Albert the Desert Sprite

Albert the Desert Sprite waits for the sun to pop over a hill in the Fourth of July Wash area southwest of Phoenix. Mark Klett’s sunrise stick rakes the morning sky in the center of the circle, while other players’ markers flank Albert on either side.

Kari was fortunate enough to have Mark Klett for a professor during her graduate studies at Arizona State University, and I’ve been thrilled to get to know him in part by tagging along on his excursions into the Arizona desert to go camping.

One of Klett’s camping traditions is to play a game where he places what he calls a “Sunrise Stick” in the desert sand and scratches a circle with the stick in the center. Fellow campers then guesstimate where along that circle Mark’s stick will first cast a shadow as the sun rises above whatever might be blocking it, and mark their spot with some object.

It’s a pretty neat game by itself, but Mark’s Sunrise Sticks are the star of the show. He collects things as he travels, then sits around the evening fire, drinks fine tequila, listens to the conversations, and works on the night’s stick. They are amazing little works of art, and it has been good for me to have had a few opportunities to watch him create.

For several years I have tried to think of something more interesting than a bottle cap or funky rock to use as my marker. I too wanted to make something, to contribute to the spirit of the game, and of camping with Mark Klett.

It needed to be something that was “Mark Dawson”, and definitely not just copying the other Mark. I had one idea, to make a device that could sense if it was lighter on one side and drive little wheels to that direction, but figured that would be cheating, even if I could pull it off. Another idea was a variation on that: to have light sensors on either side of the stick, and have a red LED light up on the side that was lighter (i.e., I lost, as usual) or a green LED in the middle if both sides were equally light. There are many probably obvious issues with that, too, but lacking any better ideas I gave it a try. (See first two photos below.)

Yeah, that was also a bad idea, and while the circuit “worked” on the breadboard, I eventually stopped construction on the final marker stick. Among other things, it was just too big and gaudy.

To back up a bit: I’ve also been fascinated with flywire circuitry / sculpture, which I first discovered through Mohit Bhoite’s awesome work. I found a page that explains how he makes his circuit sculptures, and like many things, it is both easier than I would have thought, and yet waaaaay harder, too. The actual assembly is pretty straightforward. All you need is brass rod, which is relatively cheap and readily available (pandemic-related supply-chain problems aside), a wire cutter, and the solder, flux, and soldering iron I already had.

Actually creating the circuit – without any of the bare wires touching if they aren’t supposed to – is a bit more challenging. Making it look good, especially with the actual soldering, isn’t super easy for me. And, as usual with any new technique or medium I discover and get hooked on, coming up with an actual good creative interesting unique idea is the hardest part of all.

Mark Klett photographs the game setup shortly after dawn. Note the Sunrise Stick’s shadow far to the left of my marker Albert (almost the farthest marker to the right).

Back to Albert: my new, scaled-down idea, which came to me desperately late (after I’d resigned myself to using another rock or twig for my marker) was to make a small “critter” that would lurk in the dark at the edge of our campsite, just outside the campfire light, and randomly blink its eyes at us. With any luck, somebody sitting around the fire would suddenly exclaim “Shhh! I think there is something out there looking at us!” (Spoiler: nobody did, in fact hardly anyone noticed Albert at all.)

The code was pretty easy, other than that I spent quite a bit of time trying to create “blinks” that were both random and somewhat realistic (as realistic as a non-existent red-eyed desert critter could be). The circuit was simple enough for me to create the sculpture relatively well and quickly, and I managed to finish the thing in time to head out to the desert for some Thanksgiving turkey and Mark Klett’s Sunrise Stick game.

I lost, as usual. :-)