Posted by: Cody Coyote | May 11, 2010

Ode to a Comet

A mention in one of those ” Today In History ” features got me reminiscing about all things Comet Halley.  That , and the annual occurrence of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower in late April and early May, whose tiny meteroids are remnants of Comet Halley’s tailfeathers . A hundred years ago on May 10, 1910, the celebrated Comet Halley made its most notable close approach to Earth , a sojourn forever tied to the legacy of one Mark Twain , who said in his biography published the year before:  “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together. ” .  Twain , self described Freak of Nature in fact died peacefully the day after Halley’s 1910 perihelion , being the closest approach to the Sun and the manner in which cometary orbits are pegged. Twenty days later on May 10, the Earth passed thru the tail of the outbound comet. People panicked; pills and remedies were sold by the unscrupulous ; mass hysteria ensued. Methinks Twain had the last laugh on that one, were anyone listening.

Not that Mark Twain had any sovereign right to Halley’s comet. The cosmic apparition has left its mark all over recorded human history , from ancient Babylon to modern times. It’s appearances are tied to the legacies of ancient Chinese chronicles, the Talmud , Ancient Persian and Ehtiopian empires , Pre-Columbian American rock art , and it  has played dramatic walk-on roles nearly every time it reappeared , in the exploits of notables such as Ghenghis Khan, William the Conqueror, and more than a few Popes. You can see Halley’s hairy star woven into the Bayeaux tapestries at the relocated Cloisters abbey on the northern tip of Manhattan island NYC.

Fast forwarding to 1986 , Halley returned  to the inner solar system as it does every 76 years, give or take. Unfortunately , the best known comet of all time, the “Old Faithful Geyser of the Heavens“, was a disappointment to most of humanity. Celestial mechanics did not favor Earthlings…it was heralded as the one of the worst apparitions of its 3,000 year  recorded history . In spring 1986 , Halley was on the far side of the Sun at perihelion and was best seen from Southern Hemisphere skies if it was to be seen at all.  Folks in Wyoming hardly had a chance of seeing the comet from its northern latitudes. Viewers had to be at least as far south as Tucson  to get a decent aspect on the fickle comet.  A small flotilla of spacecraft were launched to  observe and photograph Halley up close … Europe’s Giotto , Japan’s Suisei and Sagikake, and Soviet Russia’s pair of Vega probes . But curiously no American probes were launched, for space shuttle Challenger was destined to carry an astronomical observatory designed for Halley to observe it from low earth orbit instead , a case of pride overwhelming pragmatism in hypeing the space shuttle as a space science platform over much more capable robotic explorers . Unfortunately , Challenger never made it to a place where it could have a fine platform for viewing Comet Halley and the heavens above.

I did.

Comet and Church closeup

I claim to this day some 24 years later that I , Dewey Vanderhoff of Cody Wyoming , had the very best view of Comet Halley by any mere mortal on the entire planet.  By design no less. Swear to it

This of course requires some explanation. Let me start by saying the above photo was taken from the bottom of a vast bowled valley of volcanic  lava that is nearly solid black under a 360 degree skyline of burnt out cinder cones. Punctuated by sparse vegetation only, Paricutin’s lava field is  utterly desolate;  at night utterly dark without so much as one watt of light pollution . Not even a peasant’s campfire to be had for many miles . Maybe a stray Firefly or two , but pitch black  for the most part.   Note if you will how much darker the foreground is than the allegedly dark Night Sky , which is positively luminous compared to the sprawling vulcanism beneath it.  This central Michoacan state in southern Mexico in the volcanic belt that has over 900 identified volcanic cinder cones  and 1400 volcanic vents. Some of those cones are still alive , or were just recently. One in particular….

Paricutin. A brand new never before seen volcano that appeared suddenly in a cornfield in 1943 and erupted for 9 years. Mark Twain may have been born under a cometary appearance. My own birthdate in 1951 came in the closing months of Volcan Paricutin’s  stupendous apparition.  The cinder cone of Paricutin is silent today  and will never erupt again , no longer to spew out high fountains of fire , eject volcanic bombs ,and  issue rivers of glowing lava for miles around. The volcano is about 4 miles south of the tall church spire in this photo, and therein lies the greater tale, one I’m sure Twain would’ve visited firsthand had he the opportunity. For upstart Paricutin  put on an tremendous show for years.

It appeared during World War II  and thus did not get the attention it deserved, which was diverted to Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius above Naples which captured the world press when it added some spectacular backdrop to the Allies’ invasion of Italy in 1944.  My father Rex  wasn’t easily scared. After all he piloted the Allies’  most dangerous warplane, the B-26 Marauder 5-man fighter-bomber  , a/k/a/ Widowmaker . The Marauder was the only warplane that went from blueprint to battlefield without passing thru “test flight” .  It had some ” issues”.  But Rex could handle it.  He could drive anything, and fly most things of the time. What he had issues with was making bombing runs over Italy with Nazi antiaircraft flak to port, and Vesuvius ash and volcanic bombs to starboard, and some of both dead ahead.  Vesuvius eventually subsided, but Paricutin was just getting going half a world away in the highlands of south central Mexico.

The Tarascan Indians of Michoacan have long lived with volcanoes, but  nothing like what Paricutin threw at them in 1943  appears in the annals. Paricutin’s eruption  had an element to it that immediately evokes  Biblical Wrath of God symbology.  The volcano took out a towering Catholic cathedral with a vengeance; with a surreality  that is seldom matched. If those medieval Popes had the Fear of God placed in them by Comet Halley , t’s a shame they didn’t have a volcano sacking the temple to help realign their belief system.

There once was a Michoacan village of 18,000 Tarascan Indians named San Juan Parangaricutiro. It had one of Mexico’s most magnificent Romanesque cathedrals dating to the late 1600’s , classically exhibiting the twin towers,  Byzantine design elements, semi-circular arches and truely massive stone walls and a vaulted roof. When Paricutin erupted 4 miles away  from the cathedral and began its march across the valley floor,  the residents took some spiritual refuge in their sanctuary , praying. The priests and Monsignors of Michoacan certainly earned their bread trying to console the Tarascan faithful, but those prayers went unanswered. The volcano sent out a torrent of lava aimed directly at the church, crawling across the valley floor like a slow motion tsunami of inexorable incandescent molten stone. There was no way to stop it or divert it, not when it’s 20 to 50 feet thick  and measured in millions of tons. Eventually , the natives had to flee, but because this was happening in relative slow motion nobody died. The lava came at the church relentlessly , as if guided by some unseen hand, and surrounded it. The massive cathedral was jolted from its foundations, picked up, twisted and turned and tilted. The roof caved in . Lava flowed thru the windows. One of the two towers was toppled. The tower still standing now leans like the tower of Pisa, hardened forever in a footing of solid black cinder, Hades’ own concrete. All the lesser buildings of San Juan Parangaricutiro and surrounds  vanished, completely consumed by the fires of Hell itself. Talk about a Scorched Earth Policy. The Romanesque cathedral survived only because it , too, was made of stone.  The volcano had no intention of destroying it, only subjugating it, usurping it. In one of the great surrealities of humankind history or an awesome display of a wicked sense of divine humour, this  onslaught of lava suddenly quit only about 150 yards past the cathedral  after travelling 4.5 miles crosscountry.  The lava only went far enough to destroy the cathedral and surround it. Then it subsided. When you stand before this remarkable scene , you cannot help but wonder if destroying that Catholic cathedral was the prime directive for this devilish volcano. (I do not use that adjective lightly) . A small and somewhat decrepit altar is maintained in the cathedral’s congregation hall above where the once lavish altar must’ve stood, but it’s plastic flowers and modest porcelain Jesus are lost in the bigger picture. The religious symbology and geophysical actuality of Paricutin’s wrath offer much to ponder.

Having said all that , it sounds like a perfect place to observe a notable comet some 42 years later, dontcha think ? . Remember the most important thing: the landscape is a solid black bowl about 50 km across with no light pollution.  In other words, Damn Dark. You can see the center of the Milky Way galaxy from there. It’s only 30,000 light years yonder

Halley Church Galaxy

That’s what I thought when I began planning my Great Mexican Comet Chase some three years earlier. I knew about this  amazing ravaged cathedral and had seen photos.  I had long planned a trek to Mexico to view Comet Halley , fully aware the Tropics offered the best viewing of Halley as a landscape.  One of my hobbies is creating photographs of astronomical scenes blending  earthly landscapes and night sky phenomena. I call these “ Starscapes“.  The appearance of Comet Halley was  irresistible as a venue. Wyoming wouldn’t provide much . I had already spent ten years making winter treks to Mexico and Central America and knew the culture and logistics of Latin America well enough . Those prior trips had been formed around the notion of Archaeoastronomy.  I’d already spent many moonlit nights in the ruins of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, Monte Alban in Oaxaca  and the magnificent stone pyramids of Tikal in the jungle of Guatemala, photographing starfields in synch with megalithic ruined cities of Mesoamerican cultures. While I initially planned to make the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan the principal destination of the Halley trak, the ruined church or Michoacan slowly took over my planning. It was calling me.

I spent a year converting a Chevy half ton truck to a safari vehicle  and outfitting it into living quarters complete with a photo darkroom. I acquired a Meade 4″ Schmidt-Cassegrainian telescope  and fit it with an astronomical clock drive. My friend who was handy with a welder and grinder fabricated an adjustable equatorial mounting wedge from some engine alternator brackets , in order to couple the heavy telescope to a surplus land surveyor’s wooden tripod ( as sturdy as they come, but also quite heavy ). And finally , a 3-axis camera mount  to piggyback a Nikon to the top of the telescope itself. All that and a portable 12-volt deep cycle battery to run the telescope drive and a 400,000 candlepower handheld spotlight. Nothing to it at all.

In fact , the only hard part of this whole pan was figuring out how to get the Starship Boobyprise, as I had christened my safari truck , down close enough to the cathedral to schlepp all this stuff  to a suitable photo vantage near the cathedral. After all, that church was located inside a 20 foot thick sea of treacherous volcanic cinder with edges as sharp as knives. Actually driving my truck to a staging area less than a quarter mile away from the cathedral was a genuine once in a lifetime adventure. I was prepared to abandon the truck down there on the front porch of Hell if it came to that. But finding a local Tarascan Indian to show me the way down there was the tough part.  It required a rather substantial bribe of pesos and tequila.   I had already paid another local guide the day before to hike me down to the church from the village of Angahuan up on the rim of the Valley of Volcanoes. Once down there I spotted a faint 2-track road near the ruined church , but had no idea where it came from or even if it could be driven the long ways down and around from Angahuan.  The local guides have a pact to not give out that information. They’re a somehwhat hostile bunch on a good day , till the money comes out anwyway. Hence the bribe to the town barracho  (drunkard) not party to the pact , but easily tempted. He was full blood Tarascan and spoke about as much Spanish as I did , so we got along great. Tequila and mota are great communication tools.  He navigated me down to the Engulfed Cathedral, which was in and of itself a friggin’ miracle.  Many times on that momentous drive I wondered if I would be able to drive back UP the wretched goat trail of a road filled with soft volcanic sand. Once parked and my guide discharged with full honors, and quite drunk, it took me about four hours to do some horizontal mountaineering to schlepp all my gear and sleeping stuff out onto the lavafield and get it set up before nightfall.

Here’s an image of me on the lava ledge  behind the remaining tower of the cathedral, with Volcano Paricutin ,in the distance. My Tarascan guide Silvestro took the photo during the initial reconnoitor.


Creating the nocturnal starscape  comet photos was an exercise in precise photography , mechanical astronomy, and  contortionist Yoga. First , the telescope had to be calibrated to True Celestial North in order to faithfully track the rotating sky , which moves a full degree of arc every four minutes’ time.  That I did early in the evening before getting some sleep, or trying to. The time exposures themselves required me to work in darkness or with only red lighting, to avoid ruining my night vision. I had to manually guide the telescope for 25- 30 minutes each exposure , using a small electrical control box  and peering thru the telescope to keep a guide star centered on the illuminated crosshairs. I’d had a lot of practice at this, but it’s never quite the same each time.  Then I had to pick up the handheld Brinkmann spotlight with its own red filter, and “paint” the cathedral with the beam , giving each area of the church about 3 seconds’ length of exposure to the spotlight beam. It took about 30 seconds to paint the church, and I was appalled at the amount of extraneous light leaking out of the spotlight to light up the foreground, but that turned out to be a plus, actually.  Then I would halt the exposure, get the crosshairs back on the guide star, independently recompose the camera for the next scene, clamp it, and start a new time exposure. My trusty Nikon F2A camera with either a wide angle lens or 55mm macro normal lens were used . I used Kodak 400 speed color negative film. I would only add that between the time Comet Halley rose tail-first over the horizon at 2:30 AM and the coming dawn wiped out the night sky by 4:30 AM or so , I was able to take only four exposures of 30 minutes using the tracking telecope.  I was downright sore from hunkering over the camera and telescope for basically two hours straight on a precarious lava ledge , contorted.  Three years of planning and work  for four exposures. But they achieved the desired results.

Halley Photo Base

Comet Halley -Engulfed Cathedral Photo Setup

Once I finally saw my handiwork two months later, submitting the images to National Geographic Magazine seemed the thing to do.  The photo editor, Bruce McElfresh , was ecstatic. The magazine had long been planning a story on Comet Halley , and he said I had a double truck ( 2-page photo)  and one other shot in the preliminary layout for the December issue. But a funny thing happened on the way to sainthood. This guy named Ballard discovered the sunken ruins of the H.M.S. Titanic , and the December issue of the magazine mas subsumed by the Titanic.  The comet underwhelmed, the sunken luxury liner overwhelmed. Comet Halley had been a disappointment  to most folks ( but not me) , and the Geographic decided reluctantly to trim the Halley article and go with only the photos they themselves had commissioned and paid for. The photo most resembling mine was from some guy who dug a pit under one of the Easter Island stone heads and took a shot nearly straight up the face of the statue with Halley overhead on angel wings. Ho hum. No Engulfed Cathedral with strong religious overtones , astounding cosmology , and stupendous geology to be had there…

The downside to this is I did not  publish the Halley pix in the interim between June and December. I didn’t want to jinx my chances. Besides, National Geo had the original films most of that time . I had only the precious glossy prints I had made before sending them away to Washington.  To this date, my incredible Comet Halley-Engulfed Cathedral photographs  that span 30,000 light years of space and time , have yet to be published.   I could’ve put them in the astronomy magazines that I regularly contributed to , for free or small money . I believe them  to be worth much more, so I never published them .  Sold a few prints ( hint, hint )

This blog entry is the only instance of public publication of the Halley and ruined church series,  so far.  I would love to be able to read Mark Twain’s account of all this. ” A Wyoming Agnostic resurrects the Engulfed Cathedral  of Mexico“.

I freely admit borrowing the term Engulfed Cathedral from the French composer Claude Debussy, who wrote a 3 minute Prelude piano piece of the same name , later arranged for orchestra. Recommended listening…it is a truely stellar piece. Oddly enough , it was also published one hundred years ago , in 1910. The Twain met. Will the serendipity never end ?  I hope not.

Perhaps I’ll get around to blogging about the rest of this 11,000 mile trek to chase Comet Halley across Mesoamerica some day. An overland journey  from wintery Wyoming to the Yucatan Peninsula and the shores of the tropical Caribbean and back again is rich with tales .  If the Holy Roman Catholic goon squads don’t lynch me first  for disparaging their  engulfed cathedral…


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