Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Star Gazing

     Because I grew up in the Big Island, I've taken its volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls, scenery, and other attractions for granted, even considering them second-rate at times, but have always regarded its best-in-the-world status for astronomy atop Mauna Kea's summit with some measure of unwarranted pride. Dozens of observatories, white and conspicuous, have popped up through the years like deformed mushrooms on its otherwise dark, bleak, and barren slopes.
     While planning a recent house-sitting trip to Hilo (coincident with my parents' planned trip to Oahu to babysit my nephew), I discovered via Tripadvisor.com that Mauna Kea's Visitor Center is a highly regarded activity, with free nightly star-gazing through telescopes set up outside. Further research revealed that at its 9300 foot elevation, it offers superior in-person viewing than at the 13,800 foot summit due to human physiology that reduces visual acuity at higher altitudes. (As a teen I'd visited the summit during a day field trip to see the telescopes and had suffered elevation sickness that brought on severe headache and drowsiness.  The trip's not recommended for youth and I had no interest in attempting the dangerous drive during our stay but the Visitor Center tantalized—I'd been there a number of times before, always during the day, and had enjoyed its cool brisk air, expansive vistas, and pellucid atmosphere.)
     Being a lover of star gazing, one of my fondest memories ever was sleeping upon a desolate Kohala beach coast with fellow scouters beneath brash, prickly stars on a night so dark I couldn't see my friend an arm's length away. As we talked, one-by-one the stars began falling. Dozens fell in all until we, exhilarated yet exhausted, drifted off to sleep, the salt mist and cool breeze flitting our cheeks.
     The last day of our Hilo stay, then, we ate an early dinner then headed up the slopes. Following a couple leisurely stops, we arrived at our destination at 6:20. The car's thermometer registered 53º—chill compared to Hilo's 73.º Though we'd dressed warm with layers of shirts, jeans, shoes, jacket, and caps, the stiff, steady breeze outside with wind chill near 45º penetrated and made us pine for long underwear, gloves, and scarves.
     A surprising crowd of seventy stretched between the Center and Puu Kaepeamoa, a nearby cinder cone nicknamed Sunset Hill, which we trudged toward, the sun still a couple hand spans above two cinder cones further west. By 6:40, we were part way up Sunset Hill and Deanne, uneasy about proceeding (it was getting ever colder as the breeze blew unrelenting; the trail was unpaved and getter steeper and narrower; we had only three feeble flashlights for a night time descent) said, “I'll wait here with the kids.” With the pause, my legs—fatigued from a late afternoon run—began shivering uncontrollably so I jostled about and said, “I'll have a look for some photos,” and headed up the slope to warm them. Wanting companionship, I invited Braden along and he accepted.
     Thirty yards from hill's peak, the trail got steep, narrow, and slippery, the wind stiffened with occasional gusts, and the nearby edge fell off sharply. Below us the crowd appeared tiny and safe while above us a few outdoorsy and college types marked spots, none at the peak. We watched the sun head for the left side hillock and to prolong its visibility we descended, mirroring its slip between the cleft formed by the two westward mounds—not the unobstructed view I'd have preferred, but plenty pretty enough.

     Of all our children, I've come down hardest on Braden, but in stressful and uncomfortable public situations, I find him a comfort to have around. So we shared a chilled fine time gazing out, snapping photos—both he and I—of the sun's progress and the soothing bands of pastels left behind, fore and aft. Though I'd have loved to have stayed longer to see what would come next we just couldn't bear the increasing cold and shivering, so down we went to meet the others who were just as eager for the warmth of the Visitor Center as we were.
     Even while dusk lingered at 7:30, telescopes were trained on Saturn and a globular cluster, so while most visitors (from around the globe) huddled inside, we took quick peeks: Saturn appeared luminous as an LED—an oblong nickel with an askew hat brim and about that size too compared to the scope's expansive Frisbee-sized view. Jaren said the globular cluster looked like, ”Just a bunch of stars”, to which I agreed.
     There were free hot water and cups set out, so we sipped the scalding liquid and stood near the Center's doorway and took turns ducking in for warmth as we awaited the availability of more scopes to view (five, in a cordoned off area in the parking lot, stood covered and unused.)
     Another two-foot diameter telescope opened post-dusk and we joined the already long line. Our overhead views: a man-made satellite (a fast-moving star-like object); the Milky Way Galaxy clear as hazy gauze stretched thin (I don't recall ever seeing it before as an adult, though I must have, it looked so familiar), Scorpio, spotted by Deanne (we had gone to Imiloa Astronomy Center a few days earlier and learned the constellations during a show at the planetarium); and then a smattering of falling stars.  Though the views made waiting bearable, the motionlessness again chilled my legs and set them shivering, so I hugged Penelope, who was also cold, close from behind, while she hugged Jaren from behind to keep him warm. I told Braden hug me, which he did from behind, then, when Deanne returned from a restroom break, she joined our human train. As a single mass with reduced surface area, our bodies warmed and I wondered how much of it was psychological versus physical? But who cared as long as it worked?
     Jaren viewed Mars first and said “It's just a star,”—it looked so twinkly bright with no red at all. A nebula was “Just a bunch of stars”, which I, too, found disappointing for lack of awe-inspiring cloudy black masses visible in photos.
     By 9:30, only a smattering of visitors remained so a staff-person (they were short-handed) opened up the five remaining telescopes for the public's unattended yet supervised use. Braden and I focused ours on whatever they were pointing at (more stars), then we all headed for home.
     Since we had all seen so many “firsts” that evening and had had fun getting chilled and quivering like Jello, it had been well worth it, the highlight of our Hilo trip that had also included fishing at Lilioukalani Park; visiting Panewa Zoo (where we pet a tame Hawaiian Hawk); petting my cousin's chickens; hiking Akaka and Rainbow Falls; watching Godzilla at Kress Theaters; planting a Koa Tree; sanding my parents oak floors to remove years-old battery acid stains; repairing a cabinet door; washing, polishing, and detailing their van and fixing its wipers blades; and other minor handyman chores—an exhausting, yet excellent stay with plenty of home cooking: steamed ehu with somen salad, ahi sashimi, and a big pot of mom's chili to name a few.


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