Zion Park - Saturday, July 1
In the town of Hurricane - natives pronounce it Herr-ih-ken and will give you a startled look if they hear any other inflection of the word - we settled into our bed and breakfast.
The staircase of the bed and breakfast was old, high, and narrow. People apparently had tripped on the polished, wooden steps with some regularity because the owner no longer allowed her guests to wear socks when ascending or descending. The rule was 'bare feet or shoes only.' We talked with the owner for a while as we prepared to see the nearby parks. We mentioned needing lunch; she recommended the Main Street Cafe. It provided a straightforward selection of sandwiches and fountain drinks, mostly local and good. We would recommended it as much as the bed and breakfast owner did. After our meal there, we felt ready to see the park.
Or we thought we were.
Zion is a crowded park, even in the off-hours. Imagine deciding to go camping in Central Park, NYC. That's what Zion is like during the day. If you think you're getting away from the city or from people, you're not.
It isn't like the other national parks in the area, either, in that you're required to take a shuttle bus system to see most of it. No cars traverse the southern two thirds of the grounds. Alternatively, you can hike across the same land. Completing the journey entirely on foot isn't easy, though. You might not cover as much distance as you think you should in the 106 F summer heat.
The visitor center parking lot seemed perpetually full, too. We were able to park due to 'sharking,' a practice of following someone to their car so you can be the first to claim it. (When we left, we experienced a driver sharking us in return. Everyone was resorting to it; this young man was very polite and asked where he could meet us at our parking spot.)
Anyway, as we visited the Zion center for the first time, Diane took us to the information desk. There, she asked a park ranger about their bus and trail rules. The ranger gave us advice on stargazing, too. Finally, Diane and I took a brief hike on the Pa'rus Trail. It's one of the few trail heads available from the visitor center. We needed no bus, at least not for the moment, and we explored the landscape where we planned to see the stars that night. We developed a plan based around the clearings near the Pa'rus Trail. In some of them, we would be able to lie on the picnic tables of abandoned campsites and gaze straight up.
Zion Park - Sunday, July 2
Satellites of Love
Our phones told us the moon would set at just a few minutes past four in the morning. We rose at 3:40 a.m. We grabbed our packs and hopped into the rental car. It took us twenty minutes to drive to the visitor center. There, we found Zion to be blessedly empty, all buildings dark. Six streetlamps shone along the main avenue. In their glow, we could find our way around easily, but we also knew we needed to start by getting as far away from the lamps as possible. We hiked over to the Pa'rus Trail and tried to put trees between us and any artificial illumination. Overhead, we could see we had another problem.
The moon hadn't set. We needed to wait longer than we'd planned. Although we could occupy ourselves for a few minutes with the hike to the abandoned campsites, we would need to linger in the cold. Even along our way, we encountered other, problematic sources of light. A car passed by and blinded us. A hiker strode through the Pa'rus with a light pinned to his jacket.
We reached a campsite picnic table with no trees around it, followed closely by another. We chose the second one and set down a blanket on the table's surface. Carefully, we cuddled up on the tabletop and wrapped the edges of the blanket around us. We were as warm as we could be. With the moon still lingering on the horizon, I took out my phone.
|from Wikimedia Commons|
I'd loaded it with two star-gazing apps. One was called Night Sky. The other was Star Walk 2. Both promised I could point my phone camera at the sky and let the app tell me what I was seeing. Both were correct. I stuck my arm out and, even in the waning moonlight, I received a rewarding panorama of stars and constellations, most with names in the app.
Mars and Venus had long ago sunk below the horizon. To my left, probably in the southeast, I could see Jupiter bright over the mountains. Below it, obscured by the branch of a tree, lay Saturn, dim but visible.
During the next twenty minutes, the moon set below the western horizon. The constellation Pegasus above us grew bright enough to see. The Milky Way emerged. So did the occasional cyclist on the Pa'rus Trail nearby. Every time a bicycle pedaled past, we had to close our eyes for a minute to try not to get blinded by its lamp. A group of laughing hikers strolled through. A lonely jogger with a reflective jacket.
|from Wikimedia Commons|
"Shooting star," Diane said. I'd seen it, a streak of motion in the sky.
We pointed them out to each other, almost one every minute. After a few minutes, a different but bright pinpoint of white started drifting across the sky. It moved southwest to northeast but it looked nothing like a plane. It couldn't be a star. I held up my phone. The app said: GEMINA-2.
It was a satellite.
Over the next twenty minutes, I spotted another, then another, then another. Some had names like ARC or JPSS-1. Some didn't have any label the phone could give me. Those motes sailed by anonymously. Yet all of them were unmistakably satellites. They were like nothing else in the sky.