March 6, 2006
Filed under Travel
Bill Blankley is a teacher of Earth and space science. Now in his mid-70s, he is still teaching, but no longer in a school system. He did the school thing for 28 years and retired from that. We are his students these days — we RVers lucky enough in our travels to run into Bill. I met Bill a couple winters back while he was dry-camping in the desert of Southern California. He travels alone with a 28-foot fifth-wheel and two high-tech telescopes. When he’s out camping, he keeps the telescopes set up on heavy tripods. The last time I saw him, he had them in a yard-type storage shed. It looked like something he picked up at Sears or Home Depot, hopefully at half-price because it had no roof. But, who needs a roof on a celestial observatory, especially in the desert -where it hardly ever rains.
“Been an RVer most of my adult life,” Blankley said. “It’s the only way, when you haul around this much stuff. The desert — the more remote the better — is ideal for looking at the night sky. It’s clear, no ambient light. The only place that might be better is a mountain top.” His motorized telescopes are powered by 12-volt batteries, which are controlled by internal computers that track the celestial objects he selects. “I need my precise location to set up the computers. I get that and the exact time from a handheld GPS unit. Then the computer takes over, and we’re ready for an evening of stargazing,” Bill explained. “It’s pretty amazing, ironic really. What I need to study in the universe now comes out of it via GPS satellites.” GPS (Global Positioning System) is a network of 24 satellites. With a battery-operated device the size of a pound of butter, it’s possible to fix your position anywhere on the planet, elevation included, within a few feet of where
you are standing. “Because of the vastness of the universe,” Bill said, “we see it not as it is now, but as it was when its objects emitted the light that comes into the telescopes.
For the most distant objects, this was more than two billion years ago. For the nearest star, that was about four years ago. For the sun, it’s about eight minutes.” Our sun’s orbiting family of satellites, Bill explained, includes nine major planets and their moons. And then there are thousands of asteroids, or minor planets, plus comets and meteors. To seasoned astronomers like Bill, our satellites orbiting the Earth are not yet toddlers in a universe where anything younger than a million years is a newcomer. The 30-something generation, many of them now turning 40, have never known a sky without man-made satellites in it. And it’s that generation that is joining us in increasing numbers around our campfires. They’re the new RVers. I have been thinking about them lately, and about Bill — what he said about the information he gets from satellites. As a group, we RVers use satellites probably more than any other group.
More specifically, what satellites offer is uniquely designed for our lifestyle: for example, satellite TV. In remote campgrounds, and even cable-equipped RV parks, TV satellite dishes are everywhere. Aside from the broad lineup of programming available, what I like is that the stations on my remote control don’t move every time I do. And satellite radio — if there is an on-the-road technology designed for RVers, that’s it. It’s not just the well-hyped, 67 channels of commercial-free music that’s the attraction; it’s the uninterrupted reception while driving anywhere. Like satellite TV, the channels never change, no matter where I am, nor does the signal strength. As a news junkie, I like to listen to CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News, the Weather Channel and C-SPAN when I travel.
When I get satiated with information and music, I listen to old-time radio programs. GPS is the hot ticket for RVers and motorists now. It has changed how I travel, be it by vehicle or even by airplane. Most of the handheld units are designed for fixing locations and straight-line navigation such as hiking, boating, etc. I like to use the one I have when I fly. I get a window seat. Running my GPS, I know exactly where we are. Looking down from 30,000 feet, I get to revisit places — it’s a new perspective. (You’re right — it doesn’t take much to entertain me.) For road navigation, I use a program in my laptop called CoPilot (though there are several other programs available). In the Planning Mode, it’s like having a stack of tour books handy, as well as maps with different scales. Points of interest and scenic routes are marked, as are tunnels that prohibit LP-gas cylinders. In the Guidance Mode, the computer shows me where I am on the road, and tells me audibly when a turn I’m supposed to make is just ahead.
Driving with an open laptop is usually not a problem in a motorhome, but in a truck or car, where space is limited, there are few options. The passenger seat is always one, unless someone is in it. Stand-alone units solve that problem. Many of them are small, and rest on any dashboard when mounted on a cleverly configured sandbag. Using a touch screen, you press it a few times, telling it where you want to go, and it guides you there. It also gives audible instructions. Do you need GPS? Probably not, but need is not the issue. Maps and road signs work well — as they always have. But the technology is fun to use, and its use will enrich your travels — and we all know that getting there is the best part of any trip.
Bill’s e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org