Location: Green Bank WV.
Barely awake, I wiped a small amount of spit from my cheek. I was relieved to find none on my shirt. I’m not sure how long I slept, but Aaron was still sleeping in the driver’s seat, and all of the people previously getting water from the road-side natural spring were gone.
We were parked on a gravel strip next to a rural two-lane road, still a couple hours from Green Bank. The mid-day car nap has become somewhat of a tradition during our photo trips. After regaining our wits, we hit the road once again.
Knowing we would soon lose contact with everyone beyond shouting distance, we used our mobile phones to make final contact with friends and loved ones. The Green Bank Observatory is in a lowland area surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains, in a region known as the United States National Radio Quiet Zone. It’s an area were radio transmissions are highly restricted in order to keep stray signals from reaching the telescope. There is no cellular signal, no wi-fi, no radio stations, and no microwave ovens for a 20-mile radius. Our desire for a frozen burrito from a gas station would go unfulfilled on this day.
Cresting one of the many rolling hills along route 92/28, we finally caught our first glimpse of the rounded steel framework that makes up the giant radio telescope. We were soon in the parking lot, car doors wide open, rummaging through our camera bags, trying rapidly to prepare our film gear. Yes, film. There are no digital cameras allowed on this tour. I brought my Minolta X-700, the camera which started it all for me back in the early 1980’s. I loaded it with a roll of cheap print film I got from a grocery store.
We eagerly walked to the visitor center, bought our geeky t-shirts and tour tickets, and soon we were on a bus full of tourists. After a short ride, there it was, in all of it’s steel-scaffolded glory… the largest movable object on earth. It was the main reason we ventured so many hours from home. The reason we slept in the car and ate food barely fit for dogs. The reason we re-learned how to use 30-year-old camera gear. This giant telescope was an extension of our childhood dreams to meet aliens and venture into space. It would surely be an epic moment and a long-lasting memory for both of us. Then, via the bus PA system, the driver announced “You only have a couple minutes, then you have to get back on the bus”. Doh!
We jumped off the bus and rushed to find a good angle to shoot from. Bad light, chain-link fence, tourists, rigid time constraints… this might be tough. Trying to focus on getting a good shot, my concentration was suddenly shattered by the frantic screams of an extremely panicked bus driver. I turned toward the commotion to see the driver had climbed half-way out of the bus window. He yelled at Aaron, accusing him of taking digital photos in the radio-free zone against his orders.
“It’s film”, Aaron calmly replied.
“Oh, okay” the driver responded sheepishly, as if nobody ever actually showed up on this tour with film in the past decade. Then he sunk back into his seat.
After the tour, we spent the next hour or so driving around town hoping to find a better angle on the telescope, but there was nothing. We ended up parking in a church lot across the road from a small airstrip which ran along the observatory property. We stood in the field by the airstrip, with tripod-mounted cameras, taking pictures and talking about all sorts of things our wife or girlfriend would never be interested in. It seemed like a perfectly relaxing way to end the day.
I hadn’t noticed any mosquitos during the entire trip, and I kinda thought I heard one, but I just kept shooting. The sound grew slightly louder, but not enough to get our full attention. Could it be a swarm of bees? Neither of us seemed to care, as we kept our faces hidden behind our cameras. Then, seemingly in unison, we both pulled our eyes away from our viewfinders, and instantly became aware of the source of the now-prominent noise. It was a golf cart… with the accelerator mashed to the floor, screaming like a dragster, yet moving like a turtle. It was government security, or, quite possibly, the FBI. They had picked up the electronic signal from our cameras and were on their way to confiscate our gear and beat us senseless.
We looked at each other, both silently asking the question “what do we do now”? Silently, we agreed the answer was to run. We grabbed our gear and ran back to the car. After throwing our stuff in the back of the car, we made a quick escape. We were soon driving down the road heading out of town, wondering what would have happened if we hadn’t run, and laughing… and periodically checking in the rear-view mirror… just in case.