Last modified: November 25, 2004
What's up with these nasty copyright notices?
It was a tough quarter, and my first when I had finals till the last day. This was particularly annoying as it was also the first time that I wanted to leave for break. So while my friends were all back home, I was studying for finals... or not :-)
I finished my last final after only 30 minutes. That was good news, because I could leave earlier heading south. BTW, I left because the final was way too easy; the first guy left after 15 minutes, I was the 4th to leave. This was very much in contrast to the previous night, when I got my butt about as kicked as never before. It was simply 6 hours of pain and suffering. I am not looking forward seeing the grades in these 2 courses...
I left PA at 2pm, and not driving really fast, I got to LA at 6:30. I was heading further south, to Palomar Mountain where I wanted to visit the observatory. I drove all the way up to the observatory, and I met there about a dozen of amateur astronomers observing the comet Hyakutake. It was too cloudy and foggy though and so everyone left by 1am. However, one of the guys was really interesting. He had a mega scope there, one that was automatically tracking the objects and such; you just had to punch in the number of one of the 36,000 "well known" objects, and it found it for you. Pretty cool I'd say. It cost mere $2500, too. He said that he owned some 70 of them; he's the owner of the world's largest telescope store in Oceanside, CA...
Because of the dense fog, I did not even look for a place to stay and slept in the car. One had to be grateful to see where one was heading, and so looking for an appropriate tent site was out of question. Not the most comfortable way of sleeping but hey. The night was very freezing, and later it cleared up, so that I could see the comet as I woke up at about 3am after all.
In the morning I got up at 7am, late enough to miss the sunrise, and way too early to go to the observatory. So I cruised around trying to spot the observatory from the road. Although it is pretty big, this was not an easy task, and although I hiked up at some nearby hills, no place was suitable for taking pictures.
I was at the observatory just before 9am, as they opened. There were no guided tours contrary to what was on the Web, so all you got to see was a 30-minute documentary and the telescope itself. Taking pictures of the telescope proved harder than expected, because the viewing area was shielded by glass and was full of fluorescent light so you can imagine that it was not easy to avoid reflections. Because I was there alone at this early hour, though, I took quite some effort to avoid these lights. I think taking a picture of me taking these pictures would have been quite amusing... In a sense, however, I did because you can see the reflections of myself in the glass :-)
After a longer hike around the observatory I decided that there was little sense in staying there for much longer and so I left heading east to Arizona. This was not very exciting except for two minor things. In the little town of "Julian" I spotted a "Swiss Raclette and Cheesecake" restaurant; about it's authenticity I can say nothing, as it was closed, and as you know I would have avoided it anyway. Then, when crossing the desert on a country highway I caught up with about 20 cars following a big truck. The road was up then very curvy and the truck just never let the people pass. But then, in the middle of the desert, a straight long stretch of about 3 miles showed up. I was expecting everyone to go off like crazy; very much to my surprise, I was the only one out of all the 20 cars to pass! I think Paula and Monica would have died if they were anywhere near me then, but I just squeezed out of the car all I could get and passed all 20 cars including the truck. By the end of this, I exceeded the speed limit by only about 45mph, so what. [Paula & Monica were my neighbors from a year ago; both had almost a heart attack as I once passed 2 (in words: TWO) cars in a row. These cars were going about 20mph below speed limit. They insisted on this being unsafe, and we later mutually agreed on not being paired as driver/passenger units; we have since splitted opinions about driving].
Then I headed towards I-8 and then even more east. Once in Arizona I decided to go to the Organ Pipe Cactus NM , which was about 150 miles from the border. However, it was already pretty late and so I looked for a place to stay. Strangely, there were no campgrounds at all. So I set up my tent next to a dust road and slept happily out in the green. Or out in the gray, for that matter, as it was rather dusty. I got some food in the nearby town of Ajo and so I even had dinner; however, I had no radio, because the only radio station that you could receive there was always playing the greatest hits of the 50s and 60s. This was a bit strange even for me after about an hour, and so I went to tent.
got up at about 6am. I would like to stress that: six in the morning.
For all of you who know Stan, make sure to applaud me now. Anyway, it was well
in time to get a bit oriented and to shoot some cacti at sunrise. Then I headed
to the ah so famous national monument, where I spent the day looking at strange
and even stranger cacti. I drove a loop on the 22mi one-way loop dirt road in
the park, which lead to the rather puzzling experience of having dust even
inside the trunk. Also, the car was rather gray than green. It is not for long
though, because I was sick of getting dust all over me whenever I touched the
Now I am sitting here in the campground typing this. I am waiting for the sunset to come closer as to take some ah so romantic pictures. I also should clean my photo equipment, because it's rather dusty, too. Earlier today I drove to the next grocery store, which is only 40 miles away in Ajo, so that I have dinner for today and lunch for tomorrow. This store reminded me of back home (I mean, Czech Republic ). Given that it was the only grocery store in a radius of about 100 miles, it had a rather remarkable selection. You could find lots of meat and spicy salsa and such, but there was no mustard, no soy sauce, and one whole sort of rice. The influence of close Mexico is very visible.
Speaking of which: I was today in Mexico, at least half of my body was. I was just pretty cautious to stay in the US, too, not having my passport with me and knowing about the incredible bureaucracy of US immigration offices. Did it feel special? Not really... Looking at cacti and listening to any of the local radio stations makes me feel like in Mexico anytime.
So, now I am back from taking sunset cactus pictures. Strangely, I went about 2 hours too early and so I had to wait 2 hrs for the sunset. Did it ever occur to you why the sunrise and sunset are not symmetrical to noon? When the sunrise is at 7am, one may expect the sunset at 5pm. Not so, and I wonder why. It may be that the last time I had the luxury of watching the sunset was back in the winter in Switzerland, which was naturally not as late. So I hiked up a hill, which took long enough, and enjoyed the view. When I hiked down I realized that I forgot a piece of equipment up there and so I could hike up again. By the time I came down for the 2nd time I was almost late for the real sunset...
Later I just cooked some dinner. Yumm. The ranger offered me to use the ranger's table to cook, as it is the only one with a power plug (as to recharge Edwin's PowerBook), and so I did; however, this table is also right next to the public phones, which means that half a million or so people of have looked at what I cook and why the hell do I cook at the ranger booth in the first place. So I always politely replied and everyone was happy. Few people had faith into my cooking skills, as nobody wanted to taste although I offered :-)
I went to bed -- ah, to tent -- at about 10, waking up pretty late, at about 6:30, just missing the sunrise. There were no showers in the campground, and so the expression "bad hair day" was getting a new meaning. But then, I was in the desert and so what was I to expect? Or, who was to care? My camera sure didn't.
Right next to the campground, just as I was taking some shots of the sleepy cacti, I met a pro photographer who was there on assignment - to shoot wild flowers. So he was aiming his 200mm Nikon lens at a blooming cactus. We chatted a bit, and he commended on my gear, as he said that these Canon lenses are what makes most of his pro colleagues drop Nikon. Glad I don't have to drop anything, as my lenses are pretty heavy and that may hurt my feet :-)
I left the campground heading east to Kitt Peak National Observatory, another big observatory that is on my route to White Sands National Monument. However, the problems with my brakes continued to worsen (it was pretty much impossible to steer at speeds multiple of 30mph), and so I went past the branch to Kitt Peak straight to Tucson, hoping to find a Honda dealer to solve the troubles once and forever. The roads were at times everything else than impressive. Tucson, you may think, is the 2nd biggest city in Arizona, and so finding a Honda dealer should be a cake. Well, I had to realize what "2nd biggest" means in Arizonian terms. Or maybe it's just my European perspective of view, expecting something at least like LA to show up when one speaks of a city.
The car was fixed after 2 hours, Edwin's PowerBook was recharged, and the bill was $102. The technician asked "what the hell happened to the brakes", as the rotors were pretty darn f**ked up. Oh well, braking is now as smooth as ever, and the last brake job now adds up to about $600, where it should have been about $200. Once again proof that things tend to go wrong, especially if you let the wrong people do the job.
Having lost basically the whole day, I drove to one of the campgrounds which was described as "free" in the campbook. Well, not so, but $5 for that camping is money well spent. I mean, there is no water, no bathroom, no power. But the campground is very much unlike others: so far, you always have the next door neighbor, who tends to go to tent when you are just getting up, etc. Here, privacy is big. A narrow winding road goes up the hill, and once in a while there is a parking spot with a place # on it and you are supposed to find the campsite. This one is located some 50-200 meters away from the parking spot, so some carrying is required, but that's worth it anytime. I was lucky and my particular spot could not be seen from the road, and I "owned" about 1 acre of land. Table, bench, flat spot for a tent and a fireplace included. Simply neat.
Realizing that I haven't eaten yet and that it will get pretty dark soon I drove down to Tucson and bought some food to cook, and a gas lantern to see what I cook. I mean "gas" as in "unleaded gasoline". Pretty nifty, teams well with my unleaded gas stove. The only problem, which I realized once at the campsite, was that the lantern gives waaaay too much light even at the smallest setting, and that it can't be used in the tent of course (it was about freezing then and so I wanted to go "inside"). But since Wal-Mart are such nice people I could exchange it for a rechargeable electric one. Yahoo.
I missed the sunrise again, because I read A.C.Clarke's short stories till into the night (now that I had light). Also my neighbors at the next campsite were singing and I didn't quite feel like going to them and saying "stop singing or I will sing". Missing the sunrise was however not a big deal because there was none; it was very cloudy. Also, the water in my water container (which I of course left outside overnight) was freezing. Morning hygiene was correspondingly short and I left the campground at 7am, heading back to Kitt Peak, which I wanted to visit on Monday but could not due to the famous brake problems.
Kitt Peak National Observatory is the home of the 4th largest telescope in the world. More importantly, it is the largest observatory in the world because it has some 21 telescopes in total on the hill. That was quite a sight: telescope domes all over the place. Statistically, Kitt Peak has 275 or so clear nights each year, that's why the government convinced the Native Americans to rent the land so that astronomers could build their scopes. With my luck, however, when I arrived on the mountain it was snowing. Maybe because the statistic said something about nights but not days. Nevertheless, the guided tour was very popular and some 40 or so people followed the guide on the 2 hour trip. Very much to our pleasure, inside the dome which houses the 4m scope, the temperature was very well below freezing. As the guide explained, that's so that the outside temperature matches the inside at night, when it's really cold. Since we never thought of the outside temperature to be ah so high, we felt sorry for the nightly astronomers.
I prepared some lunch and watched birds. What else should you do on the top of a
mountain when it's freezing? I also chatted with my neighbors from Sweden who
found a 70-200/2.8 zoom lens very amazing. The older gentleman was astonished to
hear that there were even 400/2.8 lenses, but as I told him that they go for
about $7k he suddenly changed the topic.
Now I am here, back in the camp, writing this and ah so many more things which I always wanted to do but never had the time for. Travel-able computers are nice, but please no networks, as then I would end up "hooked on phonics" again. This way I can plan the next few days of the trip, which will lead me to New Mexico to see the VLA and most importantly White Sands. In general, I am surprised how little driving I do, how much I see and how little stressed I am even though the weather is not very cooperative and the car at times makes me stay a bit longer than intended.
Have you ever washed your hair in water that's just above freezing? Well, I just did because the sun just came out and I thought to use the nature's best hair dryer. Man, am I glad I didn't do this in the morning; that may have destroyed my reputation for never being really awake before noon. Now, however, I am smooth an clean as ever. Just nobody who could see it :-)
This day should be remembered, in many aspects. First, I slept even through my alarm, but only by 5 minutes. Usually I woke up an hour before the alarm, but so I left the place about an hour behind schedule. Also, today was the longest driving distance so far -- 456 miles. But that was planned that way, and I did not expect to have too much social life today. I don't want to insult any New Mexicans, but being here for the 2nd time I am still missing the beauty of this place. Maybe it's the wrong season, and maybe I just don't enjoy the endless planes as much as I should. It's a big desert, a desert with ridiculously low speed limits and way too many enforcing cops on the Interstate by the way.
Also, what would be considered illegal transportation of people in many parts of the country seems to be commonplace here. This picture was taken in Arizona, but you could see this kind of transportation virtually anytime, anywhere.
Before getting to White Sands, though, I had to experience some surprises. There was some nice nature, and even a farm with "visitors Welcome" signs instead of the usual "Trespassers will be treated with a load of lead". The first surprise was on the I-10 in the form of a truck (I mean one of these big ones) going at about 100mph, give or take a few. So I followed it for some 1hr, as I was sure that he was sure there were no cops. Later, just before coming to White Sands, there was -- and this is in the middle of New Mexico, USA -- a checkpoint. They stopped each car and -- asked about people's citizenship. My saying that I am Swiss apparently brought him a bit out of concept, as he obviously expected me to be either US or illegal Mexican. When he asked me about my passport I told him that after 3 years here he was the 1st to ask me about it. He told me that I had to carry it on me all the time and I replied that I sincerely doubted that, because I have other valid means of identification and besides this was the US and not a Mexican border and in no way was I attempting to enter the US, here in the middle of the desert and some 100 miles from the border. Then I pointed out that carrying my passport and possibly losing it would cause more problems than a freaky control like himself, and that I don't probably like like the typical illegal Mexican immigrant, with my car, camera and tent. So he let me go, saying I was not funny.
It took me about 30 more minutes to come to the next village, the only one around, and the only one with a campground. One campground. This was pretty vital as everything outside the village is military territory so nothin' with sleeping in the open tonight. You could see all the wonderful F-117 Stealth fighter (in real life they are as ugly as on pictures, but they say they are effective) and other flying objects so that I felt at least very safe. The campground was, and still is, a nightmare: they do have showers (yes!), even a pool; but, they also want $17 for a tent site. Worse: the tent site is a piece of grass, forget about power or water as advertised. Finally, which I just found out now after returning from White Sands: the tent spaces are just exactly under a probably 10,000 Watts streetlight. I have no clue how they want us to sleep, I have no clue how I want to sleep, but I am considering sabotaging the lamp... or... well, just after I checked in, I found a motel, one block further, for $20. Go figure.
well, will be a fun night. It was a pretty nice day though, too: I spent some 4
hours in White Sands, which indeed has very white sand. In a sense it is
surprising: in the middle of all the millions of square miles of sand, there are
a few square miles with WHITE sand. Cool is that they close the National Park
about twice a week because of military missile tests right next to it.
them closing Yellowstone... I also caught up a bit with film consumption, as so
far I am below expectations. I thought that with 3 camera bodies I will burn
about twice as much film, but nada. 5 rolls of slides and one of prints so far.
This is due to laziness to carry more than one body and to switch lenses I
think. Or maybe I am less enthusiastic than I thought. Or I should bracket more.
I grabbed my tripod (ah is it heavy!), 2 bodies and the 2 biggest lenses, plus one liter of Schweppes and a compass and walked off into the desert. They said that one is allowed to do that but they recommended having a compass. I thought them to be kidding; however, after the sunset some 4 hours later, I found out that all the dunes looked indeed kinda the same. Also, after these hours, I found at least one disadvantage of my photo gear -- the mass...
Tomorrow is the 2nd less-so-planned driving day: I intend to drive from here to the proximity of the Barringer Meteor Crater, AZ. If you now look at the map and say that I am nuts, well, I probably am. But I originally wanted to do this in 2 days and the brakes put me one day behind schedule... So maybe I will cut my visit to the VLA short, or who knows. At any rate, before I spend $17 on a campground again, I first check all motels in a radius of 50 miles. [Gee, this street light is really annoying!]
What a night! The big light overhead has proven to be only the second biggest problem. Yes, it made the night appear like a sunny day. But more annoying was the train line right next door. And punctually like a Swiss clockwork, every 30 minutes a train came through, blowing its whistle really loud so that everyone could share the joy. Needless to say that I left rather early.
During the day I visited the NRAO VLA (very large array, the biggest radio telescope array; you have seen "Contact", eh?) in New Mexico, which was at its 2nd smallest setting. They switch from one to the next of the 4 settings about once all 4 months. It was nevertheless pretty impressive; would like to see the antennas spread around at a 13 mile radius, though. Since the weather was anything but friendly, photographic opportunities were limited and I didn't spend too long there.
And yes, the brakes seem to truly be an endless story. Imagine going 110mph, and then, just because the crossing where you are supposed to stop is approaching, you decide to slow down. What about a brake test? Slam! ABS et all, and 1g or so pushes me into the seat belt. Then, surprisingly, then still at respectable 60mph, 1g becomes maybe 0.2g, and some smoke comes from the brake pads. What simply fascinates me is the fact that someone would build a car that can go at a speed of X but once at that speed, you can't stop it anymore. At this point it should not matter that 110 is mostly illegal (no longer, in some parts of the US at least). About 2 miles later I learned btw. from a street sign that 110 right there would cost me $216. Try doing that in California...
By the way, after my arrival home I asked my Honda dealer about this never-ending brake problem. I asked why I can't stop from 110mph, which is not even illegal in parts of this country anymore, while I can stop our Audi at home from 140mph. He was like "well you know how to build cars [referring to Europeans], we don't; Honda is known to have too small front discs for the car size, the rear pressure regulator does not work properly, and the pads overheat." How comforting, I thought. I wonder what would happen if I hit something, still going at 60 or so mph, and sued them for $10M. I mean, in this strange country you can sue the manufacturer of a microwave oven (and win!) for not saying that it's not suitable to dry your dog...
So I headed to the Meteor Crater with smelly brakes and only one AM Native American radio station to listen to. Actually quite funny: from about 3 minutes I listened to that language, all I could understand was "videotape" mixed about twice into the Apache stream of words. I guess there was no such word in the Native's language, and they don't have a language law like the French :-)
The wind on the way was incredible, I really mean incredible: you could observe the biker's struggle as they rode their bikes straight on the interstate at an angle of 45 degrees... Once I arrived at the rim and took my gear out, I saw that the park closed in 30 minutes. Besides, they wanted $8 per person entrance fee; so because of the weather and all other restraints I decided to postpone the visit till Friday. I mean, I won't pay $8 for a cloudy 30 minute experience at 100mph wind speeds. The wind was supposed to be weaker tomorrow. We sure may hope so, and it better takes the clouds with it, too.
While the Death Valley in the summer must be the car freak's paradise, as s/he can see all the new cars which will come out 2 years later being tested here for A/C robustness and whatnot (which shows that my car has never seen the Death Valley for testing, or they simply ignored the rather devastating outcome), New Mexico and Arizona must be the military airplane freak's paradise. While I could watch F-117s and other fancy fighters yesterday, the A-whatever ground attack monsters the day before, today I saw the rather rare B-1Bs cruisin' by. Living in the desert must be truly safe...
So not visiting the Crater I drove to Flagstaff instead, in the hope of finding something interesting, food and possibly lodging. On the way there, however, I visited 2 National Monuments, most notably the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. This one is an inactive volcano with really impressive landscape. This prompted me to boost my film consumption and I hiked along the long trail. It was really amazing! Too bad I don't have an ultra-wide-angle for my main body, so I had to live with the secondary (and esp. an unsuitable film, LPZ).
Flagstaff is supposedly the 3rd largest city in Arizona. So that gives you another impression of the population density here; other than an Interstate interchange, bazillions of motels and gas stations, there is very little else. However, this little nothing is in a really beautiful area, with pine trees and all, and especially close to the Grand Canyon (speaking of which: it is as expensive for one person to visit the Meteor Crater as for a whole family the Grand Canyon. I have the suspicion that someone is making quite some money with the crater. And if it wasn't that one of the main reasons for the trip was the visit of exactly this crater, I would simply boycott it).
After yesterday's fiasco with the campground, the still incredibly high winds, and my overall tiredness, I thought that for a change I may as well sleep in the car again. Also it seemed that I was one day ahead of schedule -- somewhere I made a mistake with my trip calculations. So I should be back by Saturday instead of Sunday. But somehow I didn't mind, because the weather was just not cooperative at all, I felt a bit sick and in general, alone in the windy freezing desert, nah, there are more fun things. So I was parked here in a state forest, right next to the sign prohibiting overnight parking, waiting whether I will get kicked out -- usually they have mercy with people who stay in their cars next to the road.
Well, they did have mercy with me. Or at least I don't remember being waken up by anyone. But I was woken up by something: rain noises on the roof and windows, or so I thought at that time at least. I was just thankful for sleeping in the car as this way my tent would stay dry. However, when I woke up at about 6am, something was strange -- I could not see out of the window. It was freezing, too. After collecting my thoughts, I realized that I was snowed in. After getting up and out, I saw that nature has sent some 2" of snow upon us. That's 5cm. Like that, in the middle of Arizona, at the end of March. I was more thankful for sleeping in the car than ever before.
While I am used to driving on snow, doing so with my wide snow-hating tires was no fun, and the people around me seemed to have similar problems. Nevertheless, after a while I got to the Meteor Crater again, where I stayed for about 1-2 hours. It was very windy, well below freezing, overcast and in general unfriendly. Even the power decided not to go all the way to the crater, so projectors and similar devices were on strike. The crater was indeed deep, big, and nicely green, at least at this time of the year. Will be pretty dead in the summer I guess...
After the experiences of the past week, where the weather was getting worse and worse by each day, I decided upon early retreat. So I headed further West, back to the Sunset Crater which I visited on Thursday, to finish up the roll of film with the same theme, this time just in snow. There I met a really interesting woman, carrying a Yashica 120mm roll film camera. You don't see that many of these cameras at all, and especially not on women. So I asked her why she was using this strange format, and she said that she's a photo teacher. Well that explains of course a lot.
After this, I filled up my gas tank, got on I-40 and headed west at a constant 85mph. The weather was still miserable, even as miles passed, and the weather people were predicting even worse. Lunch at Burger King made me really sick, too, and so I had less and less things to keep me in Arizona. Soon I crossed the border to California, and fortunately to the Pacific time zone, which gave me a free hour. So I headed more northwest, towards Mojave. There I tried to listen to the San Francisco AM new station on AM 740, in the hope they would say when and where Atlantis was to land. Now that I happened to be already at the right place, I was wondering whether it was also the right time. Well, it was not. They are still in space. Also, 740AM is in this region a Catholic radio station from LA, and it was pretty interesting to listen for about 5 minutes; was about gay marriage. After a while however things became pretty disgusting, as they discussed how the US' laws should be taken literally from the Bible and that we need the death penalty for some 14 or so crimes, homosexuality included. It seems that they really thought so. Which brought the "hatred is not a family value" bumper sticker back to my mind.
Later as I got the San Francisco radio station, there was a news about an accident in the San Fran subway, where strange smelling gases have been released: "the smell was strong enough to sicken the station agent", they said...
Refueling with cheap gas at Bakersfield at 6:30, I was back home at 10 Friday night. Just in time to log in and check my grades for the past quarter; I was this time seriously worried about failing one class, and scoring miserably in other two. Well, I passed that one class, and did ok in the 2 others. I think this is more so because everyone else was doing miserably, too, I was just a bit less miserable than others. All in all, very happy. Now I have to see what classes I will be taking this last quarter...
I concluded the day by watching an episode of ST:TNG, which I was taping, but fortunately I came home because the show was 30 minutes late and so I would have missed the end (was "Preemptive Strike" for those among you who want to know. She is quite pretty if you ask me.).
Well, I cleaned up the car, had some lunch, and picked up all bills that have accumulated in my mailbox in the meantime. This is a really amazing place: not a single dining facility is open during the break, while good 10-20% of the students stay on campus. Compared to other institutions not to be named, the services here plain suck. Also, I turned in all my films - 6 rolls of slides and 2 of prints. Very disappointing IMHO.
Now life is back to normal. No more big travelogues to write. Just some stupid little dogs to watch who would not get the ball out of the water because they are afraid to swim here in the lake right next to my dorm. It's not just spoiled little kids here, it's also spoiled dogs...
This concludes my spring break 1996, and a 3527 miles long trip through the
freezing deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. It's Nevada and Utah this summer,
later followed by Scotland :-)