Big Blue Ice: The Perito Moreno Glacier

Front Page, Outdoors, Travel

     I took one last gulp of the cold, ambrosial water, then raised my gaze and surveyed the glacier. I was on my knees because I had been filling my water bottle with the cobalt blue water seeping from a little chasm in the ice, but it was a doubly appropriate posture. I was in a state of awe.

 

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     Standing on the vast undulating surface of the Perito Moreno Glacier near El Calafate, Argentina, it is not hyperbolic to say I felt I was on another planet. Just yesterday I took a bus from Puerto Natales, Chile, which careened past a sign that read, both accurately and worryingly: EL FIN DEL MUNDO – “the end of the world” – and now I was trekking across endless hills and ridges of swirling ice that looked like waves frozen in time. My sweltering South Texas hometown could never have prepared me for the raw, rugged beauty of Patagonia.

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     The region encompasses much of the southern parts of Chile and Argentina, and is home to vaulting, jagged mountains; endless plains of grazing guanacos; and the third largest ice field on the planet—one that plays third fiddle only to Antarctica and the North Pole. There are 48 glaciers in Patagonia’s southern ice field, of which Perito Moreno is one of the most accessible. This particular glacier spans 97 square miles, the visible boundary as wide as three miles and with an average height of 240 feet above Argentino Lake. Numbers cannot hope to make sense of this immensity.

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     I had signed up for a tour on El Calafate’s main street the previous day, and with spiky metal crampons lashed to our hiking boots, a guide led my group carefully through the gullies and slopes of the glacier’s surface. After a couple hours of climbing up icy knolls and leaping over glowing blue crevasses beneath the day’s heavy thunderheads, we met at the base of the glacier and were rewarded with alfajores (a ubiquitous Argentinean treat of two cookies filled with dulce de leche then smothered with chocolate) and the best kind of ice bar: whiskey on glacier rocks.

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     “Small sips,” our guide instructed the group, holding her glass up with a grin. “Glacier ice has larger crystals and smaller air bubbles than regular ice cubes. It melts more slowly. ¡Disfrutalo!”

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     As much as I did enjoy our impromptu bar, the real treat occurred as we were ferrying back across the channel to the observation decks, passing directly in front of the massive wall of ice. Since it is one of only three advancing glaciers on the planet, it calves often, meaning it is common to see enormous chunks of ice break off and crash into the water in an explosion of white spray. But it is the sound of a calving I will remember most. As our boat shuttled us toward land, some of us had cameras glued to our faces, trying to snap a few last photos of what is a hopelessly ineffable sight, while others just leaned on the railings and soaked it all in. At that moment, a huge piece of ice cleaved from the glacier, and a deafening roar detonated through the air; first, it was like the sizzling catch of a flare, then like great branches cracking and breaking, and finally like a thundering solo of a thousand bass and snare drums. Eventually, the air and water quieted, and the glacier spoke no more. Mere minutes later, the grey clouds dissolved and the unbroken arc of a rainbow shot over the ice, resting there like a crown.

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A Break In the Clouds

Front Page, Outdoors, Travel

     

     Last summer, I found myself in Chile’s remote Atacama Desert, cloaked by the chilly night, gazing up at our gauzy, swirling Milky Way emblazoned more brightly than I had ever seen it across the inky sky. Many factors have fortuitously coalesced to make this one of the planet’s most optimal places to observe the night skies: high altitude (~8000 ft. above sea level), high level of aridity, a near total lack of radio and light pollution, and an average of 330 cloudless days a year.

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Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon)

     With approximately .6 inches of annual rainfall, this 40,000-square-mile stretch of land is the world’s driest non-polar desert—some parts haven’t seen water in over 400 years. During the day, the mellow village of San Pedro de Atacama serves as a jumping off point for tours of steaming geysers; freezing lagoons; sparkling salt flats; and the jagged, alien vistas of Valle de la Luna. But the only appropriate response upon nightfall is to get out of town and look up.

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     I was fortunate enough to discover Jorge Corante, a tour guide infectiously passionate about astronomy. He gave my small group an animated lesson about the night sky, discussing zodiac constellations and Andean astrology. Then, after handing us cups of creamy hot chocolate, he scurried from telescope to telescope, tinkering away to ensure we had the best views possible. Through them, I peered breathlessly at colorful nebulae, the Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross, distant galaxies, the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. The moon was so close I felt I could discern every crevice and crater. Saturn burned yellow like a faraway sun, its rings so clear I could distinguish layer upon layer of those diaphanous discs.

     Toward the end of the stargazing tour, Jorge aimed his largest telescope at a darker patch of sky, a blackness seemingly void of all but a hazy smidgen of light. He adjusted the dials, then beckoned me to look, and what I witnessed was unbelievable. That “dark patch” was actually in the direction of Omega Centauri, our galaxy’s largest globular star cluster, and my vision was filled with millions of specks of light.

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Omega Centauri (© 2013 by Joaquin Polleri & Ezequiel Etcheverry (Observatorio Panameño en San Pedro de Atacama)

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     Throughout the next week, Jorge and I continued to become friends, texting back and forth about the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter that was set to peak on June 31st. The two planets would be a mere .3 degrees apart—the closest they had come since 6/17/2 BC, when they were so close they would have looked like one dazzling object. Some hypothesize that ancient conjunction was the elusive Star of Bethlehem. Heralding star or not, it is an exceedingly rare event (2017 years in the making), and I was in an ideal place to observe it. However, as fate would have it, on the evening of the conjunction, the typically clear sky filled with a thick blanket of clouds, and it seemed I would miss it. I consoled myself by going to Ckunna, a gem of a restaurant, and ate my disappointment away with their signature dish, “quinoto,” a mixture of locally grown quinoa, pesto, goat cheese, seasonal vegetables, and desert spices.

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Yummy Quinoto

     Just as I got back to my hostel, I received this text from Jorge:

     “I hear there’s a break in the clouds near Calama. Do you want me to pick you up? I can be at your hostel in ten minutes.”

     I answered in the affirmative, and within minutes, Jorge and I were racing down the road that winds around desert ridges and rock formations, through plains of surreal and barren beauty. As the lights of Calama appeared at the foothills of the Chilean Coast Range, the clouds dissipated and we saw it: the planets nearly touching, fiery against the navy night. Jorge veered off to the side of the road, parked, and hauled one of his telescopes out of the truck bed. I stood gazing up in the middle of that empty, cold road, filled with speechless awe and the buoying warmth of friendship.

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Related links:

http://adstargazing.com/stargazing/Page1358.htm

http://www.bethlehemstar.com

 

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Mosey On Over to Rosine

Front Page, Travel

An hour and a half north of Nashville, the highway gives way to winding country roads and gorgeous rolling farmland. Traffic becomes a distant memory, and cows seem to outnumber houses. Just twenty more minutes of driving past grain silos, whitewashed chapels, and fields carpeted in butter-yellow daffodils, one arrives in Rosine, KY, home to 113 people, not counting Bill Monroe (1911-96), who lives here as the Father of Bluegrass.

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My friend Sage and I had come here to explore the origins of bluegrass and were delightfully greeted by the only open store:  Blue Moon Variety Shoppe–presumably an homage to Monroe’s most famous song, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” Inside, we discovered an eclectic inventory that included Halloween masks, enormous boxes of granola, and used makeup, as well as a man with salt-and-pepper scruff and kind eyes who told us, “I used to be a carpenter, but one day my hands told the hammer they couldn’t drive any more nails. Now I’m quite happy to watch over this store here.”

A few miles up the road and across the train tracks, we pulled up to Bill Monroe’s childhood home, fondly mythologized in many of his iconic songs.

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My friend Sage playing Monroe’s fiddle tune “Jerusalem Ridge” on the porch

The youngest of eight siblings, he learned how to play mandolin from his mother, who often played and sang during breaks between cooking and washing. He also savored the sounds of his uncle, Pendleton “Pen” Vandiver, fiddling on a distant hill as evenings darkened and he was cloaked in the rasping of crickets the sifting of wind through the pines.

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Our tour guide—who was married to Scottie Monroe, the son of one of Bill’s brothers—showing us the Italian-designed but American-made mandolin Bill Monroe first learned to play on

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One of only  a few photographs of Uncle Pen

Sadly, both of Bill’s parents died by the time he was sixteen, and he went to live with his beloved Uncle Pen in this hilltop cabin.

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After playing local dances with his brothers Birch and Charlie in the 1930s, and achieving some radio and recording success as the leader of the Monroe Brothers, Bill assembled his Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, which included the high lead vocals of guitarist Lester Flatt, the frenetic banjo-picking of Earl Scruggs, and, of course, his own innovative mandolin style. This is the moment many scholars say “bluegrass” was born, though the term would not be coined for decades. Now, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys enjoy an almost mythic status and are considered among enthusiasts to have single-handedly established the mandolin as a lead instrument, as well as ushered into existence a new musical genre and community, one that extends around the world, and points those international bluegrass pilgrims back to this speck in rural Kentucky.

The charm of this town is rooted in its communal love of bluegrass that still permeates the place today. Every Friday, the Rosine Barn Jamboree continues to celebrate Monroe’s legacy with a night of music, dancing, and storytelling on the very stage where Bill Monroe  played one of his last shows in 1995 (His last show was played on March 15, 1996, at the Friday Night Opry in Nashville.) This gathering even prompted the New York Times to list Rosine, KY as one of the top 52 places in the world to go in 2016!

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Sage and I settled into the cozy wood-paneled walls and multicolored lights as a local band took the stage. The average age of all present was well past middle age, and the musicians and audience members hollered greetings and murmured amongst each other in a way that spoke of many years of friendship. The lead singer opened the night with a circuitous joke about “Benjamins” and “Warshingtons” that went something like this:

“Ben Franklin said to George Washington, ‘You’re worthless; you can’t even buy a bottle of pop these days!’ to which George Washington replied: ‘I’m not worthless! Every Sunday morning, you’ll find dozens of me in the offering plate. I’ve yet to see you there!’”

After several classic bluegrass and gospel tunes, someone came to where we sat and welcomed my friend to join them onstage. After all, none of the musicians were paid–they all felt amply compensated by a shared love of the music. Elated, Sage accepted, adding her fiddle and voice to the mix.

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Later on, Restless River Band—a group of college students from southwestern Kentucky—took the stage, inviting her to join their jam on fiddle too. The tight harmonies, jangling banjo, and piercing fiddle closed out the night with a sweet breath of energy.

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I only recently discovered bluegrass, yet by the end of the night I felt equally as included in its lineage as the locals who had perhaps witnessed Bill’s first performance with his Blue Grass Boys. After only half a day in Rosine, we both felt joyfully full of the living history and lore of one of our country’s most distinct musical forms and cultures. One of the most endearing aspects of the town was its decided lack of kitsch and unctuousness. The Variety Shoppe didn’t claim to be anything more than its name implied. Bill Monroe’s early home wasn’t a flashy museum, simply a memorial to a beloved musician. The jamboree wasn’t a production for tourists; it was the gathering place of a community, one woven together with music and time, as passionate and tight-knit as any person could hope for.

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“High in the hills of old Kentucky / Stands the fondest spot in my memory / I’m on my way back to the old home / The light in the window I long to see.” – Bill Monroe

Related video:  Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys perform “Blue Moon of Kentucky”

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