Discovery of the Planet Johnwill

     All this recent talk about discovering new planets circling other stars reminds me of when William Blackman and I discovered a new planet when we were twelve years old. William and I had known each other since tricycling days on Phelps Avenue. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but we dredged up softball-sized rocks from the creek and laid them out neatly across Phelps to block traffic, and sure enough some lady came along in her Chevrolet and made us move them. But we soon matured and took an interest in astronomy. Both my Mom and his folks had moved, and it was a habit of mine to get invited out to his house for the weekend several times a year to watch the late Friday night Nightmare Show, to build forts and tree houses in the woods, which I didn’t have, and to sleep sometimes in his German Shepherd Flint’s aromatic doghouse, which I didn’t have either. We had one of those $1.25 science paperback books on astronomy—but you could get them on flowers and trees and rocks and bugs and other subjects appropriate for young scholars—and it gave all kinds of factual information on the planets and comets and stars and such. It predicted a few eclipses, and my first lunar eclipse was observed about two a.m. from his bedroom window, since it was cold outside. I saw my first total solar eclipse in Alaska in 1963, and another one on a camping trip in North Carolina in 1970. The fact that I remember the dates is testimony to my interest in the extraterrestrial, and by the time another one came along in the 80s or 90s, I was such a solar eclipse veteran that I could shrug them off with an air of long experienced indifference and disdain to any enthusiast who brought the upcoming one to my attention. I had a 30x table-mounted telescope, and I remember seeing the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn as a boy, drawing pictures of their nightly movements. Even in my 20s I remember tracking the progress of the fifth or sixth magnitude planet Uranus, a planet whose pronunciation you need to be pretty careful with.

     William had a 40x telescope with extension legs, and one warm night we pointed it in the direction of the Big Dipper’s handle, naturally assuming that few people had explored the nuances of that area of the constellation. Sure enough, we found exactly what we were hoping to find, a dim light object very close to the star in the bend of the handle, a new planet that we modestly named Johnwill. Well, there is a small legal controversy about that–it might be called Willjohn. William and I are still working out the priority issue. Anyway, like most planet-discoverers, we were pretty excited, and so telephoned William’s amateur-astronomer uncle with the thrilling news, and would he drop by to confirm our discovery and have the pleasure of being the third person to see the new planet. This needed to be done fairly quickly, as we were a little concerned about patents, and who knows how many other astronomers were taking advantage of this clear night with plans of claiming our discovery for themselves.

     Uncle Bob pulled in the driveway, peered through our scope, and said, “Boys, that’s the star Alcor.” It took us a minute to realize that he was serious. This was a heavy blow. Surely he was wrong. But he didn’t back up, and our dreams of astronomical fame began to drift away. Then one of us began to have the suspicion that his smile was not from sympathy but from dissembling. He was trying to trick us, and then go to the Patent Office to claim Johnwill for his own, and to re-name it after himself. We confronted him with this accusation, and darkly hinted that the police might have an interest in the matter. He protested his innocence in the strongest terms, and agreed not to challenge our patent, whenever we got it. Unfortunately, his honesty on that point was never tested, since the Patent Office informed us that they did not patent new planets, or any celestial bodies for that matter. Our subsequent letter to President Kennedy sadly went unanswered, even though I told him that I had gone to his inauguration.

John Rachal
April 11, 2011

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Cold Ride

     About 10 a.m. I leave the Grove Park Inn by car for west Asheville, planning to park at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a bike trip up to Craggy Gardens. The Asheville temperature is about 42 to 44 degrees at 2200 feet elevation, with a predicted high of 54. Concerning weather, I characteristically underestimated my needs, and thus had left Hattiesburg thinking that surely I would not even ride if I was going to need my neoprene biking booties or full gloves. But, as an afterthought, I thought I ought to bring my full length biking pants since, after all, this would be Asheville and it’s barely April. So at the last minute in Hattiesburg I said sure, why not, and threw them in the bag, along with helmet, shades, biking shorts, socks, regular fingerless gloves, a summer short sleeve biking shirt, a heavier long sleeve biking shirt, a sleeveless nylon windbreaker, and a sleeved nylon windbreaker. Four layers—definitely enough. But then the day before the ride doubts had crept in—after we were already here, of course—and Val and I trekked over to REI about eleven miles out of Asheville, where she clothes-shopped and I bought nylon toe covers, some full-fingered biking gloves, and some little battery-operated blinking lights, forward and back, which I discovered were required for tunnels. I even tried to bungy cord my Polartech jacket to the bike frame, but it was too bulky for leg movement. Afterwards it occurred to me that I should have worn it over the long sleeve shirt, with the other three thin layers stuffed in the shirt’s back pockets until the descent.

     Around 10:30 I’m at the Folk Art Center, and notice that a quarter of a mile up the Parkway there is a roadblock all the way across, which had not been there the day before on the scouting mission. This was not good; this little jaunt had been on my mind since I did it last summer, and I even had fleeting dreams of going past my 15 mile turnaround mark and maybe even all the way up to the peak of Mt. Mitchell, which, at 6684 elevation, is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. Until yesterday I did not realize that the turnaround at the summit was not 20-25 miles, but a full 35 miles. About 30 or so miles up the Parkway road, another road breaks off the Parkway and goes five very steep miles to the summit. I have hiked the last three or so miles on an often rough trail to the summit, and with the hike back, it was a good several hours work.

     So, confronted with the roadblock, I go inside the Folk Art Center, ignoring the handmade blankets, on a firm quest to ascertain the reason for this roadblock and whether I should ignore it and duck under and be on my way. Well, it had snowed in the night at higher elevations, and there were concerns about ice on the road. Another lady joins in, saying that she lives in Black Mountain and snow had covered the area at upper elevations. The official Parkway lady suggests some other biking possibilities, but adds that I could go under the roadblock, though for the record she didn’t tell me that.

     It’s fairly chilly, so I put on everything I have except the sleeveless nylon windbreaker, which I stuff in the shirt pocket for use coming back down, when the wind chill could be brisk, maybe even unpleasant. I scoot under the roadblock, wondering if I’ll be paying for this ride with a heavy fine, and started the ascent. The REI guy had told me that the first three miles are pretty steep and are often used as training rides, up three, down three, repeated until done. They are steep—one of my memories from the first ride last summer was that as a flatlander and hill-hater, I was breathing heavily in the first 200 yards and wondering what in the world was I thinking and should I turn back right now and call it just a big misunderstanding. So this time I was prepared for that, and slowly inch upward in my lowest two gears at between 6 and 8 mph, when even a quarter of mile seems like real progress. The road is dry and I am warm. Clouds move in and out, and the sun feels and looks re-assuring. And of course the traffic is not bad—in fact, non-existent, thanks to the roadblock—and for about four miles I see only one runner and one biker coming down. The biker and I briefly chat, noting our confederation of illegality. He had started well before my starting point on the Parkway and had only turned around about two miles higher than where we are now. He mentions one little rockslide but no snow or ice.

     So I keep climbing. There are several fairly flat spots and even some downhills, but ironically the occasional downhills are actually disconcerting, since they feel like ground lost that you have to make back up. I’m not noticing any change in temperature, but there is some wind, sometimes rather loud. But the general quiet and the very real sense of aloneness are a little eerie, and the spots of sun make for a good companion. To my left is either steep forest or a rock face, and to the right many scenic views interspersed through the steeply descending trees. At about ten and a half miles, and over an hour in, I see the first tiny flecks of blowing snow along with icicles on the rock face, with sparse and thin patches of snow by the roadside. But the road is still clear, though a little damp, and my goal is Craggy Gardens at 18 miles. I’m working fairly hard, occasionally out of the saddle for variety, and so it doesn’t seem particularly cooler. At about fourteen and a half miles, a human being speaks from behind and startles me. We ride along for under a mile, and he says he thought he was the only one doing this today. He is a serious triathlete, training for one of his three full Ironmen per year, doing about 400 miles per week (not counting, presumably, his running and swimming), and unintentionally putting fitness in a whole new context for me. He has come from eastern N.C. to do some climbing work, and just yesterday he started at the Folk Art Center and went to the peak of Mitchell, thirty-five miles up, and of course the same back down, and he was intending to do it again today.

     As we rode for that short period together, the whole ecosystem changes, with snow clinging to every single one of the billions of small twigs of all the trees on both sides of the road. It’s like something out of Dr. Zhivago, all whiteness, except for the road and rare patches of blue sky. But it’s mostly cloudy—more whiteness—very little sun. There are some marginally easier places where 10 or 12 mph is fine, but I tell him that this is my comfortable pace, and I know he has 20 more climbing miles to go, so he moves on.

     I pass the point where I turned around last summer, Craggy Gardens picnic area, which is about 15 miles. My destination is 18 miles, the Craggy Gardens Visitors Center. It’s windy and a little chilly, but nothing serious, probably mid-thirties at this elevation. The snow is barely a dusting, but on the ground it’s pretty much everywhere except for the road. The previous night’s icicles are everywhere on the rock, some a foot long, some breaking off. Then, at about 18 miles, there is the Visitors Center, closed of course since the road is, but there is my buddy, straddling his bike and having a bite to eat. I stop also, and now it really is cold. The elevation is around 4900 feet. The wind now seems really harsh, and there is no sun. I had eaten a Hammer Gel at the second tunnel, and now clumsily take out a Powerbar, but it is so hard I’m afraid I am going to break a tooth and so put it back. The triathlete had turned around a couple of hundred yards farther up, saying there was ice on the road. I am jealous of his heavy gloves and booties, and I’m shaking. Now the descent, which had earlier seemed like a fun, exhilarating payoff for the labor of climbing, has become a fearfully cold prospect. We start together, but even going down he is soon out of sight, given my old man caution and all the mountain curves. My hands and feet, which had not been cold at all until I stopped at the Center, are stinging with real pain, especially my hands. I am shaking so much that the bike is shaking, giving a scary feeling of instability, and I am braking much of the way to try to stay under 25. I would love to put one hand somewhere warmer, but there is absolutely no way to even think of riding one-handed. It is a little frightening, knowing that even going downhill it will be 45 minutes of pain and uncontrollable shaking. A couple of miles down, the triathlete had the same thought as I, namely pulling over at an overlook to try to warm up the hands. I pull up too, and though doing so stops 25 mph of wind chill, my hands are deep orange, and the body-shaking will not stop. He says he’ll never complain about 95 degrees again, and it is the coldest he has ever been, a sentiment I echo. A few spots of sunshine from gaps in the clouds help marginally.

     Then we are off again, and soon he is out of sight again. He said that he had hit 44 descending the day before until total fear kicked in. In warm weather I had hoped for 40, but not this day, not this cold, not this unstable. Despite braking, I am descending three to four times as fast as coming up, and soon there is more sun and the snow is gone. I can even feel marginal improvement in my hands, but the shaking will not quit. The brief uphills are actually welcome—10 to 15 mph, and working, the warmth improving as the elevation lowers. I hit 32 at one point, but it feels too dangerous with the shaking and the sometime wet road. Finally, the roadblock is in view. Soon I’m putting the bike on the rack, getting in the car, and turning on the heat. Hannah calls, and my voice is unstable from the shivering and shaking, and I drop the phone at one point.

      Back at the hotel around 2:30, I look up the temperature at Mt. Mitchell. All I can find is the temp for the state park, not the summit, though I was about 1800 feet below the summit at my turnaround point. Weather.com shows 42, “feels like” 34, with 18 mph winds. The wind chill of descending had to have put the temp in the teens at our higher elevations to have hurt our hands so much, and the triathlete had even changed to thick biking mittens. Holding the mouse to do the temperature check, my hand still shivers. The last 45 minutes of that approximately three hours were not pleasant. If I do this again, it will be in August.

John Rachal
April 1, 2011