Piney Mud

One might expect tourist crowds in a national park to be somewhat smaller on a Thursday mid-afternoon. But apparently the people come out in droves for Rocky Mountain National Park regardless of the day.

Many are friendly trail users who offer a “Hello, how you doing?” as they let you pass or overtake you on a steep stretch. Most are there for the same reasons I come — the smell of pines, the physical challenge, a photo opportunity, a quiet visit with nature. But there are always a few tourists.

They wear sneakers and jeans and Michigan sweatshirts, rarely prepared and often oblivious, the tell-tale signs of RV road warriors. They bring grapes for their kids, who inevitably drop them on the trail to mingle with the piney mud. The green orbs never last long thanks to the booming population of chipmunks, who are about as timid as the park’s elk herd (which means not much at all). Some of the tourists let their kids throw snow at each other, which means they also throw it at passing hikers trying to escape the crowd. We were pelted today by a 6-year-old aiming for his mom, who seemed not to notice.

About a mile or so in, the tourists usually turn back; they reach the less-worn sections of trail and decide today is not a day for bouldering, especially when you’re wearing Crocs. But there remain a few determined visitors.

On the way down from Mills Lake (which we didn’t quite reach, thanks to a washed-out bridge), around 1 p.m. amid burgeoning thunderheads, we ran into a family with a 20-something daughter who asked how far it was to the lake. It was at least another mile up from that point, and we tried to discourage their ascent based on the bridge, which meant they wouldn’t reach the glacial lake anyway. I should have told them explicitly to turn back — I should have said, it’s 1 p.m. on a mountain in Colorado in late May, and you ought to be going down, not up. But they wouldn’t have listened, which I could tell from the determined look on the parents’ faces. At least they had jackets; I hope they turned around when the rain started in earnest.

Oh well. Maybe we’ll try our luck on a Wednesday next time.

Putting Handymen to Shame

Who said the Hubble servicing mission would be hard? Two astronauts did in 3 hours what was supposed to take 5, and fixed one of the Hubble’s most important instruments, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

And they did it wearing the equivalent of boxing gloves, putting Earth-bound handymen everywhere to shame.

Now that it’s been spruced up, the STIS and its new partner, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, will help us understand what the universe is made of.

Read more about the COS.

Atomic Time

Earlier today, I took a morning-long tour of the facility that broadcasts the atomic time to clocks across America. The time is accurate to one oscillation of a cesium atom — something like 9 trillion oscillations equals one second.

It’s on a 360-acre site northeast of Fort Collins. The the huge towers that hoist the cabled antenna arrays are hard to miss from Interstate 25.

When you buy an atomic clock — actually, it’s a radio-controlled clock that calibrates to the atomic time standard — you should turn it in the direction of Fort Collins to get the best signal. Who knew?

Just one of many many unique contributions to the world of science here in the Choice City.