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Turning Back, Looking Back

In the beginning of this record I tried to explore the nature of journeys, how they are things in themselves, each one an individual and no two alike. I speculated with a kind of wonder on the strength of the individuality of journeys and stopped on the postulate that people don’t take trips—trips take people. That discussion, however, did not go into the life span of journeys. This seems to be variable and unpredictable. Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.
–John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley

Self-portrait in one of the mirror segments at VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System), the gamma ray observatory in southern Arizona. The highest energy radiation creates showers of photons when it enters the atmosphere, which can be detected from the ground.

Over my two trips to research Back Roads, Dark Skies, I’ve rediscovered a few common truths about travel writing. The first is an essential tension between the freshness of an experience and the need to mull it over to make sense of that experience. When combined with the very grueling itinerary I provided for myself, I’ve had trouble keeping up with my travelblogging. (Additionally, the connectivity of modern life has meant that I’ve continued to write articles, answer emails, and even pay bills. In other words, I almost feel like I’ve just added travel on top of my ordinary life. My next writing trip will be to a cabin with no internet. If any of you possess such a thing, let me know.) Of course, the true issue is that while blogging is an immediate thing (as with diary-writing), the narrative of my journey is an emergent thing.

For the book, I will have to piece together the mirror segments of the story, to enable them to reflect and bring focus to the object of the journey. Here are some fragments:

  • It occurs to me that I’m writing a scientific travelog of sorts, without having read the Mack Daddy of scientific travelogs: Darwin’s Voyage of the “Beagle”. My friend Jacquelyn also reminded me that I haven’t read Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez.
  • The changes in ecosystem and geology were often so rapid as I traveled that I could hardly keep track of them. I traveled through the mountains and forests of the Carolinas and Georgia, into the swamps of Alabama, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. From there, I reached the arid hill country of central Texas that gives way to the dry mountains of the west, with their soaptree yuccas and junipers. In a single day in Arizona, I traveled from the Sonoran Desert west of Tucson to the higher elevation of the Chihuahuan Desert, up into the alpine forest in the Pinaleño Mountains, whose highest peak is Mount Graham.
  • I defeated Google Maps completely at one point: that database has no knowledge of the location of VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System). Depending on how you search, it places the observatory  either in Cambridge, Massachusetts (owah faih city) or in central Tuscon, not at Mount Hopkins in southern Arizona. As a result, without clear travel directions and estimates, I arrived nearly an hour early for my appointment, which I suppose is better than getting lost in the desert, at which point there would be nothing to do but raise a monument over my bleached bones.
  • Among the wildlife I’ve seen (* marks first-time observations for me): at least three varieties of deer, an alligator*, many cattle egrets, a roadrunner*, a herd of antelope, a ring-tailed cat*, and a javelina* with her baby. The flora has included saw palmetto, live oaks, tumbleweed, sagebrush, yuccas, saguaros*, ocotillo*, and agave.

    The view from the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) dome on top of Mount Graham in Arizona. I had the privilege of standing on the platform inside the dome when it opened for the evening’s observations.

  • I will not soon forget barreling down (relatively speaking) the rough road from Mount Graham in the dark. Between sleep deprivation, general exhaustion from a long day, and rapid changes of elevation, that hour-long drive is possibly the most unpleasant experience of this trip. However, that will never make me regret traveling to Mount Graham, where I had the privilege of standing on the platform inside the dome of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) as it opened for observation, and witnessing the 360 degree panorama of the land around the observatory as the dome rotated with me along for the ride.
  • My first glimpse of the Very Large Array (VLA) in the distance evoked similar feelings in me as seeing Stonehenge when I lived in England in 1997. Those telescopes are familiar from innumerable photos (as well as the movie Contact), but that didn’t diminish the awe of seeing them in person. I was struck by the sere desert setting ringed by mountains, the lonely dishes spread out as far as the eye can see in three directions, and yes, the thrill of seeing something that is a true icon of our time and culture.

One of the telescopes of the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico.

Today I resume major travel, winding down my trip. Over the next four days, I will return to Virginia and what passes for a normal life for me. Thankfully, I’ll be breaking the long drive up and seeing two groups of friends, so it won’t be nothing but driving, but I still feel the trip is beginning to wind down. Perhaps I can begin piecing together the narrative as I drive.

Who can say how a man comes to see? I appeared surrounded by tombstones: the volcano dead, the basalt solidified, the fast river of cataracts drowned, the Indians and explorers and settlers and thirteen doughboys and Sam Hill too (his tombstone said “Amid nature’s great unrest, he sought rest”), all in their graves. That’s how a man sees the continuum: by the tracks it leaves.
– William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways

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