Another interesting stretch of road was NM 9, which kisses the Mexican border all the way across the state. At its western end there are a lot of private, remote observatories scattered around the town of Animas. These are usually owned/rented by enthusiasts or small school departments and can be control entirely via the internet. I think I might have even used one of them back in college. Cool.
NM 9 was a strange road for other reasons. The AAA map I was using listed a few towns spread out more-or-less evenly along its length, but most of these “towns” turned out to be nothing more than two signs in the middle of nowhere. Another weird sight was a regular distribution of pairs of tires left on the side of the road. Each pair consisted of one very large truck tire and one normal sized tire. I suspect they were left there on purpose for reasons that are beyond my understanding.
Driving America’s highways and byways means looking at a lot of cars and most of them are basically the same; modern, roundish sedans in colors that probably involve the name of minerals like cobalt and mica. Seeing cool, unique cars was rare, and taking a picture of one was even rarer. Below are two of these double rarities:
One is a huge RV/wilderness assault vehicle I saw in the back country parking lot at the Grand Canyon. It looked like it was traveling all around the world and was certainly equipped to do so. One of those spare tires probably cost more than my entire van.
The other was a funky little Mini Cooper from back when they were made by subjects of the Queen. Attitude all around.
Any self-respecting Astronomer who finds themselves in west Texas is inexorably pulled toward the McDonald Observatory and I proved to be no exception. The main attraction here is the Hobby Eberly Telescope (HET), which is somewhat unique in that it is slightly less capable than other telescopes but hugely less expensive. The HET is also the model for the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), itself the scourge of my early grad school career.
I only had time to briefly look around the HET, but I’ve seen a lot of telescopes so I knew most of the punch lines already. In the pictures below you can see the dome of the telescope and then a view of the main mirror (hard to see with all the reflections). The most exciting things for me were the big stacks of black boxes on the side of the mirror that contain the VIRUS spectrograph and pique my fiber-optic interest.
Just outside of Tucson, AZ (on both sides, actually) is Saguaro National Park and for the all the time I spent in this fine* city I never actually made it out to see the cacti (maybe because you can see them everywhere anyway). I stopped at the western section of the park and found a dirt auto-trail that wound through a vibrant environment with a dizzying amount of desert flora. Again, if you have spent time around Tucson you probably won’t see anything new, but it was still nice to see this ecosystem in its mostly pristine state. Here are some pictures:
The last time I was in Slab City a friend of mine had to crawl under our bus/RV with a huge screw driver to bypass a stuck solenoid while a crazy person with an ax was looking for us and the rest of us huddled inside. I then drove the bus, while blackout drunk, out of Slab City to a hiding place along a nearby canal (ALL OF THAT IS TRUE). Needless to say it left quite the impression.
Seven years later I returned to find Slab City unsettlingly normal. I spent the night and walked around a bit and the whole place feels a lot more like an actual town than it did previously (the city and school buses actually stop here now). So while I went looking for crazy adventures on the edge of civilization I instead felt like a trespasser in a community that just wanted to live their lives and not have people bug them. Here are the obligatory pictures of weird art:
On my way into northern California I spent a lot of time on CA 49 as it snaked its way north along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. In many areas this road was very empty and afforded access to some truly spectacular views. The switchbacks down to the Merced River, in particular, compelled me to stop and take a picture:
Farther north, and after crossing many more rivers, the road gets to the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the American River. A good place to enjoy the view.
I’ll just leave this here: