Blog

Nevada

  • A Cosmic Adventure

    More than 20 years ago Comet Hyakutake graced the skies of Earth, passing closer than any other comet had passed in 200 years. It was a spectacular sight, made even better because it appeared to pass through the handle of the Big Dipper. This photo, taken by Glen Gould and stitched together by me, is the result of quest that took persistence and creativity.

    Seattle is not a very reliable place to see stellar events and March 1996 was typically cloudy. We knew we had to travel somewhere to photograph the comet. But where? Many of our usual viewing sites in eastern Washington were covered in snow, so we decided to head to Othello. To our surprise, there was as much light pollution in this sparsely populated area as in a big city. Each small farm had two to three unshielded mercury vapor lights perched on tall poles. Light lessens the ability to see the stars and makes it impossible to capture a comet on film. 

    Defeated, we spent the night in a hotel and set off to eastern Oregon the next morning, hoping that the rain shadow of Mt. Hood would be clear and dark. That night we found a small spot by a river to pitch our tent. Soon after, light clouds started to gather but our hope did not wane. We set an hourly alarm so we could jump out of the tent and assess the sky throughout the night. No luck. By the morning snow started falling. Disappointed, we headed back to Seattle.

    After arriving home around 2:00 PM, we decided to look at the national weather map to find a place with clear skies. We chose Las Vegas. That might sound strange given the vast amount of light pollution, but we know the area outside Las Vegas well. The desert is deserted and there are enough mountains around that is it possible to mask the glow of Las Vegas lights. Besides, there are not many places where there are frequent flights and seats available on short notice. We packed up the camera equipment and headed to the airport.

    At the ticket counter we explained our desperate need to get to Las Vegas. The agent assumed we were eloping, took pity, and got us the last two seats on the plane. Fortunately all this happened in the pre 9-11 days, as the apparatus needed to photograph the comet would never have gotten through security. 

    Photographing stars and comets requires a long exposure. The Earth is constantly rotating, so it is necessary to compensate by using a device called a star tracker. The tracker moves the camera to match the rotation of the Earth. The photo will then capture stars as pinpoints and not as smears of light. 

    We didn’t have the money to buy a motorized star tracker, so Glen built a manual one. He used a very large barn door hinge, a paint stick, a small LED clock, the numbered part of a mechanical kitchen timer, a small battery-operated gooseneck lamp with a red filter, a straw, and some assorted screws. The camera gets mounted on the hinge. The paint stick becomes a crank. The numbers on the timer guide the manual turning of the crank. The turning rate is monitored using the LED stopwatch and the lamp. Turning the crank causes the hinge to open, thus changing the angle of the camera. With a steady hand, it is possible to match the rotational speed of the Earth. (Build your own, see these instructions.)

    We arrived in Las Vegas at 10 PM, rented a car, and drove north for an hour an a half. Then we pulled to the side of the road and set up the apparatus. Glen positioned himself on the ground in cranking position and I stayed on the lookout for the occasional car. Each exposure took up to 10 minutes. When I announced a car in the distance, Glen put a black card in front of the lens until the car passed. All the while he would continue to crank the apparatus. 

    It turned out to be an beautiful night and the end to an amazing cosmic adventure.

  • Where Neon Signs Retire

    The Neon Boneyard is home to more than 200 signs from Las Vegas hotels, motels, and businesses. As neon gave way to LED signs and uplighting on buildings, the signs disappeared one by one. In 1996 the Neon Museum formed and started rescuing old signs, preserving them from further decay and restoring a few of them. 

    The outdoor boneyard has more than 200 signs on display in a site that is two acres. The signs sit on the ground arranged closely to each other. The huge signs at eye level in a tight space provide a warped perspective that makes the signs look like pop art. At night, the color-wheel spotlights further enhance the effect. 

    The collection has a few signs that aren’t neon. One is the pirate head from the original Treasure Island Hotel, which opened in 1993. That’s the decade that casinos started to turn from neon to other ways of attracting attention—the Treasure Island pirate head and ships, the Excalibur castle architecture, the New York New York iconic skyline, the MGM Grand lion entrance. So far, the pirate is the only sign of that era in the boneyard. The head is so large that its smiling teeth are visible in maps apps using satellite view.

    Old neon signs require a lot of money to restore, which is why only a handful in the boneyard are working. Some signs, like the Yucca Hotel, have intricately arranged, hand-bent neon tubing that would be difficult to fix. Others are salvaged parts of larger signs and will never be seen whole again. 

    The museum has a number of signs that are fully operational so they haven’t been retired to the boneyard. You can see these at various locations on the meridian of Las Vegas Blvd. The Sliver Slipper slipper and the Bow and Arrow Motel sign are closest to the museum’s visitor center. 

    Check out my photos of the boneyard. If you decide to visit the Neon Museum, you must book a tour in advance. Night tours are best. These sell out two weeks or more in advance. Don’t just show up at the museum hoping to get on a tour. When I was there, I saw 11 people get turned away.