Sunday, July 10, 2005

Day 9

Location: Show Low, Arizona

Total miles traveled: 3874

I was fortunate to wake before the sun came up. I was worried I'd oversleep, as I found out last night that my cell phone's alarm clock doesn't function if there is no service available.

Having loaded up the car, I continued the drive to Santa Elena Canyon. It was impressive from far away, and I was able to get up close. There wasn't much for trails there, however, so I headed back towards the other end of the park.

I got out and walked the Chimneys trail which I had passed last night. It was only a 3 mile hike, but I was glad I brought a lot of water. In this dry heat, you don't notice sweating so much, so you have to keep drinking water or you can dehydrate quickly. On the hike I saw all types of cacti and some lizards scurrying about. Speaking of animals, since yesterday I've seen a number of jackrabbits and roadrunners...roadrunners are nothing like the cartoon, but they move pretty quickly across the ground.

I decided as nice as this place was, I had to get moving if I wanted to get to New Mexico by evening. I stopped for some gas and ice at Panther Junction (located near the middle of the park) and then headed back North.

The original plan was to head towards Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which sits on part of the border of Texas and New Mexico. I changed my mind and decided I would rather head towards Socorro, NM. In case you don't know, about 50 miles west of Socorro is one of the world's largest radio observatories, the Very Large Array (VLA). It is made up of 27 individual huge radio telescopes (they look like giant satellite dishes) that can work together, using a process call inferometry, to detect radio waves from space. The VLA was made famous when part of the movie "Contact," based on Carl Sagan's book of the same name, was filmed here.

I was always impressed by the size of this place, but I had no idea how big it was until I saw it for myself. The individual telescopes are set on little railroad tracks in a "Y" shape, so they can be moved around into different positions easily. If the radio astronomers need to focus on a specific area in space, they spread the dishes out wider. If they need a broader focus, than they move the dishes closer together.

Fortunately for me, the visitor center was open until sunset, so I got in and took the self-guided tour. The tour takes you close to only one of the dishes, but I got a good sense of how huge these things were. The dish is actually twice the size of the average American home.

I was surprised to find that there was no mention of the filming of "Contact" here until I saw a barely noticeable display on a wall headed out of the visitor center. My guess is the VLA wanted to distance itself from the idea that it listens for signals from "little green men," which is how it is used in the film. The VLA is actually used to understand the make up of stars, galaxies, black holes...that type of thing, and it can measure radiation still present in the Universe from the Big Bang.

The organization that looks for signals from other civilizations, SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence), scans a very narrow band of the radio spectrum. So although the film would have you believe otherwise, the VLA wouldn't be useful to SETI as it can't focus its radio telescopes to that narrow band.

Anyhow, I left the VLA at sunset. I was in the middle of nowhere, having driven near 800 miles for the day, and I wanted to relax and find a hotel for the first time this trip. However, the nearest town of any size was 60 miles away. So I continued west towards Springerville, AZ. It wasn't the easiest of drives, as I had about 3 deer run in front of me, and I couldn't avoid running over a jackrabbit. But I did cross the Continental Divide in that same drive.

Ironically, the town of Springerville was having some kind of American Legion convention, so all their hotels/motels were booked. Frustrated, I continued further west about 40 miles to Show Low, where I eventually found a Holiday Inn.

I'll take it easy tomorrow - I'll sleep in, and then I'll eventually head South towards Tuscon, to Saguaro National Park. If all goes as planned, I'll be in California by tomorrow.



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