quickly learned my muscles are only so big, and not even really that strong.

The three person team

The three person team, at our most productive, curbside (morning Day 1) in the shade.

By Day 2, I was so sore and spent, I did “prep work” on the trailer (with not-as-cool tools: masking tape and water soaked rags, some mineral spirits) then embraced my role as lunch chef and cold-drink bringer, a la the Amish women and children in the barn raising scene in Witness, and Nicole Kidman to Jude Law as he helps roof a house in Cold Mountain. (Great scenes in great movies.)

John Book's romantic rival passes the lemonade in Witness

John Book’s romantic rival passes him the lemonade in Witness

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Ada and Inman in Cold Mountain, drinkin’ lemonade – he works wood (mostly)!

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After lunch, Collin and Ben took over completely, while I hid. Ben eschewed the work boots and jeans Collin wisely wears so his flip flops and feet looked like an Airstream in need of polishing. This picture and the foot behind it are really gross. (Instagram has over 5000 pics with #feetaregross).

Stay tuned for more after pictures but here are a couple from Days 1 and 2:

Ben and Collin getting to work, icing the cake.

Ben and Collin getting to work, icing the cake.

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The palm tree is my favorite!

Did you know…? Up until 1982 Airstreams used a type of aluminum called alclad which polished up to a mirror finish. After that, they changed to a different grade of aluminum that doesn’t. That is one of the ways you can identify an older Airstream as it zooms by you on the highway. Did you also know…? There was no spit used in the polishing of this Airstream! Did you also, also know…? We have a lemon tree in our backyard! I’m getting an idea…