Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Week

The last week of 2017 has been cold.

That statement, at first glance, may seem to state the obvious. Isn't the last week of every year, at least in the northern hemisphere, always cold? But when I say cold, I mean colder than usual. Only last week, I was complaining about not getting my money's worth of low temperatures and snowfalls here in Chicagoland. Soon after that post was written, we had a snowfall on Christmas Eve and another one a few days later. The highest temperature that we've seen since then was -7 degrees Celsius and the lowest -19. Today, we are expecting the mercury to go down to -22.

Outside our house on Christmas Eve
We haven't been stepping outside our house at all except for the most immediate needs, such as attending parties, and shopping for throwing parties. We had planned to go and see Christmas decorations in Chicago one of these days but scrapped that plan in view of the cold. The other day I lost feeling in my hands and ears and had a whole body ache when I cleaned snow off my car before I went shopping. I can only imagine what would have happened if I was out photographing the streets of the Windy City.

Not that the inside of the house is all good. Here's a photo of the windowsill near the head of our bed in our bedroom. I'll let that sink in for a moment.

That windowsill, a few inches from our bed (seen on the left), has a layer of ice (seen on the right) frozen below it inside the room. Let me explain. In winter, the air inside heated houses tends to become terribly dry. This causes a lot of inconveniences such as itchy skin and bleeding noses. To prevent that, we run a humidifier in our bedroom which pours water vapour into the atmosphere throughout the night. This water vapour condenses as water droplets when it comes in contact with the glass window panes. These water drops flow down the pane and accumulate as a thin layer on the windowsill just below the shutter. The house, being an old "heritage" house built in 1938, does not have airtight windows, so there is a (very tiny) gap on this windowsill where this water enters by capillary effect and comes in contact with the outside air which, as I mentioned before, is colder than -7 degrees Celsius. So this water freezes and forms an airtight seal of ice on the windows. In the end, this ice keeps us warm in the room.

I went out on Christmas Day an hour before sunset to take a walk around our campus and take some photos of the freshly fallen snow. Here are a few photos from that day.

The Music department

My office

The Art department

Our house
The parties that I mentioned earlier have been fun. Between tasting food and exchanging gifts from several different countries, life has been good. But now, I must end this blog post and go prepare for a New Year's party this evening. In the meantime, here's a photo of Bengali style egg devils that Poulami made for the last party at our house. I wish every one of you a very happy and prosperous new year 2018.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Walk in Lake Forest

One of the good things about the life of a professor is that one gets to enjoy a summer break and a winter break. Of course, the vacation also brings with it the realization that one has been indulging a little too much  during the semester and has accumulated a considerable amount of bulk around one's midsection. Owing to the fact that the excuse of having too much work and too little time is also unavailable during the break, one tries to make amends, at least partially, so that the midsection is fit to accommodate more bulk again the next semester. That, in short, is the state that I find myself in these days. Also, since the break is of the latter kind, the outside world is somewhat lacking in the temperature department, and any kind of exercise desired must be attempted either in overcoats or in the cozy centrally heated interiors.

From time to time, however, one gets a warm day even in a place like Lake Forest. When one says 'warm' here, one says so keeping in mind the fact that Lake Forest is 30 miles north of Chicago and the average temperature for December is -2 degrees Celsius with a historic low of -21. With those reduced expectations of warmth, a December day when the temperature rises 5 degrees above freezing is considered warm, and when the mercury climbs over 10, people are positively sweating in their aforementioned overcoats and centrally heated interiors. The local people are usually not heard complaining about the lack of cold, because living in these latitudes gives them a dread of lower temperatures and snow-covered driveways that is difficult to shake off. However, when one has grown up in India, and has suffered wearing a monkey-cap on a 10-degree day, one tends to look at these 'warm' days as some sort of cheating by Mother Nature and can't stop complaining about how global warming is robbing mankind from some of the simple pleasures of life such as cold winters, and how they are not getting their time and money's worth by spending the winter in the US.

But complain as one may about the lack of cold, one can't deny that a warm day has its advantages. One of the primary benefits that it offers is the chance to reduce the bulk around one's midsection by actually walking outside in the open air instead of the treadmill at the college gym. The gym may be shielded from elements, it is not shielded from the eyes of my students, and when I put on form-fitting exercising clothes that were bought when I was two sizes thinner and go to work out there, I present a spectacle for the occasional unlucky student that, to put it mildly, we both want to avoid. Walking outside, on the other hand, needs the presence of a winter jacket or overcoat even on the warmest of winter days that can conceal the finer details of my over-indulged anatomy from the world. So when we got a string of these warm days this week, I decided to grab the opportunity and walk downtown to post some letters. Downtown Lake Forest is about a mile from my home and the round trip could be considered a fair amount of exercise for someone out of touch with the thing. So I plugged in my earphones into my smartphone, casting the necessary spells to prevent them from falling off, and muffled, jacketed and capped myself with a muffler, a jacket and a cap, respectively. Finally I put the letters in my backpack and started on my walk through the campus. The campus grounds look mostly deserted now, as the usual occupants of the grounds have gone home for their break and the unusual occupants prefer to stay indoors. I crossed the campus, exited it through the large gate on Sheridan Road and entered College Road.

Lake Forest, as the name suggests, is full of large trees. Most of these trees are part of estates surrounding large mansions. Many years ago, I have forgotten exactly how many, the rich professionals working in Chicago decided they liked this little town on lake Michigan for some reason, which I have also forgotten. So all the affluent lawyers, doctors and industrialists built their mansions in Lake Forest. In time, media barons, actors and other kinds of rich people whose professions I can't even begin to imagine moved here and bought all the properties available. Today, Lake Forest has mostly mansions and hardly any regular-sized houses. The best and the costliest mansions, one imagines, are the ones by lake Michigan, with their private beaches and boathouses where they keep their yachts. That's only a guess, of course, since someone like me wouldn't know anything about the prices of mansions. My guess is based on a news report from a few months ago that reported one of the beachfront mansions was supposedly haunted and so its owners were trying to sell it off at a greatly reduced price of ten million dollars.

College Road is one of the roads that have these wooded mansions on both sides. The sidewalk here has deep deer tracks imprinted into the concrete at one point, which always makes me wonder how old those must be. The town itself is pretty ancient--- the college was established in 1857 and the downtown area in 1916. But the concrete sidewalks are probably much newer than that. I entered Washington Road at the next crossing and continued walking. Some areas of Lake Forest have a somewhat English-village-like feel and walking here often takes one back to the land of Miss Marple and Blandings Castle. People who live in real English villages will probably fail to see this resemblance, but when one's familiarity with the English villages is based on murder mysteries, even the small similarities seem significant. Thinking about murder mysteries, I reached the next crossing,  and walked across the triangular grassy area on Deerpath Road. There is a beautiful life-size bronze deer statue in this park which I had used for my holiday greetings last year. As usual for this time of the year, a bright red ribbon was tied around the statue's neck in a large bow. Most of the houses around me were also decorated in some form or another for Christmas. It was only half past three, but the low rays of a dying sun had turned the green grass at the deer's feet golden. Although Jim Reeves' soothing voice dreamed of a white Christmas in my ear, this year we have had only one light snowfall and very few frosty nights, so the grass is still mostly green everywhere. I passed the Lake Forest Library guiltily looking at the crowd of cars parked there. I haven't found time to visit the library even once this year. With an advanced new year resolution to visit the library in the coming year, I crossed the railway tracks and stepped into the downtown area.

The downtown in Lake Forest, like the other parts of the town, reflects the prosperity of the residents. For the most part, the businesses are either standalone stores, or chains like Williams-Sonoma, Talbots or J. Crew that stock items on the pricier side. When the first McDonald's was being opened in a different part of Lake Forest many years ago, the local residents were up in arms against it, claiming it would attract the wrong kind of people who would destroy the town. Later, they were allowed to open the store on condition of not displaying their iconic golden double-arch 'M' sign. Even the Starbucks Cafe on North Western Avenue, the main street through the downtown area, is a vast and fancy affair with rustic brick walls, fireside sofas and special reserve coffee blends that one can order and be served in porcelain mugs. I like this cafe a lot because the presence of students with notebooks and laptops inside gives the place a college-town feel seen in places like Cambridge, MA or Madison, WI which is otherwise missing from Lake Forest. The streetlights are now decorated with wreaths of red and green and the big pine in Market Square is decorated as a Christmas tree. Other trees around the place are also covered in lights, although they won't be lit until an hour or so later. I know because I have been to this place after dark. The town bookstore has a very nice window display of a model town, and I paused to take photos of it with my cellphone.

The Market Square in Lake Forest claims to be the oldest shopping center in the US which was built with parking space for shoppers. Built in 1916, the place has a clock tower, another tower with a sundial, and rows of shops around a central green. The central green has a bronze statue of a mother and her child which is also a fountain in the warmer months but has the water turned off now. The Union Pacific North Metra railway line which connects Chicago to Milwaukee has a station right opposite Market Square. As I turned into Market Square, I heard the bells from the railway crossing and seconds later, a bi-level train came to a halt at the station. I walked through the Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and Tesla cars parked around the parking lot of Market Square and headed for the post office at the opposite corner.

The Lake Forest post office is housed in a quite large building and the interior is reminiscent of the General Post Office in New York City. Much, much smaller, of course, but just reminiscent of that place. There was a line at the post office, mainly because only one window was manned and there were several people with dozens of holiday cards to mail. I myself had five envelopes which I dispatched, and then left. Work done, I was feeling elated. Also, Google Fit was informing me I had already walked for about half an hour. I decided to check out Sweet Pete's, the candy store at Market Square. Poulami and I have been yearning to eat some of their handmade chocolates since we arrived in Lake Forest two years ago, but something or the other always came up and prevented us from eating those chocolates. We even bought them as gifts for other people, but never ate them ourselves. I thought, I'll buy a box of those chocolates and surprise Poulami with them. Besides, the fact that one has started exercising to reduce weight is cause enough for celebration with chocolates. When I reached the shop, I found all the windows covered with black fabric. There were some legal notices stuck on the door. I tried reading them but they couldn't be understood because they were in legalese nonsense. I could only guess that the candy shop had been kicked out because they couldn't pay their rent. A mom with two kids was excitedly discussing the shop's closure with another man standing right there. Presumably, she had brought her children for a treat and had been disappointed like me.

I felt a little sad, not only because I wanted to eat those chocolates and now I couldn't, but also because I feel sad whenever I see stores closing down in this country. Since the time I arrived in the US in 2008, I have seen large and apparently busy stores abruptly go bankrupt and close. There was Steve & Barry's soon after I came here, then Virgin Records at Times Square, and then Borders which really hurt, and Circuit City, and then Pearl Paint which hurt some more, because I loved the place, and then the much-visited Times Square ToysRUs store. More recently, ToysRUs has filed for bankruptcy, and if news reports are to be believed, Sears won't last another year. Sears, whose office space requirement created the tallest building in the world, which was the original mail-order company in the days before the Internet, is bending its knees to and the like. Retail giants like Macy's and Bon-Ton are also closing down stores every year. I had no idea whether this candy store was one of a chain or just a stand-alone store, but its closure surely felt like a small but significant change in the town that I have come to love in the last two years.

But my sadness didn't last long. Pandora was playing "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas" into my ears and if Holiday music has one good quality, that's its ability to lift one's spirits. I started on my brisk walk back towards home. Chocolates would have to wait for another day, and I'm sure we'll be able to find other stores nearby. About fifteen minutes later, when I entered the college grounds through the gate on Sheridan Road, the sun had already dipped behind the trees and the lower part of my office building was submerged in shadows, but a narrow band at the very top still glittered golden. I stopped to take photos of that spectacle with my phone, and then walked home. That's when I thought, "I haven't formally described Lake Forest on my blog in the last two years, why not do it now?"

Monday, December 18, 2017

Hookah-faced Crave-all

As I have written before on this blog, Sukumar Ray was a multi-faceted genius who is primarily remembered for his Bengali nonsense poems for children. I cannot emphasize this multi-faceted aspect enough - much of what I know today about science, technology, engineering, mythology, geography, and the natural world, had its roots in Sukumar Ray's writings. All these years later, when I see a beaver building a dam in a documentary, or I see compressed air being used to transport messages through tubes, or I read an article about some underground fire burning for decades, or I see Thor and Loki fighting on the silver screen, my mind travels back to that large red book of my childhood, with the smirking green cat on the cover.

When it comes to translating something out of that book, however, I always choose one of the nonsense poems. I find translating nonsense particularly interesting, especially since I try to preserve the rhyme of the original poem. I try to do the same with Tagore's verse, but in case of Ray, since the tone is decidedly more frivolous and common Bengali words and their sounds play a very important role in conveying the mood, translating is somewhat more challenging. I'm not the first person to translate Ray's nonsense though. Acclaimed scholar Sukanta Chaudhuri translated many of these poems about twenty years ago and he did a fantastic job. But I still go ahead and translate some of these poems from time to time, just for the fun of it, and I make sure I don't look at Sukanta Chaudhuri's translation before I do. So here's one of my favorite poems, with the illustration by Sukumar Ray himself. [Coming to think of it, this is how I would expect one of my image classification algorithms to behave when a query image is equidistant from two reference images.]

Hookah-faced Crave-all

~Sukumar Ray

Hookah-faced Crave-all,                              lives in Bengal
His face holds no smile, have you seen?

No smile, why so?                            Anyone in the know?
To stay with him, have you ever been?
Shyamadas, uncle of his                     is the opium police,
He has no other relation---
Is that why alone,                          his face devoid of tone,
He sits with a sad expression?
Thumping his feet,                      he danced to every beat
His voice always full of glee,
All day he would sing                   Do-re-mi-Fa-Ting-ting,
An image of happiness was he.
Today during lunch,                      sitting on that branch,
He was eating smashed plantain.
Then what transpired?                   Did his uncle expire?
Or did his leg suffer a sprain?
Hookah-face yells back      "You're on the wrong track!"
"Don't you see the fix I'm in?"
"The way to swat flies                         the more I theorize,
My whole day passes worrying.
If it sits on the right,                    in my rule-book I write
This tail I use for the kill.
If the left it would choose,                  I'm not one to lose,
This other tail then fits the bill.
But if some naughty fly                 the centre-line does try
I can't imagine what I would do ---
How hard it is to choose              which tail should I use,
I don't have tails but these two."
(Translation by Sugata Banerji)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Magic in the Sky

I was in Allahabad at the time, and the moon decided to pass between the sun and the earth on that day, casting its shadow on northern India. What's more, Allahabad was one of those few lucky cities where the eclipse was total. The moon completely covered the face of the sun, enabling us to look at the duo with our naked eyes and see the solar corona. My father even took photos of the event. I remember everything about the day vividly: how the light decreased in jumps, how the panicked sparrows came back to the tree in our garden, how the circles of sunlight in the shadow of that tree turned to crescents. And I remembered the diamond ring. As the moon passed the face of the sun and the sun started to peek out from one of the sides, I saw light that was whiter than I could ever imagine. Naturally, I have wanted to see it again ever since.

So when I found out about the Great American Total Solar Eclipse (as the media keeps calling it) last year, I had decided I had to witness the event. What's more, the path of the total eclipse was passing through St. Louis, Missouri this time, and we have friends there. I ordered a solar filter sheet on Amazon before they went out of stock, and cut it out to create caps for my telephoto lens and Poulami's binoculars. The only thing that remained to be done now was to plan our road trip in such a way that our return journey took us through St. Louis on August 21.

So we decided to drive from Great Sand Dunes in Colorado to St. Louis, Missouri over two days. Most of this drive was through the agricultural lands of Kansas - a terribly straight road through a terribly flat land. Our car's AC started acting up on the first day of this trip and we got a feel of the 40-ish degree Celsius temperature outside. On the second day, the AC gave up completely and turned this into the most uncomfortable leg of our trip.

We spent the first night at a hotel in Hays, a city in Kansas. This place was chosen only because it was on our way and roughly the center point between Great Sand Dunes and St. Louis. We were so exhausted by our seven-hour drive that day that we didn't feel like leaving the hotel at all. We ordered Chinese food for dinner and ate in our room. Next morning, we hit the road again and reached St. Louis after driving for another eight hours. The city where our friends live isn't actually St. Louis but one of the southern suburbs called Fenton, and this was good because the moon's shadow would be passing just south of St. Louis. Staying in Fenton meant we could see the eclipse from the house. And that's what we did in the afternoon. Our friends were at work, but Poulami and I watched the eclipse from their deck. My father had to worry about running out of film in 1995, but I don't have to think of such matters anymore. I set up my digital SLR on my tripod and took photos to my heart's content.

It was strange how similar the experience was to the last time. The light going down by leaps and bounds, the crescent shaped patches of sunlight. The absence of sparrows, or any other birds for that matter, was conspicuous. But then, maybe the tree in their garden doesn't have birds. Once during the whole experience light clouds threatened to cover the face of the sun, but they went away quickly.

Crescent-shaped images of the sun
Here are the photos that I took that day. I think they would do a much better job of describing the celestial magic by which the sun and the moon appear exactly the same size during a total solar eclipse on the only planet that has observers to appreciate it.

Solar corona

Totality selfie

Diamond ring
Our road trip story ends here. Actually, truth be told, it should have ended here. I would have liked to write that we left Fenton that evening and made an uneventful five-hour drive back home, because any further experience wouldn't be able to top the solar eclipse. But I can't write that because that journey took nine hours and we reached home at 3:00 a.m. The highway was congested with traffic moving at a snail's pace. All this traffic was returning to the northern states of Illinois and Wisconsin and Minnesota after watching the total solar eclipse from Missouri. The traffic was so slow at points that people were literally getting out of their cars, grabbing drinks from their trunk and going back to their seat again. To add insult to injury, we were also hit by severe thunderstorms on the way.

After going to bed at 4:00 a.m., I also had to go attend a departmental meeting at 9:00 o'clock the next morning. That meeting kicked off the semester which has caused this inordinate amount of delay in writing about our road trip from August. Now that I'm done, I can go back to writing about other topics of a non-serial nature.

(The End)

Monday, November 06, 2017

Mountains of Sand

When we were planning this road trip back in February, deciding the journey up to Salt Lake City was fairly easy. The difficult part was planning the return trip. Salt Lake City is about 1500 miles away from Lake Forest by the shortest route. This route passes through the lower part of Wyoming, and Nebraska and Iowa, a part of the US completely devoid of national parks. Now since we would be traveling in our own car, so we didn't have the option of flying back and would have to make this long and boring drive anyway. We would also need to stay at hotels for the night since driving 1500 miles takes at least three days. So we decided to add another 300 miles to the route, so that we could travel via another national park, and then stay with our friends in St. Louis, Missouri for the total solar eclipse of August 21.

So the final plan was this: we would drive from Salt Lake City to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and camp there for two nights. Then we would drive to a city called Hays in Kansas where we would stay in a hotel for a night. Finally, we would drive to St. Louis and spend the night there, and if the weather permitted, we would be able to witness one of the greatest celestial spectacles the next day, before driving back to Lake Forest the same evening.

By the time we reached Great Sand Dunes at the end of a ten-hour drive through Utah and Colorado, it was getting dark. We had passed through mixed weather, and as the sun dipped low in the western sky, we had seen sand dunes, and rainbows over mountains in the distance, and fields of sunflowers glowing in the late evening sunlight. But we had not stopped to take photos. Finally, when we had entered the park and set up our tent at our pre-reserved the Pinyon Flats Campground, we decided to rest and look around us. We could see that the campground had evergreen trees, and the outline of a dark mountain was just visible against the dark sky on one side. As we lit a campfire and finished our dinner with leftover Thai food from the previous night, the milky way came up above us. We were very tired, but I managed a few photos of the starry sky as Poulami wrote her journal in the tent.

The sky from our campsite the first night

When we initially made our travel plans, we had reserved the campsite for two nights. But then, since we had added one extra night at Salt Lake City, we had to cancel the first night's reservation at Great Sand Dunes and we didn't find a reservation for a second night there. So when we woke up the next morning, our first thought was, "Where do we sleep tonight?" Of course, we had a fallback option, but we didn't like it. A few miles down the road outside the park gates, there was a small privately-owned place called "Great Sand Dunes Oasis." The place had a restaurant, a fuel pump, a general store, a tiny motel, a tiny lodge, and a campground. The hotel and the lodge had been full, but we knew the campground would have space for us. Whether we wanted to stay there was a different matter altogether. The online reviews of this campground weren't stellar; it was just a piece of rocky land without much marking for campsites and people had had to drive uphill or downhill over rocks the size of baseballs to reach their sites. So we were a little hesitant.

Our first campsite
But the problem solved itself in a very unexpected manner. Two rangers were walking by when we were folding up our tent, and we asked them if there were any empty sites on the campground here, just in case. They replied that the other side of the campground was completely first-come-first-serve, and so there were several empty campsites there. We should just go and choose one, pay for it, and set up our tent. This fact wasn't very clear from their website, so we had no idea there could be empty campsites. So we quickly packed up our stuff, drove to Loop A, chose one of the best campsites and set up our tent there. Our campsite was a couple of feet above the road, and the campsites across the road were a couple of feet below. So when we looked at the sand dunes  - yes, we could see the sand dunes from our campsite - it was as if we were on the highest row of a gallery, and the other rows would not obstruct our view. Happy with our campsite, we went to look for breakfast.

Hummingbirds at the Oasis
Breakfast at the Oasis restaurant was good. As a bonus, we sat next to a window outside which they had a hung a hummingbird feeder. So I could take lots of photos of hummingbirds feeding with the sand dunes in the background. After leaving the Oasis, we took photos at the park entrance sign, then headed back into the park. We had already been to the visitor center, now we wanted to see the dunes up close.

The sand dunes are actually just one part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. They cover an area of 30 square miles and the tallest dunes are up to 750 feet high. The sand flowed in as sediment from the surrounding mountains over millions of years. Today, no new sand enters the system, but the upper layers of the dunes regularly shift around by the wind. The dunes are sandwiched between mountains on both sides, and two creeks that flow over the edge of the sand. We had to wade through cool, crystal-clear ankle-deep flowing water of one of these to walk to the sand dunes.

Medano Creek
Once we stepped onto the sand, we began to feel the true scale of things. On looking ahead, we saw a scene that could have come out straight of the Sahara Desert. Only, I doubt if Sahara is as dotted with colourful tourists as this place was. Also, even though it wasn't evident from where we stood, this place was about 8000 feet above the sea level.

What was also not evident to us, was how difficult it was to climb the dunes. There were people who were climbing to the tops of the dunes, and some of them brought boards to slide down the sand on. We climbed halfway up the first one and realized it wasn't our cup of tea. Besides, we were walking barefoot and the sand was beginning to heat up. Actually there were signs warning us not to go barefoot on the sand for this specific reason, but we couldn't have walked through the water in our shoes, and putting on shoes and socks on our wet feet while on the sand would have been messy. Besides, we thought we are from India, how hot can it get? But as the sun climbed high in the sky, we realized we would have to leave soon. So we did a quick photo shoot on the dune and walked back to our car. After the walk on the hot sand, the walk through the Medano Creek was very soothing.

Photo shoot on the dunes
Then we returned to our campground and found an RV the size of a huge bus in the campsite across the road blocking our view of the dunes. We were still like the people sitting in a high gallery seat,  but with a Hagrid-sized person sitting in the seat in front. Poulami and I had bread, bananas and miscellaneous uncooked items for lunch, and all through the hot afternoon, we cursed the old man and (presumably) his wife who had parked the humongous vehicle in our view. It seemed their idea of a camping holiday was quite different from ours, because the first thing that they did after parking their two vehicles (apart from the RV they had an SUV too) was to get out a dish antenna and install it outside. The second thing was getting two chairs out and sitting down next to the RV, where they promptly had a fight and stopped talking to each other. They spent the rest of the day and the evening watching TV inside their vehicle. We tried to sleep a while in our tent, but it felt more like getting pressure-cooked. The presence of a crying baby in a tent nearby didn't help either, so we finally gave up.

After our little photo shoot in the sand earlier, I had realized that I had chosen a bad time for it. For really dramatic photos of the sand, we would need to visit the dunes when the sun was low and the dunes were bathed in deep shadows. So we went to the dues once again in the evening. This time, I got the chance to make a video (starts around 4:53 in the video collage above) of a rare phenomenon called surge flow in the Medano Creek. Then, we climbed a low dune and sat in the warm sand until the sun was really low in the sky. As we walked back, we found the sand in the shadows had already started getting cold.

On the dunes around sunset
We were not done with the sun yet. The previous evening, we had seen fields of sunflowers in the golden light of the setting sun, but had failed to stop to photograph them. Now, we drove a few miles outside the park gates, parked our car by the side of the road, and I photographed the sunflowers and sunset to my heart's content. It was a beautiful time at a beautiful place, and even the eerie mass- howling of dozens of coyotes nearby added to the magic of the moment. When we had first thought of visiting Great Sand Dunes, I had thought the place had nothing to offer other than a tiny stretch of desert. But the place proved to be much more than that, with flowing creeks and fields of flowers and hummingbirds and dark, starry skies. The more we saw of the place, the more we loved it.
Sunset behind sunflowers
The evening at our campground was quite eventful. We were visited by a herd of deer, we tried to make popcorn on the campfire and ended up making lots of burnt corn, and finally, we cooked couscous and omelettes for dinner. As the night deepened, I managed to take my dream shot - our tent beneath the Milky Way. It wasn't perfect; the campground had too much light and trees and clouds blocked part of the sky, but still, it was something.

Night sky at our second campsite
The next morning, I woke up early to photograph the dunes from the campground as the first rays of the sun started to paint them golden from the top. When the top of the tallest sand dune did turn gold, I looked through my viewfinder and found that someone had already climbed to the peak and was waiting there to see the sunrise. They must have had to start a few hours earlier to get there on time. Some people can be crazy about hiking.

Visitors to the campground

Sun touches the dunes... and the person at the top.
Then we had leftover couscous for breakfast and packed up our tent, for the last time on this trip. We had finally run out of interesting places to visit and were about to start on one of the most boring legs of our road trip: a seven-hour drive through the plains of Colorado and Kansas.

(To be concluded in the next part...)