When I was three or four years old, random friendly grown-ups started asking me what color this or that was, what my favorite food was, and what my daddy did for work.
“He’s a geophysicist!” I’d announce, and they’d look at my parents with something like awe, and make a comment about how smart I was to know a word like geophysicist.
I’ve always enjoyed a compliment, but if we’re being fair, I didn’t actually know the word. I could pronounce it, sure, and that’s not nothing for a pre-schooler, but I didn’t know what it meant. Flabbergasted I could use in a sentence, thanks to a Little Golden Book featuring poems about Sesame Street characters. Geophysicist, not so much.
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?
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).
For my ninth birthday, just weeks before my family left Bangkok, my best friend gave me a sheer pink sash screen-printed with cranes in flight.
This friend was Japanese, but, like me, she’d spent her entire childhood in Thailand. When you’re small, you understand too little of the world to comprehend cultural provenance. You simply absorb. You exist where you exist. You believe you belong until given reason to believe you do not. Continue reading “The Cranes Were Not the Strangers Here”→
Nearly three hundred years after Fort de Chartres’s construction first began, Andrew and I stood in the stone doorway of its restored Catholic chapel, listening to a Franciscan monk—a real one, not an actor—speaking of French colonial life. He sat in a large, simple wooden chair on a low dais, looking as comfortable in the humid shaded heat as he was in his dark robes. Outside, the sun was slipping out from behind the moon, the Great American Eclipse not yet over even though totality had passed. The sunlight was ethereal, periodically shaded by passing clouds. My eclipse glasses still dangled in my fingers.
Pierre Dugué de Boisbriand and his small French contingent left New Orleans in 1718 not for military purposes, but financial ones. Louis XIV had strained the French treasury during his long reign, and with his great-grandson Louis XV now on the throne, a correction was in order to ensure French prosperity and power. New France—a broad swath of North America stretching from Quebec to New Orleans, abutting the British colonies to the east and the Great Plains to the west, united by the Mississippi River and its tributaries—seemed the obvious answer. Continue reading “And the Mississippi Taketh Away – Or, The Tale of Fort de Chartres”→