Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rain Rain Come Today!

Rain rain come today!
Come and rain on every day!

It was 108 yesterday...109 day before that (about 43 C. for you metricians).  Sunny and hot.  The last time we had measurable rain was May 2nd.  Sad part is, this is perfectly normal for us in late June.  Dry heat...whatever. That's just plain hot.

117 is the record: June 24 1989.  I drove to Phoenix that day...where it was 122...in my old Corolla...with no A/C.  The next day we went toobin' on the Salt River, where I learned a very painful lesson about sunscreen.  Only time I ever blistered...ouch!  Oh, I had fun, but young and careless has consequences.

Tucson sits on the cusp of being defined as a desert, averaging 11 inches of rain a year, with an inch or two of snow the odd year out (a light dusting in our driveway is shown above).   Indeed, suprisingly verdant landscapes can be found just a few miles to the south and east of Tucson, where the elevation is higher and the rainfall greater.  We also have all these mountains...six ranges in southeast Arizona that rise over 9000 feet.  Sky islands, we call them.  The isolated forests at the top are comparable to those of the Canadian Rockies.

We've got two rainy seasons.  The quieter winter storms, usually in February and March, provide the desert plants with a lot of essential moisture...soaking in slowly while it's not blazing hot.  This last winter we got over 7" at our house!  Then it's the booming monsoon season, usually starting (we hope) in early July and fizzling out in September.  Temperatures go down a few degrees but the humidity goes up, so unless it actually does rain, it can be pretty relentless...as occured last year when most of the city got ripped off for our annual lightning show and thunderstorms that can drop two inches of rain in an hour.  (Our measured record at the house is 2.75" in one 24 hour period...a quarter of our annual rainfall!)  The few summers before the last, we fared average or better.  It's goes into a blur before that but I've seen quite a variety.  The summers of '89 and '90 (I think) when we had some 39 days in a row over 100 degrees...but years later, a summer when we had a similar streak of days under 100 degrees!

The tree with Kirsteen at left is on Mount Graham and had recently been struck by lightning, ripping a line of bark all the way down the tree and sticking a 15-foot splinter solidly into the ground. Glad we weren't there when it happened!  The lightning shot above is about the best I've ever managed on the fly...I really need to make a go of getting some decent shots this summer.  Lower right is a storm cell crossing the Aravaipa Valley seen from a high perch on Mount Graham.

On top of seasonal variations, we've got some longer cycles in the desert.  El Niño and La Niña play havoc with our year-to-year rainfall amounts.  El Niño often brings us more winter rain and those spectacular spring wildflower shows.  La Niña gives us those long mild dry winters for which we are the envy of others living in colder climes.  Not enough El Niño and the desert will show it bad after a few years or so...then it rains more and everything goes back to happy.  For where I've been getting around lately, the deserts have been pretty happy.  Here's crossing our fingers for this season; predictions are for better than average.

What might appear as autumn foliage is actually a stress reaction by southern Arizona live oak trees...this is springtime after a winter with almost no rain.

This is springtime with an abundance of rain. First a carpet of wildflowers in the remote Vekol Valley...the second is a well-known location a few miles beyond Kitt Peak Junction.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Stanton Line, Chapter 3 - Gaganga Chain

Author forenote:  This chapter is much longer, more than 5000 words as I introduce my main character.  I'm really proud of what I created here, especially in the second half of the chapter, most of which came to me in a single stream-of-consciousness session.  Writing it really connected me to the character...I hope reading it does the same for you.

          Richard J. Stanton stepped onto the platform in Moab, an almost mythic scene for him—vibrant orange light on the great cliffs rising beyond the train and the green cottonwoods of the river’s edge. From his first memory he had wished for this and right now it seemed worth the wait—almost.
          That first time was with his parents on this same platform looking at “Gaganga chain! Gaganga chain!,” a very-excited three-year old’s interpretation of “great-grandfather’s train.”
          Richard’s great grandfather, Robert Brewster Stanton, had surveyed and engineered the route for a railroad all along the Colorado River, and then persuaded people to build it—one of the greatest engineering and marketing achievements of the early 20th century. Popularly, it became known as the Grand Canyon Railroad, despite that the canyon was only a quarter of the original route.
          Richard had assumed that his family would, some day, take a ride on his great-grandfather’s train, but the day had never come. When he was eleven, on yet another far-flung family vacation which would have them pass it by, he finally asked out loud, “Dad, why don’t we ever take Gaganga Chain?” It was the last time he ever used the cute family nickname.
          “Why would you want to ride on that two-bit tourist hauler?!!” His father was near rage at the mere suggestion. “That thing was obsolete before it was finished! Great engineering, I’ll give you that…but what a waste!” Years later, Richard would learn he wasn’t far off the mark.
          “It takes four days, at least, to get to Las Vegas! Modern lines will get you there in a day, and soon we’ll build one to get you there in half that time!” His father became upbeat at this, “How does that sound, kid? One hundred and twenty miles per hour…maybe a hundred and fifty, eh?!”
          Indeed. Hardly three hours ago, Mainline 70 had speedily left Richard’s life behind him in Denver. If he had cared, he would have arrived in San Diego by dinnertime. But he didn’t care anymore. And he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to do—certainly not what he had told his mother and his father, and his professors and all of his friends—at least until this morning.
          Sometime after two in the morning, the revelry of his all-night going away party had calmed to a restless slumber, spilling Richard and his best friend, Julie, onto the patio of the small house that she rented with another student from the culinary institute. He had an hour before leaving to the station and she offered to drive him there since, “It’s likely you won’t be sober until lunchtime!” They talked while they waited in the damp predawn chill of late summer.
          From the day he met her, Richard had a crush on Julie. They both worked at a local restaurant; she an aspiring chef, he a waiter working through a mechanical-engineering degree with greater dreams of shipbuilding.
          But there was Bill, her boyfriend. It was months before Richard met Bill, who was a couple of years older than he and Julie and going to pre-med at CU. With him so busy and living in Boulder, Richard and Julie had discovered a fondness for jigsaw puzzles and television game shows as they spent hours passing the time.
          The three of them usually met only at parties, but they got along great together. Bill, currently upstairs and passed out in Julie’s bed, was a really nice guy. He and Julie had known each other since childhood and he respected that. The tension was relieved because Richard’s goals were taking him to the Naval Engineering Academy in San Diego for his post-graduate degree…a departure from the family line of work, but still something to brag about.
          And, really, he had been accepted to attend…he was good enough to go! But Richard wasn’t going. Even if his father hadn’t died, he wouldn’t have gone. But his father had died—seven months ago. Now it seemed too easy. Why was he hiding it now? “Screw you, Dad! I’m doing what I want!” That was the almost part. Running away didn’t have the same satisfaction anymore.
          Julie was surprised but melancholy at the revelation. She confided to Richard that Bill had been offered a residency at Northwestern in Chicago and he was going to accept it. She didn’t want to go to Chicago. They’d been going in different directions for years and this move brought it to sudden death. She knew it was over and now felt terribly lonely.
          “I once asked him to marry me…he said ‘no.’ Just like that. Didn’t even think about it. That’s when I knew. I think he knew for a long time. I was so mad at him, but I loved him…love him, I still do. And I think he loves me too…but it’s all weird now. I swear, if I just now met Bill, I’d hardly notice him. We’re just not the same people anymore.”
          Richard told her of his plan far as he had any. “I’m not sure about Rio,” she said, “I hear it’s rough down there…but Tucson sounds like a nice place.”
          After the Grand Canyon train, he would take the old line from Las Vegas to Rio Colorado, at the mouth of the river on the Sea of Cortez. He’d hang out there a while, see if there was good work in the shipyards, or maybe head east to Tucson, capital of the Gadsden Territory. It was easier to stay lost in the territories.
          They’d driven in near silence to the station, a hint of sapphire blue twilight glowing with Venus on the eastern horizon. He wanted that moment to last forever. The last thing she said to him just before boarding the Mainline, “Call me. I don’t care when, I don’t care where from…I can’t go away now, but I don’t want you to leave me behind.” And then they had kissed—not goodbye but not with passion either, a kiss that spoke of so many things that could have been. Their cheeks lingered and a second deeper kiss was shared—and then broken as she turned and walked away without another look.
          Now Julie was his only regret in leaving. Richard’s mother was the only family he was leaving behind and she was quite happy with her social life, wrought by the popularity of her late husband. They’d comfortably come to terms with his leaving the nest, mostly by not talking about it. They’d said their goodbyes on the phone yesterday morning. He would miss his friends, they’d had a lot of great times together—but most had also graduated and were moving onto other things.
          Richard made his reservation the day after his father died. Not because of that, it was the day he meant to; the day they posted the next summer’s schedule. He’d been saving his tips for three years to pay for it. This was going to be the last year of service for the original Grand Canyon train, the Stanton Line. It’s coal-fired steam locomotive was powerful but inefficient and polluting by today’s standards, made worse by a half-century of wear and tear. She was to be retired at the end of this year, her golden anniversary. The last run was scheduled the same week Richard would need to leave for San Diego. He wasn’t one to believe in fate, but that begged it.
          Richard thought it was ironic that it would take him five days to appreciate Great Grand Bob’s railroad, while his father’s greatest contribution to railway engineering had taken only a few minutes to appreciate, and most of that was in the dark.
          James Brewster “Jimmy B.” Stanton, had continued the family legacy of great railroad engineering feats in the west. His team had surveyed, designed and built Mainline 70 between Denver and Grand Junction, including the Eisenhower Tunnel, two sections totaling twelve miles long with four lines of high-speed rail blasted under the Great Divide. It was the second western link in the young high-speed interstate mainline system.
          The sun had just been rising as they entered the eastern end of the tunnel, casting a peach-colored alpenglow on the barren rocky summits above. It was designed with the east entrance at the summit, creating the illusion of increased steepness as the train accelerated to full speed within the tunnel. Six minutes, eight seconds, with the 2-mile break near Dillon—he timed it. Almost 150 miles per hour, on average, maximum sustained speed on the descent was claimed to be 164 mph.
          Jimmy B. was a household name in the west due to a huge marketing campaign—he was the man who built The Tunnel! It had opened to great fanfare almost six years ago. Even President Kennedy (the first one) had been there but Richard was hustled away when his parents met the man. He listened to all the speeches alone inside a trailer behind the temporary bandstand erected for the occasion, while Secret Service agents staked out and prowled the area. He thought he caught a glimpse of the President coming back during his father’s speech. Several of the agents had become agitated and a knot of them moved from the band stand to the President’s limousine and it drove away with some motorcycles in precession.
          Beyond the tunnel, Mainline 70 soared down the high Colorado River Valley to Grand Junction. It’s future route continued to Green River at the border of the Utah Territory. The federal government was in negotiation for financing that portion of the route. Most Utahans didn’t want or need high-speed rail, let alone be expected to help pay for it, but the government wouldn’t budge their position and everything was hopelessly stalled. Instead, the development of Mainline 21 was given priority. All high-speed trains currently went southwest to Moab, then to Bluff and across the Pueblo Indian State to join Mainline 40 at Flagstaff, just inside Arizona. From there, the Interstate Mainline system connected between Albuquerque and Las Vegas and on to the great cities of California.
          Between Grand Junction and Moab, Robert Stanton’s original route along the Colorado River had been abandoned and Mainline 21 was realigned across the plateaus north of the river, and the famed Arches National Park. Where it still existed, the old rail bed had been converted to horse and hiking trails. Richard’s father had no direct involvement with that one, but he had taken great satisfaction over the choice of the new route. His father had also lived to see the sunrise in Denver, and watch it set in San Diego on the same day.
          And too many times he dragged me along, thought Richard with a sudden burst of inner rage. Stepping off the Mainline train had felt like shedding his ego. Now he was nobody, or anybody, it didn’t matter anymore.
          Folks headed to the Grand Canyon Railroad had to pick up their tickets at a kiosk in the Mainline station, then walk two blocks with their bags to the old depot location. Construction in the area showed the old depot wasn’t going to be around much longer. A group of hippies, about his age, were hanging out behind the building, a cloud of smoke wafting on the breeze around them—pot, from the hint of its aroma. Mingling with his still semi-intoxicated state it brought back the close memory of his friends at the party.
          He stood at the edge of the platform, taking it all in. The sun was now shining brightly on the western cliffs and a few passengers were milling about with others coming up the walk behind him, but otherwise it was very quiet…the only noises coming from idling locomotive and the occasional horn sounding at the mainline station. This was it!
          The hippies, finished with their activities, came out from behind the depot and walked toward the conductor standing near the middle of the train. He heard the conductor’s deep voice ask something about a problem. The response was inaudible but he saw everyone nod and raise their hands, at which the conductor allowed them to board. They all turned to the front of the train, presumably headed for the dining car.
          Driven by a lifetime of habit, Richard automatically approached the conductor with his ticket. They made eye contact about fifty feet apart and the conductor broke into a grin and started to walk forward. Wait—that’s him!
          “Mr. Stanton, they didn’t tell us you were coming. It’s an honor!”
          “No!” he blurted out while nervously glancing to see if anyone heard. “…er, I think there’s a mistake.” With a submissive tone he said, “Please, just call me ‘Richard.’ I don’t want people mistaking me for a celebrity.” He had considered giving the ticket agent a false name, but in the moment he gave his real name…the enthusiastic young woman didn’t make the connection. He handed his ticket to the conductor, “I’m just another passenger, thank you.”
          Gibson looked at the name on the ticket and stared back at Richard, puzzled only for a moment, then nodded and declared, “Yes, sir, Mr. Richard. I understand. You have #9 in the sleeper. You can sit anywhere in the dining and viewing coaches. Welcome aboard!”
          “Thank you.” With that Richard felt a weight drop off him and he smiled. “I really have been looking forward to this.”
          “I’ll bet you have, kid…now hop aboard!” The conductor swatted Richard on the butt with his clipboard to prod him up the stairs.
          He realized his mistake as he reached the top of the stairs—he’d wanted to board at the front of the train. Now he was halfway to the back. Not a big deal, the hippies are up there somewhere anyway.
          He turned right across the open viewing coach to the sleeper car. His berth turned out to be the last. It could sleep three with an overhead bunk, or two comfortably on the lower bed which opened to span the cabin—and one person in relative style.
          His entire life was now contained in one suitcase and a backpack, which he set down on the bench opposite the bunk. Looking out the window, he could see the concrete run of Mainline 21 sweeping a graceful arc down the canyon wall north of town, finally soaring over the river on a palisade of arched supports giving the impression of a great ancient aqueduct.
          It wasn’t the technology or the pace of progress that bothered him, what would the world be without wonders? It was what that silver line represented on a personal level.

          The second time Richard saw Gaganga Chain was when he was five years old.
          Whenever his father had to travel for his job, which was often, he would take along Richard and his mother at company expense, even if it was an otherwise pointless trip. He felt it was a luxury they should enjoy and indulge in. Young Richard, always an afterthought, had been left in the care of babysitters from Seattle to El Paso, while his parents went to places and events he could not fathom at his age.
          Such was another trip which found just Richard and his father in Moab, mom probably faking the flu and having a good time with her friends back home. His father had meetings to coordinate activities with the regional construction managers. Though it was probably a coincidence, the Stanton Line pulled into the station shortly after their train had left. She was to be prepped for a departure later that day.
          He was a bit scared when his dad told him to wait at the station and that he would be gone all day. “Don’t go anywhere else, don’t touch anything, and don’t bother anyone. Here’s $2 to buy some lunch.” Richard wadded the bills and stuffed them into his tiny pants pocket. The only place to buy ‘lunch’ was a few shelves of chips, nuts, and candy bars for sale in a kiosk at one corner of the depot. Of course, that sounded pretty good to him, and $2 would buy a lot!
          He didn’t know why his dad left him alone like that. There must have been no babysitter. His father had not thought to bring him any books or toys so he just sat on a bench with his back to the wall of the depot building. For over an hour he watched the train and the various people getting off and going about their business. At such a young age, he made no sense of the jumble of faces and legs and crates. But the train was clear.
          He noticed that there weren’t a lot of people near the front of the train, the coach there seemed to be empty and ignored. There was another bench not 20 feet from a step stool and set of stairs that would aide his glorious child-crafted plan of sneaking aboard the train. He just wanted to look—he had to look!
          He moved to the other bench and sat…watching…waiting. The conductor, a big black man who was obviously in charge, was moving up and down the train, inside and out, doing various things the entire time. Finally, he saw the man climb aboard near the back of the train and he made his move. In slow motion, as if the slower he went the less likely that the grown-ups would see him, he stalked toward the train. Even with the step stool to aid him, he had to pull himself up on his knees to the first step. From there, he stood up, peeked back out to make sure the coast was clear, then took the giant steps up and opened the door going into the coach.
          It was empty and ignored. He quickly sat in the first forward-facing bench on the far side, looking out away from the depot. All he could see outside in that direction was the river and the soaring cliffs. He pretended the train was in motion and that soon they would be on their way to Great Grand Bob’s house!
          He froze deathly still at the sound of the door of the next coach opening. He heard a woman, standing there and calling out orders to someone below. He dared not look, hoping the seatback blocked him from view. If his father found out he had snuck onto the train!!
          There was a few minutes of commotion as things were hauled up the steps and moved into the other coach. Then it became quiet for a while and he took a cautious peek around. He could hear the muffled sound of thumping and clattering in the next coach but otherwise it was calm. There was little activity on the platform.
          For a few minutes he wandered the coach freely. He remembered it having a funny smell, his young nose not aware that it was subtle rancid odor of years of tobacco smoke and spilled alcohol. It was different than the trains he was used to riding with his father. The seats weren’t crowded so close together and they were made of wood with red cloth-cushioned bottoms, instead of steel with fake leather and cotton padding. But even though it looked old and a little bit worn, it also looked handsome and important. This was a train for important people—like Great Grand Bob!
          While gazing dreamily out the window, he realized that the conductor was passing on the platform directly below him. He panicked and ducked down out of sight, thinking he saw the man’s head glance in his direction as he went down. His heart raced and tears came to his eyes—no, don’t let my dad find out!
          He slipped off the seat and crouched onto the floor, waiting for the footsteps that would come up and find him. They never came. He cautiously crawled to the aisle while clinging to the bench. Nobody in sight. Not knowing which way to go, he crept to the front looking for a better hiding place.
          The front of this coach had no doors and simply ended in a blank wall, the sides curving in slightly before meeting the bulkhead. Beyond the windows, there was a single dark bench on the left side of the coach, opposite a large locked closet that may have once been a lavatory. It was perfect. He sat on the bench and scooted over to the wall. There was no way anybody could find him now! Not unless they came to open that closet.
          He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, hours maybe. Nobody ever came to open the closet. The muffled noises next door also stopped. He daydreamt of riding the train into a child’s world of playful landscapes and friendly guides to take care of every need.
          His world was interrupted when the door of the adjacent coach slammed open and somebody bounded down the stairs. It was quiet again on the train but he could hear voices outside—not very close. He crept back to the first window and peeked out.
          He knew the woman’s voice now and saw her waiting with the conductor near a door of the depot. The engineer had also stepped off the train and, together with the person that bounded out the door, they all went into the depot.
          This was his chance to get off the train, but he was still curious. Standing at the outside door he hesitated which way to go—down the stairs and quickly back onto the bench twenty feet away; or—
          Richard stepped across the deck above the coupler and reached for the door of the next coach. It opened easily and he peeked in, nobody in sight. He crept in. On the right was a sink and counter divided from the rest of the room, on the left was a closet like the one in the other coach, only the door was open and there was a toilet in it.
          Past the closet on the left was a short wall with another door, then long counter top, just about his eye level, with stools going down half the coach. Across from it, tables and benches similar to the other coach’s benches were lined up along the window. Richard remembered thinking that there should have been tablecloths and silverware, but there were none and he was confused. A silly thing that a five year old would worry about.
          He wandered past the naked tables to the end of the counter. Beyond it, the same pattern of tables resumed on both sides with an aisle down the middle. He was halfway to the door when, without warning, a woman came through it right in front of him.
          He was so startled he couldn’t say anything and just froze in his tracks. The woman took no notice of his condition. “Hey there! You’re a little early.” Her smile was instant magic and most of his fear waned. She was beautiful, with long straight black hair tied back with blue beads, and brown eyes that spoke of wisdom and kindness. Her skin was dark, not as dark as the conductor’s, but she was different—surely an Indian mother-princess.
          She walked forward. “Come here,” she said, “have a seat.” She gestured to the table nearest the end of the counter, behind which was the narrow and cramped kitchen. Richard silently did as she said while she went into the kitchen and retrieved a plate with a wrapped sandwich and bottle of orange soda pop. She unwrapped the sandwich and set them in front of him. “Here you go, son.”
          She sat down opposite of him. Richard hadn’t realized how hungry he was and ate quickly. Tuna fish—he’d never had tuna fish but he’d smelled it before and knew this was it. It was the best sandwich he’d ever had. Then she asked him playfully, “So where do we go today? Anywhere you want, just name it!”
          Richard didn’t know if she was pretending and wasn’t sure how to answer. He didn’t know where the train went—except the only place he ever imagined it going. But it couldn’t go there…could it? “I want to go Great Grand Bob’s house! Gaganga Chain! That’s where it goes!”
          Had Richard been older, he might have understood the tear that came to her eye. Her smile broke and she looked a little sad. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we can go there. Oh—maybe we could pretend—no,…” She hesitated for a moment then cheered herself up.
          “Look, hey, we can do anything we want! What do you say, kid? Maybe the Land of Oz?” Her magical smile had returned but Richard was starting to get nervous again. He glanced out the window toward the depot, where he could see the bench where he was supposed to be waiting for his father.
          “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
          She leaned toward him and said softly, “Okay, maybe you’re right.” She thought for a moment. “I’ve got it, there’s no one else on the train right now. There’s a safe place all the way at the back, and when you need to get away, there are stairs going down right there!”
          With that she stood up but remained crouched in the aisle and gestured to Richard. He quietly got down and did likewise as they both crept to the door. She peeked out first and made sure the coast was clear then, standing up, she stepped out between the coaches, opening the opposite door and holding both open for Richard. Without looking he dashed across the opening into the next coach.
          “Okay, remember what I said, kid!” Richard took a few tentative steps into the coach before looking back. She was still there and gave him an okay sign and waved goodbye. Then she let the door close and went back into the dining car.
          Richard turned to the rear. The next set of doors were propped open. Both of these coaches had more rows of the same wooden benches and along the roof were metal racks like all trains had for luggage. With only a quick peek, he rushed across the next opening and quickly to the far end of the next coach. He stealthily opened that door to find his favorite “tent car” was next. He didn’t really get the concept of an outdoor observation car, but thought it was very cool that they would put tents—shade canopies—on top of trains, instead of walls and a roof.
          He walked out beneath the yellow tents and found what he’d been looking for—the wonder that he never experienced on other trains; the open air and the view. He walked to the handrail on the left side and leaned against it, looking out at the canyon once more…where there were no lines of silver coming down the great rocks.
          Aware he was visible to the depot, Richard did not linger and made his way through the next two sleeper cars, looking into a few of the cabins…not all that different from others he had seen. They were older, certainly, but well cared for.
          At the end was another tent car. It looked clear and he eased out, staying near the door of the coach for a moment. The only car after this one was the caboose…and he knew about cabooses! Most trains didn’t use them anymore, but they used to be important…almost like the engine. He was in youngster awe.
          Forgetting that he was out in the open, he walked slowly down the viewing car toward the caboose. This one had some red trim on it, but mostly it was yellow, not like the red ones you saw on TV and in books. But that didn’t confuse him, this one was supposed to be yellow. He slowed down as he got near. He wasn’t going to go in—he just stopped and stared.
          In the corner at the far end of the tent car was a raised podium with a small tent of its own and behind it was a tall chair. When Richard noticed it, he thought of the hiding place the woman mentioned at the end of the train. Was that it? With rungs on the legs, the chair was easy to climb into.
          From up here he could see across the entire car and over to the platform and depot. It didn’t seem like a very good hiding place, but there were stairs to get down right here. He climbed off the chair and went over to the top of the stairs, then turned to look at the door of the caboose. Reaching for that handle seemed like the most exciting, and scariest thing he could ever do.
          He took a quick peek back toward the depot and cautiously grabbed the handle, opened the door and crept in. It was very bright with almost everything painted white. But he was disappointed, it looked just like a sleeper coach at first. The aisle was off center with a wall of cupboards on the left. On the right was obviously the door to the bathroom, he could smell the chemicals. Enticing Richard beyond were two sets of brass step-plates; ladders climbing both sides of the caboose. This was the cupola, and each ladder climbed up to a small bench and a set of windows where the conductor could see the entire train, and signal the engineer if needed.
          Richard approached the ladder on the left side and considered climbing up. An old brass lantern was mounted on the wall near the top. He was afraid he might break it—not to mention get caught up there, so he decided not to. The rest of the caboose looked more like the inside of a camper trailer…they had gone camping with people that had one. There were several more cupboards and a very small stovetop and sink on the left and beyond that a simple bench to the end of the shortened car. On the right was a large sliding door marked with red letters that Richard could not read. Beyond it was a neatly made bed big enough for two people; though he knew if it was like the one in the trailer, it could convert into a table with benches around it.
          And that was it. It was just like a tiny home. Richard didn’t hesitate opening the back door, feeling confident that he had seen everything there was to see. The deck on the back of the caboose had a circular metal railing around it, making it a bit larger. A metal bench was bolted with its back to the rear wall of the caboose, while a small stool rode unsecured near the railing. He sat on the bench for a while, staring back at the tracks and the trees and the canyon walls rising beyond.
          Richard could hear people milling about on the platform now but was well hidden from view. Suddenly he heard the conductor’s whistle and voice call out. They were boarding the train! He peeked out and saw the conductor helping some passengers several cars away. Richard had to unlatch a small gate in front of the stairs leading down and lowered himself to the bottom step. Waiting until he was sure the conductor wasn’t looking , he hopped off to the ground below. Within a few seconds he was among the milling passengers, casually making his way back to the bench next to the depot.
          He did it—and nobody would ever find out! The excitement of that day was still a part of him. The train had rang its bell and set off before his father returned, who was probably confused by a happy child after a day of abandonment at a train station. But Richard didn’t remember anything about that.

          Richard heard the clangs and knew the train would be departing soon. Brooding in his berth was the last thing he wanted to be doing. Some folks were in the aisle of the sleeper bringing their bags in, so he turned onto the rear viewing car.
          The same raised podium stood on the far corner of the coach with the same caboose beyond. Everything looked just the same, though a bit older—a bit more worn out. The canvas awnings were dingy and several tears had been repaired and the bench seats were nearly worn of their yellow paint. There must have been little point in replacing such things lately.
          The train’s bell rang out again as Richard stood next to the handrail looking out at the depot. The last apparent passenger shouting out while scurrying up the walk to the platform. Gibson waited patiently to help the man aboard—they chatted for a few moments, clearly they knew each other.
          A more interesting scene developed from Richard’s point of view. Beyond the conductor and the man, a lone figure sat on the bench near the front of train, The figure stood up now, apparently a woman with a long dark ponytail trailing over an equally dark overcoat. She stood just for a moment, glancing toward the engine then the conductor, and quickly walked across and onto the first coach of the train.

Author afternote:  The title of this chapter is an homage to my own grandparents' family nicknames.  As the story goes, my then three-year old cousin, Stacy, approaches Grandma...but calls her "Ganga."  Grandpa is dubbed "More Ganga"  Upgrading it to Gaganga for great-grandpa seemed like a fun no-brainer to me.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Stanton Line, Chapter 2 - Moab Station

Author note:  These first couple of chapters aren't too long and I'm pretty comfortable with my current edits, so I'll just fire off the next one.  I'm up ahead writing in Chapter Five tonight.  Part of getting my chemo treatment earlier today was a shot of steroids to help with the side effects, which itself has the effect of keeping me awake.  So I can write or take a sleeping pill.  Welcome to my world.

         Roy Gibson, Conductor of the Stanton Line of the Colorado Canyon and Las Vegas Railroad, stepped off the short yellow caboose which served as his home on the job. The sun had finally come over the ocher-shadowed hills and cliffs rising above Moab on the eastern side of the canyon. They’d be departing within the hour.
          His first duty of the day, as it had been for thirty-two years, was to inspect the train. Half a century ago, he had started out as the cook. When the Great Depression came, he was made to take on the positions of porter and brakeman as well. Then it was assistant conductor, which didn’t change anything but his title. The train’s original conductor retired before the war and Gibson was offered the job. He was married by then and hired his wife, Denise, to be the cook and porter. It was the best fifty years of his life, but they were all ready to retire.
          The train didn’t have a choice; it had a tough haul all its life. In the early days it was a company train and most of the passengers were miners. But the mines went bust and faster lines were built going around the canyon. During the Great Depression it became the red-eye to Rio Colorado—the great port of the Gadsden Territory on the Sea of Cortez. The tickets were cheap because it took a week to get there. But when you’re looking for a job, cheap is good—and you could always find a job in Rio.
          After the second world war the train became popular with tourists. Twenty years ago had been the heyday. The company had renovated the train and it became a real classy thing to do. Folks came for the journey and the wonder, not as a means to get someplace. They finally discovered what Gibson had known all his life…this was an awesome place made accessible to the masses by a tame line of steel.
          Eventually, the company had four coal-fired locomotives running between Moab and Las Vegas. As time wore on, the ecology-minded folks of the National Park Service became concerned with the railway and moved to make an acquisition, breaking an uneasy truce that had been stewing for years. The company created a public spectacle by accusing the government of stealing their profits. The case ended up in the Supreme Court. It was a unanimous decision. The government had financed the construction of the railway—they owned the tracks. The company lost and the reputation of the railroad took a beating.
          The Park Service treated the railroad more like a novelty than a serious business. They quickly retired two of the locomotives…leaving just the Brown and Stanton Lines. Ticket sales were sluggish because they didn’t promote it—in fear of creating demand. They dropped the Brown Line after the announcement to replace the two trains with a new-technology, natural gas locomotive and modern coaches; a plan that quickly gained public support and excitement.
          The Stanton Line had grown shorter over the years and it never sold out lately—not even this, the last time. Half the passengers were employees of the railroad or their relatives; celebrating the last run and attending the party at Bright Angel Lodge. The rest were a smattering of humble folks getting in on the adventure before the new trains made it three times more expensive. They were arriving to the platform at the usual dwindled pace.
          The only thing resembling fanfare was a small group of quasi-rainbow-child protestors standing near the locomotive. “WeFeRs” they called themselves—for the Western Free Rivers movement. Earlier, they had sung a few “going away” songs and half-heartedly waved their signs, ‘WFR FOREVER, We love FReedom!, WEST FREE FOREVER.’ They’d probably been drinking or toking, but they appeared harmless. At the moment they were just hanging out. The engineer was leaning out his window and Gibson could hear him chatting with them, his friendly brogue partly muffled by the hiss of the locomotive.
          Today Gibson wore the light-grey cotton vest and blue-striped pants, his favorite uniform for summer. He had a short round black hat with the same color grey and blue in a band around it, adorned by the line’s yellow emblem above the bill. He carried a spiraled-oak cane though he didn’t need it to walk—it was useful at times. He was a barrel-chested man standing six foot four with the chocolate sheen of his Bermudan ancestors. He could intimidate people if he needed to, but he didn’t like it. His friendly nature is what protected him...the cane was backup.
          He began, as always, by reversing around the back of the train and starting up the far side, checking the brake lines and couplers as he went. As he approached the tender, he could hear the fireman heaving shovelfuls of coal into the firebox. Harry Ferguson, the engineer, was on the far side of the cab still chatting with the protestors.
          “Might as well get this over with…” Gibson mumbled to himself as he rounded the front end of the locomotive.
          The young woman who was talking cut herself off when she saw Gibson’s imposing bulk approaching. They didn’t need to, but they all took a step back to make room for him to pass. “Mornin’, Gibson.” Harry called out, breaking the silence.
          Gibson stopped below the cab. “Good morning, Mr. Ferguson. Everything check out?”
          “Pressure’s a wee high with Dan going for a shovelin’ record here, but we’ll be fine.” Harry looked out to the clear blue sky, “It’s been raining for a week, and it clears this morning? That’s a good sign if you ask me.”
          “We’ll see, Harry. We’ll see.” Gibson was never comfortable until the train was rolling. He patted the side of the cab then turned and tipped his hat to the protestors. They stood silently staring as he turned again to continue his inspection.
          “Don’t worry about him, he’s okay…” Harry’s voice blended into the background again as Gibson walked. On this side of the train, he checked that stairs were clear of debris and that doors and gates were secured open to ease the passage of luggage. Passing by the dining car, second after the tender, he stopped long enough to see Denise amid a mountain of food and supplies that she was organizing into various cupboards and iceboxes.
          Kaya, the Gibson’s granddaughter and the only other onboard employee, would be in the sleeper coach packing linens. There was a small cabin for the cook in one corner of the dining car. Since Denise slept with Roy in the caboose, she let Kaya sleep in the cook’s cabin. The engineer and fireman usually had a small room provided for them at each of the overnight stops.
          Beyond the dining car was a regular riding coach followed by an open viewing car that had cloth awnings for shade and metal benches running back-to-back down the center. The rear of the train was brought up by a single sleeper car, another open viewing car, and Roy’s little caboose—painted a deep yellow because the rest of the cars were yellow.
          Satisfied with the inspection, Gibson returned to the middle of the train and pulled a silver whistle from below his vest. Blowing sharply twice, he then shouted “All aboard!! First call for the last run!”
          The protestors grabbed their signs and their packs, waved to the engineer and headed for the train. Gibson’s grip on his cane tightened in reflex. “Howdy, folks. May I help you?” he called out as they approached him.
          “I suppose you can,” the taller of the two men said as he held out his hand. They had tickets.
          Gibson hesitated before replying, sizing them up. “You can’t bring the signs aboard.”
          “Oh—okay.” said the young man, looking confused since the nearest trash bin was too small. His friends were scanning the platform area—their abhorrence to littering left them in a quandary.
          Gibson pointed, “There’s a trash bin behind the old depot building.” They set off on their mission, lingering behind the depot a few minutes longer than they needed to. When they returned, Gibson asked them pointedly, “Are we going to have a problem?”
          The other young man with long brown curly hair and a goatee answered him in a mock Aussie accent, “No worries, mate. We won! We’re here to celebrate. That’s it. We swear.” He held two fingers up in a peace sign and nodded to his friends who murmured affirmations of his comment and also gave peace signs.
          Gibson believed them. They weren’t going to be a problem, maybe just an inconvenience. “Welcome aboard, folks.” Each of the four of them, appearing to be two couples, came aboard with a stuffed rucksack on their back, a sleeping roll and blanket bundled tightly below it. None of them had reserved a bunk; self sufficient, camping sites were easy to find at all the stops.

Author note:  Shameless admission—the names of the engineer and fireman are an homage to the world of the Hogwart's Express:  "Harry" Ferguson and "Dan" (For Harry Potter and Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays him.)...and, of course, the engineer Scotty on the Enterprise was Scottish.  Yeah, yeah...pretty lame, eh?  But don't get too attached to the characters, they don't have any significant role in the story (at least that I've thought of yet).  Shameless admission #2—I can't say it in the text, but my mental image for Gibson is a cross between James Earl Jones and Al Roker.  There's a reason he is Gibson (to be revealed later), though Roy was randomly chosen.  His wife, were she "Denise Gibson" would have the name of a girl I had a crush on in high school—but Denise's last name isn't Gibson—that also comes later.  Kaya, I chose from a list of Hopi names...it means 'wise child.'  Denise, Kaya and the Wefers will feature in the story but I haven't written much of their parts yet.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Stanton Line, Chapter 1 - Running the Falls

          The song of a canyon wren echoes across the gorge as they float over the calm pool of water gathered for a quarter-mile above the rapid—the great canyon above trapping them in a cascade of massive rock terraces. Gripping the rear sweep, she feels for the myriad of eddies and whorls that could send them adrift. It’s important to keep the boat straight; no mistakes this time. She knows what she has to do.
          This must be the one they were warned about. They scouted it—they should be lining it. They had flipped in a much smaller rapid near the start of their journey. ‘A lesson,’ he had called it. Ahead of them, a roaring line of froth stretches from bank to bank, disappearing over the tongue of a recent debris flow that had come down the side canyon on the left. She wonders what lesson they should have learned.
          “If you’re gonna run it, stay to the right,” they said, “between the wall and the big hole.” Their rim-bound outfitters had been full of advice…most of it wise, she reckoned, but it was second-or-more-hand knowledge. Only a handful of river rats had ever completed the journey. They saw how nervous she was. But did they know why? Sure. The river scares the hell out of her. Why shouldn’t it? She has no business being here.
          The boat slips neatly onto a lick of smooth water entering the rapid; on the left, a seething hole of back-churning froth—to the right, an imposing wall of black lava with a jumble of rocks at the base, their edges cut sharp by ages of spring floods. He is in front of her standing at the forward sweep, his feet in leather straps fastened to the deck. He leans to brace for the first wave.
          She lets go of the sweep bar and grabs the paddle which is usually lashed, now unlashed, on the rear deck. "We're drifting!" he yells without looking back. She swings the paddle around with all of her might. He is heaving on the forward sweep and shouting more orders. "Left…!"
          The paddle strikes him just below his right ear, stopping dead with the satisfying firmness that she had been imagining for days. She doesn't so much hear his skull crack as feel it ricochet back down the handle. He goes down instantly; faster than the wave which immediately crashes onto the boat as they plunge into the maelstrom.
          The impact knocks her off her feet and she falls into the back of the boat, dropping the paddle. Another wave crashes over them as she frantically grabs for something to hold onto. The sweep bar swings above and she latches onto it with her elbow. Jamming her feet into a corner she gets some leverage and pins herself in. It seems the boat is still facing down river but she can't be sure. The boat lifts upward and she hears the ugly sound of a boulder scrapping across the bottom. Holding the sweep firm she feels it bite into the current. The back end swings around and drops sickeningly as the river pulls them off the rocky pivot. Just when it seems she would be drown, an immense crest of water propels them skyward. The boat pirouettes in mid air and lands askew, the front end slamming down in a tremendous splash. As if for good measure a final wave washes over them. The boat is swamped, nearly submerged but upright. She pulls herself up to her knees and leans on the rear bulkhead coughing and catching her breath.
          She is afraid to look, but she must. He’s still there, floating, face down. One leg is grotesquely twisted as it goes under the water, his foot still in the makeshift stirrup. He looks dead. She startles as his arm seems to reach out. The boat drifting through a riffle animates his body but there is no will to its movement. She lets him bob like a soaked cork. It will take a while to bail out this much water.
          Later that day, their boat settles gently against a sandy bank after drifting into a large eddy just above a small rapid. She had collapsed into a dreamless slumber after bailing the boat. On waking, she climbs out of the boat, ties up to shore and surveys her new world—a world with no obligations and no insane quests in search of fame and fortune. She lays down on the beach and sleeps some more.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Stanton Line - A Preface

This novel was largely inspired by a love of the Grand Canyon; the landscape and the lore.  A favorite bit of real history is the two Stanton expeditions (1889-1890) to survey the Colorado River for the construction of a railroad.  It was as much a harrowing adventure, if not more so, than Major Powell’s more famous expeditions 20 years earlier.  The railroad was deemed feasible but was never built in real life.

That is where I unravel the strings of history.  It’s the early 1970s but this is not the American west you are familiar with.  Events and history have changed.  Both state and international borders have shifted.  Political, technological, and urban development of the west flowed down a different course.  There is a new state, old territories, and an old war never fought.  The geography of the west is intact, though not all the action takes place somewhere you could find on a map.

A final note, regarding my, perhaps, blasphemous treatment of the Grand Canyon by building a railway through it.  What I offer when pondering this for myself is, in this world, Lake Powell never was, Glen Canyon still is, and the status of native peoples of the southwest has been raised by giving them a land with statehood.  I won’t say it’s a better world, just a different one.  I hope you have fun exploring it with me.

Would You Like to Read a Novel?

I've been thinking of taking my blog in a different direction.  Part of the reason I started it was to stimulate my creative-writing process and return to achieving one of the most ambitious goals on my bucket list...writing a novel.  Alas, I seem to have found a way to write about anything except a novel.  I haven't done any serious work on it in over a year.

So my idea is simple; to write my novel here.  Not all in one post, of course...but perhaps at the rate of a chapter every week or two.  About a third of it is already written (some 20,000 words), including the first four chapters, parts of the climax, and the development of a flashback story (told throughout the novel) for one of characters.

Hopefully I won't write myself into a corner on the way.  I feel pretty confident about the story even though there are a lot of smaller details I haven't worked out yet.  Much of the outine and specific setting I had to develop during the initial writing phases.  I'm not always so linear and was writing sequences from throughout the story.  When a good idea hits, you just want to write it down!  Worry about working it in later.  Eventually that catches up with you, and you need a roadmap that is going to join all these great ideas and mark the waypoints for your characters to follow, both physically and emotionally.  I've done a lot of that work already and now I think it's time for a more linear approach to get this thing done.  If it reads well, I'll create some audience anticipation to inspire me to the end.  And, hey, if I actually got it published someday, that would be cool too.

Oh, I'll still tell you about any adventures I take, and update you with that icky stuff from time to time.  But things are slowing down here in the desert summer heat and I really don't have any plans except for swimming and sweating out the next few months.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Saying Goodbye to My Little Friend

TMI ahead but it's good news...my chest cavity has dried up and Dr. Daniel has removed the catheter.  Yay, no more tapping myself and in about ten days I can go swimming again!

On the flipside, my fevers have mostly cleared up and it's back on chemo again.  We're getting a better handle on the side effects, so without colds and fevers on top of it, this round should go better.  My hair isn't falling out either, but it is growing...very...slowly.  Same thing happens with my fingernails and toenails; leaving behind subtle growth rings that document my treatment history.  How's that for a weird observation?

Now it's time to hang out and plan that night out (without Brendan) at Starr Pass, a surprise-gift from the parents of Brendan's kindergarten class.  Thank you, you have no idea how much we need this!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Life is Throwing Lemons

I wish I could excuse all my breaks in posting for being off on some adventure.  Alas, the last few weeks I've been dealing with blood-count crashes, a cold, and now a minor infection where I have the plural catheter installed.  Most of it has left me feeling pretty tired and weak with recurrent afternoon fevers.

I spent a day at UMC getting IV antibiotics for the infection; hanging out in my street clothes in the room.  It's a bit like staying in a hotel; even had a nice view of the mountains.  Getting to know the folks up on 4NE too, which makes it nicer still.  They take good care of me.

As for my infection...hmmm, it's a bit mysterious though apparenty not anything serious.  The incision site is red, sore and just a bit swollen; not like a painfully-enflammed abscess or something.  It seems to just be simmering as my body mounts a half-assed immune response to it.  Hopefully the antibiotics will kick in and kick its butt.  My fevers seem to be easing up slightly but nothing to get excited about yet.  It's not getting worse either.

The good news is that my plural effusion has decreased dramatically (the fluid I draw out of my chest through the plural catheter).  TMI warning:  It's gone from the color of red wine to raspberry lemonade and gone from an average of 450ml/week down to just 125ml.  If it stays under a 100ml for a few weeks they'll remove the catheter.  The reduction could mean that this chemotherapy is working, despite its propensity for killing off my blood cells.  I'm taking lots of iron supplements now and I have a great excuse for eating red meat...my hemoglobin, and my energy, is already coming back.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mirror Mirror

No, this isn't an alternate universe in Star Trek.  Rather I've gone digging in the archives of my old website and given new life to a story I wrote 12 years ago, about moving a telescope mirror to the top of a mountain.  The editor of Tucson Monthly came up with the title as it went into print.  This version is modified just a bit, but I kept some of the changes they made.  Photos link to wallpaper-ish versions; a larger selection of hi-res images is in my gallery.

Mirror Mirror

FIRST LIGHT.  The sun breaks over the Santa Rita Mountains, 40 miles south of Tucson. Silhouetted on the narrow peak of Mount Hopkins stands the Multiple Mirror Telescope, waiting for a new mirror.  The problem is that new mirror weighs more than ten tons and must travel a twisting mountain road often half its width and flanked by rock and precipitous dropoffs.

As I arrive at the MMT Observatory base camp, the crew is preparing an unusual rig—a huge white octagonal box, 5 feet thick and 25 feet across.  It rides almost vertically on the back of a flatbed semi-truck.  Late this summer, the MMT’s new 6.5 meter (21 foot) mirror will be loaded into the box and transported the 12 miles and 4,000 feet up the mountain.  Never before has a piece of glass this large been moved up such primitive road.  Today’s run is the final test.

Warren Davison, Mechanical Engineer at U of A’s Steward Observatory, gets much of the credit for designing a transport box that would cushion the mirror effectively.  Implying that one can easily get carried away with fancy designs, Warren quips, “It took a lot of creativity to make a simple solution.”  He came up with an inner frame that grabs onto the mirror by dozens of cushioned, load-spreading supports glued to the mirror’s back—the same supports that will hold the mirror in the telescope.  The inner frame is cradled within a rectangular ring of steel—connected to it only via three large rubber pads, acting as shock absorbers.  Most of the “box” is its octagonal cake-pan cover.

The mirror was created in April 1992 at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, beneath Arizona Stadium.  A technique called “spin-casting,” developed by astronomers Roger Angel and Nick Woolf, uses the centrifugal force of a rotating furnace to create rough castings with the required curved surface—saving the time and cost of grinding away tons of glass.  To reduce the mirror’s weight, the glass is melted around blocks of soft-ceramic material, which are blasted out afterward with high-pressure water.  This creates a mostly hollow mirror with a stiff honeycomb structure, topped off by an inch-thick plate.  After casting, it took more than a year to polish the mirror to fine precision, with the final touches done by hand.  The MMT mirror was the first in a series of giant telescope mirrors being produced by the Mirror Lab.

Now it’s time to take this mirror home.

For the final test, a "dummy mirror" made of steel is hooked up to gauges that measure its motion during transit.  Bundled wires exit the box and thread to a laptop computer riding shotgun in the cab of the truck.  Driver Lynn Harris jokingly expressed the worst-case scenario, “We’ll get all the way up the mountain without falling off, and the computer will tell us we broke the glass!”  Eager to get the job done, nobody seemed unnerved by his prediction.

Lynn hasn’t fallen off the mountain yet.  He helped build the Mount Hopkins Road in 1967, working with Sierrita Mining and Ranching, and has been maintaining it ever since.  Speaking to him, and to others, I get the impression he built the road almost single-handedly.  He’s been hauling heavy loads up this road most of his life and probably knows it better than anyone.  This job doesn’t faze him at all.

As Lynn pulls the rig past the gates of base camp, J.T. Williams is perched on the cab’s running board, ready to run ahead and guide the truck around hairpin turns or kick stray rocks off the road.

J.T., Project Engineer for the MMT Observatory, is in charge of the telescope’s conversion, including today’s move.  Director Craig Foltz describes him as “the kind of guy you’d like have around if you were stranded on a deserted island”—a testimonial to his friendly nature, resourcefulness, and ingenuity.  Of his job, J.T. says, “I’ve worked for the Smithsonian essentially all of my life…I don’t think I’ve ever had a real job.  It’s great fun.”

Perhaps not having so much fun is MMT Engineer Bill Omann, who quips, “They’re punishing me for building [the trailer]”  His punishment?  Clouds of dust kicked up by the rig.  He is riding on the open flatbed next to the box with his eyes fixed on an inclinometer measuring the tilt of the trailer.  To compensate for the shifting weight of the box, Bill drives a 5-ton lead counterweight attached to rails under the trailer.  Surprisingly, his precarious perch doesn’t seem to bother him much; while his equipment is well secured, Bill coasts on a rolling office chair. It seemed a rather odd choice for the job, so I asked him why. “I want to be able to get off this thing quickly…at 10 degrees I stand up, at 12 I’m jumping off!”  In theory, the trailer is stable to 17 degrees but that’s with no wind, and this box might as well be a sail.  With a maximum tilt of 8 degrees during the test run, Bill didn’t even roll closer to the edge.

Staying ahead of the pack, I wait on exposed turns, the road below disappearing into a sweeping vistas of the Santa Cruz Valley and southern Arizona.  And always, Lynn and his parade of support vehicles come snaking up the mountainside.  They’re making excellent progress—you’d have to run to keep up on the straight-aways.  The longest delay—a flat tire—was far from the worst thing that could have happened.  And while most tire changes don’t take three people an hour of hard work, it was still a routine process.

Underway again, we near the rocky peak of Mount Hopkins and the steepest sections of roadway.  The final approach skirts a dizzying precipice at a grade of 26 percent—6 percent merits a highway warning sign!  But then, highways don’t have heaters under them to melt the ice.  Not unexpectedly, Lynn’s heavy-duty rig spins its tires about a mile short of the summit.  Standing by to help is a front-loading tractor, also from SMR.  With an 8-foot section of telephone pole lashed to its shovel, the tractor comes up from behind to give the rig a shove. “I sure felt it when he took it to 2,200 rpm!” says Lynn of the feeling as the tractor helped propel him to the top.  J.T. is right, it does look like fun—big boys and their Tonka toys.

After the move, I asked J.T. about what went right. “It didn’t fall over!  It didn’t fall off the mountain, the wind didn’t blow it around…none of those horror stories happened.  It was a great testimonial to our modeling and engineering.  The idea of carrying a large expensive piece up a mountain road like that, when you look at the whole problem, it overwhelms you.  But…you start with the basic laws, principles, and physics and you start breaking the problem down piece by piece…then it starts to feel more plausible.”  More than plausible, they made it look easy.  And the computer says they did not break the glass.

Reflections on Multiple Mirrors

Built in 1979 and jointly operated by the Smithsonian Institution and the U of A, the Multiple Mirror Telescope has always been a leader in telescope technology.  It was the first optical telescope to combine the light from multiple mirrors, in this case, six 1.8 meter mirrors with an equivalent diameter of 4.5 meters.  Doing that successfully was itself a major breakthrough.  Its altitude-azimuth drive, which both tilts the telescope and rotates the entire building, is the world’s most accurate pointing system.  It could line up on a basketball in Tucson if you simply entered the ball’s location into the computer.  Other innovations allowed astronomers to combine starlight in ways never done before, including being able to “tune in” specific colors of light, a key in the search for extra-solar planets.

The new MMT Observatory is scheduled to see “first light” by the end of 1998.  Research will resume early next year.  The 6.5 meter mirror will more than double the telescope’s light gathering surface area—and at $20 million, the cost is a fraction of building a new observatory.  In a sentimental gesture, the telescope’s name will not change with the shedding of its multiple mirrors.  “It’s an acronym in search of a name,” declared Craig.  But it does have a cool new logo.

The reincarnated MMT won’t be the largest telescope in the world.  That honor goes to the twin 10-meter Keck Telescopes in Hawaii.  Several 8 meter telescopes are also under construction, as well as two telescopes that will use multiple 8-meter mirrors, one in Chile, the other on Mount Graham.

What Mount Hopkins has is nearly the best “seeing” (quality of observation) in the continental United States, rivaled only by Mount Graham.  Our clear, dry weather and unique geology make Arizona prime for astronomy.  And the proximity of the U of A to observatories like the MMT and Kitt Peak allows students and researchers easy access to world-class instruments, encouraging innovative projects.

The lights of Green Valley, Sahuarita and Tucson.
Eric J. Anderson has been working for Steward Observatory since 1987, after a failing classmate tipped him off that “the eggheads over there need some kind of drafting done…you’d get along well with them.”