Before we get to the Arboretum itself, here’s a fun fact I didn’t mention last week: dendrochronology, or the scientific study of tree rings, was first founded in Flagstaff, Arizona, at Lowell Observatory.
How, you ask, did such a skyward-focused establishment stumble upon something so terrestrial?
I’d just completed the Pluto Walk: an uphill length of sidewalk stretching to the tippy-top of Mars Hill, where one finds the Pluto Telescope Dome surrounded by fragrant ponderosa pines. The walk demonstrates a to-scale approximation of the distances between the planets in our solar system, beginning with our Absurdly Bright Star at the bottom and culminating with Pluto. Each celestial body is marked on the sidewalk itself and is highlighted with panels featuring pertinent facts about the planet and its discovery.
But wait, you’ll object. I thought Pluto wasn’t considered a planet anymore.
You’re not wrong. Pluto is now the best known of the dwarf planets, and is the namesake for plutoids (ice dwarfs) and plutinos (distant members of our solar system with funky orbital habits) found in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune. The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona knows this. Pluto is honored here not out of astronomical dissent, but out of pride.
You see, it was here that Pluto was first discovered.
When my dear friend Hannelore arrived in Las Vegas last month on her 1988 Honda Africa Twin adventure bike, I asked what she and her boyfriend, Jasper wanted to see. Both wanted to experience the Strip, of course—there’s an unspoken rule that you really can’t visit Las Vegas without having at least seen the Strip, just to say you did. Beyond that, Hanne listed two specific sites: Seven Magic Mountains and the Neon Museum.
As you’ll recall from last week, I hadn’t heard of Seven Magic Mountains until Hanne requested it. But the Neon Museum?
Katrina and I stepped under the pale stucco archway. To our left, tucked between the eastern and southern arches, stood a tall statue of Sekhmet, ancient Egypt’s lion-headed goddess. To our right, between the eastern and northern entries, was an altar covered in small representations of the Divine Feminine: Quan Yin, the Venus of Willendorf, Parvati. The flagstone floor glistened with desert rocks, sand, and small glass pebbles.
Above us, open sky beckoned beyond a dome of intersecting copper circles.
Gazing up, I realized I’d made an error. The small, open temple wasn’t cut off from the Mojave Desert surrounding it, but the feel within its walls was different enough, and familiar enough. Sacred space.
“Hey,” I said, looking back at my sister. “I need to take off my shoes.”
Katrina stepped backwards several steps. “I was thinking the same thing.”
Forty-five minutes after lifting off out of Houston—an evening flight bound for Las Vegas—I finished a chapter of my current book (Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, an exploration of the Appalachian Trail) and wondered about the stars. As soon as my eyes adjusted to the dark outside my window, I spotted Cassiopeia, the vain queen, her five major stars prone directly in front of me. I smiled and shut off my reading light.
The setting: a moving sidewalk leading into Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport from short-term parking.
The characters: myself (laden with a children’s carseat, a pink backpack, and a rolling suitcase), my sister (encumbered with the same array of baggage), my nephew (six years old and wearing a backpack), and my niece (four years old, tiny for her age, wearing a unicorn backpack and carrying Pandie in her arms).
Communication did not become a problem until I moved towards the register. The woman behind the counter remained stationary, hands on either side of my donut box, giving me an urgent, confused look and gesturing with an open hand to the donut display before her.
I mimicked the gesture, my hand indicating the register. “Okay kha,” I said, nodding. “Finished.”