Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Saturday, 2 September 2017

America's Biggest Tits

Extremely long-term readers may remember that a long time ago on a computer far, far away, I made this render of the Grand Teton mountain range :


So when a couple of friends said last year that they were planning to see the 2017 solar eclipse from this very location, and would I like to share a room, I said yes.

I approached this in exactly the same way I approach every other trip : with the absolute bare minimum of investigation and the hope that everyone else knows what the hell is going on. This approach is generally fabulously successful and avoids me having to do any real work at all.

Well... almost. In a sense. In this case there was no way to avoid a hellishly long journey. My friends, a certain Rhydian Payne and Ian Mellen you may remember from our Switzerland adventure a few years ago, were taking things to the insane extreme of a six week voyage across the US and back again. I have neither the time nor inclination to do such a crazy venture, so the optimum scheme for me was to join them for about two weeks in the middle of the trip.


Day Zero

Not as bad as a six week marathon (which isn't my idea of a "holiday" at all) then, but still the perils of a transatlantic trip could not be avoided. This began with me leaving my flat at 3:30 one morning with Prague looking by far the foggiest I have ever seen it.


I hadn't even tried sleeping that night because experience teaches me that waking up so early makes me feel far worse than not sleeping at all, but still the hour-long bus trip to the airport was an unpleasant and crowded journey. But it got me there on time. Check in was easy. My 6:45 am flight to Berlin was on time. Thereafter it all started to go rather wrong.

The next leg of the journey was a 9 hour flight to Chicago. But the plane was delayed by about an hour, not because it wasn't there but because it was waiting for other connecting flights to arrive. This is a phenomenon I have not previously encountered. It's a nice idea, except that it's stupid because it completely ignores the knock-on delays it causes to everyone else. Since I only had a two-hour layover scheduled in Chicago, and I had to clear immigration, I spent the entire 9 hours fretting about whether I'd make it or not. Woo hoo.

Brief digression : the small selection of inflight movies included Hidden Figures, which was excellent. Go see it. Also I was treated to a brief but wonderful view of Greenland.


As it turned out, I needn't have worried. On approaching Chicago the plane was delayed by another hour, presumably as a punishment for having the audacity for having such a bizarre and silly policy that knocks the myth of German efficiency completely on the head. So I had basically zero chance of catching my scheduled connection to Salt Lake City. And I rarely get any sleep at all on planes, and this was no exception.

So after about 34 hours awake, I found myself explaining the situation to a nice man at the American Airlines desk (after giving a short, informative lecture to the gentlemen at immigration control on the correct way to view a solar eclipse). There were no direct flights to SLC available, but there was an indirect route via... Phoenix. Oh yay, Phoenix, that great sprawling industrial slum, the Port Talbot of the American midwest. But I had a motel scheduled for the evening and a bus the following morning, so getting to SLC the same day was top priority. If I didn't make it, I'd not only be exhausted but I'd also have to actually figure stuff out for myself. Urrrghhh ! Anything but that !!!

The 2 hour flight left barely 30 minutes later. The airport district of Phoenix turns out to be a bit nicer than the rest of the city, so that was something.

Quite a contrast from Prague.
Another 2 hours or so layover. Then another 2 hour flight to SLC itself (I don't remember the exact numbers and I don't want to; suffice to say the process was hell). At 11 pm, at last in SLC, I found myself somehow managing to hold a coherent conversation with a friendly Mormon, who unlike the scam artists of Europe actually did just want to help me use the ticket machine for the tram. I encountered yet another example of American hospitality as I got off the tram, whence a man in shabby black overalls, dark glasses and carrying 3 or 4 stuffed plastic bags with a strange open-mouthed expression proceeded to give me very precise directions to my hotel.

See, although this isn't the first time I've encountered such things, it's still damn confusing. Such behaviour in Britain would be a surefire indication that one is about to get mugged. In America, people are just being friendly. I suppose that when they're actually trying to mug you they announce loudly, "I am trying to mug you", or something. What a weird country. People who seem to be friendly actually are being friendly. I don't quite get it.

(Several European friends have said that they don't like the "fake" friendliness of American waiters. I'm pretty sure they're forgetting that Americans, on average, are infinitely friendlier to complete strangers than other Europeans, with the notable exception of the Irish)

Anywho, staggering into my motel room (7 hours later than planned) was briefly a horror story until I told the receptionist, whereupon they instantly changed it for one that was up to scratch. That would be the best night's sleep I'd have for the next week and more.



Day One

The next day things improved. The emergency fallback plan of meeting outside my friend's hotel next door to mine worked perfectly and we got on the 11:30 am bus to Jackson, Wyoming, for a not entirely unpleasant 7 hour bus ride. I can't say it was enthralling but it was 900 million times better than being on a plane.


My travelling companion (we all wanted window seats) was to be the first of two stereotypical old dudes, a sort of "Prelude to Dave" as I now think of him (we'll encounter Actual Dave later on). There's a certain age beyond which, it seems, the brain completely loses the ability to judge what's interesting and what isn't. So Prequel Dave would ramble on about the flood lava deposits of the region, the age of sage bushes, his Mormon sister attending a wedding, the fact that he used to work on the British Poseidon and Polaris missiles, the most important things about potato farming in Idaho -

Wait, what ?

Yes really, nuclear missiles. But he preferred to talk about potatoes, so I didn't press the point. I couldn't think of a polite way of saying, "I find nuclear missiles more interesting than potatoes", or at least a way of saying it which didn't sound bizarre that would enable me to keep a straight face, so I just let him ramble on.

Another, altogether stupider comment drifted across from a couple on the other side of the bus :
"I think the Moon won't go too dark during the eclipse, because it reflects light."
His companion tried to correct him.
"But it will be reflecting light away from the Earth."
He did the classic blink-and-stare-blankly look which indicates that the cogs are, very slowly, turning.
"Ohhh yeah...."

At this point the urge to grab him by the shirt and shout "IT'S A SHADOW !!! THAT'S HOW SHADOWS WORK !!!" was tempered only by extreme travel fatigue.

Anyway we got to Jackson (more later) without any other incidents and from there we got a regular bus to Teton Village. Things started getting scenic.




Later, one morning I was up early so I got a nice sunrise :


The hostel in the village is not much like a typical European hostel, it's more like a guest house. It gets the rustic feel just right, without ever taking it too far and feeling downmarket.


The hostel provides free coffee and something that claims to be Twinings tea but of course isn't, because Americans can't do tea. Oh, I'm sure there are one or two weird exceptions lurking in mysterious dark side-alleys of obscure cities somewhere, but in general American tea is the equivalent of spray-on cheese. It's just a totally different thing and you'd be advised to stay away from it, or possibly get yourself sexually harassed by a bear instead of trying to drink the ghastly stuff. Hell, maybe even become a Justin Beiber fan instead of resorting to American "tea". And don't be fooled by the Twining's logo as I was. Of course, that lesson from America had been long been burned into my mind so I had my own supply of Yorkshire Gold, or I might have died.

The hostel also provides a fridge-freezer, cooking facilities, a lounge area and a pool table. It's really very nice, the staff are friendly and helpful. I highly recommend it, apart from the tea which is best used as a way to look down pretentiously on the foolish American colonists. Perhaps it's all an act. Perhaps they're just letting us have this one and actually have their own secret stash of proper tea hidden somewhere. It wouldn't be the first tine America has taken a British invention and exploited it properly.

That first night saw the first glimpse of astronomy : the Milky Way from the darkest site I've ever been to. Oh, I've been to the observatory complex at Kitt Peak, which you'd think would be really dark, but it isn't. Teton Village is much darker. Stare at the sky for a few seconds and even in the centre of the village you quickly realise you can see the Milky Way. Hold your eyes to block the lights and it becomes exceptionally clear. Walk a little way out and it becomes truly astonishingly clear. The lights are just too few to cause any real airglow, so just getting a little way from them is enough.

I'd show you one of Ian's superb photo's here, but I don't have them. Here, instead, is an artist's impression of what the night sky would look like if our cities were dark :


But, thing is, it doesn't really look like that. It's altogether more subtle and more beautiful. You don't see the stars like so many grains of sand - they're more like a relatively few scattered diamonds. You do see the dust lane of the Milky Way, but not so clearly as in the renderings. You certainly don't see any colour as in some of the other depictions. What you see of the Milky Way is a strange, pale yet obvious cloud; stare at it for a little while and you can persuade yourself that it's made of thousands of tiny stars. No photograph can properly capture it, so go and see it for yourself.

The next day Ian and Rhydian buggered off on a super-duper expensive two day trip to Yellowstone, which I wasn't prepared to fork out for. So I hopped on the $42 "aerial tram" (a.k.a. cable car) up to the summit of the 3,185 m Rendevous Mountain overlooking the village, and went for a walk. I was instantly enthralled.


The "tram" takes a full 12 minutes to ascend, over forests which gradually give way to sheer rocky cliffs, rewarding the visitor with views of the Tetons proper.


On the other side, the valley sweeps out far below.


The sense of scale is extremely strong. An easy walk to the summit itself gives even better views.


I spent the next several hours doing absolutely nothing except walking around looking at things and feeling that, after the hell of getting there, the place was pretty nice after all.




Alpine meadows, rocky escarpments, permanent ice - the Tetons have the lot. Also bears, apparently, but I didn't see any.


I walked from something like 10am - 3pm, roughly. This wasn't easy, firstly because of the altitude :


... and secondly because I didn't really know where I was going. So I walked down one trail, which was very nice, but then found that unless I wanted to walk all the way down the mountain I'd have to go back up again. Which was steep. In places this involves going on all fours, following the painted marks to stay on the trail.





Eventually of course I made it back up to the summit, and felt tremendously pleased with myself.


I also felt properly exhausted, so I went back on the tram and lazed around in the hostel for a few hours doing nothing very much. I discovered that in my stupidity I'd forgotten about the Sun and could now pass muster in a Doctor Zoidberg lookalike competition (those are thing, right ?), but what the hell.


When my feet recovered I got bored, so I took the free "gondola" (a.k.a. a smaller cable car) up to the only slightly lower summit of a different nearby mountain. This was perfect. Once off there was only one short steep ascent :


After that it was nothing but flat trails through alpine meadows, forests, and more rewarding views of the Tetons.




Then it started to get dark, so I went back down, ate something nice in the Mangy Moose saloon and fell asleep.


Day Two

The next day I went back to Jackson, having heard conflicting rumours of a cheap shuttle bus to Yellowstone. It turns out that there used to be one but there isn't any more. If I have one criticism of the local area it's that the public transport options are pretty crappy compared to other US national parks I've been in. There's a great, cheap public bus in and around the little villages and towns, but nothing to either Grand Teton or Yellowstone national parks. There isn't even any sensible commercial service : all you get is extremely overpriced all-inclusive tours (even to Grand Teton) or... nothing. Listen up, Wyoming, there's a gap in the market here.

Instead I decided to go for a walk along the road to Grand Teton to see how far I could get. There's a pedestrian/cycle path that runs the whole way, following a national wildlife refuge. Jackson is a set in picturesque valley with extensive wetlands-:


It's home to fifty billion elk, apparently, enough for them to collapse under their own gravitational pull, but needless to say I didn't see a single one. It's a universal law that any area designated as a wildlife refuge must contain exactly no wildlife. Sure, it can be as scenic as hell (a place well-known for its stunning fiery vistas), but the minute any actual animals show up they're instantly hunted down by a SWAT team of Terminator-style killer robots that abseil out of squadrons of stealth Zepplins. I've been to bloomin' dozens of wildlife refuges across the world, so don't tell me this isn't true because it jolly well is. You've as much chance of finding wildlife in a wildlife refuge as you do finding artwork in a Picasso gallery. The Serenghetti ? It's probably just CGI. Also, while we're at it, the fly agaric totally doesn't exist. It's a myth put about by the Disney corporation.


On and on I went along the road. Cyclists passed by every few minutes or so, but I saw only a single other pedestrian the entire day : crazily, a woman with a pushchair about two miles out of Jackson. Oh, and it was hot, about 30 C. Every hour I'd stop to apply lashings of the overpriced and underpowered suncream I'd bought in Teton Village's tiny general store the day before. The rest of the time it was pure walk, stop, drink, walk, stop, drink.



The road went ever on and on. It's a prettier place than the photographs show - more colourful, with more wild flowers. But there's not that much to see. It was flat, easy walking, so I kept going. Then, four miles out of Jackson, at the official boundary of the Grant Teton national park area, things started to change.


Never have I been quite so rewarded by pushing on around one last corner. Rounding the small rocky outcrop above, much bigger rocky outcrops at last revealed themselves.



Re-invigorated, I kept going another two miles down the road. In total isolation (drivers stop only briefly at the sign for photographs) I had the Teton range on my left, the Lord of the Rings soundtrack on my phone (what else ?) and miles and miles of wilderness on my right. It was glorious.



At last, six miles out of Jackson I decided that while I might like to keep going, my feet and decreasing supply of fluids definitely wouldn't. So I walked back.


E-Day

The dynamic duo re-emerged from Yellowstone some time in the evening when I got back from Jackson. Rhydian had developed a nasty limp, which was a bit odd. Next morning it got much worse, with his foot swelling up to Sasquatch proportions and turned an unsightly shade of Zoidberg*. And so, in finest Top Gear tradition, we packed poor Rhydian (instigator of the whole trip) off to the emergency room in Jackson and went off to see the eclipse.

* Drawings of the Zoidberg-Sasquatch hybrid are left as an exercise for the reader.

After some debate we opted to hike to Phelps Lake, because it was a) close and b) looked nice on Google image searches and c) was probably Michael Phelps' personal training pool. The more ambitious option of the more well-known Jenny Lake was thankfully rejected as being too far to walk. Hitch-hiking you might think would have been an option, but you'd have been dead wrong. The guide in the Jackson visitor centre had regaled me with apocalyptic tales of death and destruction for all who dared venture upon the Forbidden Highways on eclipse day, lest those who walk the Dread Roads should bring forth the wrath of the ancient demonic forces of Heavy Traffic. It didn't exactly work out like that.


The sign lied to us, but poorly because it was pretty obvious that if there wasn't any traffic at all at 8 am, then a sudden orgasm of traffic was hardly likely by 10 am. And none appeared. We had a scenic 3-4 mile walk through the national park, with a helpful ranger confirming to us that Phelps Lake was a Good Idea.


That single cloud was to helpfully disappear by the time the eclipse started.


We lost the scenic mountains after a mile or two and went into forests instead, pausing only to roundhouse kick our way through the hordes of angry bears. That totally happened and I'm not making it up. Eventually we found the lake, and agreed that this was indeed a Good Idea.


Phelps Lake is a beauty spot that deserves to be more well-known. Unlike Jenny Lake, it has no facilities of any kind except a path. And it's much better as a result, because Jenny Lake is currently a construction site. This particular part of the lake didn't really give us much of a view of the Sun, so we walked down a little further to Huckleberry Point, which gave great views of the lake in both directions. A dozen-odd other people had also set up shop for the eclipse.





And so we waited. I unwittingly found myself in possession of a tripod. Originally, my plan was to let Ian and Rhydian handle the photography with their super-expensive shiny cameras and I could just watch the damn thing. But Rhydian had purchased another tripod, having mistakenly thought his own was broken, so I gave the photography thing a shot. Overall, I think I'm glad I did.

We ensconced ourselves next to a young Coloradan couple with a ~5 year old boy named Collin (or possibly Callum). Collin was an absolute blast. He had a stuffed wolf named Syzygy with him, who was suitably attired in eclipse glasses, and was determined to catch a frog hiding under one of the rocks. Soon he became convinced the frog needed to be rescued, so the rock had to go. The conversation with his mum went something like this :
"How can we cut through a rock ? Can we use a saw ?"
"Well, maybe if it's diamond coated, because diamond's harder than rock."
"Where can we get a diamond saw ? Can we get one from the store ?"
"I guess someone must have one somewhere. Or we could use dynamite."
"What's dynamite ?"
"It's like a big firework."
"Can we use it to blow up the rock and rescue the frog ?"

And so on. Later, Collin enthusiastically declared, for no reason that anyone could tell, "Who wants to buy tickets to see the one-eyed hippo ?". I predict a bright future for this young man.

We come at last to the eclipse itself. The cameras were set. The eclipse glasses were donned. The selfies were taken.


Once first contact had occurred, I tried my hand at solar photography. After a little experimentation, I found the best result came by setting the timer on the camera (so as to eliminate vibrations from pressing the button) while holding the eclipse glasses in front of the lens as a filter.


The Moon continued slowly traversing across the Sun.



When the Moon was covering around 80-90% or so of the Sun, it got noticeably darker. It's different from sunset because the Sun is still high in the sky, so you don't get much reddening - things just start looking darker, as though you're viewing everything through a strongly tinted window. This is hard to photograph because cameras are designed to compensate for low-light conditions, so let me try to adjust a picture from memory to show you what I mean. Here's the regular picture :


And here, very approximately, is what it looked like to the eye as totality approached.


The colours barely changed, they just got darker. The closer to totality, the stronger and faster the effect. Two other curious phenomena were visible : the shadows became strange, diffuse on one side but sharp on another, because the light source was no longer circular. Weird crescent shapes were visible though any pinhole gaps. And midges started to swarm, presumably fooled into thinking it was now early evening.

But the real action is all in those last few seconds. That critical moment cannot be photographed. Yes, photographs can reveal structures visible to the eye quite well. But they do not and cannot capture what it's like to actually witness it, because their optics and processing techniques are fundamentally different to the human eye-brain combination. It's an extraordinary thing to actually see, but anyone who says it's indescribable is being a bit lazy.

I kept taking photographs of the Sun up until the last minute or so - some were good, some were not. Finally it got to the point where, through my eclipse glasses, I could tell there were only seconds left. I risked a glance at the Sun directly. Too bright. Again. Too bright. Again... wait, something's happening. The diamond ring ! I took the plunge and removed the glasses fully. The sky was darkening now as fast as someone turning a dimmer switch. The last tiny sliver of the Sun blazed with a blinding light, thousands of razor-thin diffraction spikes radiating in all directions, and now, suddenly, the corona became visible even as that blazing light still radiated, a huge, bright but fading halo surrounding the Sun like the lens flare from an impossibly bright floodlight. The contrast ratio was like nothing else I have ever seen before or will ever see again, except during another eclipse. That you cannot photograph, because no image of ink or electric screen will ever come close to matching the astonishing dynamic range enabled by a combination of Moon, Sun, and awesome image processing power of the human brain.

And it was huge. I was expecting it to be smaller and less impressive than the photographs, but it wasn't. It was right there. You could see the corona streaming off into space, see Bailey's Beads briefly flicker around the lunar horizon, see the prominences of the inner corona. It's like the Moon Illusion but with the Sun high in the sky, immediately seeming many times larger than usual. You don't need to squint or use a telescope to see anything - it's right in front of you, clear as anything you like. It is indeed one hell of a spectacle.

A collective cheer went up. Someone played Total Eclipse of the Heart on their mobile phone at an inoffensive volume, which got a giggle. Everybody stood transfixed, until we remembered that we had cameras. I went for it. Two shots came out surprisingly well for a bog-standard compact camera with no special filters.



You see a lot more detail than this in reality; those three streaks in the corona were much larger and more clearly visible, more pronounced from the overall glow; the detailed structure of the flames of the inner corona became obvious after a few seconds (it seemed to me that the scene changed every time I looked at it, now with the huge white diffuse corona and those three distinct streams, now with a much smaller but more flame-like structure). I didn't waste time trying to get any better close-ups - Ian took care of that anyway - but I did quickly take the camera off the tripod and go for a couple of environment shots.


The sky was not as dark as I was expecting, but it was still dark enough to easily see Venus and the brighter stars without having to look for them.

Note the sky being darker closer to the Sun. That's something you don't see every day.
And then as suddenly as it began, another blazing diamond ring emerged, the glorious fiery corona disappeared forever, and it was all over.

How do you follow that ? Answer : you can't. We hung around for some time afterwards, hoping like hell that another eclipse would happen unexpectedly poor Rhydian had at least been able to see this from the hospital, but everything was now an anti-climax. The weird crescent shadows returned, the sky was still unusually dim, but after that astonishing light show these were mere curiosities. After a while the only thing left to do was to resume hiking and the endless, endless series of "that's what she said" jokes that formed a constant background to the whole trip.

People's reactions to eclipses vary wildly. A thousand years ago anyone who wasn't terrified was probably a bit insane, because the surreality of the experience is palpable even when you know exactly what you're seeing. Today, some people become dedicated eclipse chasers. Others see it as a spiritual experience. For me, it crosses my number one item off my bucket list*. I remember reading a book by Patrick Moore when I was much younger that described a total eclipse as one of "the most glorious sights in all Nature", and he wasn't wrong. Finally I understand what all the hype was about, and have no fear of saying that it wasn't hype at all.

* The remaining items from the Big Three are the aurora and an erupting volcano (or at least lava).

.... But some people disagree. Sadly, some people wouldn't know an extraordinary experience if it they were given 30 minutes alone with Scarlet Johannson covered in honey while wrestling a crocodile on the International Space Station, and even if they did it wouldn't fundamentally change them. Later, on another bus in Jackson :

"So did you see the eclipse ?"
"Yeah, I watched it on T.V. It was pretty cool."

Nothing sensible can be said in response that. Imagine some long-winded rant that involves the words, "punched in the kneecaps" and "off a very tall cliff" if it makes you feel any better.

Anyway, practical matters have to kick in at some point, so we continued hiking around the lake. Which was totally worth it, because Phelps just keeps becoming more and more impressive. Even though Michael was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he was on holiday.




We had the option to hike through the wonderfully-named "Death Canyon", but we didn't due to lack of time. When we eventually made it back to the road (Phelps lake itself is another 3-4 miles in circumference) we decided to try the hitch-hiking thing, and within a minute we found ourselves riding in the back of a pickup truck, which instantly became one of my favourite ways to travel.

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Day Four

The next day the first order of business was to see Rhydian, who fortunately turned out to have mostly de-Sasquachtified and was able to see and photograph the eclipse from the hospital car park. Even better, he'd be out tomorrow, when we'd be travelling back to Salt Lake City and thence to Denver.

For the afternoon we decided to try hitchhiking the much greater distance to the far more notorious Jenny Lake. This was more difficult than getting back from Phelps but we probably walked not more than 1-1.5 miles maximum. Jenny Lake though... well I certainly wouldn't say it was bad, because it isn't, but it's no Phelps. It's very much busier than Phelps and not as pretty. It's got boat rides to other hiking spots, so maybe that's where the good stuff is.



I was expecting something closer to that initial render I'd made all those years ago, but that view probably corresponds to the more distant, much larger Jackson lake. Actually the best bit about this stage was the continued rides in pickup trucks with the Tetons in the background.

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At some point I involuntarily composed a little ditty :

Once upon a time I had planned a nice trip,
Now my leg is falling apart,
There's nothing else to do,
See the eclipse in a car park.

Ian was amused. Rhydian, when told, was not.

Later, Ian hadn't had a chance to try the free gondala ride up the mountain (the tram costs money but it's much larger and goes to a slightly higher mountain) so we did that at around 9 pm, had a drink in the large restaurant at the top and then took photos of the Milky Way (or at least Ian did) until it got cold. Then we took the gondola back down, in the dark, views of the lights of the surprisingly numerous local villages below us. Which was pretty cool.

Before we leave the Tetons, I should probably explain their name. The internet says there are two theories : the most popular is that it comes from the French téton, meaning teat or... tit. So the Grand Teton is literally the Big Tit. Frankly that's the dumbest theory I've ever heard, with the possible exception of the somehow still-popular notion that manatees are the origin of mermaids. It's bloody daft; any fool can see that the two don't look remotely alike. The Tetons look like mountains, and mountains do not look like tits. Not even really ugly ones. Tits, I mean, not mountains. Mountains are never ugly.

"I just can't tell them apart !" SAID NO-ONE EVER.
The second theory is that the name derives from the name of a native tribe. Since the first theory is manifestly bunk, that makes the second far more plausible in my view. Perhaps that's a fallacy, but oh well.


Denver

Rhydian was released from hospital as expected, so back we went on the 7 hour bus trip to Salt Lake City. Instead of getting a hotel, we hung around in a rather nice bar (SLC isn't all Mormon teetotallers) until catching the train to Denver at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am. Now, when I purchased my ticket it had very explicitly shown that I'd have an actual fold-down bed, several times. I didn't get one. Worse, I didn't realise that the train seats have footstools that can convert them into something pretty darn comfortable, so I spend the next 3 hours or so feeling dreadful. Despite reclining pretty far, it was entirely the wrong shape for sleeping.

Despite this, the 15 hour train journey was an event in itself. It wasn't what I was expecting - only grazing the Rockies rather than going through them - but it did have some pretty scenic views.




Denver itself has absolutely nothing except craft beer. That's it. That's it's only reason for existing. Oh, it has an American football stadium, and Ian and Rhydian tried to drag me along to match, but fortunately we couldn't get tickets. Oh, what a terrible shame. American football is just about the most tedious spectator sport ever invented, a game designed for those with severe attention-deficit disorder who enjoy having their few remaining brain cells turned into liquid mush by loud noises and shiny things. Not even the grandest of the cheerleader's tétons could persuade me that the thing would be worth watching live.


Fortunately we finished off Denver with one final mountain tour, this time a guided bus trip through the Rocky Mountain national park. Our guide on this all-day expedition was Actual Dave, who was a walking stereotypical old man. Once again, he had completely lost the ability to differentiate between inane trivia and interesting facts. He had a capacity for telling pointless anecdotes that could rival Grandpa Simpson. Best of all, he sounded perpetually surprised by literally everything.

I started recording his long rambling speeches. I got some that give you a flavour of the experience, though sadly I think I missed most of the best ones. Perhaps the highlight was when he went on at length about how to use a convenience store :

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He also tended to set the audience up for a punchline which never came. The idea of comic timing was lost on this man.

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Strangely, the rest of the tour bus seemed to think that Dave - lovely though he was - was genuinely good at his job, whereas in fact his skill was purely ironic. It started to wear a little thin by the end of the day, with him going on at length in Boulder about how, "This is where the students hang out. These buildings are the old ones, but as we keep going, they get newer ! We're driving on what's called a road ! Pepperidge farm remembers !". And so on.

But the scenery made the trip worthwhile, so I'd recommend this tour very highly.



The highlight was a stop on a mountain from where it was possible to take a brisk walk up to the summit at 12,005 feet (3,659 m), which is now my highest altitude.

The idiot in the background was persistent in his stupidity and oblivious to the horde of people trying to get their photograph taken with the sign.



The only thing I'd knock marks off the tour for is that we spent a full 45 minutes in a gift shop at the end. 15 would have been plenty. There were several other scenic viewing points we could have stopped off at instead, which would have been a much better use of the time.


Epilogue

And that was that. I got on a flight to Chicago the next day at the sane hour of 10 am, then to Berlin and finally to Prague. It all went without a hitch (I watched the Lego Batman movie, which was awesome, and had excellent legroom on the transatlantic flight)... except...

It should have ended that day. But it didn't.

Airberlin delayed my luggage by four days. It got stuck in Berlin, understandably since there was only a 1 hour layover. Fair enough. When I got to Prague the office was pretty helpful, and it seemed that it might be delivered that same afternoon. Since there are three flights daily from Prague to Berlin and back and Berlin is only an hour away, that seemed likely. Didn't happen. So I'll end with a practical warning for Prague visitors, as I'm not sure who's mainly responsible for the resulting fiasco -  airberlin (who are going bankrupt) or Czech Airlines Handling (who are not).

OK, a delay of a day. Fine. Two days - worrying. Phoning and emailing didn't get me any useful information at all ("sorry we have no information about your luggage yet"). I started googling and found that American Airlines have their own baggage tracking service, which registered it as being unloaded in Chicago. They responded to my email inquiry that they don't track luggage once given to another airline, which gave me some assurance that it had probably made it to Berlin and not just dumped at the Chicago carousel (though I was repeatedly told that I only needed to collect it in Prague, so that possibility was never very likely).

On the morning of the third day the baggage office responded that it had been found and would be delivered that afternoon-! Hurrah ! I was starting to get quite nervous at that point. I'd spent ages buying new clothes in preparation for the trip, including a not-cheap pair of walking shoes, not to mention that I had two pairs of prescription glasses in the case. I did not want to try and replace everything - financial issues aside, it would be a long and tedious process that I shouldn't have to deal with.

So I waited patiently until around six in the evening and phoned again. That's about the end of the afternoon in my book, but they said that yes, it would still be delivered, but they couldn't say when. They had my phone number and address. I waited a few more hours and phoned again. Same response. They made no effort to contact the driver or give me any more information, which was getting frustrating. Bear in mind that I'm waiting in work here on a Friday evening, because, since they couldn't say when the baggage would be delivered, that seemed like a more sensible option that waiting at home. Additionally, they were extremely brisk on the phone. Once the conversation was over they simply hung up without any hint of a platitude. It got very irritating.

By 10:30 pm, still in the office on a Friday night and and bored as hell, I was getting pretty vexed (bordering on livid) and annoyed at the lack of information and ready to give up. I phoned them once more and they said the driver should have delivered it and they'd stopped delivering for the evening. Nice of them to tell me in advance when deliveries stop so that I could have phoned them earlier. This time at least they did call the driver, but I got the dumb excuse that he'd tried to call me but I hadn't answered. Bullshit*. I'd been waiting for my luggage - which contains most of my toiletries and pretty nearly all of my halfway decent clothes - for three days. I'd had my phone on my person without interruption and had no missed calls. Their response was that it could be delivered the following afternoon instead. I decided I preferred the other option of going to collect it myself, as at this point I simply didn't trust their competence.

* With hindsight, there are two possible explanations. The driver might have got the number wrong, or he might have phoned the institute instead of my mobile number, in which case he'd have gotten through to the currently unoccupied secretary's office. But in that case, he should have called the baggage office and they should have tried to contact me.

Come on people. As with most transportation issues, it's not the delay itself that's the problem so much as the lack of information. A simple, "expect the driver between 3-6 pm" is not difficult. It certainly isn't difficult to say, "give us a call by 8 pm if the driver hasn't arrived." And - for goodness sake - it's simplicity itself to say, "goodbye" at the end of a bloody phone call. These little things can give a tremendous amount of piece of mind after you've endured 18 hours of travelling across the Atlantic only to find that half your possessions have just plain gone. The most frustrating problems tend to be the ones which have very simple, obvious solutions that people just don't bother with.

In any case, I got to the airport, and... boom. There it was, big as life.


Isn't it simply glorious ? Behold its mighty luggagey visage, chock full of luggagey goodness ! Shoes ! T-shirts ! Prescription sunglasses the like of which ye have never seen ! I like to think it went off on its own adventure, chasing down pirates and other miscreants on the high seas, or something...

Oh well. A week from now, all this will be forgotten. All that will remain are memories of mountains, deserts, a crazy old coot called Dave, a wolf named Syzygy, and that moment the Moon swallowed the Sun and the stars shone in the day.

3 comments:

  1. Superb. I wish you many more eclipse-chasing escapades if they yield such a rollicking read as this.

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  2. Fantastic. Shivering. Come to Argentina in 2019 AND 2020.

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  3. I cannot believe you didn't use the old "they should have sent a poet" line!

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