Friday, April 28, 2006

Drove Through the Desert in a Car With No Name

Ok, so it had a name. The gloriously trendy, painfully yellow Chevy Cobalt with a spoiler practically begged a name. And so one was granted. For two weeks, I drove the Baby Bumble Bee all around southern Arizona.

Most of the time, observing runs occur strictly on whatever mountaintop your telescope happens to be located. However, when you've got a rental car, an adventurous companion, and two weeks of telescope time, there is room for a little exploration. Let me tell you a story:

The setting: The Sonoran Desert, home to the Tohono O'odham people, packs of coyotes, wild horses, and the ubiquitous saguaro cactus--the state tree of Arizona.
-MDM Observatory, located on the southwest ridge of Kitt Peak.
-Tucson, part cowboy town, part artsy city, all dusty and brown.
-The Mexican border, or, the wide open gate in the barbed wire fence miles and miles from nowhere.

The characters: Two students from the big city, exploring the far bigger desert.
-The grad student, desperately trying to get work done, but constantly distracted by better and more beautiful things.
-The undergrad, the ex-Marine/astronomer/journalist/photographer/composer/race car driver/etc.
-The Baby Bumble Bee, cutest little car in the west.

As our story begins, our two heroes meet in the Tucson airport. They pick up a rental car, a beautiful white Monte Carlo, and begin their adventure. Spirits are high as they head off into the sunset, quite literally, up to Kitt Peak to begin their observing run on the 1.3-meter telescope. Settling in, they begin working on their observations.

One fine day, they decide to go for a drive. For reasons not likely to become clear in this narrative, they stop at the airport rental place in Tucson and trade in their wonderful car for the Baby Bumble Bee. It took quite an effort to stifle their laughter, but they managed, and continued on their drive. West of Tucson, they were startled by the beauty of the desert. Rolling foothills, with cacti of all shapes and sizes peaking up through the dirt and rocks. "Wanna take a walk?" one asks the other. The Baby Bumble Bee obligingly pulls over to the side of the road, and off they go. They didn't have much water, and so figured they'd only walk for a bit away from the road, and then turn around. But as they crested some small foothills, and lost site of the car, they decided to just continue exploring. After all, they could always summit one of the hills to find the car later. It's quite hard to miss in the middle of the desert. Their walking took them all the way to the nearest full-grown mountain and turned into hiking. Along the way, they encountered numerous dead saguaros, and discovered their tree-like secrets. Continuing higher, the hiking turned into climbing, as they grew nearer the summit. Finally, reaching the top, they surveyed the desert around them. It was stunning. They had climbed a mountain without water, but there was no question about the worth of the climb. When the vultures started circling, however, they decided it was time to head back.

On another day, they decided to drive through Tucson and up the mountains to the east. They stopped briefly in town to experience a little of the local culture. Finding little indeed, they continued up the mountains. Once again they were entranced by the beauty of the place. So harsh an environment with so much life that survives despite. About 5,000 feet up they stopped at an overlook. But they never made it to the overlook itself. Rather, they started climbing the rest of the way up the mountain. Surely, they thought, the view would be even better from up there. This climb was a little more difficult, but all the more worth it. When they finally reached the top, they were rewarded with a full view of the valley below, and more mountains to the east. They felt on top of the world, and as the ground fell steeply away from them on all sides, justifiably so. They agreed that there is simply no other feeling like reaching the top of a mountain on your own power and surveying all the Earth below you.

Not all days and nights were grand adventures, of course. In the more calm of times, the grad student quietly worked on his research while the undergrad etched out the details of a libretto he was writing for an opera. They drove up to the Kitt Peak summit for dinner, meeting other visiting astronomers and sharing stories. They stood on the western cliff of the mountain and watched the most lovely of sunsets every night before opening up the telescope dome for observing.

The last adventure of the trip was mostly a road trip, no mountains on this particular day. This time, our two friends decided to explore the Native American reservation on which Kitt Peak sits. The reservation belongs to the Tohono O'odham, or Desert People, who have lived in the Sonoran Desert for over two thousand years. Our heroes first drove west to Sells, the capital of the reservation. A sleepy little town, they almost missed it entirely. Here, however, they turned south in search of smaller communities and the Mexican border. Smaller communities they found, three or four houses grouped together in the middle of vast expanses of desert. As the road turned to a dirt two-track, they encountered a pack of coyotes, cattle roaming free, and drove alongside wild horses in full gallop across the desert valley floor. After seemingly endless miles, they finally reached a small barbed wire fence with a gate. The gate was wide open. They had no map with them, but they had measured the distance to the border on a map, and they had gone further than they thought they had to to reach the border. At first, it seemed odd that an unguarded gate should be left wide open, allowing anyone who likes to walk right into the US. Looking around, however, they realized that no one walking through this gate could have come from anywhere close, nor would they reach anywhere soon. The vastness of the desert would certainly forbid any human from walking through this gate.

Turning around, they headed back northward. Along the way, they cut eastward and found themselves heading up the base of Bobaquavari Peak, the most sacred ground of the Tohono O'odham. It was here, according to their beliefs, that L'litoi the Creator lived, and from which he created the universe. They stopped at the base, and stared up. The large rock dome on the very peak certainly struck a sense of awe into anyone who would be looking up at it. They could understand the holiness of the place, and left it in peace.

Eventually, the undergrad had to leave. The grad student was left alone on the mountain for the last five nights. He worked, he read, he played with Google Earth far more than he should have. His last night was plagued by bad weather, beginning with hail and ending with a humidity level to high to risk exposing the telescope mirror to the air. So he reflected, he smiled, and he wrote.

The end.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an exciting adventure! The Sonoran is majestic as well it is deadly to those who have attempted to cross that unguarded border you speak of. Still, what a blessing to behold the breathtaking beauty of what this Earth has to offer, eh?