Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Hermit of Iapetus, Part IX

I have a few metaphors for what it’s like walking on the surface of Iapetus.

Some of it is like walking on powdery snow overlaid with a layer of frozen drizzle. Crunch and poof, crunch and poof. I usually don’t sink beyond my ankles, though the are parts of the moon on which the dust is thick and I sink to the shins, or sometimes the knees.

It is mostly ice, though of what kind I don’t know. I do know it’s from these ices that I get the oxygen – and water – necessary for life.

Sometimes the snow is mixed with black petroleum jelly – that’s the consistency. Exposed to the vacuum of space, you’d think it would be firmer. But it sticks and slops and wipes off with a gloved hand. The region where Iapetus shows its black face is where the jelly is more prevalent.

But then there are rocks. Ordinary rocks, shaped into craters, gullies, mountains and valleys. And caves. A cave in the Voyager Mountains is where I built my first shelter, sixteen square meters protected from the surface by concrete foam and plasteel beams. It is by far the largest shelter I ever built, and sometimes I wonder why I was so extravagant, as I rarely stay in a refuge for more than a week or two.

I spend most of my time outside, in the elements, such as they are here. Silicon and iron, petrochemicals rained down from Saturn’s Dark Ring. Dust and pebbles, boulders and layers. I tell the few who ask that I’m no geologist. At best, a guy who has wandered a bit.

A planetary scientist from Pasadena once said he’d pay for me to get a degree – by correspondence, obviously – in geology because he said I was in a unique position to aid planetary sciences through my first-hand observations. I told him I’d think it over. I also told him this:

Once I took my sons, Liam and Isaac, on a walk through an ancient lava flow about fifty miles south of where we lived. It was in a place in Idaho called Hell’s Half Acre. After the first few yards, the trail – dirt weaving between sagebrush and cheat grass and a few scrubby junipers – disappeared into the cracked lava rock, an endless field of undulating, broken fractures. The loop trail was marked by poles topped with blue paint. To proceed, we had to march from one pole to the next, picking our way over cracks twenty or thirty feet deep, one foot, two feet, three feet wide, down into gullies where the lava collapsed, up to level plateaus where the rock had enough rock underneath to stay level.

Liam led the way. He climbed the gully walls. Isaac was the pole spotter. If we couldn’t see one, he’d glance, mouth agape, grin toothy, until he spotted the next pole. Never took him more than a few seconds.

I knew the rock was basalt. There were bits of obsidian. Basalt and obsidian, because that’s what I knew about. The crack in the earth where the molten rock came out, we didn’t walk to. But with an extinct volcano on the horizon, I kinda had the idea from where all this stuff came.

The boys were thrilled. We clambered over rocks and climbed cliffs and peered into the cracks and marveled at the prickly pear cactus and the owl pellets we found, stunned at the wildlife in this remote place: lizards, beetles, birds galore. And the silence. We could stand on a rock between the cracks – rocking it gently to and fro with our weight – and hear only the soft rumble of rock against rock, and the calls of the birds. A little breeze. No other interruptions.

Then we went home and told Mom. She was not impressed.

I can learn, the told the man from Pasadena. But it’s not like being there. And the only reason I need to know what kinds of rocks are out there is so I can find the right stuff to feed the molecular strippers so I have oxygen and water.

He’s trying to find a university willing to work with a correspondent student more than a billion miles away, who could only communicate in a roundabout way by radio and couriered messages. I came without computers, other than shiftless drones that run my equipment. No word processors. No video cameras. No way to send digital photographs, not only because there’s no wireless Internet, but because there’s no camera. Hermits have no need to record the places they see. They see them most every day. Or never return to them.

He said he’d send a package to me. I haven’t seen it yet.

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