Kirsten and I are in the banjo (a pop-up camper) heading to the Simpson Springs campground on the Pony Express road in the desert west of Salt Lake City. We need to get out and are eager to celebrate Solstice. As a double bonus, Saturn and Jupiter are going to be as visually close tonight as they have been for 400 years and will be again for another 400. Simpson Springs is remote and is typically empty. But the last time we went out this recent early summer, as this pandemic got going, the place was jammed. The whole west desert was crowded and covered in accumulating dust plumes from multitudes of RV’s and swarms of off road vehicles. As we settle in on the good dirt road heading west today we can’t see any other traffic and are hopeful the manic crowd does not have the same idea as us this time.
The road follows the old Pony Express trail. The nearly empty terrain as the trail comes out of the Wasatch Mountains and into the basin and range of the Great Basin make it plain how heroic every ride was. And why the Express did not last for long. Simpson Springs has rare good water and was long used by Fremont and other Indians before Europeans colonized the area. In 1858 the place was made a prominent stop for the riders. In the late 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corp made a camp here that was used only until the early ’40’s. A few meager foundations of those buildings remain. On the horizon to the northwest the Army’s mysterious Dugway Proving Grounds is visible. In the desert to the west is the heart of the the Onaqui Mountain Herd Management Area and the home of 450 wild horses. If it were not from the constant degrading effect of grazing by private livestock, both sheep and cows, the public lands of the desert would be nearly the same as when the Fremont were forced out.
After a too busy summer the crowds were gone. A couple sightseers and one overnight camper shared the rare desert West view of the Solstice convergence show.
The campground is nearly empty. The campsite we hoped to use is directly next to the only other overnight camper there. We move a few sites down and end up with an even better wide open view of the south and southwest where the ecliptic guides the low sun down and will bring out the convergence. It’s 4:00 PM and the sun is already sunset low and moving almost sideways toward the distant mountains. It will be behind them by 5:00, dusk already closing in. The sky is clear except for a few clouds not far to the north of where the sun sets. In the calm air and high pressure before the slight storm due tomorrow, the signs of slight fog of an inversion sit below the peaks on the opposite side of our valley.
With my astrophotography hobby-habit I have been feeling I spend too much time wrestling technology in the observatory and not enough time outside taking in the night. Simply being outside looking is the best way to experience a dark sky. Binoculars are nice, but as you add technology things start to get divorced from the experience of the night and distracted by finagling. When you try to both fully sense the heavens and to get good pictures you run a good chance of not doing either.
Knowing this all the same, I still have binoculars, my DSLR camera and tripod, and another tripod with a mid-range spotting scope. I hope to not spend too much time on taking pictures and more time watching the night come on, Saturn and Jupiter first appearing, and watching with attentive appreciation as they sink out of sight, bringing on the the longest night of the year. Hope tends to exist in a muddled middle in the place of a plan or of thinking things through.
Kirsten is the first to spot the planets in the growing dark sky. They are a jump further south than I am expecting. I have been wrongly fixed on looking directly above where the sun set. The ecliptic this time of year is low in the south and flat. She is always good at spotting a bird or critter in a wide open landscape and uses her talent to see these first “stars.” As the sky darkens, we are both surprised, based on what we have read, to be able to see with a gap between Jupiter and Saturn with the naked eye. Nearby coyotes are impressed by something too, yipping more than howling. Until the sun set I was walking around comfortably in a long sleeve shirt. Now I slip on my coat and put up the hood, but the wind remains calm and the planets are blazing.
Before it was too dark, I set up my DSLR on it’s tripod and put the spotting scope up. The spotting scope has no finder mechanism and in the open sky I struggle to locate the planets through the eyepiece. Once I do the the view is fantastic. Saturn’s rings are apparent as are four of Jupiter’s moons and they are sitting there together in the view finder like posers for a holiday card. For the first time I start to regret not bringing my portable telescope with tracking mount to capture this image. I remind myself to just take it in and I go sit next to Kirsten at the picnic table. We take turns looking through the binoculars. Then she gets up to look through the spotting scope. But the planets have already moved out of view and she mutters in unusual frustration at not being able to find them. I volunteer to try to help and struggle just like she did. And the planets continue to set.
I found them, finally, and she got a look. While she was exclaiming I went to the camera. I wanted to get her in the frame with the planets overhead. I also wanted to use some zoom. Here is where I start to realize I have not thought things through. I usually shoot night sky landscape scenes wide open and at a very wide angle. It takes about 20 seconds for stars to start to streak. But now I am using a telephoto. It turns out it takes only about a second for the stars to start to streak. And I want some depth of field to get Kirsten in focus so instead of shooting wide open I stop down to f/8. Plus I do not want all the noise of high ISO so I set it at 400. At that combination it takes 15 seconds to get an exposure, even using a headlamp to light up the foreground. The stars were very streaked and Kirsten still is not in focus. Meanwhile the dancing planets don’t care as they head down ever closer to the mountain horizon.
The camera setting app I have since put on my phone would have told me about the stars streaking after just a couple of seconds and that Kirsten would have to be 70 feet away for both she and the stars to be in focus at my desired settings. As you can see in the top photo, she is trying to stand still for 15 seconds, is out of focus, and the planets are streaked. And this is my best shot.
I have thought through what I would do differently to get a decent shot. It includes shorter shots stacked, a foreground exposure in focus before it got dark, some use of flashlights for the foreground. In 400 years, when it happens again, I will be ready. But am I ready to really take in the night, or to just fiddle, as usual?
The converging planets have set and although the air remains calm and the land is well lit by a half moon directly overhead, we take in only a few constellations, chuckle self consciously, and head into the heated camper. That night the wind picks up, rocking the camper gently, and by morning there are clouds and some velvety virga heading our way in now utterly clear air. The campground has completely emptied and the huge views of the wide West are ours alone. I take a few more shots. We are getting what we came for. Mostly. I kick at loose stones wondering what I learned. Next time will I be ready for all the complication of all the man-made technology, or should I sit down on the comfy anti-gravity camp chairs with a number 2 pencil and a pad of paper and take in the night? There is a gap, a chasm, between the two.