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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, enjoyed the report. Visted Walden Pond some years ago and saw the hut the HDT Society has erected to see what living in the woods must have been like. the 'pond' is more like a small lake and is close to old Concord so Thoreau was not that removed from the rest of the town. I think his mother even did his laundry!

    If you liked Walden then check out Walden on Wheels which is a really good book about simple living and living frugally.

    My patch is mostly between West Kirby and Red Rocks and I also enjoy walks down to Thurstaston as well. Must make more effort to get Hilbre more often.

    Good site will visit more often.

    Ian Palmer
    West Kirby