When I think of Arizona, I picture shimmering heat, sun, lots of scrubby desert, and swimming pools. Maybe a cactus or two. Flagstaff blows all these stereotypes out of the water. Last night it snowed. A dusting of white has settled over the gentle mountains that embrace the city. Flagstaff is at the same elevation as the Grand Canyon – this is definitely not desert country.
Yesterday I bundled up in all my layers, rented a bike, and took to the city’s extensive network of bike trails. I quickly left the city behind and pedaled through wide spreads of pine forest, a pungent freshness hanging in the air between the periodic bouts of rain as dark clouds shrouded the mountains. Houses and neighborhoods scattered among the path, but otherwise it was me, the forest, and a hardy bunch of dog walkers and bicyclists.
Flagstaff has a fascinating history. A 19th century railroad town, the tracks still bisect the city right down the middle and frequent freight trains roar through, almost every 10 to 15 minutes. I expected this to annoy me, and maybe if I lived here it would, but I am fascinated watching these trains pass by historic old train depots (still used by Amtrak) and the old, re-purposed storefronts of the original Route 66.
Most core downtowns have died a painful death with the advent of superhighways and indoor shopping malls. Not downtown Flagstaff. Plenty of traffic still zooms along Historic Route 66, the old storefronts house galleries, outdoor gear shops, boutiques, cafes, bars, and the historic hotels and original motor inns are mostly still in use, if under new ownership. I walked around on a Friday night and Flagstaff was crawling with shoppers and people out for a good time.
Another discovery is the famous, but humble observatory perched on a hill above town. Lowell Observatory. It was here Sir Percival Lowell mapped the planet of Mars using the 1896 Clark Telescope and even postulated that Mars had a canal system built by an intelligent Martian civilization (which of course turned out not to be accurate.)
Lowell also pursued the discovery of “Planet X”, today known as Pluto. When Neptune was discovered, scientists realized there was something not quite right about Neptune’s orbit – he was moving too slow. Something was dragging on his trajectory. So astronomers began looking for another planet that might be causing a gravity drag on Neptune’s orbit. Lowell worked out mathematically where Pluto was most likely to turn up, but his untimely death halted the search for Planet X.
Enter a 24-year-old Lowell Observatory groundskeeper named Clyde Tombaugh. In between his cleaning and upkeep duties, Tombaugh picked up where Lowell left off, using an entirely new kind of telescope that’s actually a camera of the night sky called an astrograph. He would spent hours every night up in the observatory dome in the freezing cold and dark (both heat and light would distort the camera images), aligning the astrograph and taking hour-long exposures of the night sky onto photographic glass plates. A few weeks later he would take a photo of the exact same place in the night sky, then compare the two images full of tiny specks for any changes. It took him 9 months – nights in the dome, days peering at plates of tiny dots like an impossible Where’s Waldo that would give me a headache. Finally in February 1930 he found evidence of Pluto.
I was allowed up into the Pluto Telescope Dome for an intimate look at the actual astrograph, still useable and an antique beauty, yet retired from use as its technology is vastly out of date. It amazed me just how small the telescope actually is in today’s world of massive telescopes and satellite arrays. I tried to imagine Tombaugh working the astrograph, turning the dome by hand crank, and climbing up the rickety ladder to shovel snow off the top.
A quick note on Pluto’s reclassification as a dwarf planet. The scientists themselves thought at the time they discovered the odd little planet that it may be something different from the other planets, a new kind of planet, but the media ran away with the story of a new planet. If astronomers had kept to the old definition of planet, we would potentially have up to 33 entities classified as planets in our solar system, including other dwarf planets. So really Pluto’s just getting its due as a quirky and different kind of planet, which isn’t really a downgrade at all.
Sadly it was too cloudy for night-time star-gazing (the rain and snow was on and off all night), but if you get the chance, the observatory astronomers give lectures and open some of the old telescopes to the public for viewings of our solar system.
One more day in Flagstaff. I rather like it here. Nice people, good coffee and beer, lots of bike paths, and live music most nights. It’s also very easy to reach by Amtrak, one train a day from either Los Angeles or Chicago.
Tomorrow on to Gallup, New Mexico!