Days 46-52: Island Mêlée

The Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) is a set of 10 huge radio telescopes, distributed around the western hemisphere. Their combined effective resolution makes this array the most powerful telescope in existence. My muse has an assignment which takes us to the eastern-most telescope in this array.

You can see the telescope in this photo. Too bad it’s in the Caribbean. Yep.

We’re posing as a married couple on vacation (tough assignment), and we’ve got tickets and passports to support it. Swimsuits, sunscreen, the works.

Day 46: San Francisco->Miami->Puerto Rico->St. Croix

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Less than an hour after landing on St. Croix, we’re at the beach.

Less than 10 minutes after we get in the water, I step down on a sea urchin, sliding long purple spikes deep into my foot. Cool.

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No luck getting the spikes out, so we call a local doc. He says “We don’ pull them out, no. If you come into here, we jus’ give you a patch and some tape and say sucks for you today. Don’ worry, have a beer, they dissolve in a few days.” It turns out he’s right. The beer’s excellent, and by the next day, it’s easy to pretend it didn’t happen.

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We’re guests at a house where the tropical breeze feels perfect. Thank you Dr. Fox!

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We’ve got excellent hosts, Susan and Ed, showing us around the island. This island has changed ownership so many times that its history is a mishmash of fun stories.

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Walking around town is fun, but sacking out on the beach is more fun.

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There’s nothing hiding in this uninteresting little patch of sand.
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There’s no urchin on the menu, but dinner by the water is a good way to relax.

On our fourth day, it’s time to get down to business. The telescope is just a mile or so from Point Udall, the Eastern-most point in the United States.

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She doesn’t offer any details, and I don’t ask, but in a few hours it’s all done and time to disappear to a completely empty beach.


Completely. Empty.
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When we’re sure no one’s followed, we head back into civilization, taking in some some sailing and fireworks.

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The next few days are full of golf, snorkeling, more sailing, more empty beaches, and some casual acrobatics.

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And then… suddenly… MANGO MÊLÉE!


It turns out that in this case “mêlée” refers to a wild chaotic party, not actual combat. We figured that out just in time. It’s still a lot of fun, though.

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Alexandra is awesome. She’s been up since 3am cooking the best goat stew on the island. She sets us up with more fantastic food than we can finish, and makes our last dinner here a brilliant home-cooked meal.

Day 52: St. Croix->Puerto Rico->Los Angeles->San Francisco …and we’re home.

Random assertion: It’s possible to go a whole week without even seeing a keyboard. I recommend it.

Steganographic data: 1892/12.6

Published in: on July 8, 2008 at 12:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Day 11: Ships Under the City

There are ships buried beneath downtown San Francisco.

I remember reading a news article about some very surprised construction workers finding a buried ship somewhere in the city. Today I decided to find out if there was truth to it. (Imagine standing between the skyscrapers of a modern city, knowing there’s a huge forgotten ship right beneath your feet.)

Most of what’s now the downtown area used to be underwater. When they filled it in, some ship owners decided for various reasons (expense, lack of crew, secrets to be kept) that it was best to just let the ships be buried in-place.

Searching online, it didn’t take long to find that news article, and a map of the known and suspected ship locations. That’s great, but my real question was “Can I see one?” So I walked across the city to the Maritime Museum at the Hyde Street Pier.

I told the man at the desk what I was up to, and he said “Seems like you’ve already got all the information you can get from the computer. Try the red telephone in the back.”

Eh, what? Sure enough, there’s a red telephone which looks like it belongs in an episode of Batman. I pick up the receiver, and find myself talking to a man at the Maritime Library.

Getting into the archives requires an appointment, so he transfers me to the appointments desk, where I find I’m talking to the same guy. We make an appointment for “however long it takes to walk over.” Up the stairs, ring the buzzer, and Ted (the man I spoke to on the phone) is there.

He’s already got some materials out for me. I look up the ship I’m interested in (a three-mast ship called Niantic, built in about 1830), pull a few cards from the catalog, and before I know it, Ted makes good on his offer and my whole table is covered with information that can’t be found on the web.

There’s no one else in the room, but I decide not to flow onto a second table; this is more than I’ll get through. My favorite is something called the “pam file” which is like a fat scrapbook of loose bits of information.

There are typewritten notes from the people who buried the ship, news articles from people surprised to find it thirty years later, and letters from people even more surprised to find it almost a hundred years after that.

The discoverers in 1978 had limited funds, so they saved what they could before the rest was destroyed to create the foundation of a new building. They did recover hundreds of items, including several dozen intact champagne bottles. That’s pretty cool.

So here’s where things get interesting. On the chart which shows the dig site, only half the ship is there. Where the other half should be, it just says “UNEXCAVATED”. Ted says “Yeah they usually can’t get the whole thing, property lines and such.”

Now I’m intrigued. Most likely, someone else demolished the rest of it for some other building, but maybe not. Suppose there’s still half a ship down there. The dig-map says it’s under “Redwood Park” which sounds nice, but I’m sure there’s no redwood park between the skyscrapers.

I’m restless in the map room, so I decide to just go see the site for myself. Half an hour later, I’m there. Well I’ll be damned, there’s a redwood park between the skyscrapers.

This ship’s not thirty feet from the city’s skyline icon, and it’s still down there. Looking at my notes, I walk over and stand on the exact spot, imagining I can see half a ship under my feet.

If the wreck is haunted, at least the ghosts have good champagne.

On the walk home, I stop to pick up a bunch of fresh clams, a baguette, two ears of corn and a fresh mango. My muse has been at work all day; it can’t hurt to cook her dinner.

I also stop to pick up flowers from Andre and Lisa, the owners of the best flower shop in our neighborhood. Last winter, we got to know them by inviting them to our place for a rowdy night of drinks, homemade desserts and excellent stories.

Additional reference on buried ships:

Random assertion: Over time, people misplace the most amazing things, passing them as gift-wrapped surprises for their descendants to discover.

Steganographic data: 1888/7.9