There are many powerful telescopes on the planet and an increasing number of telescopes in orbit. I have been interested in telescopes and astronomy since I was a kid growing up in Detroit and over the years I have attempted to keep up with the never-ending discoveries being made in astronomy. One day I read about a telescope known as the Large Binocular Telescope located at the top of Mt. Graham in Arizona. I was instantly fascinated with it and I just had to see it in person.
I am not exactly sure of the date, but I remember that my discovery came from the internet. Once I learned what it was, and what it did, I knew that I had to visit this big window to the stars and see it in person. Was it the telescope, or was the mission that most interested me? It turns out that it was both so in 2018 I decided I would go to Arizona to get up close and personal with this special window to the universe. However, getting there was not as easy as it should have been.
What should have been a simple journey up Mt. Graham was not. In 2017 I was ready to go, but thanks to “mother nature,” my first two attempts failed. The first attempt was thwarted by a forest fire on the mountain that almost destroyed the telescopes. My second attempt was thwarted by water. The heavy seasonal “monsoon rains” in Arizona washed out parts of the road to the top of Mt. Graham ending the public trips for the rest of the season. The forest fire destroyed the trees and vegetation that would normally mitigate the effects of the rainwater and the resulting water damage to the road from the rains closed the mountain to the public. I was forced to wait yet another year for my visit.
In September of 2019, my quest to visit the telescopes on Mt. Graham became a reality. I finally made it to the top of Mt. Graham and it was a magic moment. I was able to get up close and personal with all the telescopes and I also saw firsthand the danger the forest fire presented to the telescopes and just how close it came to destroying the mountain top complex.
Fire and water notwithstanding our guide, John Ratje, pointed out that the real challenge of getting to the complex is in the winter when sometimes five or more feet of snow can cover the road. I live in the tropics, so it is extremely unlikely that I will ever have the joy of that experience.
When there is no snow, no fire, and no floods, getting to the top of Mt. Graham is very easy. The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus is the agency that provides public tours. They operate a multi-passenger van that takes the tour participants to the telescope complex at 10,000-feet. However, before one can climb aboard the van there is a briefing and a short video presentation to describe the tour and to inform each participant what is expected of them.
After the video, each participant is required to read and sign two documents. The first one is a standard release form to hold harmless The Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park Campus in case of an accident, altitude sickness, or an alien abduction while roaming around the mountain top compound. The observatories are located 10,000 feet above sea level, so it is a legitimate concern that some folks might be negatively affected by the altitude. It does happen sometimes. If one were coming from a sea-level community, then I can understand there might be a reason for concern. I am on the far side of 70-years-old, but for the past 25 years, I have lived at or near 5,000-feet, so I knew that I was somewhat acclimated to the 10,000-foot altitude, and as it turned out I didn’t even notice the altitude. Each participant also had to affirm that they were not suffering from any of the health problems listed in the document. I was sure none of the items on the list applied to me, especially the one about being pregnant.
The second document was to make us aware of the Red Squirrel population that inhabits the area. The squirrels are an endangered species protected by federal law. Their habitat is marked by yellow tape similar to the tape used by the police to mark the boundaries of a crime scene. Each tour participant had to warrant that they would not disturb, harass, or otherwise interact with the little critters because to do so is a federal offense and they were not kidding.
My trip was to visit telescopes so it seemed strange to focus on Red Squirrels, but the legal ramifications of disrespecting their habitat are quite serious. We needed to understand that there were consequences associated with transgressing their area. To cross the yellow tape that marks the boundary to their habitat would invite problems. Their piece of the mountain was the first thing we were shown upon our arrival at the telescope community.
Before I leave this topic, I feel compelled to say that, at no point did I ever see a red squirrel. That was okay because I came to see telescopes, not interact with the cute red squirrel population. However, I make wildlife videos in Central America so all wild animals are of interest to me.
The trip to the telescopes starts at the Discovery Park Campus in Safford, Arizona. It takes about an hour and a half to get to the telescopes but that includes the 30-minute lunch break. About 20 minutes after departure, the van is headed up the mountain. The many switch-backs and curves present marvelous views, and dramatic photo opportunities of the valley below, but the last eight miles of the trip is the real adventure. It is on a dirt and gravel road that seems best suited as a vehicle shock absorber test track. Along the way, the acres of burned trees from the forest fire give the area a foreboding look, not unlike the dark forest in the Wizard of Oz. On the trip up we stop at a nice campground to eat lunch. It is included as part of the tour. The food was welcomed, but the break from the bumpy road was also appreciated. The area is wild and I was hoping to see a bear. Sadly that never happened, but I did get some nice video of a beautiful deer.
The trip from the picnic spot to the top was quick. The final mile or so is on a single-lane road that requires radio contact with the top of Mt. Graham to ensure that there is no downhill traffic. It would not work well for two vehicles to confront one another on the narrow one-lane road. Lester. our driver used his two-way radio to call “Moon Base.” Say what? I thought we were headed to a mountain top. Just how high are we going? After three attempts at calling “Moon Base,” there was no response. We had to move on so Lester broadcast our intentions over the radio and we started up the hill. In less than 10 minutes we were there. We came around a curve, and there it was. I was looking right at the giant structure that houses the Large Binocular Telescope. After two failed attempts I had finally made it. I am sure that I was grinning from ear to ear.
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