Posts Tagged With: California travel

The pursuit of glow – California Sierra Nevada

29° and dark was the biting forecast just outside my tent at the base of the California Eastern Sierras a few frosted high desert mornings ago. Because I was nestled in the comforts of a toasty -25°  Kelty sleeping bag designed for an Arctic field surveyor, the cold hadn’t bit me just yet. Aggressively nibbling it was, as the winter chompers of that eager morning were on alerted standby. My goal was simply to catch the morning glow as it would creep upon the highest mountain peak in the contiguous 48 states, Mt. Whitney. At 14,505 feet, this colossal point among hundreds of lesser-known across the freshly powdered Sierra Nevada was within a short 10 minute drive from my campsite. In order to witness the lovely thulian-and-rouge-hued “magic hour” light casting over these majestic peaks, which was scheduled to make an initial appearance around 6:20am, I had to bear the inevitable and mentally excruciating sound of the un”zip” and force my thermal-layered buns out of that cozy tent. With a pocketful of chilled Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies as my motivating breakfast, I hit the road to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the bumpy and barren Alabama Hills.

6am arrival. Twilight slowly stalking the Sierras like a bobcat moving stealthily towards an unsuspecting desert cottontail rabbit. Gloves off. Ice cold tripod the reminiscent temperature of the 3 Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen beers I guzzled down 8 hours earlier. Camera mounted. I set up my shot and waited patiently in the soul-numbing silence of desert dawn. The cheek-numbing cold was omnipresent as well, but mostly ignorable due to the epic scene that was unfolding before my stretch-deprived eyes. Like the sun melting beyond an ocean horizon, the first light of day emerges quickly. A blanket of magenta-colored clouds hovered over the jagged mountain tops, acting as a quick cue to position the finger on the trigger.

Not more than 20 seconds later, boom…and there it was. Ideally, my first instinct is to admire such a scene with eyes wide open panning a full 180° panorama. But in order to provide visuals along with my story, my default view must come primarily through the small square prism of my cropped camera viewfinder. I clicked away with an overwhelming awe. The “magic hour” light usually peaks and begins to fade within a window of a few short minutes, so you have to make efficient time of your shot selection. I photographed as much as I could while I was rewarded the most beautiful light of any morning I had witnessed throughout the trip, while framing the rugged contrast of the peculiar Alabama Hills in the foreground of the towering and magnificent Eastern Sierras.

If there was ever a confirmation of my long-standing claim that the most beautiful time of the day is to be experienced at first light, this was a universal, unanimous jury. You can deprive me of hand-warmers and cookies all you want, but you can’t deprive me of the desire to witness this Earth at its most captivating and inspiring hour (or minutes) during its steady revolution around the big “glow”.

 

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A Galaxy…far, far away

As I usually try to do while up in the mountains, I set the alarm for 3am the other night and got up to do some hand-numbing astrophotography at 9,000 feet. I captured something I have never captured before in what was one of the clearest of clear night skies I have ever witnessed. The “cloudy” vertical band going through the center of this photo is our Milky Way Galaxy (which we are swirling about as we speak). Every bright dot you see is a star in our galaxy, stars similar to our sun (and there are hundreds of billions just in our galaxy alone, and trillions of planets among them). But if you look inside of the red square, you will see a bright object with a slight blur (or halo) around it. That is not a star. This is the Andromeda Galaxy. It is our closest neighboring spiral galaxy, about 2.5 million light years away (1 light year = nearly 6 trillion miles, so you can do the math – hardly “close” at all, only relatively so). It has taken 2.5 million years for this light captured in this image to reach Earth, so what we are actually seeing in that square is the light that left Andromeda 2.5 million years ago…seeing back through cosmic time.

This is the first time I was able to photograph Andromeda. Think about what we are looking at here. Contained inside of that tiny little pinpoint of blurry light there is a gathering of over a trillion stars (suns), and an uncountable number of planets (and that’s just ONE galaxy among hundreds and hundreds of BILLIONS out there in the observable universe). Fascinating! Would you agree? (Now your minds are probably as numb as my hands were while fumbling around with the camera settings in the piercing cold of mountain night.)

Andromeda is on a collision course with the Milky Way. We know this by observing and measuring the wavelengths of blue light shift. Two galaxies, heading straight towards one another at astronomical speeds (a cosmic pun I just dropped there). Due to the unfathomable distance, it’ll take about 4 billion years before our galaxy collides with Andromeda and begins a long, swirling cosmic tango which will restructure both galaxies as they merge into one. The really amazing thing about it is that, due to the unimaginably vast distances between all the individual stars, it is unlikely that any of the trillions of stars will even come into contact with one another during this collision. 

Before this cosmic event happens in an estimated 4 billion years, our Earth will have long been swallowed by our own expanding sun, before the sun finally explodes into a white dwarf. Either way you slice it, it’s a temporary existence we have here. But for now, we have an amazing opportunity to enjoy our planet and appreciate all that we know and have learned about the universe, and our place in it, all because we became aware of our selves and of our ignorance long ago and began to ask the questions that would lead to the expanding of our minds. Let’s be sure to take care of Earth while we have her (or while she still has us) and be grateful each time we look up into the night sky, knowing that each one of us belongs to the one lucky species among millions that beat inconceivable odds to even be here in the first place…and be grateful that our ancestors decided to look up at the night sky one day and ask the age-old question that still keeps us staring up in awe and infinite wonder: “What else is out there among the stars?” 

#GringoWithAGreenBag

 

Categories: Inspiration, Life, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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