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Off the Beaten Path: Singin’ in the Rain

I liked rainy days when I was a kid. My favorite thing to do was to take the family umbrella and walk down the lane with a happy refrain. The stormy clouds had chased everyone from the place, and I was like, come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face. And so, on I went, just singin’ and dancin’ in the rain. Photo above: taken by the Japanese astrophotographer Akira Fujii and shows a full view of the constellation of Sagittarius, also known as the ‘Teapot’. In the bottom right corner, the Omega or Swan Nebula (also known as Messier 17) is marked. The box corresponds to the NOAO image of this nebula.

Ok, I’m lying. I didn’t actually pull a Gene Kelly and go singing and dancing down the street in the rain. I may have been a weird kid, but not quite THAT weird. I did, however, genuinely like to take the umbrella and walk down the street in the rain, pretending the gutters were raging rivers sweeping strangely sticklike ships toward some unknown cataclysm, watching earthworms slithering across the pavement, desperate to avoid a watery death as rain-filled their subterranean abodes, and window shopping the vast selection of wares available at John’s Paint Store (hey, it was close by). Heck, I might even go in Gadd’s IGA and buy myself a rare treat – a York Peppermint Pattie, which I would nibble on for days (or longer!).

Although it’s been a long time since I actually walked in the rain (intentionally at least), I still love rainy days. Then and now, rainy days always seemed so comforting. So cozy. There’s nothing quite like listening to a slow drizzle tapping gently on a forest canopy, each silvery drop falling leaf to leaf, layer by layer on its long journey to the sodden forest floor. I did something similar today in fact, throwing open the door and pulling my chair up to where it was just out of rain’s reach. Closing my eyes and focusing my other senses, I slowly noticed one musical piece after another, adding them one by one to the growing chorus forming in my mind. Some pieces were natural, others man-made. First, a lonely bird added his mournful tune to the drip drop melody being played out on maple leaf keys. Next, normally intrusive traffic noises were added as a pleasantly hushed hum and thrum – a slapping cadence of rubber and asphalt; a whirring crescendo that could only be measured in RPMs. Then, off to my right, came the tympanic roar and gurgle of rainwater sluicing through the downspout, its tone modulated by the occasional ejection of leafy debris. And, finally, the olfactory section of the orchestra materialized, sweeping in on a deep inhalation of moisture-laden air, the zing and snap of ozone battling it out with the more earthy tone of petrichor.

Ah, it was a grand thing indeed. As I sat there with my cup of hot tea, listening to nature’s symphony, I started pondering all the magnificent sights I’ve witnessed on days with less than stellar weather. Although many people like to huddle indoors when the weather goes south, inclement days can actually offer up some fine scenic viewing. The first instance of this I can point out happened way back in the halcyon days of 1983, when my friend’s parents were taking us to an open house at the radio astronomy observatory in Green Bank. On the way up, we stopped by Beartown in Pocahontas County. Now, Beartown is a gem any day of the week, but this particular day was raw and rainy, the air chill and damp, with low hanging clouds and leaden gray skies – a typical March day, and definitely not the kind of day you’d normally pick to go there. But I’m so glad that we did! Gossamer wisps of fog hung like delicate spider webs between the towering, moss covered rock formations. Drops of water dripped from the tips of fern fronds and sparkled like diamonds in the pine boughs high above, making gentle plopping sounds as they fell into the myriad glistening pools lying in eroded pockets of the ancient rocks. Ah, if any sight can be called magical or enchanted, this was it.

Another case of great seeing on a “bad” day occurred several years ago when I and my girlfriend at the time began a trip across the country via car, only to have to turn around because of flooding issues in the lower Midwest. On our way back, we drove through storm after storm on rain slicked highways. It was all quite trying on the nerves, so that, by the time we got to Charleston, I was anxious to get off the Interstate with its bumper to bumper traffic and careening semis. So, for a more leisurely pace, I decided to take old Route 60 home. On our way we came upon Hawks Nest State Park and I decided that, regardless of the weather, we might as well take a look, since we were seldom out that way. Once again, the inclement weather turned out to be the star of the show! Now, I’ve been to the Hawks Nest overlook on those beautiful fall days when the air is crisp, the sky is a deep cerulean blue, and the vibrant intensity of the foliage leaves you utterly gobsmacked. Those days are awesome, and I’m not trying to take anything away from them, but you owe it to yourself to see it on a blustery day when ragged clouds scud through the gorge. If you’re lucky, a freight train will be making its way up the valley, and you’ll get to hear its doleful dirge echoing from the misty hills. We both agreed that stopping there was the highlight of the entire trip!

Then, my friend, there is the winter. Assuming the roads are safe enough to drive on, even if you do have to use some degree of caution, inclement winter weather provides some of the most magical views of all. One time I took the opportunity of a passing ice storm to drive out to the Frankford area along backroads, marveling at the gemlike ice crystals encrusted on bare tree branches, scintillating in the sunlight like a diadem atop the head of some noble queen. Then, just last winter, when the first major snow began to fall, I figured (correctly as it turned out) that it was probably going to be our ONLY significant snowfall of the year and that I had better take advantage of it. So, I traveled up Route 92 from White Sulphur Springs to Route 39, then across to Marlinton and down Route 219 to home. Along the way I saw mile after mile of powdery white fields, captured an ice creature as it emerged from a snowy bog (see picture!), and watched jagged ice floes slowly meandering their way down a dark and foreboding waterway enshrouded in thick groves of rhododendron. I’m so glad I didn’t waste my day sitting at home watching television.

Beauty abounds folks, and not just on those clear, sunny days of summer. So, the next time the rain comes pattering down upon your roof, or the winter winds begin to howl, grab your map and start plotting your escape to the magical, enchanted land that lies in wait for you in the great outdoors.

Last month I tried to bring in a little appreciation of the night sky when I talked about viewing comet NEOWISE, which has since faded from view. I hope you managed to see it before it headed back into the inky black depths of the outer solar system,  but, even if not, there are plenty of other amazing things to see when you look up. This month I’m going to tell you about something else that’s there right now in all its glory for you to see, but that will also be disappearing soon, although this time it’s only going to disappear for a few months and then make a reappearance. I’m talking about the constellation of Sagittarius the Archer, or more specifically the Teapot asterism that is contained within Sagittarius. Once again, here is one of those mind-blowing coincidences that occur in the natural world, like how the moon and the sun look exactly the same size in the skies of Earth. In this case the coincidence is that we have a constellation that can definitely be construed as looking like a teapot and that – get this – actually has STEAM rising from its spout!

That’s right folks, many of you have probably never seen it, but there really is a bubbling pot o’ tea in the skies above your head. To see it, go to a nice dark location around 9 or 10 pm and look to the southern skies. If you have a clear view of the horizon you should see it sitting right there, bubbling away. I’ve even provided a nice, handy-dandy photograph and diagram so you’ll know what to look for. Want to know what that steam is coming out of the spout? Why, it’s nothing less than a cloud of billions upon billions of stars (called ironically enough the Sagittarius Star Cloud) located in the direction of the very center of our Milky Way Galaxy, which is a humongous collection of 400 billion stars flattened out in a pancake shape, complete with whirling spiral arms like you see when you stir creamer into your coffee in the morning. Take a moment and think about what you’re looking at. Trace the Milky Way across the sky. You live in an enormous Island Universe that takes light, which goes around the earth 7 times in one second, 100,000 years to cross! It’s amazing. It’s stunning. It’s mind-blowing! See it while you can folks, for later in the fall the Teapot will dip below the horizon for those of us in northern climes and won’t be back again till spring. Wouldn’t you know it? Just when winter is coming the hot tea gets snatched away!

Well, I guess that about wraps it up for now. Until next time, watch where you tread, and maybe, just maybe, you might sometimes want to go OFF THE BEATEN PATH.

– Barry Pyne, Hashtag Lewisburg City Paper #126. September 2020/

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