Tuesday, 10 February 2015

South of the border, east of the sun...

Other people's patches.

I rarely stray from the muddy banks of the Dee. Most of my birdwatching and photography is done within a few miles of my home. It is my Patch, my little slice of the birding pie.

It was entirely by accident that I developed this parochial approach to nature. Some people will travel long distances to see birds, and that is cool, it is just I never liked the urgency of the chase or the faff of the travel... etc.

From this laziness came an appreciation of what is right on my doorstep. The Patch. What I call the Patch is not one small defined area, it is a loose collection of sites that I like to spend time at, and during the course of many hours on these sites I have come to know them so, so well.

Currently patch watching is really popular (I suppose it always has been, but it does seem to be increasing at the moment) and patches are popping up all over the place.

As a general rule people are pretty cool about sharing the birds on their Patches but I have met the odd one who doesn't seem happy with people encroaching on their territory. For some it seems, there are borders and boundaries, lines that shouldn't be crossed.

When I was a kid I had boundaries. I was allowed around our  capital "I" shaped close but wasn't allowed along the footpath to the large grassy roundabout behind. The main road just south of the close was out of bounds too. They were other people's playgrounds.

Now I have self imposed borders. I will cross them on occasion but on the whole I tend not too. Anything to the east of Gilroy and south of Riverbank Road I consider to be alien country - The Outer Rim.

I don't consider my Patch to be any better or worse than other people's patches, its just I like mine like I like my favourite pair of trainers. Comfortable, it just 'feels' right in my Converse/on my Patch.

There have been a couple of Snow Buntings close by all winter. Not on my Patch though. I have resisted the temptation to go and photograph them, hoping that I would get one or two visiting me, most likely on Hilbre, maybe on Thursatston Shore. Alas, as we plodded through January there were no signs of Patch Buntings.

So here I am. Off-Patch. With my dad on Wallasey Beach looking for Snow Buntings.

That's him in the picture, crouched behind the tripod mounted camera.
The Bunts were easy to find, 2 of them feeding and mooching along the tide line close to the busy embankment.

We spent a chilly couple of hours with them on a sunny Monday morning. While most people were opening emails at the start of the working week, we were getting sandy shots of  these obliging Snow Buntings.

The birds fed on seeds and vegetation plucked from the strandline on the busy shore. This species is renowned for being tame, and these two birds have obviously become very used to beach life on this corner of the Wirral, a corner that they could rightly call their Patch.

That is something that we do not forget, this is the bird's territory and they will exploit it so they can survive the winter. It would not be on for us to disturb them at all.

Keeping a safe distance, we can see the birds do not alter their behaviour while we are there. We get some images of them scrabbling around the washed up vegetation, appearing and disappearing amongst piles of seaweed.

Dog walkers come and go, flinging sticks for excited pooches. Cyclists whizz by on the embankment. A tractor/trailer and JCB combo clear wind-blown sand from the adjacent road and the birds don't flinch.

Three kite surfers brave the freezing conditions to take advantage of the stiff breeze that is blowing, these too are no bother to the two intrepid Bunts. We get more pictures.

The same chill breeze that is propelling the surfers is fluffing up the thick feathers of our Bunts. I lie down on the sand to get a low angle on our birds. They continue to feed and turn my way. They hop closer and closer, I can see the grains of sand on their bills. Eventually they come within the minimum focussing distance of the lens and I can't take any more pictures until they hop away again.

To be able to appreciate these birds at such close quarters without disturbing them is a treat. As fast as the memory cards are filling up my stomach seems to be emptying. I'm burning breakfast at a rate of knots in this cold weather. We decamp to a local cafe to warm up with a cuppa.

I have a couple of regular Patch cafes that I patronise before or after some birdwatching, but I'm off Patch today so this choice is a shot in the dark. It is a palpable hit! A steaming mug of tea brings feeling back to frozen fingers. A second breakfast is quickly polished off.

Warm, full of full English and with a stack of Bunting images I feel contented with the day on another Patch...

... south of the border - east of the sun.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Olaf's Oaks...

From October – November time last year…

It is good to be still again.

In two senses I am enjoying the calm. The trip across the States, 6 cities and 4 National Parks in a little over 3 weeks, was awesome but non-stop, almost too much to absorb in one go.

Back on the Patch and the weather has been unsettled to say the least. High winds have been battering the Dee, everywhere there is turbulence.

But not today, at last it is calm.

I am in the woods, Stapledon Woods to be exact, to enjoy a mellow autumn day. As the Patch slouches through autumn towards the stasis of winter I can feel the pace slowing, and nowhere more so than here under the trees.

Things are just different in the woods. For one thing, you are IN the woods, you have to enter the woods. Unlike on the wide open spaces of the Dee mudflats where the feeling is much different. You arrive ON the shore where sometimes you will be the tallest thing there, standing out, obvious. Not so in the woods, around me ancient oaks loom over me (not on the scale of Yosemite’s redwoods but still impressive all the same). You can disappear in the woods if you want to, it surrounds you.

I don’t find this feeling claustrophobic though, it’s sort of comfortable.
Around me are the signs of the season. As chlorophyll decays to xanthocyanins in drying leaves they turn from lush greens to gaudy yellows, each leaf a chemistry set, the woods a laboratory, the autumn a huge experiment.

I like the woods because of the slow pace, accentuated by the current season, of life here. It takes years and years to grow a tree to maturity, seeds can lie dormant for generations, just waiting for a gap in the canopy to provide enough light to start germination. I like the harmony too, the sharing of resources. As I watch Blue Tits searching the crinkled bark of an Oak for food I hear the calls of Redwings overhead. The resident and the migrant will live side by side here for the winter.

This tolerance and the longevity of the woods is a welcome antidote to the short-termism, greed and xenophobia that I have seen so much of in life and politics recently.

Yes, in the woods I briefly feel insulated from all the bad stuff in the world. I switch my phone to silent, then off altogether, unplugging myself from the digital world.

After my trip to the USA with the ride around the parks with some cool people I decided to dip a toe into the pool of online social networking and get busy with Facebook and Twitter (if you like you can follow me here). It is kind of cool but for now I like the solitude of the woods.

I kick some autumn leaves around. I examine a yellowing leaf up close, count the berries on a Holly branch and sniff the strange sweetish not-exactly-pleasant-but-not-entirely-unpleasant smell of damp decay that permeates woodland at this time of year.

The odd mushroom pushes up through the moss of a rotting log.

These woods are named after the author Olaf Stapledon who lived here for a while when he worked at Liverpool University. Although he is well regarded by other more famous sci-fi authors, Olaf is not as well known as he should be. I have read one of his books, Last and First Men, I even read a chapter or two sat on the bench that overlooks the fields adjacent to these woods. The story, first published in 1930, stretches over vast tracts of time and the predictions of the near future are startlingly prophetic. Ages, nations and civilisations come and go. The timescale and themes in his book again underline the trivial nature of the fear-mongers of modern politics and squabbles over religion, lines in the sand and money.

But none of that matters here in the woods. All I am worried about here is getting the exposure correct to photograph the aforementioned Blue Tits in flight. The right combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed are eventually found and I get my pictures.

My next challenge is the Nuthatches that are flitting along the branches deeper in the woods. It is darker here so a slower shutter speed is needed to capture all the details. I love figuring these settings out. Reading the instruction book for the camera was the best thing I ever did, and although I am trying to be a little more carefree with some of my pictures I still can’t totally trust the camera to get it right on its own. Again, after a little experimentation, some test exposures and a bunch of blurry shots fit only for the recycle bin, I get my pictures.

Before I leave I sit for a while under Olaf’s Oaks and soak up the tranquillity of his woods. Still singing despite the end of the breeding season is a tiny Wren. Its huge staccato song belying its diminutive stature.

After half an hour listening to the Wren I have to wander off, the real world beckons and I boot up the phone to plug myself back into the matrix. It flashes and chirps with texts, emails, likes, tweets and the occasional retweet.

As if in reply to this electronic chatter the Wren launches into his song again and I smile to myself as I leave the sanctuary of the trees.

It’s all good in the woods.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Port Effect.... #2014

It must have been the port. Maybe the combination of the pâtè, the cheese and the port.

Whatever, I find myself sunk low in an armchair in that familiar, satisfied, comfortably reflective mood as we approach the eve of a new year. So I’ve had a good trawl through the memory banks and hard drives of 2014 and after a bit of deliberation I have found my five favourite pictures of the year from along the muddy banks of the Dee (and beyond).

1 The Manta Ray

It was a cold, drab day on Hoylake Shore. The tide and the assembled birdwatchers were a little subdued by the unpleasant weather. The waders were in a fight flock hugging the edge of the tide, not really giving us the usual spectacular show. That was until the Peregrine swooped.

An unlucky Dunlin bit the bullet, its neck snapped in front of the shocked crowds. The rest of the flock took to the air in panic, weaving fantastic shapes against the dull grey sky. This was my favourite.

2 The Flutter

The start of 2014 was a tempestuous affair. Storms battered the Patch relentlessly for the first few weeks leaving the estuary empty of Knot, Blackwits and Pintail. I had to find something else to point the camera at. I came across a feeding station with a sunny aspect and a distant background (this was good because it appeared blurry on the pictures) frequented by some boisterous Chaffinches.

I had a fine time messing about with the camera settings to get some flight shots. The sound of the fluttering wings as the birds vied for position on the feeder was great to hear too.

3 The Death of a Fly

In the spring, after work, I would head down to the bench where Gordon sat to relax with the camera. A pair of Chiffchaffs was nesting close by and would feed in the old Oak tree opposite the wooden seat. The bench is popular with resting ramblers so the birds become quite used to people and if you sat still they would come reasonably close.

Sitting there quietly with the big lens I was able to get some close ups of the feeding Chiffies and I even managed to capture the demise of a small fly…

4 The White Out

May saw my third trip to Porsanger in the far north of Norway. As usual I was there for the Norwegian Knot Project to do a bit of fieldwork. This year Spring and the Knots were late so I had a bit of time to look for other wildlife. Snow Buntings were still in large flocks around the few small farms that eek out some limited agriculture in the frozen north.

Occasionally some would fly down to the shore to feed on the seaweed strandline. Here I was able to photograph them and was lucky enough to get a summer plumaged male on the snow. White on white, snow on snow.

5 The Great Escape

On Hilbre in early autumn I spent some time with a family of Swallows as they prepared for their migration to southern Africa. The details of the extra ordinary story of a lucky hover fly escaping what looked like certain doom is detailed in the post “Dog Days Are Over”.

As always, time spent with these birds continued to grow my respect and admiration for their efforts. I hope the family made it safely south, they certainly had enough fuel.

That’s my top five; they are in chronological order as I couldn’t pick a Number One. Each photograph reminds me of days spent in my favourite places surrounded by my favourite birds with my camera in hand. Good times.

2015 fast approaches and promises much, but in the meantime, where’s the rest of that Port?

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Christmas Bandits...

It comes around awful quick. I have been a little distracted of late, there are several posts about adventures on the Dee (and beyond) waiting to go up on this blog, but the festive season is upon us and that can only mean one thing:

Johnny and Matt’s Festive Walk.

This is now a well established and most welcome Christmas tradition. We just grab our cameras, some munchies and hit the Patch. Thinking about it, the Festive Walk is just one of our normal walks with the addition of mince pies.

We have added a third rule for 2014:

Christmas jumpers must NOT be worn.

(for a summary of the rules see the 15000 Seconds of Light post from about this time last year)

Today is our Christmas “do”. However there will be none of the usual Christmas Do misdemeanours. Today nobody will get drunk and do something stupid in front of the boss, no one will fall asleep on the night bus and neither of us will wear novelty reindeer antlers.

The weather is a bit sketchy, blustery freezing showers are being blown along on a keen wind and it is dark, really dark. Not an ideal day for wildlife photography but that doesn’t matter at all, today is more about just being out on the Patch and having a good, festive time.

We tear off across the Patch like a couple of Christmas Bandits. Starting on the Wirral Way (where the Wood Pigeon Tree is reassuringly full of Wood Pigeons) we are greeted by hundreds of Thrushes. Redwings and Fieldfares dot the hedgerow like baubles on a Christmas tree. “tssseeeee” calls and angry “chack”s can be heard as they strip the branches of the ripe red berries. Loose flocks are almost always in the air, moving along the Wirral Way.

We climb up to the Dungeon where we have our first food stop.

One chicken tikka baguette, 3 cups hot apple, pear and cinnamon cordial, 2 mince pies and 2 apple & cranberry pies.

We look for the Little Owl but it seems a Grey Squirrel has evicted it from its usual hole. We see Great Spotted Woodpecker and on the stream a Grey Wagtail is bobbing along.

We try a selfie but it takes a couple of goes to figure out the self timer.

The second attempt is more what we had in mind.

From the Dungeon we head to the shore via Heswall Fields.

Topics discussed:

Life (marriage*, jobs – the usual)
Cameras (full frame the way to go?)
Camera bags
Best charity shop find 2014 (easily Johnny’s posh Timberland waterproof for £10)

* Johnny’s wife has recently vetoed his attempt to purchase a set of night vision goggles. Shocking.

We reach the shore and scan the estuary.

We also polish off the rest of our supplies.

2 Plum, Pear and Cinnamon pies, 2 Rhubarb Pies and the rest of the cordial, hot from the thermos flask, cold from the hip flask.

In Mono Valley some Teal are mooching around in the water and some on the muddy banks. As usual Oystercatchers are having a noisy dispute.
Behind us a rainbow briefly brightens the sky over Oldfield Farm. The fleeting sunshine shows up a good roost of Knot straddling the gutter up by Thurstaston.

We head in that direction as the rain sweeps over us again. By the time we get closer to the roosting Knot it has gone really dark again. For a moment it looks like the birds have fled with the passing shower but they are still there. Without the sun on them they fade into the muddy walls of the gutter.

Above us a Kestrel sits in a gnarled old Hawthorn. The tree isn’t very tall and an odd shape due to its constant exposure to the prevailing wind. It seems defiant. I WILL grow here it is saying.

We wait for the tide and in due course it starts to push the Knot from their resting place in Mono Valley out into the open. We watch for a while as they feed, squabble and squawk before flying down Mono towards the marsh.

We are almost back at our origin but regular readers will know that we can’t finish yet. We need a picture of a Robin. Trouble is, they are being more than a little uncooperative today. I nearly had one at the Dungeon but it disappeared just as I hit the shutter. Back at our respective cars we wonder what to do about the Robin situation. It would be breaking our rules to go now, but it is nearly dark…. It is hard to even spot the birds. If only we had night vision goggles….

We stick around for a while and in near darkness a Robin finally turns up. It is photographed but I am almost ashamed to present it, but, rules are rules!

Dodgy Robin pictures in the bag we set sail for our respective homes – anyone struggling for a present for a birdwatcher might like to consider night-vision eyewear… Just a subtle hint…

So that is it for another year, our seasonal walk here is done. We can warm up, relax, stuff a turkey and focus on the festivities.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Too Hot For Hershey's....

Get in the Van Pt 3

We have left behind Yosemite, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and we are at our
4th and final National Park on G Adventure’s San Fran to LA Express.

The Joshua Tree swelters before me. I look across the scorched Mojave landscape and I feel like I could be in one of three movies.

First a Western. Its to easy to imagine a cowboy on a colt appearing on the shimmering horizon, slowly riding this way, 10 gallon hat shading sweaty eyes from the sun, a six-shooter holstered at his side. An outlaw in the Wild West, a gun for hire, looking for a safe camp for the evening.

The huge rock formations that some of Nando’s Thirteen are clambering across (some more successfully than others) resemble what I imagine dinosaur dung piles look like but super massive. From behind one of them I could well imagine a huge prehistoric monster emerging.

That’s the second movie – The Lost World. There is nothing in view to suggest this is 2014 and this habitat is like nothing I have seen before. The Joshua trees are spectacular, like the bastard offspring of a palm tree and a cactus. T-Rex or Diplodocus would not be a surprise or seem out of place here.

While the more energetic members of our tour party scale the rocks (dino-poop) I have decided to look for rattle snakes. I persuade a couple of others to join me on this reptile hunt. 

I figure it is no more hazardous than the rock climbing the others are doing. We poke about amongst the crevices and folds of the weird rocks. We don’t find any rattlers but we do see some cool little lizards, a distant echo of the dinosaurs that once roamed the Mojave.

A shadow moves across the desert floor. Overhead are the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures, they have been a constant feature on our drives across the desert. Several are circling above us, perhaps hoping we find a snake and come to grief. We disappoint them by staying healthy during our wander about the park.

The sky is an intense cobalt blue and the Joshua Trees look stunning against it, like alien cheerleaders. Long gnarly arms/branches end in spiky green leaves/pom-poms. This place could be another world, not a lost world.

For our third movie we could be in a sci-fi alien adventure, discovering a new world, making first contact. I think we have a pretty decent set of people on our tour and would make great ambassadors for the human race.

I loved the Joshua Tree. It might not have the history of Yosemite, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the notoriety of Death Valley but I think it was my favourite park.

All of the films we could have been in would undoubtedly have been filmed in widescreen. As I look out over the Mojave I can’t help but think that I should be seeing this with a black stripe at the top and bottom of my field of view.

The heat is rising and my water bottle is draining fast. I’m feeling hungry too. I reach into my shoulder bag for a snack (regular readers of this blog will know my penchant for munchies while out and about).
I find my chocolate bar between my notebook and map of the park. As I bring it out of the bag it gives a little, well a lot. I should have realised when I packed it that this would happen. Total meltdown. Joshua Tree is too hot for Hershey’s.

We jump back in Lucy for the last time.

Nando pushes the pedal and aims us for LA, a final night with our fellow explorers and a flight home beckon.

In the van I am staring at the passing countryside as it fades into suburban sprawl and reflecting on the trip. Parts have gone as I expected, most of it has exceeded those expectations. I would recommend G Adventures to anyone. Fun, safe, ethical and value. Good people.

It seems I was wrong in my belief that I am too old and cynical to be inspired by new places and new people. The bus was awash with enthusiasm and optimism, as we neared our final hotel I was thinking:

“Don’t stop, keep going, more, now, again, further…”

I want to see it all, I want to travel to the ends of the earth and photograph it all.

I saw the sign shown in the picture above in the departure lounge of Copenhagen airport after a crazy trip to the Norwegian arctic and it felt so true as the van hummed and bumped into town.

While the plane climbed out of LAX I realised I learned a bit about photography too. Since I started taking pictures seriously I have learned all I can about sensors, settings, exposures, composition and editing. This has made me some great pictures but is time consuming and as my wife reminds me, it isn’t exactly spontaneous.

I loved the pictures my fellow travellers were taking. So many pictures, some shot with profile pictures in mind, they were snapped, shared and liked in a matter of seconds. Such spontaneity was inspiring.

I look from the oval plane window and see we are crossing the Mojave once more, this time from the air. In a burst of new found spontaneity I whip out the camera and snap a couple of shots from the window. As I look down on the golden sands it hits me how far we travelled but how much more there is to explore…

So…. Get in the van!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Havasu Stargazers Club

Get in the Van Part II

This story starts at sunrise on the Patch, moves through arctic Norway and finishes under the stars on the shores of Lake Havasu in Arizona.

Sometimes, not always, I get a strange feeling while out on the Patch or wandering somewhere my travels have taken me. For a long while I struggled to put a finger on just what this feeling was. It only happens when a place, landscape, weather, wildlife and occasionally people come together in a special way that feels like more than the sum of the individual parts.

Most often it is on the Patch, specifically Thurstaston Shore. Usually at sunrise in winter and always when the tide is rising. The gutters and creeks in the mudflats fill with gurgling water and wading birds are forced out on to the open flats. The sight of so many birds combined with the sound of them calling and their wings flapping takes my breath.

I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my guts and I want to jump up and down or call someone and tell them how great this place is - or both (see my posts called Yesterday’s Rain and Ain’t That Enough from a while back for more details on this).

I’m not the only one to have these kinds of feelings and many people ascribe them to a spiritual or religious experience. I’m no mystic, I don’t believe and so I don’t agree with them. I enjoyed but didn’t pay much attention to these warm and fuzzies. That was until I discovered Henry David Thoreau. It turns out I was having the odd moment of transcendence. HDT and other members of the American Transcendentalists attributed these feelings to our environment and our response to it rather than to a deity and after reading a few of their works I tend to agree.

The feeling never lasts too long, reality makes an unwelcome return and bursts my Thoreauvian bubble or someone tells me not to be a crazy hippy - having all these “moments” or I fall in a bog (more on this later).

We have been on the road for nearly 3 weeks around the USA and we’ve had a fine old time. We had travelled from New York to Boston on the Greyhound and I was keen to get out to Concord, just a few miles from Boston and home to HDT. In my bag I had my tatty copy of his most famous work, Walden, that I wanted to photograph at Walden Pond. Sadly the curse of railway engineering works is not limited to the UK and our attempts to seek transcendence in the Transcendentalists back yard was scuppered. Walden remained in my bag all trip long. Thwarted.

My transcendence is often thwarted and none more so than in Norway a couple of years ago. We had a day off from collecting data on the Red Knots (Calidris canutus) for our studies on their migration so we decided to go for a walk in the woods (that far north in Norway it was pretty much the only other thing we could have done anyway).

It was warm just 4 layers required rather than the usual 6, there was stunning wildlife (Waxwings, Golden Eagles…) and the landscape was immense. Wind stunted gnarley birch trees and majestic bottle green pines flanked golden sphagnum moss bogs. We were picking our way across one of these, enjoying a bit of banter in the team, when I was caught by a wave of transcendence. I was struck by the pristine freshness and the quiet. The soft vastness of the woods and the delicate song of the Waxwings displaying to each other. The warm and fuzzies hit me in one of the coldest places I’ve been.

I reached a small pool which I jumped across. Sadly the opposite bank was not entirely solid and I disappeared up to my waist in freezing peat coloured water. Transcendence abruptly halted.
Only the permafrost stopped me from being completely submerged and thinking about it now it was probably quite dangerous but instead of rushing to my aid my colleagues roared with laughter and took pictures of me, a freezing peaty mess.

The walk back to the car with no trousers on was a long and chilly one.

Tonight is not chilly. Tonight is unbelievably hot. We have arrived on the shores of Lake Havasu having travelled up from the Grand Canyon. The day at the canyon had started at dawn with a wander around the pinewoods next to the campsite. We found Northern Flickers, Western Bluebirds and three species of Nuthatch. 

After another long drive in Lucy our day was finishing in sweltering Havasu.

Our helter-skelter week around Cali, Nevada and Arizona is drawing to a close. This is our final night under canvas ( we still say this but seriously, who has a canvas tent these days?) and I feel that I need to mark it somehow. Over a dinner of tacos I decide that this evening I am going to sleep out on the lake shore under the stars. When I say this Kat says that she was thinking of doing the same so we agree that it has to be done.

Once the washing up has been done and the camp tidied we take a few silly pictures in the dark. Worn out, we throw our mats and sleeping bags on the grass and settle down. Wow, just wow. The starts are beautiful. I can identify Ursa Major but no others but it doesn’t matter. There are sooooooo many. We lie and stare skywards.

Thus the Havasu Stargazers Club is born. It started with 2 members, but soon I hear footsteps and the sound of a sleeping bag being dragged across the grass. Chelsey walks past says “it’s too hot in the tent” throws down her bag and becomes the 3rd member of HSC. Nando, our guide, de-hammocks and throws his bag on the floor. 4 members. Lois pops her head from the tent and agrees with Chelsey about the heat, exclaiming she has to sleep out as she’s used up all the oxygen in the tent. The 5th member.

I look behind us and Simone has joined us - 6 members. Finally firestarter Nick wanders out and puts down next to Chelsey becoming the 7th and final member of the newly formed and very exclusive Havasu Stargazers Club.

The stars shine with a brightness that I have never seen at home. We point out shooting stars to each other as we slowly drift off. To my right I see Lois in a fitful light slumber, left of me Kat is sat up staring at the sky looking amazed. I settle down but try to stay awake; I want to see the stars as much as I can before I sleep.

Thinking of our trip, the amazing things we have seen and what I am seeing now sense the warm and fuzzies coming on. I surrender to transcendence.

Nando starts to snore. Loudly. 

Pop - the bubble bursts. Then, from nowhere a strong but strangely hot wind blows up. Our empty tent pivots on the bags in the far corner and rears up like a monster on hind legs. Lois dives in to add ballast, to prevent it rolling into the lake. Kat and I secure it with pegs. She then goes around every other tent to ask if they need pegging. Most of the occupants are asleep but Kat pegs them anyway in a humbling display of unseen and unacknowledged kindness. I look around, the rest of the Club have managed to sleep through the drama.

Transcendence well and truly thwarted I settle down again to watch the stars. The warm breeze continues to blow. Eventually sleep comes and a few hours later I am woken by the rising sun. There is one more adventure to come, Joshua Tree National Park stands between us, our final destination and flight home.

But for a while I lie on my sleeping bag watching the sun climb, thinking of the stars and reflecting on the one and only meeting of the Havasu Stargazers Club.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

On The Road....

Get in the Van Part I

Nando, our guide, laughs and stomps his bare foot on the gas, Lucy finds her gear and lurches forward.

(The van all 13 of us travellers are cramped into has been christened Lucy by our Puerto Rican driver as “she looked like a Lucy” to him and we have dubbed ourselves Nando‘s 13)

After a few turns we are on the road, the open road, destination: Grand Canyon. Lucy eats up the miles. She is as white as a comet and like all good comets has a tail, in her case a trailer packed with tents, bags and beers.

We are on the road - like Cassidy and Kerouac, Dean and Sal. Kerouac’s On The Road is one of my favourite books and OK, so we aren’t as innovative or pioneering as the Beats but we are just as excited to be zooming across California, Nevada and Arizona in search of adventure.

Lucy roars across Arizona and away from the suburban sprawl of neat houses and shopping plazas America is just as I had imagined and hoped it would be.

We pass rickety metal windmills and rusty water towers, motels, diners slip by. A small town cinema is showing Tremors, in my opinion, the best film about small town America being invaded by killer worms (admittedly there aren‘t many to choose from but still…). Whether this is the real America or a tourists clichéd view of the States I’m not sure, but to be honest I don’t care much right now. I’m just enjoying looking out of the van window as we zip along.

We stop for burgers in a proper burger bar, wash them down with sweet peanut butter shakes and root beers.

Back in the van and we continue. From the window I see Turkey Vultures and Prairie Dogs. A lone Loggerhead Shrike is sitting on a roadside fencepost. By dilapidated shacks beat up classic cars are left to decay in the sweltering sun.

The whitest clouds dot the bluest sky.

Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” shuffles round on the stereo (sometimes I think i-pods just know…) Overtaken by a wave of Thoreauvian transcendence I find a marker pen in the seat pocket and as we leave the outskirts of another town I scribble the last lines of Kerouac’s novel on the window.

Habitats and landscapes whiz by in a blur. We pass through thinning mesquite woods into proper desert. Low scrubby plants, twisted and spiky, adaptations to minimise water loss, are dotted across the sands looking like a plague of hedgehogs advancing over the desert.

After a few hours in the van we reach the Canyon, stopping for the obligatory “with the sign” shot.

Back in Lucy as we approach the rim I am thinking of books on a bookshelf. Before retiring my mum was a teacher specialising in geography. When I was a kid I remember a set of text books she kept on a shelf in the house. Each one was about some great landscape in the world. I recall looking at the Great Rift Valley in west Africa, the Rockies and the Sahara Desert in these books, but the one that has always been stuck in my head was the one about the Grand Canyon. It seemed made up, like I was looking at pictures of Mars not Earth. It was the one I wanted to visit most. And now it is just minutes away.

Nando gets us as close as he can in Lucy, implores us to hide our eyes then leads us to the rim for the biggest of big reveals.

It doesn’t disappoint. I can’t really do justice in words to what I’m seeing and the widest of wide angle lenses on the flashiest camera couldn’t either. It is somewhere I think that you have to go to yourself. Just go there.

The sun is starting to set and the desert is cooling. One of Nando’s 13, Ben, remarks that he has goosebumps from both the cold and the view.

As the sun sinks the colours in the rock flare into vivid life and the shadows cast by the convoluted canyon walls deepen. It doesn’t look real. As the scale is too much for my camera I decide to concentrate of these colours and shadows.

Darkness falls, we retreat to camp and fill up on pizzas before gathering around a blazing campfire courtesy of Nick from Nando’s 13 to contemplate the day.

Before I go to sleep I watch the stars for a while, the canyon is awesome at night too, no light pollution means an incredible celestial show. I fall asleep not quite believing the day.

In the morning we set off on the road for more adventures in the western USA.

Nando laughs, stomps on the gas, Lucy finds her gear and we hurtle on like a comet across the desert.