Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Threading the Needle

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." (The Dalai Lama)

Planning a trip to photograph the moon on the horizon means that you need to know exactly where and when the moon will appear. I used to simply draw up a paper chart for each month – azimuths, rise and set times for sun and moon, etc. – and head out with my camera. Nowadays I use a lot of complicated technology, but sometimes the moon still surprises me and slips past.

Double arch seen from a distance (c) John Ashley
Double arch (center) as seen from across the desert valley
If you want to, say, photograph the moon rising inside a natural stone arch, the easiest option is standing close to and level with the arch. Up close, the moonrise is visible at a wide range of azimuths. But move the horizon above you 30 degrees, and lining up the moonrise starts to get complicated. Move back 100 meters and the arch starts to appear smaller relative to the moon, and they get oh-so-much harder to align. Now let’s double that distance to make the moon barely fit inside the opening and -- why not -- let’s also make the moon climb through two stacked arches.

Now that would be threading the needle. Do I even have a prayer, I wondered?

We recently learned of a double arch along a rough and rocky, one-lane road down in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat. Monument, along the Mexican border. We felt put off -- but not dissuaded -- by the Border Control checkpoints and the beehive of Border Patrol vehicles buzzing everywhere. Once while birding, an armed agent appeared in the middle of nowhere, and we later learned that we’d set off a buried motion detector. They also use airplanes and blimps, and early last night we watched a Border Patrol helicopter hovering low to spotlight a desert ridge. The boys were very busy.

So were we. Two days before full, the waxing moon would rise about an hour before sunset. Using our new Android-X phone, we triangulated a pretty good idea where the moon should appear by combining the applications for digital compass, data from “Moon Phase Pro,” and the “Google (night) Sky” map. All of this data was automatically fixed to our GPS location.

John watching moon through binoculars during interval photograph (c) Tracy Schiess
Monitoring moon's progress
during interval photograph
Still, I wanted to hedge my chances. So we backed up to the next ridge and started climbing.

Changing the angle up to the arches re-introduced some uncertainty into our plans. So I stood with camera at the location where I thought the moon would first be visible, and I sent Tracy down the ridge to the north, out of my view, giving us a wider view of the horizon, which we monitored with binoculars. Good thing.

Almost an hour after our vigil began, Tracy yelled, "HEY!," and I knew what she meant. “HEAD NORTH, DOWNHILL, FAST!” I ran with camera and tripod over grapefruit-sized volcanic rocks, over an unexpected six-foot cliff (where'd that come from?!), and down the ridge. I kept running until the moon was peeking over the bottom-left side of the arch opening, then started the intervolater to take images at 10-second intervals, and stepped back.

When Tracy reached me, I asked her to walk downhill to keep the rising moon in the lower left corner of the arch. When the moon cleared the upper arch from my position, I ran towards Tracy without having to track the moon -- another good idea. In this fashion, because we had a slope to work with, we were able to capture not one but three sets of images showing the moonrise through the arches.

In other words, we got lucky.

As the camera was capturing the last set of images, I asked Tracy one more favor. “You know, if you get the truck and meet me on the road, we might be able to catch the moon moving through Boulder Canyon. It’s only half a mile.”

Double Arch Desert Moonbow (c) John Ashley
"Double Arch Desert Moonbow" at 2.5 minute intervals (c) John Ashley
Tracy stopped in a cloud of dust and dropped me off when the moon reappeared from behind the stone cliffs of Boulder Canyon. I knew that the evening patrol was past due on the one-lane road. If another vehicle appears, I told her, just drive to the next wide spot and I’ll hike out to you. Then I moved off into the thick mesquite and massive boulders, looking for elusive images.

Not ten minutes later, Tracy's voice rang out again, “HEEEYY!”  Dang, another truck must be approaching. “DID YOU HEAR ME?!” she demanded. I heard voices but no vehicle engines. “I heard you!” I yelled over my shoulder, trying to find one last camera angle. Why don't you just move the truck, I wondered.

Hiking back through the trees and rocks, I found Tracy sitting in the driver’s seat, giving me the look. “Get in now!” she quietly commanded. Rounding the front bumper, I spied three young people – definitely not tourists – standing in the shade just off the road, watching me. “Hola,” I politely nodded towards them while climbing into the truck. “What happened?” I asked Tracy.

The three Mexican “illegals” (Border Patrol's term) were walking parallel to, but a short distance away from the road when Tracy spotted them. She called out to me, and they stopped. Tracy yelled at me a second time and, deciding that I must be too far away, rolled up the truck windows and locked the doors. We'd heard that drug runners would avoid us at all costs, but immigrants might approach. Our two large dogs watched in sleepy silence from the back seat.

Border Patrol helicopter buzzing innocent cacti in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat. Monument (c) John Ashley
Border Patrol helicopter buzzing Organ Pipe cacti
All three stopped some distance from Tracy. Two men and one woman, maybe in their early-twenties, politely asked questions in Spanish. Tracy rolled the window down halfway and communicated that she didn’t understand. So they asked, “Agua?” Searching around in the cab, she spotted my old favorite water bottle that we had received as a gift, and passed it to them through the window. “Gracias,” said one of the men. “Thank you,” said the woman in broken English. They accepted the water and moved back away from Tracy, away from the road.

“Should I have done more?” Tracy asked me. “What else do we have?”

Un momento,” I called out in touristo Spanish while stepping out of the truck. “Mas agua?” All three smiled silently, and we walked together to the rear of the truck where I unlocked the camper. Scrambling around, I found a one-gallon jug of fresh water and four ripe bananas.

“Gracias,” he said quietly, accepting the small gifts.

De nada,” I offered, in the truest sense of the words. It's nothing.

I tried not to stare at them as the shorter of the two men stepped forward and started asking questions again, in Spanish. But I could see that all were well-groomed. The woman wore tan Carhart-type pants, and both men wore blue jeans that were cleaner than my own. Each carried a small backpack, one with a striped blanket rolled and tied to the bottom – a lot like the souvenir that used to hang on our wall back home. They wore tennis shoes that were in better shape than my old favorites, a holey-leather pair on their third set of laces.

Facing more rapid-fire questions, I shrugged and apologized that I didn’t understand. My allegedly advanced education was failing me big time in real life. I turned to the woman and asked if she could translate. After a couple of false starts, she shrugged.

The man pointed at the road and tried different words. I recognized nothing. A few more false starts, then the woman asked in English, “What state?”

You are in Arizona,” I answered.

Now they looked even more puzzled. More undecipherable questions from him, then she tried again, “You state?”

I hesitated. “My state is Montana,” I answered, knowing that was neither the right question nor the correct answer. She smiled as if I’d told her a well-worn joke, shaking her head. Only it wasn't a joke. I wanted to help her, to help them survive the technological attack they were about to face. With all the Border Patrol agents and helicopters and God-knows what else waiting, these three politely desperate young people didn’t stand a fair chance at finding a better life. Still, I hoped they might get lucky and somehow thread the needle through this desert.

Small framed religious print left in AZ desert by Mexican immigrant (c) John Ashley
Small framed religious print left behind
by Mexican immigrants in AZ desert
They moved back into the trees as we pulled away in the truck. “Vaya con Dios,” I offered in broken Spanish, though they could no longer hear me. Three or four miles down the rocky road, I kicked myself. “A map!” I told Tracy. “They just wanted to know where they were, where this road goes.” They just needed a little bit of simple, paper technology.
Somewhere in the Sonoran desert, twenty-some miles from Mexico, my old favorite water bottle lies dry and discarded -- it's impossible to look another person in the eye and then do the same to them.

"I don't do great things. I do small things with great love." (Mother Teresa)


Postscript: Kudos to the National Park Service for allowing Humane Borders to maintain water stations for migrants within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

An interesting discussion of the Arizona / Mexico border issues can be found here.


  1. Bravo.
    Another good resource about the border: The Line Between Us, by Bill Bigelow. Humans are humans, each trying to make the best life we can for ourselves and our families. "Legal?" "Illegal?" "Alien?" By whose definition? Not mine. I'm trying to change my vocabulary.

  2. Wow - just wow. Few people amaze me and you, my friend, are definitely one of the few :D