Where is the most beautiful place you’ve ever used the restroom?
I don’t mean you were in Vail and you went to tinkle at McDonald’s. I mean, the most beautiful place you actually went. Did your business. Saw a man about a horse. Emptied the wooden leg.
Because men and women usually face different directions during number one, let’s make it even and only consider number two. Same direction. Same view.
I know the answer to the question for myself. Mary and I were camping at Surprise Point in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. If you’ve not been, go. To the park. Not to tinkle. We were eaten by mosquitoes and ignored by wolves and a little past two in the morning couldn’t stand it anymore and had to go. We followed a sign to the trail and found a green chemical toilet, sitting like a throne, in the middle of a meadow. That was it, nothing surrounding it. Being a gentleman, I let Mary go first and she hustled back to the tent.
I sat for my part of the story and saw before me a spectacular view of sharp, cragged rocky peaks, snowcaps glistening in the moonlight, stars bright and crisp above them and was awed. The Rockies are an amazing mountain range and the range I’ve spent the most time in. Well, I suppose the Appalachians are really where I’ve spent the most time but, even after 25 years, I can’t make myself call them mountains or think of them as a continuous range. The low altitude and differing climates makes the range quite varied. But you know when you’re in the Rockies, from southern New Mexico to central Alberta, they look like one long chain. And they’re spectacular.
I spent a lot of time considering the view. And we’d had a lot of cheese at dinner. Mary eventually came looking for me and, in what passes for romance for us, we admired the tremendous view until we remembered the wolves and we dashed back to the tent, which clearly was going to protect us.
This all comes to mind because a) I’m very tired and b) I just had what is probably my second best view from a loo. A friend and I are staying at Atacama Lodge outside San Pedro de Atacama for a weekend of New Moon observing. Like Hacienda Los Andes last month, the Atacama Lodge offers lodging and gear rental. But whereas Hacienda is an inn where a non-astronomer would be perfectly happy, Atacama Lodge clearly makes most of their money outside lodging.
The lodging is absolutely fine, even very nice. But there is no food onsite nor are you close to good grocery stores. You fly into Calama and stock up there. We rushed that…I should say I rushed that. We were trying to beat sunset and Steve couldn’t join me in the store because we couldn’t figure out how to lock the rear hatch of the SUV. Still haven’t. The point is, we have a LOT of water and other liquids but we’re down to a package of ham, a few slices of bread and a bag of chips. It’s like the Cannonball Run but with telescopes.
Anyway, the Atacama is the driest desert in the world. Which, if you’re like me, you think is going to be a close run thing, by percentage points maybe, that you won’t actually notice. Nope. I love deserts and even I have to admit this is dry. There was 25 miles between Calama and San Pedro where nothing grew. San Pedro is clearly on a source of water as there is a lot of scrub and even a few trees and, at some point, someone built a town here. But it’s still really, really dry.
Last week, my house got as much rain in an hour as San Pedro sees in a year.
The Atacama Lodge runs nightly sky tours for the many tourists who pour into San Pedro for desert activities. These are well attended, well run, well regarded and a big piece of their business. The other big activity is newer but one that many astronomy lodges are turning to: hosting remote observing/imaging. Basically, rich folks who live elsewhere lease space here, build an observatory and then pay the lodge for maintenance. There are even middlemen who do this and then the rich urban astronomer can rent time on their scopes while that middleman pays the landowner. Beautiful images are thus produced but, for me, the poetry is lost. As I’ve written, my first love in astronomy is eye-to-eyepiece observing which, necessarily requires you to be with your telescope wherever it is. I also like to image the sky but I like to do it in person so that while my gear is working, I can enjoy the night sky. But you have to make a living and I’m thrilled that Atacama Lodge can stay in business with bankers in Europe “enjoying” the night sky (yes, I’m totally judging them).
We have rented a very nice lodge with a kitchenette and a 20 inch reflector. Along with my 8 inch travel scope and our travel imaging rigs, we’ve played ourselves exhausted the last two days. There are clouds forming and we’re both conflicted as to whether or not we want them to clear. They’re going to. San Pedro gets something like 330 clear nights per year. Some of the newest, best observatories in the world are within 50 miles of where I sit. There is a reason to come here.
The bathroom in the kitchenette faces northeast to Cerro Pili, a stratovolcano that may have erupted as recently as 50,000 years ago. It’s gorgeous. Hence, the question at the top of the list. A dominant, snow-capped dome, surrounded by several other snow-capped peaks with nothing but various shades of red, brown and orange surrounding them for miles. Not a bad view from the porcelain throne.
Pictures and such when I have a better connection and am reasonably coherent.