This past weekend was the new moon weekend. The new moon, in case you don’t know, is when the moon is between, more or less, us and the Sun. In this lineup, it is out of the sky at night (because it is near the Sun) and it is not illuminated as seen from earth. I’ve written before about why the new moon is important for astronomers. Don’t get me wrong, I love the moon. It is the most complex astronomical object visible from earth and, despite what you might think, it is actually constantly changing. The sun sweeps across its face creating, as it does on earth, an endless variety of shadows and light. Additionally, the moon’s orbit is complex with the result being that the face you see is never quite exactly repeated (okay, it is repeated but not monthly). Another big advantage of the moon is that it is very bright. You can observe it well from the brightest downtown.
Which means there is no reason to go to a really dark place to look at the moon. I frequently observe the moon (and planets which are also bright) from my driveway that sits under a sodium street light. Which also means that if you do go to a really dark place to see the stars, you don’t want the moon to be hanging around making the sky bright.
We modern humans think night is always dark. It is not. If you go outside in the middle of the country with no artificial lights you will be able to make your way around using only starlight. This is, of course, provided the ground is relatively even and you’re not under a canopy of trees and it isn’t a cloudy night. Starlight alone is enough to navigate by if you have good eyesight. Oh, and if you let your eyes adapt to the dark. This is the part most people fail. If you go out from a brightly lit cabin in a really dark place you won’t be able to see anything. And you’ll turn a flood light on and think all is well. The moon is like a flood light. A brightly lit moon in a clear sky makes it quite easy to move around the land so long as you’re dark adapted.
I’m ranting. Sorry. Point is: I wanted it to see stars and fainter objects that lie outside our solar system and for this I needed the sky to be dark. Which means I need to be where there are a) few people and b) at a time when the moon is not hanging around reflecting sunlight at me. So the new moon weekend.
This past new moon weekend I booked a cabana in a little town called Rivadavia. It was at a place called La Cabana del Rio Claro. Your Spanish doesn’t have to be very good to get the following information from the name: There is only one cabana and it is next to a river with clear water. Sure enough. My only complaint ended up being directions but this isn’t really the fault of the place. Nowhere in Chile that I’ve found is well-signed. I got directions that were something like: “Turn R on the dirt road, we are the house with the wood gate.” Except there were lots of dirt roads and even more wood gates. But we live in an age of cell phones and I speak passable Spanish and soon after arriving in Rivadavia, I was unpacking in a cabana by a clear river.
The river really is beautiful. It wasn’t wide, maybe 10 yards or so, but clearly deep, cold and clear. It had good flow and made that soothing flowing river noise. The bank was less than 20 feet from the cabin’s back door. The cabin itself was spacious, with a kitchenette and bathroom. It was not luxurious by any stretch but it was comfy. The bed had an electric blanket and the owner brought me a propane heater. I could not operate both at the same time without being hot.
The Rio Claro from the “other” side fo the bridge. My rental is in the background and the cabin is just behind the reeds to the right. The dog was a “guard” dog that, once I had petted it followed me around the whole time I was there.
I increased the number of spiders I’ve seen in Chile by an order of magnitude.
Settling in, I realized quickly I had forgotten some key implements. Things I did not have that I needed: toothbrush, red pens, red flashlight and, worst of all, I didn’t know where my towel was.
Let’s take that in order.
It’s fairly obvious why I needed a toothbrush. At least this time I had toothpaste, an unopened travel-sized tube purchased on Easter Island. But for the third trip in a row, I didn’t pack my toothbrush. I didn’t bring a toothbrush to South America in the first place. It’s starting to be a habit. You see, I like to brush in the morning but I pack the night before.
The red pens were for grading. I gave an exam last week and had budgeted significant time in Rivadavia to grading. I had my stack of papers. But I managed to not have a single writing instrument, much less a red pen, in my three bags. Yes, three. That was 2/3 astronomy gear and nearly 1/3 thermal underwear. But no pens. So no grading. I read instead and watched water head toward the Pacific.
The red flashlight harkens back to the opening paragraphs. Seeing faint objects in a telescope requires your eye to be dark adapted. Which means something like “fully dilated”. You’ve experienced this: when you have been in a dark room and someone throws bright lights on, it hurts. It hurts because your eye is dilated to allow more light in and, in such state, allows enough light through to hurt when you are suddenly bathed in bright light. Frequently, when touring the sky you need to consult a chart. The best strategy is to use a dim red light to read the page (or have your phone on dimmest setting and use an app that is a dull red). Dim light hurts your dark adaptation less than bright and the eye is less sensitive to red light so that is even better. So, no consulting charts on this trip. It’s okay, Sky Safari on the iPhone has a red setting and is as good a chart as I need.
You may wonder why I would need a towel. Well, one always needs a towel. Consult your Hitchhiker’s Guide. In this particular case it is because I got an email telling me that towels were not provided. With the kitchenette, the cabin was really like renting an apartment for a few days and, therefore, I was expected to bring a towel. And I didn’t. I did, completely by accident, pack a kitchen towel. And I had a handkerchief from Leconte Lodge in the Smoky Mountain National Park. You wouldn’t think that would be enough to dry a fully grown, maybe overgrown, human male for three days but you forget two key facts: 1) I was staying at the cabin alone, my wife being 5,000 miles away and 2) I had access to a propane heater. If you are wondering what number 1 has to do with anything you must also have been 5,000 miles away or upwind. And number 2 meant I could quickly dry my two small towels when the need arose.
I had a very nice Thursday night observing the heavens with my little travelscope and woke on Friday to do a bit of touring in the Elqui Valley. I also intended to make purchases that remedied my oversights. By Friday I also needed super glue. In the night I broke a 3D printed piece of plastic that serves as a guide for my scope. It’s a tiny piece, barely worth mentioning, until you shear it off trying to walk up some stairs with it and also your scope won’t hold together.
When I asked the owner about a hardware store she just laughed and said, “Muy dificil,” over and over. Rivadavia is a very small town. This from a guy who graduated with 20 other students. And small towns in Chile are not like small towns in the United States. They really are what people think about small towns back home. People tend to think they’re very isolated and need to be completely self-reliant. To be sure, my hometown is quite self-reliant. If – let’s not kid ourselves – when I arrive in my hometown for a visit without a toothbrush, I can buy one. I can’t think of much of anything I have needed spur of the moment I can’t get there but, I’m sure, if such a thing happened, there is a larger town, probably the entire population of the Elqui Valley, less than ten miles away that will have it.
In Rivadavia, I was pretty much screwed. As I drove through the valley – more on the actual touring and astronomy tomorrow – I stopped at each minimarket I saw (there being no full sized markets). I heard, “Muy dificil,” many times. But, it’s also clearly a place where things break. At the second shop I stopped in, I found three different kinds of liquid adhesive. I bought the smallest unit which was 100mL. That’s a huge bottle of adhesive. I used it generously and, along with a fair bit of duct tape, I repaired the scope.
Yes, I packed duct tape and no toothbrush. You can’t fix a telescope with a toothbrush.
I also found red pens.
I did not find towels or toothbrushes. Evidently things break and homework is graded in these towns but everyone is wet with dirty teeth. Or, more likely, they buy predictable essentials like towels and toothbrushes in La Serena which is only an hour away. Talking to the owner of the cabana, it sounds like she and her son go to La Serena fairly often. There are a lot of busses in the region and that looked to be the way most people get around.
It was cloudy Friday night so I slept until after midnight and then woke to find clear sky. I spent three hours with the scope after the skies cleared. I also spent half an hour or so just lying on the ground, watching the center of the Milky Way pass directly overhead from an incredibly dark place with a roaring river 15 feet from my ears. That was worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, I think my host saw me doing this. She is roughly my age and I think she worried about me. Saturday night she was going to Pisco Elqui to perform Flamenco and asked if I would like to go, telling me it was a great thing for tourists to see. It was a kind offer and it could have been interpreted a certain way. Fortunately, I have a history, so can recognize when a woman thinks my behavior in regard to watching the sky is odd and is taking pity on me. I told her it looked like the sky would be clear so I would prefer to stay behind and lay on her yard in the dark. Okay, not in those words exactly. She just shook her head and went on about her business.
Seriously, she was a fantastic host and I wish her the best of luck. They’re working on another, larger, cabin across the river where she owns a significant piece of land. It could be, hopefully will be, really nice when it’s done. She kept suggesting I take my scope across the bridge because there was more spacious sky there. I would have, too, had the bridge been not unlike the one in Temple of Doom. She clearly looks at the stars from time to time and, like most property owners I’ve observed in South America (you know, all six of them), believes that the best way to secure one’s property is a big fence and sturdy gate rather than bright lights where no one watches. In my emails with her, she assured me she would not light up the night sky. As it happened, her yard was an excellent observing spot save the river which caused my camera lens to dew over faster than I’d like. A small price to pay.
That fence and gate do secure property but they also isolate. I’ve found staying at various properties around South America that they are quite secure but you are really cut off from your neighbors. In the cabana’s case, the fence between neighboring properties was small and open (like chain link). But no one lived on either side. Good except for the light that was, inexplicably, on at one of them. It was shielded from where I set up but could have been annoying. There was very little activity in any of the small towns I passed through. I’m not sure why as school is in session. The valleys I explored are rich in grapes and the only business seems to be tourism. There are many restaurants, inns/b&bs/hostels, and vineyards. But the density of people was low even including tourists.
I’ve been trying to think of a good way to describe Chile outside Santiago. It is a natural beauty. The precordillera (foothills) of the Andes start basically on the beach and if you drive the equivalent distance of Arlington to Towson (northern Baltimore) from the shore you will climb to over 10,000 feet. The mountains are sharp and grand and the valleys steep and narrow. It’s almost as if North America from the Rockies to the Pacific coast were squeezed to a width of 100 miles and then populated only by the people of Los Angeles. My location in Rivadavia was at the junction of Ruta 41 and the road to Pisco Elqui, a tourist town which claims ownership of Pisco, a liquor that is made over thousands of miles of territory and likely originated in Peru. But they now make a LOT of it in this region and do a good job of marketing it. So, sure, it’s theirs.
Chile is dominated by Santiago in a way that the United States simply isn’t dominated by any single city. Even New York, which is clearly the city folks outside the United States most identify with our country, has significant counterweights in Los Angeles and Chicago. The result is that the rural areas of Chile are really rural and isolated, which is much of why I love them. Tourists, by and large, stick to established tourist places and the package tour is a robust part of the economy. So most folks are staying in La Serena and spending a day on the bus to see the Elqui. There are a few bicyclists and backpackers trudging up and down the roads in this region and a lot end up camping along the way. I was disappointed when it turned out that two of the hikes I had planned were simply walks along the road. I love to hike but, if you want me to travel down a road and I have access to a set of wheels, I will ride. So I mostly spent my time driving through the valleys that meander through this section of Chile.
Tomorrow, once I’ve had a chance to look at my pictures, I’ll share what that looks like. Suffice to say, I’m pretty sure my drive Saturday is the most beautiful drive I’ve ever made. And, between you and me, that’s saying something.
The view from my doorstep.