Sunday, June 10, 2012

Transit of Venus viewed from Skull Valley, Utah

Photo of the Transit of Venus taken by David Jensen June 5, 2012 just off I-80 at the junction of Skull Valley Road--Lone Rock just in sight and the Goshute reservation not far away. The image was projected through a 1985 Celestron owned by Alex Hoppus. Notice the black dot on the upper left of the sun disk. The image being inverted on the cardboard, looking directly at the sun, the black dot would be on the upper right of the disk.

     The traffic light turned red. I leaned forward and glanced up at the sky. I thought, of all the days a cold front could move into Utah, it had to be Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Throughout the work day I had occasionally glanced at the on-again-off-again sunlight as gusts of wind sometimes reached upwards of forty to fifty miles per hour. I gritted my teeth, thinking the damn storm could at least shed a drop over the dry Salt Lake valley, water my lawn, if was going to ruin my once-in-a-lifetime view of the transit of Venus over the sun.
     By 5:30 PM I was really in a state. The clouds had only gotten darker, moving fast from the northwest and hanging low over the Oquirrh Mountains. As I headed west on 4100 South, painful memories of the eclipse of July 11, 1991 came back in full force. I'll never forget the excitement as I waited for the umbra to pass directly over Atizapan de Zaragoza, Mexico, just northwest of Mexico City. In fact, I remember squinting up at the sky all that morning with butterflies knowing I would finally experience a total eclipse--the only other solar eclipse I'd witnessed was a partial view of the eclipse of '84 out on the school grounds of Kennedy Junior High in West Valley City, Utah, as a spot inside a crude pinhole camera made from a box.
     The rainy season in Mexico had calmed a little, so I had hope that the sky would be clear long enough to witness it. My hopes were quickly dashed as, through the smog, I began to discern approaching thunderheads. I was walking somewhere along the Adolfo Lopez Mateos highway, just before it turns into the Adolfo Ruiz Cortines highway (for no other apparent reason than it turns and takes you to different neighborhoods, but such are the streets of Mexico) when I looked up through the rapidly approaching clouds and the thick cover of smog and I saw the moon begin to take a bite out of the disk of the sun. I was thrilled--until the the thunderstorm wiped out my gorgeous view and extinguished all my excitement. To make things worse, I found myself caught in one of the worst hail storms the locals claimed they had ever seen. For a while the day turned to night, except for the horizon in all directions that could be seen, and I knew the great celestial dance of shadows was taking place directly over my head. Shell shocked by lightning, frozen by the curtains of rain and hail (icy at 7400 feet above sea level), I ran to the closest shelter I could find: a garishly painted doorway, and I watched as the brief, strange night, under the pounding storm, became day again. It was over long before the storm passed.
      So in the afternoon of June 5, 2012, I found myself trying not to speed along 4100 South (the slowpoke ahead of me made that far easier), reliving my Mexican disappointments, and looking for sunshine and hint of sky on the western horizon somewhere beyond the Great Salt Lake, which I eventually saw. A rabid sort of hope returned as I decided west, somewhere along I-80, was where I needed to go.
     I arrived home in time to grab my eleven-year-old daughter, Noelle (I still can't figure out why my wife didn't want to go), trade the car for the minivan, and head out like an explorer into unknown territory with no guarantee I would see what I hoped to see.

The following link is to a diagram of the transit:

     My daughter and I talked about the orbit of Venus and how, from our perspective, humanity is only able to see the planet Venus pass between the earth and the sun twice every century, the last event being June 8, 2004. Before that it was December of 1882, when Chester Arthur was the president of the United States, and Thomas Edison had strung the first electric Christmas tree lights. I think she began to understand the significance of what we hoped to see and seemed to become more excited as we passed through the small canyon created by the north end of the Oquirrh Mountain range and the Kennecott tailings pond that had taken over a century to build. I told her that in past generations, those who once traveled along the old trail (that's now highway 201) could simply look to the north and have a great view of the Great Salt Lake and its islands, the most famous being Antelope Island. Wagon trains had once passed along that route on their way to California. Goshute Indians had hunted and camped along the the abundant marshes and freshwater springs (now crushed under a mountain moved by man) for centuries.
     We crested the hill and passed the site of the town of Garfield, which had been both built and removed by Kennecott--some of those houses were moved by truck bed and still stand in Magna, West Valley City (formerly Hunter and Granger), and other areas. As we passed, we saw (under construction) Kennecott's new Molybdenum Autoclave Process Facility rising over the ghosts of the past.

Garfield, Utah, looking north from the Oquirrh Mountains. The dike that holds in the tailings pond rises in the background. Just below it would be the old Lincoln Highway. Beyond it is the Great Salt Lake and Antelope Island. Photographer unknown. Photo possibly taken circa 1940.
A different view of Garfield from the north (the unknown photographer probably standing on the dike) looking south. The Oquirrh Mountains rise over the town. One interesting feature is the large rock outcropping on the hill. It's hard to see in the photo, a cave overlooking the town, but not the famous Dead Man's Cave.

     After passing Black Rock, we reached Lake Point. At that moment I was disappointed that the thick clouds continued on well over the Stansbury Mountains on the west side of the Tooele Valley. I had hoped to be able to stop at one of our favorite spots on the foothills of Lake Point. We took the turn-off to I-80 and continued west. The air had turned cold and the wind had died down. Finally, somewhere north of Grantsville, salt crusting the edge of the water filled the spaces between the highway and the railroad, the sun broke through the clouds. "Quick! Hand me the lens," I said to my daughter. She took one of my grandpa's old welding lenses out out of its envelope, handed it to me, and I briefly looked through it at the sun. I felt a knot of excitement as I immediately spied a tiny dot on the right of the disk. "Look!" I said, and handed her the lens. "Wow!" she said. "I see it!"

Photo by Kat Paulson June 5, 2012
     The moment didn't last long as another band of clouds blocked our view. My daughter, with disappointment, slipped the lens back into its envelope. I was determined to to see the event all the way to sunset, and looking west, I knew we would be able to. We continued on past Stansbury Island. Another patch of sunlight shined down in bright rays over the mountains and distant highway ahead, but it wasn't enough. I wanted the clear break in the storm that I could see over the west desert. I was willing to drive to Wendover if I had to. 
     We got our break as we reached Exit 77 along I-80, the old Skull Valley Road that led to the military facilities at Dugway, Isopea (now a ghost town), and the Goshute Reservation. I was thrilled to see the sun, unobstructed, shine over the desert, and a not to distant Lone Rock casting its shadow. We turned and arrived at the site where the old Teddy Bear's Truck Stop used to stand. I was disappointed that the old building and sign had recently been torn down. It had been a landmark as long as I could remember.
     Dave Beedon, a photographer, had taken a photo of Teddy Bear's Truck Stop in 2004, not many years before it was torn down. The photo looks east toward the Stansbury Mountains. We stood on this site, now nothing more than gravel, weeds and slabs of concrete, looking into the western sky.
Link to Dave Beedon's photography:
     A small group of people had gathered at that same spot, some of them pointing telescopes at the sun, among them were David Jensen and his son, who provided the first picture shown in the blog; Alex Hoppus, around whose 1985 Celestron everyone was gathering; Steve Dupaix and his son and their Maksatuov-Cassegraine mirror telescope, through which we could clearly see the many sun spots--several more of his family arrived later, still able to witness the event; and Kelly Jones and her nieces, who had "chased the sun" as we had.
     This group of complete strangers stood together, watching and sharing and conversing and storytelling and mingling for hours as Venus slowly passed over the sun, and as our tiny spot on the earth slowly, inexorably, turned away. But we all had time to witness it. We had time to enjoy it and soak it in and make memories and say to future generations, "We were there. We had seen it. We understood it. We marveled at it. Take time to enjoy it when it's your turn. Maybe you'll think of us as we think of you, standing where we once stood under God's marvelous celestial engine of time and place.

No comments:

Post a Comment