Journey to the stars....
Trip Start Apr 15, 2008
10Trip End May 17, 2008
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I'm determined to make it up to Mauna Kea, the international astronomy center perched 14,000 feet on the top of the mountain. There are 23 telescopes up there, constructed by various countries and academic institutions....some are huge...many, many meters in diameter.... It's supposed to be the primo viewing site of the sky in the world. Of course I was told that about the Atacama desert in Chile with its 1 mm. of rainfall each year. Have to ask the astronomers about that.
So I head up there from the Kona coast on the infamous Saddle Road. Everybody tells me it's in rough shape and they're right...it's got no shoulder, is one-lane much of the way with ruts and holes, and it's hilly with a continuously strong rise in elevation. But the worst of it is the air...it's thick with fog ....I can't see much ...it's getting darker...but I'm determined to get to the cut off to Mauna Kea. I drive through the land used by the military....only evidence of this is the signage warning of dangerous unexploded shells in the fields...great.... I plug along, glad I filled up my tank and hoping that it'll be clear soon.
And eventually, there it is...the road up to the observatory. Now I can't go all the way to the top...I don't have 4 wheel drive. But I can and I do go to 9000 feet to the visitors center. I drive into a parking lot filled with telescopes for the night viewing of the sky. It's pretty cold out...I put on everything warm I've got and wrap my fleece blanket around me sort of sarong-like. And I get to hear this great presentation on the conflict between the spiritual significance of the mountain and its use by the scientific community for the building of telescopes. And then, because it's still a little cloudy to see the sky, we continue with a discussion of asteroids from this fascinating guy....it's some of the most interesting astronomy talk I've ever heard. And I do ask him about the Atacama desert vs. Mauna Kea conflict...conflicting claims of "bestness"....he still feels like Mauna Kea's the true best in that overall there are more hours of viewing pleasure, however Atacama may have more clarity due to less moisture in the sky...but they're the top 2 places in the world....
And then we head outside....brrrrr.....but thru the telescopes I see all sorts of things...but the absolutely most dramatic to me is a birds eye view of Saturn...all the rings strikingly clear...it looks like a textbook photo. I mean the moon and stars are cool, Mars is fine, but nothing compared to Saturn....and the enthusiasm of the scientists describing the starry sky. I spend about 3 hours at the center...then I'm getting a little anxious about the ride down... because you have to drive thru the clouds and fog and there are these "invisible cows" that blend in with the fog and become crash victims, and there are the herds of goats and then there's the wild pigs...all available for car contact.
So I go down slowly, observing the speed limit...not so for the people behind me...and I make it back to Saddle Road for the real test. For the next 40 miles I'm weaving around curves and up and down hills and dealing with the road turning unpaved and rough....and of course I'm going thru the fog again....it's a hellacious ride...really stressful....not a good time on Saddle Road...seems to take forever. But in the end, all is well...I arrive at the KTA...indulge in my last snack of poke....and find my cozy screen cabin along the coast....and a good night's sleep. I've seen lots on the Big Island ... it's almost time to leave....
My last day...plane is at noon. I get up before dawn to get in my last thrills...a swim in the ocean off of the black sand beach....a quick soak in the warm pond....and a goodbye to some of the friends I've made. I've had an amazing time here and it's hard to take off. But I get to spend time with Corey until I take off for the last long distance leg of the trip...India...stay tuned.