About the space probe

I’m a big fan of NASA. From the early days of space exploration, I have paid attention to the work of scientists and engineers who have pushed space exploration and developed amazing systems that have expanded our knowledge of the universe. From flights carrying humans to robots operating on distant planets, the ideas and imaginations of humans about how to explore the universe are amazing.Our lives have been improved by all kinds of products and developments that have made their way from the space program to everyday use here on this planet. Medical advances, including remote heart monitoring, have had a direct impact on the quality of life of people that I know and love.

However, it is clear to me that I do not think like a NASA engineer. I’m not trained as an engineer, and I tend to approach problems from a less analytical perspective. Many of the projects of the agency come as surprises and sometimes seem a bit strange to me. I’ve read about the enthusiasm and energy that NASA scientists put into the Dart probe that smashed into an asteroid a couple of days ago and I have to admit that I’m a lot less enthusiastic than the engineers pictured in the articles about their work.

A BBC article reported that controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU-APL) “erupted with joy as Dimorphos filled the field of view on Dart’s camera just before then going blank.” The scientists calculated that the impact was just 17 meters from the exact center of the asteroid. It will take weeks before scientists on the mission will know for sure if their experiment has worked. Observations from other satellites and space telescopes will be used to determine whether or not the course of the asteroid has been altered by the impact.

Dr. Lori Glaze, director of planetary science at NASA, stated, "We're embarking on a new era of humankind, an era in which we potentially have the capability to protect ourselves from something like a dangerous hazardous asteroid impact. What an amazing thing; we've never had that capability before,”

I’m still trying to get the experiment straight in my mind. Engineers have developed an incredibly expensive and complex combination of technologies to launch a satellite designed to smash into an asteroid and change its direction. They have done so because they want to have the technology available should there come a time in the future when an asteroid is determined to be heading for a collision with the earth that could have catastrophic consequences. Many scientists agree that an asteroid striking the earth was responsible for the mass die off of dinosaurs. They warn that mass casualties and perhaps the end of life as we know it could be the result of such an impact.

So they built a rocket and sent a devise to intentionally crash into a distant asteroid that poses no danger to our planet to prove that they have the capability to crash a different probe into a different asteroid should the need arise at some time in the future. The project has been dubbed a “planetary defense system.”

Since we humans have invested so much energy and human creativity in the design of this defense system, it makes sense that we understand the likelihood of employing it in an earth-saving maneuver. According to the BBC article an asteroid large enough to cause mass casualties might strike the earth about once in every 20,000 years. Odds of a larger asteroid that would cause global devastation are about once every 500,000 years. Of course those odds do not specify which years the threat might occur so we do not know whether such a threat could arise int he lives of our great, great, great, great grandchildren. It is very unlikely such an event will happen for many generations.

Meanwhile, back on our planet, the Canadian maritime provinces are cleaning up after an unusually strong hurricane caused destruction and resulted in casualties. Another record-breaking hurricane has resulted in the complete collapse of the power grid in Cuba and is not lined up for a devastating impact on Florida. Warnings are out, evacuations are underway, and fears are rising. We have become more sophisticated in predicting the path of major storms, due in part to space technologies. Satellite imagery is very useful in helping to save lives by giving warning in advance of storms. As far as I know, however, we aren’t running any experiments on technologies designed to alter the path of major storms to save lives. If a person is in the direct path of the storm the best defense is to get out of the way and evacuate to a safe shelter.

Climate scientists say that increasingly strong storms are the product of increasing global temperatures. There is widespread acceptance that global warming is the result of the overconsumption of fossil fuels. The science surrounding climate change and its causes has its roots in observations made hundreds of years ago. We humans have known for a long time about the treat of human caused global climate change. To my knowledge, however, we haven’t developed the collective will to work together to defend our planet from its effects.

All of this has me wondering. While we are fairly certain that we need to devise systems to protect humans from mass extinctions from pollution caused diseases, starvation, and mass climate migration, we are slow to respond. The chances of devastating consequences of our current course of behavior are extremely high. Human lives have already been lost and more are threatened as the result of climate change. If we do not make dramatic changes in the next 50 years the consequences are fairly certain and they include flood, fire, famine, and pandemic.

So we focus our attention and capabilities on providing a defense system for the one in 500,000 odds while we haven’t yet found focus around the certain crisis that is immediately before us. If we don’t make serious changes in the next 50 years, humans will not inhabit this planet long enough to deploy an asteroid deflecting probe to defend the planet.

That is the way our minds and imaginations work. We avoid the things that are right in front of us and focus our attention on things well beyond our grasp. I guess we can hope that there is some as yet unforeseen spin off technology or understanding from the space probe that might be used to defend us from a much more likely and immediate danger.

Movies about defending earth from asteroids seem to be more popular than ones about defending the planet from our own behavior.

Saying good bye

This morning, after we have gotten ourselves some breakfast, we will drain the water from the cabin, finish winterizing the system, and head west pulling a trailer loaded with my sister’s things. We also have a couple of items that will end up at our home. It has been fun to spend a few days at a place that was so central to my childhood. It has also been handwork. The routine, however, is not unfamiliar to me. For several years, when I was living in South Dakota and our mother was spending her summers here, I would fly out to Portland and drive mother to Montana in the Spring. I’d turn on the water, open the shutters, and help prepare the place for her summer stay. Then, in the fall, I’d make the trip in the opposite direction, winterizing the place and driving our mother back to Portland where she had a house near my sister’s home.

The years have passed, and I’ve said good bye to this place many times. Each time I knew there was a good possibility I would return. This time is different. If things go as planned, a company that conducts estate sales will sell and dispose of the remaining items at the place and a customer will be found to purchase it. For the first time in nearly 80 years, our family will no longer own property in Sweet Grass County. Saying good bye is especially difficult for my sister, who was the most recent member of our family to live at the place. Unlike our mother, who always treated the property as a summer home, two of my sisters and one of my brothers spent winters here, heating with firewood and electricity and making themselves cozy in the cabin. I’ve visited during winter weather, most recently getting snowed in at the place in the late fall of 2020, but I’ve never spent a whole year at the place. It has always been a place that I visited, rather than my full time home.

My emotions at this time are mostly simply being tired. We have been working hard and some of our work has been sorting through possessions that have been in our family for generations. Among the final items at the place are the diaries and journals of our great grandfather, an early Montana settler who was the territory’s first court reporter, who traveled part of the state by bicycle, and who was friends with pioneer Methodist circuit riders. When they have been digitized they will become part of an historic archive. The paper copies have been stored in an old deep freezer. It turns out that the appliance, after being retired from serving our family storing food, is an excellent waterproof and mouse proof storage place for the documents.

It won’t be hard for me to pull up the driveway and turn west. I have a lot of reasons to be eager to get back to my own home and the life we have in Washington. I’m eager to see our grandchildren again. I want to watch the last weeks of the blooming of our dahlias before cold weather sets in. I have several exciting projects going at the church and am looking forward to a season of growing our faith formation programs.

Life is filled with loss. Learning to say good bye is part of every human life.

I remember packing my clothes, my typewriter and a few books in the late summer of 1970. I was heading off to college. I looked at the cabin where I had spend the summer and it was hard to say good bye. However, college was exciting and fun and I had a girlfriend waiting for me. I was a bit emotional as I took a last walk around the place, looked at the river and got into the car.

I also remember the late summer of 1974, after my wife and I had spent the summer at the place. I had already made a trip to Chicago and placed most of our possessions in storage in the basement of the apartment building where we would be living. For this trip, we loaded our remaining belongings into our small Opel car and headed east toward Chicago. We already knew that the next summer we would have jobs waiting for us in the mountains. We fully expected that we would be returning to Montana to live after completing our seminary educations. It didn’t turn out the way we expected. We did come back for the next two summers and work at our church camp. But we never returned to Montana to live. When we said good bye to Big Sky Country, we would follow the call of the church to North Dakota, Idaho, and South Dakota, and now Washington. We never came “back home” to live permanently.

In a way our lives have been a succession of saying good bye. We have lived in some wonderful and beautiful places. We have been connected to challenging and faithful congregations. Life has been good to us. We have passed milestones on our way. Our children were born in North Dakota. They both graduated from High School in South Dakota after having lived for a decade of their lives in Idaho. Neither chose South Dakota as their adult homes. One lives in Washington and the other in South Carolina right now, but we have the sense that our South Carolina daughter isn’t finished with making moves from one place to another.

So we will say good bye to another place that will remain an important part of our stories. We’ll come back to the mountains. We still have reasons to come to Montana to visit. But it won’t be quite the same when we will no longer have a driveway to call ours.

I am looking forward to shedding the responsibility of sharing ownership of a distant cabin with my siblings. Each passing year makes the work of maintaining the place more difficult for me. I know it is time to say good bye and move on.

It is time for a new family to discover this wonderful place and begin filling it with their own memories.

Team Spirit

The town of Columbus, 40 miles east of my home town, was among the high school sports rivals when I was a teen. Our team was the Sheepherders, often shortened to Herders, and our colors were blue and white. The Columbus High School team colors were green and white and they called themselves the Cougars. A few miles farther down the road were the Absarokee Huskies who were orange and black. In those days, Red Lodge’s team was called the Redskins and their color was (surprise, surprise) red. A little more than a decade ago, the Red Lodge team changed its name to the Rams. The team colors are now blue and gold, and I think that they changed the colors before the name change, but I am not sure.

It is high school homecoming season, and the local schools here in the part of Montana that we are visiting are all active drumming up team spirit. As we drove through Columbus we saw green cougar paw prints painted on the streets. There is a single giant green paw print in a downtown intersection. I suspect that the decorations coincided with the homecoming parade.

Just 15 miles down the road, there are orange husky paw prints painted on the streets of Absarokee. They also have a giant paw print in a downtown intersection. Near the high school the names of the coaches and players are painted on the street as well. Absarokee is a smaller town, but it appears that they were able to muster as much or more money for paint as the team up the road.

We didn’t paint the roads when I was a high school student. I always played in the band, so my perspective on homecoming parades was mostly a matter of memorizing a few songs, trying to march in straight lines, and little else. The band usually led the parade, so we got to watch the rest of the parade as they pulled into the empty lot at the end of the parade route.

After I left high school for college, I never returned for a homecoming parade. I’m not much on school reunions. The Covid-19 pandemic changed some of the plans for our class’ 50th reunion, but I doubt that I would have attended anyway.

I am simply not an expert in high school spirit traditions, homecoming celebrations, or the painting of streets in small towns. However, I do have a few observations based on driving from Big Timber to Red Lodge and back again.

On the city streets, as opposed to out in the wild, the paw prints of cougars and huskies are remarkably similar in shape. The only way I could distinguish the one from the other was the color.

Apparently Sheepherders and Rams don’t leave paw prints behind. I didn’t see any prints painted on the streets of Big Timber or Red Lodge. I doubt that their schools exhibit less spirit than the neighboring towns. I don’t think that there is any lack of team spirt in their high schools. Painting streets isn’t the only way to demonstrate team loyalty.

Of course my own personal experiences don’t give a very accurate picture of high school sports. I grew up before the school sports gender equality mandated by the Federal Government in 1972. High School Sports, including football, basketball, wrestling and track were boys’ sports. Our high school did have a girl’s basketball team, but they didn’t get much attention. Girls could letter in cheerleading, however. The cheer leaders had uniforms in the school colors and traveled with the boys’ teams to games in neighboring towns.

Things are different now. I’m not a very big sports fan and I’m out of touch with high school sports. I used to enjoy watching games from time to time when i knew the players. Sports were important to many of the youth in church youth groups over the years, and I was interested in the things that were important to the youth, so I followed their high school teams and paid attention to the teams. These days, youth ministry isn’t included in my portfolio at the church. I have less contact with the youth, though I still know many of them through confirmation class and other church programs. I know that sports are important to them. I’ve talked baseball and track with some of the young athletes in our church. As far as I know, painting the streets hasn’t been a big deal with the teams where we now live. I’m not sure what the Blaine Borderites would paint on the street anyway, and the Ferndale Golden Eagles don’t leave paw prints behind. Bellingham High School changed their team from the Red Raiders to the Seahawks this year. The other high school in Bellingham, Sehome, is home to the Mariners. Seahawks and Mariners share their name with Seattle professional sports teams, so there is probably a bit of crossover of team identity items. Like the other high school teams in our area, there aren’t any obvious prints that one might paint on the city streets. Like the Herders and Rams in Montana they have to find other ways to express team spirit.

Of course there is the obvious difference between high schools here in Montana and those back home in northwestern Washington. In Columbus and Absarokee, there is not much traffic on the streets. There is time for the pain to dry between passing vehicles. You wouldn’t find a similar condition on the streets of the more urban areas of western Washington. Even the small towns have rush hours and there is no time when the streets aren’t filled with cars going to and fro. Painting the streets is probably just too dangerous to be practical as an expression of school pride in the place where I live. We’ll have to leave street painting to the folks in more isolated locations.

This week, we will leave the light traffic behind as we head back home. I’ll try to pay attention to high school homecoming activities just to see how they compare with what we’ve seen on this trip. I will, however, remain a casual observer. I’m just not into homecomings and reunions.

Red Lodge

The drive from Big Timber to Red Lodge is very familiar to me. There are a couple of different routes that can be taken, but the one I love best heads 40 miles east on the Interstate to Columbus. The Interstate was not built when I was growing up, so the first section is faster and has more traffic than was the case when I learned to drive. From there the two lane highway goes 15 miles southwest to Absarokee. The drive from Absarokee to Red Lodge is about 30 miles of winding up and down with some steep grades and plenty of curves. The drive was the first point to point drive I was allowed to make after getting my driver’s license. I had plenty of experience driving around the airport and on dirt roads and around town, but my parents were careful to limit my highway miles even after I had my driver’s license until I gained a bit of experience. The drive to Red Lodge was just right for gaining that experience. We had a Chevy Caryall, the passenger version of their panel wagon. It was equipped with a 6 cylinder engine and a 4 speed transmission. The hills and curves demanded that I anticipate and brake appropriately and also that I downshift for the steep uphill portions. It was a good place to practice driving, and I remember my first trip with my dad in the right hand seat. My father’s parents lived in Red Lodge and we made the trip often.

A year later, when I was learning to fly we made the same trip with our airplane. The trip is a bit shorter in the airplane and the airports are about 800 feet different in elevation. In those days, Red Lodge had a fair upslope in the runway, so landing uphill and taking off downhill was recommended in all but the strongest winds.

The 30 mile drive from Absarokee to Red Lodge is one of the most scenic drives anywhere. The dramatic Beartooth Mountains rise against the Montana big sky to the south. The hillsides are usually green. The mountains carry snow most of the year with peaks that rise above 10,000 feet. Red Lodge is nestled on Rock Creek at the bottom of a fairly step mountain valley.

Another thing about the drive, is that there isn’t much traffic. The main flow of traffic in and out of Red Lodge is coming down from Laurel and heading up toward Yellowstone National Park. That highway is busy and can be dangerous as people are impatient and tend to take risks when passing slower vehicles. But the road from Absarokee doesn’t have many cars. We may have met ten cars on our drive yesterday, but I think that it was closer to 5. Most of the time we didn’t see other cars at all as we drove.

I have a few friends who are bothered by wide open spaces with little traffic. They wonder what might happen if they broke down. What I know from a lifetime of experience is that help comes quicker when you are on roads that are lightly traveled because other travelers will stop to see if you need help. That doesn’t happen on the busy Interstate highways. Of course these days we use our cell phones if we need assistance, and the more remote locations might not have cell phone coverage, but places where you can’t get a signal are becoming fewer and fewer. At any rate, I have never broken down, or even had a flat tire on the drive from Absarokee to Red Lodge. I’ve had a couple of close calls with deer on the highway at night and I came very close to hitting a skunk once, but so far that stretch of highway has been gentle to me.

I’ve adjusted to the traffic in our new home for the most part. I know that even the two lane back roads will be full of cars and that a driver has to be vigilant for those who pass in the wrong places and others who drive too fast or too slow for conditions. There are plenty of drivers in Whatcom County, where we now live, who follow too closely to the car in front of them. I don’t like it when they tailgate, but I’m getting a bit more comfortable with the pace of travel and the density of cars on the road. We pass hundreds of cars on our drive from our house to the church. I’m sure there are days when it is even thousands of cars.

This trip is a real treat for me. I never expected to retire in a place with so many people. I like having a bit of space.

Red Lodge is still recovering from flooding in June. Rock Creek was so overwhelmed with water that it left its usual course and ran right down the streets of town. It took out bridges and bridge approaches, washed away hillsides and one house. It flooded dozens of other houses and left huge boulders lying around town. There has been a lot of clean up already accomplished, but there are still a lot of excavators and front end loaders working on various projects along the stream bank and the streets of town.

My grandparents are no longer living, but Susan’s sister and her husband have lived in Red Lodge for more than 50 years, so we have always had family in the town. It is a fun place with enough tourists to support several good restaurants and shops. The people who live here have learned to live with deer and moose in their yards. The town deer are very tame and will allow a close approach. They’ll eat dog food out of the dish if it is left outside. Some become so familiar to the locals that they have names and neighbors recognize individual deer. The moose wander in a bit less frequently, are bigger and can be dangerous, but pose no threat to those who are used to them. There are other animals that visit town. This time of year black bear sightings are common. The bears are hungry, filling up to prepare for hibernation and eat the chokecherries and the berries from the mountain ash. They also will raid a garbage can if it is left in a place where they can get access. Sightings of grizzly bears, bobcats and mountain lions are also fairly common. You don’t have to worry about them while walking around town. As long as you can see the deer and they are calm, you know that the apex predators aren’t in the neighborhood.

Our visit is a treat because it is a drive down memory lane for me and a fun visit to a place where there are fewer people. We’ll soon head back to our home where we are happy, but the memories of the Montana high country will be with us forever.

Changing seasons

The Crazy Mountains viewed from Big Timber, Montana. The roof in the foreground is of the shop where our father had his John Deere dealership.

When it was light enough to see yesterday morning, we noticed that there was snow in the high country. This is not at all unusual for September. The Crazy Mountains, rising to the north and west of my home town, have always been dramatic. When I was growing up there were summers when snow remained in high valleys year round. In recent years, however, the snow has all melted and it is common for the mountains to be free of snow from mid-June into October. The lack of snow in the high country has changed the nature of hunting season and some years has impacted the amount of water available for irrigation in some places.

Yesterday it was a simple reminder that fall is coming. Two years ago, when we made our move from South Dakota to Washington, we were hung up for a couple of days in the same cabin where we are staying now. It was a bit later in the year - mid October - and we still had one more trip to make from South Dakota to Washington. We were set to close on the sale of our South Dakota home and had a few more things to pick up for the final trip of our move. We were eager to get back to South Dakota to finish our chores there, which included some cleaning of our home. However, we simply had to sit and wait out the weather as a couple of feet of snow rendered the roads impassable and our patience was required as we waited out the storm.

There was one thing I noticed from that trip that informed this one. The prevailing wind in Montana blows from West to East, so driving across the state usually means a headwind when heading west and a tailwind when heading east. On that trip ahead of the snow storm two years ago, and on this trip, as we drove across western Montana, we were driving into a headwind. I joked about making a trip where I would be driving into the wind both ways, and recalled similar trips across South Dakota. When the wind is blowing out of the east, it means that there is a low pressure system behind us. In other words, a storm is blowing in.

On this trip, however, the storm brought only a few raindrops to the lowlands. Our cabin here is at about 4500 feet above sea level and we saw only a few sprinkles. However, the tops of the mountains were high enough to cause precipitation from the passing clouds. I’m guessing that the snow line was around 7500 feet, based on the height of the mountains and the change in elevation.

Summers are short in the high country. It is part of what makes a visit to the high places so exciting. Around the middle of June, daytime temperatures rise high enough that the snow melts. The days are long and the nights are short. Wildflowers bloom in profusion in the short season. The animals move up into the high country and feast on the fresh grasses that grow in the short summer season.

There are other signs of the approach of autumn around here. The cottonwood trees haven’t turned color and shed their leaves yet, but they are a bit paler than their mid-summer color. The willows dance in the wind, but also are keeping their leaves for now. The deer, however, are acting as if the rut is about to begin. The young bucks are testing themselves with short head-butting clashes and a lot of strutting and prancing around. For now the does are mostly ignoring them and occasionally running them off, but you can tell by watching the deer that things will be picking up soon. The bear is eating as much as possible to pack on the pounds before heading for the hibernation den. We haven’t gotten a good enough look at the one that is going through our place, so we don’t know if it is male or female. If it is female, she probably found a male bear and mated during the summer. The embryos are inside of her, waiting until she hibernates to begin growing and developing. She needs to pack on lots of extra fat to develop cubs without eating herself.

I haven’t noticed the bats flying around in the evening. There has been enough chill to decrease the number of insects in the air. The forecast calls for more warm days and it is possible that the bugs will still be flying for a few more weeks. I saw a small garter snake trying to get some sun on the driveway yesterday afternoon, but in the late afternoon it had become so chilled that it was immobile and lethargic. It didn’t even move when I touched it. I picked it up and moved it out of the driveway so it wouldn’t get run over, but it didn’t respond at all. Hopefully it will warm when the sun comes out today and be able to return to the den before it gets so cold that it cannot move once again.

Today we will head up to Red Lodge, about a thousand feet higher than where we currently are. We’ll get a chance to look at the devastation of the late spring and early summer floods that washed out roadways and flooded basements. This has been a year of weather extremes for this part of the world.

I grew up being aware of the weather among people who talk about the weather a lot. The changing of seasons is always dramatic in this part of the world where summer highs reach above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and winter lows can reach twenty or thirty degrees below zero.

We, however, no longer live in this place. We’re just here for a few days’ visit. Soon we’ll be on the road, heading west. We’ll probably be driving into the wind as we approach and summit the mountain passes that carry us back over the continental divide to the place we now call home where the weather is a bit less extreme. Still, we’ll notice the changing of seasons in our new home and probably tell our grandchildren a few stories about how it is in other places we have called home.

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