January 10, 2013
The cyclist who comes to Peru having heard warnings about malaria, rain and polluted water may be as alarmed as I was as we descended from the mountains into a landscape of flailing-armed cacti, spiny succulents like giant artichokes and sand dunes like mountains. Peru’s coast is home to one of the most barren, most imposing deserts I have seen. No place in Greece or Turkey compares in dryness, and even other bona fide deserts, like the cacti wonderland of Baja California or the shrubby sprawl of the Kalahari, cannot match this one—called the Sechura Desert—in sheer lifelessness.
As we crested out at sea level and began our northward advance along the Pan-American Highway, fantastic scenery unfurled—miles and miles of sprawling sand hills, some of the dunes hundreds of feet high, and running all the way from the eastern horizon to the ocean. In places, settlements of inhabited shacks clung to the mountainsides, with rags, bags and torn burlap flapping in the wind. We have come more than 200 miles in two days on the coast, and for much of that distance we have seen not a living blade of grass—just barren scorched rock and dunes. We saw four huge, soaring vulture-like birds yesterday that may have been condors, a few dogs and too many roadside human memorials to count—the sad reminders of traffic deaths. We know the land will turn green eventually, as we have heard Ecuador is a tropical haven, and we’re anticipating that transition. So far the desert shows no signs of relenting, outside of occasional green and irrigated valleys of mango and avocado orchards.
The Sechura Desert is truly an anomaly of a place. Look at the other great deserts of the world. There is the Atacama of Chile, the Kalahari of southern Africa, the giant Sahara of northern Africa, the Mexican-American Sonoran Desert and the great desert of Australia. For all their distinguishing points, these regions all have one prominent feature in common—their latitude. Each one is situated between about 20 and 30 degrees south or north of the Equator. This is no coincidence. Rather, this latitude zone is simply where deserts happen. It’s a function of wind patterns and sun, high pressure and a persistent absence of cloud formation. (There are a few exceptions to this global pattern—namely the mid-continent, high-latitude deserts of Asia and the American West, these areas denied water largely due to their distance from the sea and moisture sources.)
But the Sechura Desert lies between about 5 and 15 degrees latitude south. Why? The Andes. They tower just a few miles to the east, 15,000 to 20,000 feet high all the way from Ecuador to central Chile, creating in certain places what geographers call a rain shadow. That is, air coming from the east via the trade winds waters the Amazon basin generously, as well as the east-facing slope of the Andes. Here, the air rises and cools. Condensation occurs, and clouds drench the mountains. But as that air begins to descend on the west face, cloud formation halts as the air warms. Rainfall ceases. And at sea level, there is a desert, waiting for the water that rarely arrives. The Sechura receives just ten centimeters of precipitation each year in parts.
The beauty of this place is fleeting yet very real in an almost horrifying way. Thankfully, we have had a screaming tailwind for days. Yesterday, we averaged almost 15 miles per hour—great time on loaded bicycles. At about 3 p.m. we passed Paramonga, a town that probably would have had a cheap hotel or campground. But it was too early to quit. “Should we get water?” Andrew suggested. “We have two liters, and we’ll hit another town before long,” I said. But we didn’t. About three hours later, a road sign told us that the next big town—Huarmey—was still 75 kilometers ahead. The afternoon shadows grew longer and the road continued seemingly without end. In places, it shot ahead like an arrow—as often as not uphill. We began to tire, and we wondered where we would sleep, and whether we would have dinner. At last, after ten miles of unhappy silence between us, we saw a truck stop ahead. It was a cluster of restaurants and grocery shacks. We bought water first, then purchased the only onsite food that we considered safe from microbial dangers—beer. A truck driver eating dinner observed our obvious hunger, went outside to his truck and produced a bag of apples and peaches. We thanked him profusely, then thought about bed. It was too late to continue, and we asked the owner of one of the café shacks if we could camp out back. Without a thought, he waved us in. He and his family lived without running water on a bare earth floor. In back, in a yard of trash and blown sand, was a small clay and wood shack. ”How much?” we asked. He waved away the mention of money. We settled in, had our beers and fruit, and read our books until we nodded off. We learned our lesson and will keep a supply of water and food available. I am not afraid of sleeping in the wild, but to finish 100 miles without a dinner is not my favorite sort of suffering.
We took a break at the beach for a morning in Tortugas, a beautiful bay on the Pacific ringed by rocky shores and cliffs and restaurants. We went for coffee at the El Farol Hostal and chatted with our waiter about local fish species, diving, spearfishing, the average visibility in the water and other elements of the seascape. He told us the water is cold enough to require wetsuits—even just several degrees from the Equator. He also said halibut live here—a pleasant surprise for Californians who grew up pursuing the local rendition of the fish. We wished we had time to stay in Tortugas, but we’ve discovered that cycling from Lima to Quito in 20 days means booking it in high gear.
Aside from scattered moments of rest and joy with coffee or mangoes or lucumas on a plaza bench in the shade, the nonstop tailwind is our chief joy out here. Yesterday, as we went the last 15 miles to the town of Casma, we rode for five full kilometers on level ground without pedaling at all, watching with laughter as each kilometer marker came sailing past. I’ve never known a wind to fly so forcefully, so directly along a roadway as this wind does. We have made incredible time with the southerly in our favor, and we’re especially glad to see this desert go by, although at scattered vista points we can’t help but stop and remark that this lifeless, endless landscape is amazing to see. But the desert is wearing us down—especially the daily skirmishes we have with each big town. These are nightmares of congestion, dust and discomfort. Consider one recent image seared into my mind: On a hot, windy day in Huacho, we were battling the frantic heat and dust, looking for a fruit market and dodging the aggressive three-wheeled moto-taxis. Then, across the raging boulevard, I caught a glimpse of a girl, seated, holding a smaller child in her arms. The bigger girl’s head hung in despair—and I noticed then that the smaller girl sagged limply from head to toe. Scores of people were walking past. Wasn’t anyone going to help them? I wasn’t sure what to do. Somewhere else I would have stopped immediately—but here, in Huacho, Peru, four lanes of snarling traffic separated us from the girls. Neither Andrew nor I had a cell phone, spoke fluently in Spanish or knew where a hospital was. A moment later, a blast of heat and dust from a passing bus swept the sight from mind, and we continued forward, battling the streets in defense of our own lives, and hunting for a watermelon.
December 27, 2012
As we approach 2013, the possibility of entering a sealed aircraft, buckling up and exiting the atmosphere in the name of leisure is no longer science fiction. Rather, space tourism is so close to reality that talks of orbital hotels and space property rights are underway, a space runway has been built, a touristic spacecraft from Virgin Galactic is ready, and hundreds of wealthy travelers have prepaid for their seats at $200,000 a head. While the starting price of a space ticket is for now only an option for the extremely rich, analysts say that streamlining of costs and energy outputs, and bringing large numbers of tourists into orbit at once, will eventually make orbital holidays relatively affordable and, possibly, an option for the masses.
In many ways, space travel closely resembles prior phases of human exploration. Five centuries ago, government-funded vessels from Spain traveled across the Atlantic to the New World. Later, common citizens began to make the same trip, and the trans-Atlantic voyage would become a rather routine errand, for better or for worse. Powerful new nations were consequently born. In 1803, Lewis and Clark, working for the U.S. government, embarked on a scientific and cultural exploration of western North America. Their effort opened the West to millions of settlers—for better or for worse. Now, government space exploration has been a reality for more than 50 years—and it may be inevitable that the general public will follow. Proponents of space travel believe that bringing masses of paying passengers into space—and carrying them in reusable launch vehicles—will make space travel cheap enough to become a feasible everyday activity. This will facilitate research endeavors, and space explorers will likely make great discoveries as they move outward into this next, if not final, frontier. Space travel advocates believe that valuable resources—especially minerals, like gold and platinum, and solar power—could be accessed through missions into the wider reaches of our solar system. Further into an imagined future is the prospect of establishing permanent colonies for human habitation far away from Earth.
But as the industry gears up to go, critics are asking why we must tap into other worlds’ resource banks, why we must endanger the lives of astronauts, and why we should spend money on science-fiction-like undertakings while poverty, pollution, inequality, starvation and extinctions are rampant on Earth. A major concern addresses the pollutants that a space tourism industry could introduce to the Earth’s already strained atmosphere. In October 2010, Scientific American‘s John Matson wrote an article titled “What will space tourism mean for climate change?” He wrote that a mature space tourism industry, consisting of 1,000 flights per year, would spew about 600 metric tons of soot into the atmosphere each year—in addition to greenhouse gases produced during takeoff. Over a period of decades, this soot, seemingly negligible on an annual basis, would produce “a persistent and asymmetric cloud over the Northern Hemisphere that could impact atmospheric circulation and regional temperatures far more than the greenhouse gases released into the stratosphere by those same flights.”
Proponents of space travel are ready with their defense. In a 2009 report produced by Space Future, a company committed to “opening space to the public,” there are virtually no reasons for concern about realizing space travel. The authors, Patrick Collins (owner of Space Future) and Adriano Autino (founder of another space travel promoter Space Renaissance International), acknowledged that space tourism would incur small environmental costs to our planet mainly in its beginning stages. As efficiency increased, however, space travel would begin acting almost as a panacea for all of our planet’s ills. They write that in light of current and increasingly frequent “resource wars” between nations, “…opening access to the unlimited resources of near-Earth space could clearly facilitate world peace and security.” They also believe that space travel will generate valuable educational, cultural and emotional benefits.
Space Renaissance International has published a “manifesto” outlining the arguments for why we should travel beyond the gravity and atmosphere of Earth. The document begins, “If we, the seven billion people that make up 21st century humanity, want our civilisation to keep growing and improving, we must…”
But why must our species continue to advance? Do we really want to keep growing? I believe that the physical limitations and boundaries of our planet, if not insurmountable by our technology, might be worth respecting. I also believe we should employ our brilliance as a species in figuring out how to live sustainably on this planet, and I would argue that it’s not our business to plunder the natural resources of any other worlds unless we can at least learn to manage and preserve our own—a challenge at which we are failing. But Space Future, Space Renaissance International and other advocates of space tourism believe that we should now be tapping the energy and mineral resources of space precisely because we have failed to properly use and preserve our own. Deep space exploration may be inevitable, as it seems that the human will to conquer or discover eventually overpowers all obstacles and mysteries.
As long as the choice is mine, I’ll remain on Earth. But market research surveys have indicated that many people in certain countries—especially, it seems, Japan—would enjoy a vacation spent in space. Would you?
If you’re bent on going, reserve your spot. Just be sure you’ve got a window seat—and that it isn’t over the wing.
November 5, 2012
The presidential candidates look as suave and dapper as ever each time they step to a new podium on the long and winding campaign trail—but each man’s well-groomed countenance belies the rigors of the arduous road each has traveled during the 2012 presidential race. Following is a discussion, with some facts and figures from behind the scenes, about the two men fighting to have America’s most demanding job and each candidate’s long, long journey that ends tomorrow at the polls.
Where the candidates have been:
Between June 1 and November 2, the Obama camp—including the president, the vice president and each man’s spouse—made 483 campaign-related appearances. Barack Obama was present for 214 of them. The same four-tiered Romney party, meanwhile, made 439 appearances, with 277 by Romney. In late September, the Obama campaign’s efforts seemed to max out: on September 22, the Obamas and the Bidens made 11 appearances, and 10 the day prior. The Romney camp has more recently made its most active efforts, with 10 appearances on October 31, and 11 the next day. Barack Obama has not visited Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming, among other states, and neither candidate has bothered appearing in Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
On October 24, Obama had what may have been the busiest day of his campaign. He flew 5,300 miles and made appearances in Iowa, Colorado, California (to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Nevada, before, at last, catching some sleep on an overnight trip to the major swing state of Florida (which has seen 112 campaign visits by both presidential husband-wife quartets since June), where the campaigning commenced the following morning. Later that day, the president continued to Virginia, Ohio and Illinois, where he cast an early vote. A week later, Obama made another campaign sprint beginning on October 31; forty-eight hours later he had bounded 6,500 miles around the country. November 1 was a particularly exhausting day. After leaving the White House at 9:20 a.m., he hit Green Bay, Las Vegas, Denver and, finally, Columbus, Ohio. And on November 4, he left the White House at 8 a.m. and made visits to New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Illinois.
How they get there:
The president gets around in his own private jet, called Air Force One. While “Air Force One” is, in fact, the call sign of any Air Force plane on which a U.S. president is traveling, the term more commonly refers to a particular pair of customized Boeing 747s used exclusively by the White House. Operating the planes is not cheap. ABC News has reported that an hour of flight on Air Force One costs about $180,000–usually of taxpayers’ money, unless a flight is considered strictly part of the campaign. But Obama does occasionally journey overland by bus—specifically in a black, slick and shiny armored coach that, just like its duplicate vehicle, cost $1.1 million when the Secret Service purchased the pair last year. By some guesses, Ground Force One, as it’s been dubbed and which has been active during this campaign, travels just six to nine miles on a gallon of gasoline.
Mitt Romney has also covered some impressive distance during his campaign. According to the Huffington Post, Romney will make a last-minute, four-day, 15,000-mile dash that ends tonight after visits to seven states, and he has traveled tens of thousands of miles throughout the campaign. As of late August, he has been traveling mostly on a private jet—a McDonnell-Douglas 83. Running mate Paul Ryan has his own plane—a similar model called the DC-90.
Where they sleep:
Luxury travel goes hand in hand with luxury lodging, and the president has stayed at the Beverly Hills Beverly Hilton Hotel in a room that costs $4,000 per night, the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Caroline, the Hotel Bellevue in Washington, and many other fine establishments. And Romney has stayed at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, the New York Palace Hotel, which can cost $9,000 per night, and the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.
How they stay fit:
In spite of their busy schedules, Obama and Romney both take the time to care for themselves and maintain physical fitness. Romney, it’s been reported, jogs three miles daily, whether on treadmills, around the hotel premises or on trails. Obama, too, keeps an exercise routine and aims for 45 minutes of boosted heart rate per day, achieved through running, basketball and even boxing. Although one of the Air Force One jets contains a treadmill, as Obama recently told Jay Leno, the stationary running machine was installed during a previous presidency and Obama does not jog on it during flights.
In the end, for all the sleepless nights and airport marathons and shaking of hands, we wonder: Did their campaign efforts steer the election? Whether Romney wins or Obama, America will know soon which man will get to spend the next four years flying in Air Force One.
October 3, 2012
Where would we be without snakes? Rodent populations might boom, the native bird assemblage of Guam would probably remain mostly intact today and 100,000 people every year would not die of venomous bites. As we can see, snakes bring both good and bad to the world we share with them. But mostly, these reptiles have been cast in the role of evil.
It’s easy to see why, if we just take a glance at the scariest of the lot—the venomous snakes. Indeed, it might take a very persuasive herpetologist on field sabbatical in Ecuador to convince the locals that the pit viper of his thesis focus is anything but a device of the devil. Throughout the New World tropics, roughly 2,000 people die every year from the bite of the pit viper (Bothrops atrox), known also as the fer-de-lance. Its close cousin, B. asper, goes by the same common names and is comparably devastating and said to be so aggressive it will chase people, bent on sharing some of its powerful venom. And in Africa, the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) seems so wicked it’s absurd: It is the fastest snake in the world and can slither more swiftly than the average city cyclist pedals to work; it is the second-longest venomous snake, growing to 14 feet; it may strike a single victim repeatedly like a psycho with a butcher knife; its venom is so potent it can kill a horse—and a person in just 30 minutes; and, in bite victims who go untreated, the mortality rate is—get this—100 percent. In other words, nobody—that’s nobody—on a trek in the wilderness of tropical Africa, hours from the nearest doctor and without antivenin, survives the bite of the black mamba. As locals say, this snake delivers the “kiss of death.”
Stories of such creatures can leave indelible impressions on the tender minds of men—so indelible that no matter how plain and obvious it is that the harmless gopher snake—or king snake, or rat snake—is a peaceful friend of society that wants little more than to eat a rat (a job that somebody’s got to do, and how grateful we should be that snakes have volunteered), many people still call snake control and removal experts when one appears on their property. Forgive them, Mother Nature, for they know not what they do. Now, whether you love them or hate them, here are a few iconic species to watch for when traveling, from those wickedly venomous to those worth learning more about before you cast your judgment.
Reticulated python (Python reticulatus). Probably the longest snake in the world (if not the heaviest), the reticulated python of Southeast Asia is also an occasional man-eater and a popular pet. (Go figure that one. I’ll stick with my yellow Lab.) Recently, a 25-footer weighing 350 pounds was named the largest snake in captivity—but just how big the largest “retic” ever to have lived might never be known. In 2003, one snake was reported to be 49 feet long and weigh more than 900 pounds. Only when journalist John Aglionby of The Guardian made a trip to see and measure the creature, being kept in a cage in a village in Java, was its real size revealed: 23 feet. Why should we believe an English journalist and not the keeper of the snake, you ask? Come on. Forty-nine feet? Anyway, read Aglionby’s article, which explains the difficulty in measuring large, coiled-up snakes. Worthy to note when discussing the biggest snakes is that between 1997 and 2002, the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could produce a 30-foot snake. The prize was never collected.
Ashe’s spitting cobra (Naja ashei). And you thought camels were nasty for spitting in strangers’ faces (they’re actually belching up their cud). Well, the spitting cobra doesn’t just spit; it spits venom. And since the venom is harmless to intact skin, the mean evolutionary tactic behind this nasty habit seems to be, precisely, to hit the victim in the eye, which can cause permanent blindness. Ashe’s spitting cobra is the largest of the dozen or so spitting cobra species, which live in Africa and Asia. N. ashei, first named only in 2007, reaches nine feet in length, has been seen eating five-foot-long puff adders (another deadly venomous snake) and, like all the spitting cobras, can also inject venom by biting. And while we’re discussing cobras, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) can grow to twice the length of the Ashe’s spitting cobra and may administer, in one bite, two-tenths of an ounce of venom to its unfortunate victim—enough to kill an elephant. The species acts aggressively when cornered or when guarding a nest, in which the females lay their eggs, but does not commonly attack humans.
Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus). It is the biggest of the boas and perhaps the bulkiest of all snakes, but the South American green anaconda’s pop culture reputation as a killer may be entirely undeserved. The snake, which gives live birth to 20-inch babies and can reportedly grow to 28 feet and 280 pounds (according to the San Diego Zoo), is relatively sluggish and does not, with any regularity, attack humans.Yet people hate the creatures. Just check out the comments following this blog post about a pregnant anaconda killed by South American villagers. The author of the post questions why the animal was killed. Scores of readers responded like raving idiots at a public hanging. One argued that with 70 baby snakes inside her, the big snake was a population bomb about to go off and would have left the village crawling with hungry anacondas. And another reader said, “[W]e don t need snakes on this world.they are dangerous. i hate the snakes it s the animal of the devil…” Well spoken. Thank you. Next! “[T]hat thing could kill a horse.” No, it probably couldn’t. Next! “How could it possibly have been pregnant? It’s a SNAKE, snakes are REPTILES, and reptiles LAY EGGS!!!” Obviously not a herpetologist. Next! “[S]nake’s aren’t nice animals…there more like monsters who just wanna eat.” Brilliant. Next! “Either you eat the Anaconda, or the Anaconda eats YOU !” All right, all right! Order! In fact, there is no documented case of an anaconda killing a human.
Beaked sea snake (Enhydrina schistosa). Though the Australian inland taipan tops the list of the world’s most venomous snakes, the beaked sea snake isn’t far behind. Rated as the world’s sixth most venomous snake, it is considered the most dangerous sea snake. Its fangs may measure just four millimeters, and surfers and divers wearing wetsuits may be protected, though just barely, from this animal’s bite. Yet nine of every ten people killed by sea snakes are killed by the beaked sea snake, which is said to be easily provoked and very aggressive. It inhabits shallow, murky waters in Australia and much of the Indian Ocean, often among mangrove roots. Wading fishermen are frequent victims.
Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinesis). If the flared hood of a cobra is the icon of danger in the heat of Africa and Asia, then the sound of a rattlesnake giving its warning might be that of the American desert. Which makes the rattlesnake without a rattle a riddle of evolution—though scientists have supposed that its rattleless tail may be a result of evolving on an island mostly absent of other creatures to communicate with. Otherwise, the Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake is a rattlesnake in every way—from head almost to tail. It is a dwarf among rattlesnakes, however, reaching a maximum size of just 28 inches long. It is also endemic to (that is, entirely limited to) the single Sea of Cortez island on which it lives, and—with just 100 square kilometers to call its own—the species is critically endangered. Predation by feral cats is a considerable threat.
Sobering facts about snakebites: In 2011, the BBC reported that snakes bite as many as 5.5 million people every year, killing at least 100,000. In India alone, the article stated, a million people may suffer snakebites every year. The Indian cobra, Russell’s viper, saw-scaled viper and common krait are the main perpetrators in India, while the king cobra tends often to be wrongly blamed. In sub-Saharan Africa, carpet vipers, black mambas, puff adders and boomslangs are snakes to be feared. In Australia, the snake blacklist is long and frightening, while in Europe vipers are the main culprit, and in North America, rattlesnakes. What to do if bitten by a snake? Antivenin is said to be the only reliable treatment, unfortunately. According to the 2011 revision of Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook, the wound of a snakebite victim should be firmly wrapped in a bandage before the person is carried on a makeshift stretcher to the nearest doctor. “If you can, also take the snake,” the authors advise, as identifying the needed antivenin can otherwise be difficult. And things not to do after receiving a snakebite? Cutting the flesh near the wound, applying ice, trying to suck the venom out of the bite and having a beer (as alcohol can reportedly make symptoms worse).
September 21, 2012
On September 22, as the sun nears its zenith in the Peruvian sky, the shadow of a small slab of granite at Machu Picchu disappears at noon. This is no accident. For this rock is called the “hitching post of the sun”—Intihuatana, to the ancient Incas, who celebrated the equinox at this site. Some bright mind among them determined that this day was a special one, and so he—or she—carved the 26-inch-tall stone so that it faces at a very particular northward angle—about 13 degrees, the latitude of Machu Picchu. The effect is that at noon on both the spring and fall equinoxes, for just an instant, the stone’s shadow disappears. The sun, so it seemed to the ancients, was at those moments “hitched” to the end of the stone.
Elsewhere on the equinox, various sites similarly demonstrate ancient cultures’ recognition—and precise understanding—of the sun’s cycles through the sky. In the Yucatán this weekend? Then dog-ear that trashy paperback, drag yourself away from the time-share pool and visit Chichen Itza. Have a seat in the grass with the other sun lovers and watch. Due to the particular geometry and angles of construction of the Kukulcán pyramid, a dramatic shadow undulates down the stairway on the structure’s northern face on both the spring and fall equinoxes. At the base of the stairway are large snake heads carved into the rock, and the effect—which lasts several hours in the afternoon—is of a giant snake descending the pyramid. Not so far away, the Pyramid of the Sun in southern Mexico faces due east—straight at the rising sun, on either the spring or fall equinox. Remember that on only those two days does the sun rise from due east. The spring equinox causes a great stir among New Age sun worshipers, who flock to the Pyramid of the Sun on March 20, believing that “energy” can be tapped from the air on this day at this particular site. In their New Age fervor, these gatherers seem to be having impacts on the site as they trample upon it every March. Helpful tip: Since the autumn equinox is celestially little different than the spring one, it should generate equal energies. So dodge the crowds and make your pilgrimage to this great historical site this weekend. Let us know if you feel the buzz.
In New Mexico? Then Chaco Canyon‘s Sun Dagger site is the ancient observatory for you. Here, ancient Anasazi sky-watchers evidently leaned three slabs of stone against a south-facing rock wall, on which they carved two spirals. Blades of sunlight, passing through the cracks between the slabs, migrate across these etched spirals, and so two corresponding blades of sunlight appear on the rock wall and its spiral etchings. On the summer solstice, a single dagger of light perfectly bisects the larger of the spirals. On the winter solstice, two separate daggers touch the opposing outer edges of the larger spiral. And on the equinoxes, something slightly more complex happens—easily observed in the diagram on this website. An artist named Anna Sofaer reportedly discovered this site in 1977, and by returning throughout the year, observed the passage of the sunlight shafts across the carved spirals. And at the Anasazi ruin at Hovenweep National Monument, set on the border of Utah and Colorado, shafts of sunlight cross spiral rock etchings on the summer solstice. And at a Chumash site in Burro Flats, in southern California, a sliver of light crosses the center point of five concentric rings on the winter solstice. On the same day at a Baja California shrine called La Rumorosa, a blade of sunlight cast through a rock seems to beam from the eyes of a human figure painted on a shaded stone wall.
In Yorkshire at the moment? Then slog across the green-gray moors and take a moment near sunset to visit the biggest boulder in the county, the Hitching Stone—a glacial rock anywhere from 21 to 29 feet thick in any direction and guessed to weigh about 1,000 tons. From this once-sacred location, observers on the equinox will notice that the sun sets directly behind Pendle Hill, directly west of the Hitching Stone. And reportedly on the winter solstice, a person seated on the nearby Winter Hill Stone in the frigid hour before dawn will see the sun come up directly behind the Hitching Stone. Important to note of this landscape is that it occurred naturally and was not created by ancient astronomers (unless the ancients managed to hoist the Hitching Stone and tote it to its current spot). Experts have noted that this Yorkshire location is only lacking a point that would mark the date of the summer solstice. And remember that the dreary weather precludes even seeing the sun most days of the year here, so don’t plan a vacation around this trick of solar astronomy.
In Egypt? Then visit the pyramids, where several great monuments are aligned to honor the sun and stars on either equinox. The sphinx, for one, faces due east, taking in the rising sun on March 20 and September 22. And within the Great Pyramid, a skyward shaft is believed to have pointed directly at the Alpha Draconis star at midnight on the autumn equinox. In and around the year 3000 B.C., Alpha Draconis served as the North Star of the era. Because the stars are slowly migrating in their relation to the Earth, this phenomenon is no longer observed. (Today’s North Star is Polaris.)
Staying home this equinox? Then try this: Tilt a broomstick southward (assuming you’re in the Northern Hemisphere; tilt it northward if you’re south of the Equator) and, using a protractor for assistance, hold it at the exact angle of your location’s latitude. Refer to this chart of the latitude and longitude of major world cities, or this separate chart for the United States and Canada, to determine your latitude. Keep holding that broomstick. Steady now. Don’t move. Just two more hours. Hang in there. OK—get ready, here it comes: At noon, the broomstick will cast no shadow. Amazing!
Or staying up late this weekend? Then this may be the best time of the year to watch the skies for the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. Mystics like to refer to this phenomenon as “mysterious,” though it makes perfect sense to pragmatic scientific minds. The aurora borealis—which has an austral counterpart over the high southerly latitudes—is caused when a sun flare sends clouds of electrified subatomic particles toward the Earth at millions of miles per hour. Upon crashing into the molecules of the Earth’s atmosphere, energy is transferred between the particles, creating brilliant displays of colorful light. Sun flares occur most often around the equinox. Click here for information of the latest in sun flare activity.
This post was written equally for all people. For on September 22, readers in every hemisphere will share equally in the light of the sun; at every point on Earth, the sun will rise from due east, and 12 hours later set at due west; and at all points on the Earth, the sun will spend 12 hours in the sky. The equinox is a day of global sharing.