Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Ab Fab WV Weekend Part I

Early on Saturday morning, Kim, Scott and I headed out for a road trip to West Virginia, not really sure of where we were going but it was going to be an Ab Fab Weekend Kim insisted. We had some ideas on paper but nothing was set in stone and we enjoyed the freedom of just driving new roads. We decided to investigate the Natural Bridge and pulled in to the parking area to find a highly commercialized tourist attraction. We noticed a lad swinging on a rope outside a building, causing Kim to exclaim her concern by crying out, "what the **** is he playing at?" before we realized he wasn't real but luring folks into a wax museum.
Inside the giant gift shop, we wandered around looking at overpriced baubles after having found out that to view the bridge, a $20 ticket needed to be purchased which included other 'attractions', all of which could be viewed within an hour. We declined, put off by the tackiness of the place but hopped in the car to drive along the road further hoping to catch a view of the elusive bridge.
Here's our view of it from the road,we weren't really impressed and actually wondered if the stonework was all carved by nature. But we had better places to be as so resumed our journey, opting to follow a rustic road rather than the highway.
We bumped along over dust tracks passing old farms, barns and a large flock of turkey vultures who were suspiciously hanging out with a flock of sheep by an open barn.
A delightful name for a road. We spotted others, Secluded Farm Rd, Paint Bucket Lane and Hobby Horse Farm Rd, a few of the whimsical thoroughfares on our travels.
We finally got into hilly terrain, climbing and dipping across the Blue Ridge Mountains. We stopped at an outlook to enjoy the view, marveling at how we had the place to ourselves.
As we carried on driving, we decided to look out for covered bridges, noticing that the weather was getting darker and more grim. We were glad to be in a warm vehicle as none of us were dressed for the chillier temperatures of the high altitudes.
We had rain in some areas, heavy grey storm clouds clung to the mountain tops but later pure white fluffy cotton wool clouds hovered over the fields and hills. Scott called the heavy rain a 'gully washer' which made me chuckle. I still have many American terms to learn.
We came across our first covered bridge, excitedly jumping down from the truck to rush across the rustic antique boards. Apparently, as I was informed by an elderly local, covered bridges were built to .....protect the bridges. Simple explanation! This one is the Indian Creek bridge in Monroe County.
One of Kim's photos, a portrait of a reflective Scott.
We decided to hunt for another local bridge and got directions from a local coffee shop which turned out to be perfect instructions, leading us directly to our destination.
This is the the Humpback Bridge in Covington, the only one of its kind, with hand hewn timbers and the middle of the bridge being 4ft higher than each end. Note the old wood joins at the entrance. After exploring this bridge, it was time to get on the road again.
The skies were stormy again and getting darker. We wound our way up wiggledy piggledy roads, barely passing any other traffic and feeling for much of the time that we were the only people out here. Another of Scott's sayings was, "we were so far back in the mountains that they were pumping in the sunshine." But not much sunshine was getting through. As the afternoon grew dim, we discussed mountain trolls and such creatures stealthily stalking us and spying out from under the dark deep shadows of the forest on each side of the road.
We were getting close to Green Bank, the home of the National Observatory. We decided to visit there first thing in the morning but for now we needed to find a bed for the night and some warm clothing. We came across a Dollar Store and strolled in.
They had some wonderfully tasteful shirts for sale but we decided to decline. I chose a fluffy pair of pajama bottoms decorated with luridly colored hearts while Kim got a sweatshirt, promptly cutting off the collar, cuffs and hem. We felt we were perfectly attired for West Virginia. We stocked up on snacks and knew we were now all set for any emergency. We found a little motel down the road that hadn't been decorated or modernized since at least the 70's but it was warm and dry. The next stop was a gift shop down the road which also cooked hot food and sold beer. Yay! It was a strange but pleasant experience to stroll around the shop with a beer in my hand while waiting for my dinner to be cooked. Later, with full bellies, we got back to the motel and crashed for the night, looking forward to the next day tremendously!
We ate our breakfast in a small diner on a foggy chilly morning. The fog was heavy, but undeterred we got to the observatory and found an empty parking lot.
From inside the viewing gallery we could see the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope swathed in shrouds of mist. But the very friendly staff assured us the fog would be clear by the time we went on the tour so we trotted happily into a room where we would be given a presentation. Click here for part of it.There are other telescopes on site which are in use but the GBT is such a jaw dropping piece of equipment that I'll focus on that. It's the largest piece of moving machinery in the world and the most advanced telescope. Weighing in at 17 million lbs, it's the size of 2 football pitches with a 2.3 acre dish and 485ft taller than the Statue of Liberty. Even seeing it from a distance it looks monumental towering over the surrounding forests.
The Observatory stands in a Quiet Zone of approx. 13000 square miles, click here, for more info. This site was chosen because it's in a low development area and predominantly covered by forest parks, minimizing outside interference to the telescope which is dedicated to only picking up signals from outer space. RFI's, Radio Frequency Intereference, are kept down by limiting radio stations to only 2 airing and no cell phone coverage. There is an AT&T tower on Snowshoe Mountain but it's output is curbed. The Observatory has kept many of the pine trees on site as their long coniferous needles provide a natural barrier against RFI's and the staff drive around the site in old Chevys.
We climbed aboard a bus and were driven to an observation point where we could see the GBT more clearly. And then we were asked to turn off all electrical devices before we drove up close. As we approached and were allowed to walk up close to this monolithic giant, I was almost beside myself with frustration at not being able to take even one teensy weensy snapshot of this fabulous structure. Imagine being a kid in a candy store with the shelves piled high with goodies, and within reach, smelling and almost tasting them but not being able to touch them. It was a hundred times worse than that. But a sign next to the fence showed the damage that a single photo would do to their incoming data, not something I would want to be responsible for, ruining an eagerly awaited incoming transmission for a moment of selfishness. So I stood and stared and stared, watching the vast dish silently and slowly rotate. It costs 21c a second to run this machine and it pretty much moves constantly to compensate for the earth's rotation, except when it's scanning the skies passing overhead, searching for pulsars. It can be pointed with an accuracy of 1 arcsecond, the width of a human hair seen from 66ft away. Wow.
These trucks are used for scanning local areas when RFIs are interfering with the signal. By law they can enter a home to find the source but work with owners to rectify the problem. As simple as a microwave causing spikes because the seal wasn't cleaned properly or a heating pad shorting out. Whatever the problem, these guys will fix it. Even growing grass knocking against an electric fence will be an issue but easily solved with a weed wacker.
After our tour of the site and seeing the other telescopes, which unfortunately didn't really register with me because of the GBT's star performance, ('scuse the pun...), we were dropped back at the center where we checked out the gift shop and very interesting exhibition hall.
An alien bunny, a moving model of the GBT and a poster on the wall that I spotted, of a superb photo by Mike Bailey. We were allowed to take photos inside because the center is basically a Faraday Cage, encased in copper.
This Observatory is an amazing place to visit. It was so interesting, with educational interactive displays, a very friendly atmosphere and just so exceptionally unique that I wanted to stay and do the whole thing all over again. The web page is here. Go!
We walked out to the car chatting incessantly about our visit and armed with goodies from the gift shop. As we drove away, we looked over at the GBT standing proud against the skyline, as impressive as any National Monument.

1 comment:

Lewis Francis said...

Oh man, I've always wanted to go here but didn't realize there was a photo restriction -- angst!