The Very Large Array

Under FootOne of my favorite movies of all time is Contact. If you haven’t seen it, you should probably stop whatever you’re doing to watch it right now. Featured heavily in the movie is the Very Large Array in New Mexico, a series of giant radio telescopes used for astronomical observation. A normal telescope dish functions a bit like holding a funnel out in the rain – you can cover a larger area and still have everything funneled into a single spot so it can be useful. A radio telescope does this with radio waves, and the bigger the telescope the more you can “see” with it. Of course there are practical and physical limits to how big we can build a telescope dish. What’s cool is that if you make several dishes and spread them out, they act like one giant dish that is as big as the area between the individual dishes. That’s what is happening at the Very Large Array.

The VLA is very purposely out in the middle of nowhere. There are no pesky cities near the Plains of San Agustin to send out contaminating radio waves, and the high desert plateau is good for getting clear and consistent signals from space. I first saw the VLA from a distance, and thought I must have read the milage wrong before I left the gas station at a nearby town. I thought for sure I had several more miles to go. I did. The VLA has 27 antennas, each spanning 25 meters (82 feet) and weighing over 200 tons. I was still 20 miles away when I first saw the antennas. They are that huge, and (at times) that spread out.

Tourists Taking PicturesI watched the video and took the walking tour, and was once again reminded how much I love space. I even learned a few fun facts relating to the Movie Contact, including that the canyon featured in the movie as being close to the VLA is Canyon de Chelly, where I had been just a day before. On the walking tour I took a few pictures, including another in my series of photos of tourists taking pictures. While my camera resolution isn’t the best, there are two people in the photo to the left, and both are taking a picture.

I have an extensive shot glass collection at home, and knew I’d be adding a few more pieces from my trip. I try to limit myself to either shot glasses that are especially interesting, or glasses from places neither I nor anyone I know may ever visit again. I felt the VLA fit one if not both of these qualifications and picked up a shot glass from the gift shop. I went to the bathroom and watched as it tumbled out of my purse and smashed into a millions pieces right below the decorative tile art. I went back into the gift shop to buy another, and the woman graciously offered to trade a new one for the broken glass.

With the SunThere’s nothing terribly insightful to say about the VLA, though I’m surprised at how many people I’ve met a long the way who’ve never heard of it. I just can’t understand how anyone can get through life without being utterly fascinated by the cosmos.

Sharks and Science on Catalina Island

Boat and IslandAbout a year ago my friends Markie and Sarah moved from Seattle to Los Angeles. When I told them about my trip, they immediately offered their place for lodging when I was in the area. But when I finally had my dates figured out, we realized that I would be in L.A. the same week Markie would be up visiting Seattle. What’s more, the day after I was set to arrive Sarah had to go to Catalina Island for a week because of school (Sarah is a graduate student at USC studying Marine Biology). Being the friends they are, they still let me stay at their apartment, even though I would be mostly alone.

The night I arrived in L.A. Sarah told me that she talked to the woman in charge of the boat manifest. If I wanted to, I could go with her to Catalina Island in the morning and come back that same afternoon. Sarah wasn’t sure how much free time she would have, but I figured at least we’d be able to hang out on the boat ride, and I could spend the day writing if she got tied up with work.

We leave the house at 6:30AM in order to catch the boat, which is used by USC to ferry students and faculty to and from their Catalina campus. Sarah and I sit up top, chatting about this and that and looking for whales. She gives me some ideas for what to do while I am in Los Angeles, and 90 minutes later we are pulling into the dock. The campus is fairly isolated, and far from the more popular and frequented side of the island. We unload Sarah’s things (including a week’s worth of food), and head up to her dorm. As we are walking, Sarah explains to me that they once used Catalina Island to film a western, and brought in a herd of buffalo to add a touch of realism. When the film was over, the buffalo stayed, and have managed to thrive on the island, forming their own little herd. When the male buffalo get older and weaker, the younger males muscle them out of the group. That’s when they come to the USC campus. Sarah’s roommate said it was like buffalo hospice. They come to the campus to die.

Campus and the Bay

Because of their respective schedules and talents, when they are both at home Markie does more of the cooking than Sarah. As such, Markie went to the store to buy Sarah a bunch of frozen food for her to take to Catalina, thinking she wouldn’t be able to make it cooking on her own for a whole week. Sarah is a smart and capable person, so I figured she would be fine, even after forgetting all the frozen goods at home. After the long boat ride, we are hungry for a snack, and Sarah offers to make some grilled cheese. She showed me a pack of sliced Jarlsberg and asked if I was okay with it. I’d never had Jarlsberg before, but figured this must be her go-to grilled cheese, so I nodded. In eating it later, Sarah and I agree that while filling, Jarlsberg really doesn’t have enough flavor to be on a grilled cheese sandwich. She admits that at the store she just grabbed a pack of cheese and hadn’t really thought about it. Perhaps Markie is right.

The water was very clear on the way in, and Sarah offers to take me snorkeling. We go down to the dock to pick up some snorkeling gear. Sarah grabs me an appropriate wetsuit and flippers, and we start to suit up. It’s nice to be able to simply walk over to a row of wet suits and pick one out. We didn’t have to pay any money or check with anyone first. We just grabbed what fit and got ready. I suppose when the only people you are dealing with are grad students and faculty (undergrads only come over on supervised field trips), there’s a higher level of trust.

Ocean with Pirate Ship

While we are getting ready, an emergency vehicle pulls up to the helicopter landing pad directly in front of the dock. The USC campus has one of the few hypobaric chambers in the area, so occasionally divers who are suffering from the bends will get flown in to use it. Sarah and I stand in our bathing suits just outside the safety line, with our wetsuits hanging down at our hips and the rest of the gear at our sides. A class of curious undergrads watched from the top of the hill as the helicopter descended, and I’m not sure why, but I felt like a total badass. It must have been a combination of wearing professional gear without asking permission, standing in front of a bunch of people who were younger and less mature, and watching a helicopter land over the water. The patient turned out to be a non-critical accident victim rather than someone being rushed to the hypobaric chamber, which made me feel better about thinking the whole thing was pretty cool.

With the emergency over, Sarah and I hop into the water. It’s been a long time since I actually swam in the ocean, so I forgot it would be salty. It is also cold. Very cold. I float for a minute, calming my breathing after the quick intake that comes when the temperature drops. It takes a moment to convince the body it isn’t really in danger.

I stabilize my breathing, put on my mask, and stick my face in the water. Now my face is cold, and I start breathing heavy again. Breathing heavily through your mouth into a small tube looks and feels suspiciously like having a panic attack, and Sarah keeps asking if I’m okay as I bring my face in and out of the water, each time believing that I’ve finally adjusted while consistently being wrong.

Blooming CactusEventually my body calms down, and Sarah leads me around the bay, pointing at the different features. She was hoping I’d get to see a leopard shark, and several times got my attention just a bit too late. We keep swimming, looking at the kelp forests and occasionally coming up for breaks. Eventually, Sarah manages to pull me over in time to see a shark. Leopard sharks are quite lovely, and just the right size of shark to seem impressive without being threatening. As I look I notice a second shark next to it, then a third. I am pretty pleased, since Sarah had been talking about leopard sharks since we got on the boat. Then I see another one. And another. Soon, they are filling up the ocean floor. I try to count them, but I can only ever get to around 14 before I lost track. There are dozens of them. Then there are the bat rays, sitting motionlessly on the ocean floor, barely visible. It is amazing.

The cold finally gets the better of us, and Sarah and I head back to the dock to return our gear. We walk back over to the dorm and realize we are starving again. Sarah says she has some pasta fixings, and begins to put together our lunch. We sit in the living room with her roommates, talking about our snorkeling, the helicopter, and a great deal of grad school gossip concerning their fellow classmates. After a while I realize Sarah hasn’t gone to stir the pasta at all, and I get up to help supervise the lunch-making process. We finish cooking the pasta, and Sarah agrees that Markie is right about her cooking abilities.

Sarah needs to answer some emails, so I take a short hike up the hill to get a better looking at the coastline. I’m warned about rattlesnakes, which is becoming a recurring theme. I get a little excited about the prospect of seeing one, but have no such luck. However the cliff face was nice and I manage to see another geriatric buffalo, so in the end it was a nice walk.

It’s almost time for me to get on the boat ride home, and but not before I get to see Sarah’s lab. As we walk over to the building, she tries to explain the work she is doing, which is focused on protists. For those of you who don’t remember junior high science, the simplest way to explain protists is that they are the tiny bugs in the ocean at the bottom of the food chain. Very tiny. Thousands per cup of water tiny. While it’s obviously more complicated than this, and some of what she is doing is over my head anyway, one simplified version of what she is researching is how protists respond to the abundance and/or deprivation of their preferred food source. She goes on boat trips to gather deep ocean protist samples, as well as occasionally grabbing some from the bay outside the lab. Working on Catalina seems pretty awesome, and her lab is very cool.

Buffalo with the TrashGoing with Sarah to Catalina was the first instance in what would become a growing theme for my trip: it’s always better to follow people, rather than things. When I follow things, such as places or attractions, I’m usually limited to my own ideas. I can try to meet strangers, but that doesn’t always happen. I can be interested or impressed with what I find, but my interpretation will be mine and mine alone. With solo travel you don’t have to justify any of your ideas or decisions, which is a good and bad thing. It’s nice to be so free, but it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own mind.

But when I follow people, anything can happen. I followed people to the Rogue River and ended up meeting a couple of modern day river guardians. I followed people to Catalina Island and swam with the sharks. It’s hard to explain to a host, who is likely to ask, “What do you like to do?” in the interest of being accommodating. But I have spent my entire life doing what I like to do. I’m here for a limited time. I want to do what you like to do.