When I was fourteen years
old my grandmother asked me if I wanted to take a vacation. For some
reason at the time I wanted to see Niagara Falls.
So, a short time later my grandmother, her husband Miles, my sister
Rhonda, and I packed our bags and headed east. What my grandmother
didn't tell me was that she wanted to go to New
Jersey to visit her sister. I didn't know this
little tidbit until we were well on our way. I didn't want to go to New
Jersey. What the hell was in New
Jersey? In did turn out, in fact, that I hated New
Jersey, but I did love swimming in the Atlantic
Ocean. I figured that when I was in the ocean I technically
wasn't in New Jersey
anymore! I also enjoyed traveling across the country and visiting
places I've only seen on television or in books. Just in case you're
curious, I did love Niagara Falls.
Sailing on the Maid of the Mist
toward the Falls is one of the most memorial moments of my life. Canada
was also wonderful. I'd love to go back. We were gone for a total of
two weeks in 1984. That was my only vacation up until May 2001. I've
taken several overnight and day trips since then, but no long trek
across the country like in '84.
After seventeen years of being stuck in Kalamazoo
I was ready to get back on the road. I've always wanted to travel to
the southwest and experience a dark desert sky and see the famous
astronomical observatories I've only read about. My opportunity finally
came in May 2001. I finally decided that I was going to attend the
Texas Star Party - a week long experience of amateur astronomy and dark
skies. I've wanted to attend TSP for several years, but either money or
lack of suitable transportation kept me away. The Texas Star Party is
held at the Prude Ranch near FortDavis in west Texas.
It's about a 28 hour drive from Kalamazoo.
is an easy drive from FortDavis,
so this was it! My chance had finally come to take a dream vacation. Go
to TSP for a week, visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory, and swing
by the Very Large Array on the way home. What more could a young
astronomer ask for?
As it turned out, several members of the Kalamazoo
Astronomical Society also expressed a desire to travel 1500 miles for
dark skies. The KAS TSP contingent consisted of David Brown, Beverly
Byle, Jean DeMott, Rich Mather, Kerry Robbert, and me. My driving buddy
was Jean DeMott, which worked out great since she doesn't own any heavy
duty astronomical equipment, so we had room for all my stuff! She also
had enough vacation time and the desire to visit all the places I
wanted to go. But, like my grandmother, we had to go to places she
wanted to see as well. It didn't turn out nearly as bad as New
Jersey did though!
After months of planning and preparation the day had
finally arrived. Jean and I headed west on Friday, May 11, 2001! Our first stop was
appropriately enough the "Gateway to the West" St.
Fortunately Jean has an old friend in St. Louis,
so we had free room and board. We stayed in and relaxed on Friday
night. Our first destination on Saturday was the famous Gateway Arch,
which is America's
largest national monument. The Arch is 630 feet high, which is 325 feet
higher than the Statue of Liberty and 75 feet higher than the WashingtonMonument. It was
designed by the renowned architect Eero Saarinen, who won a competition
in 1947 to design a monument to the westward expansion in St.
Louis. Saarinen's major concern "was to create a
monument which would have a lasting significance and would be a
landmark of our time". He was successful. It is an awesome sight. After
we took a good look at the Arch we visited the Museum
of Westward Expansion,
which is directly beneath the Arch. The exhibits were excellent. There
was a detailed history of the 19th century and the Lewis and Clark
expedition. Of course, the best feature of the museum is the ride to
the top of the Arch!
The only way to the top was to ride the Tram, which
bared an uncanny resemblance to the "pod" in the movie "2001: A Space
Odyssey". The Trams (there were at least eight of them) couldn't have
been more than 6 feet in diameter and only four feet high. Five people
crammed themselves in each Tram and took the four minute ride to the
top. Once at the top you walked up an uneven set of stairs to the top
of the Arch. The top looks somewhat like the passenger section of a jet
airline, but had more of a curve to it. The view was astonishing!
Directly below on the east was the Mississippi River
and to the left was a bird's eye view of St. Louis.
There was no time limit as to how long you could stay at the top, so
Jean and I took a good look out each window. Once we were finished we
took the three minute ride down to the museum (faster going down since
we're working with gravity - gulp!).
After a day of rest and relaxation in St. Louis,
Jean and I continued our journey west. Our route was simple - drive
southwest on I-44. After 4.5 hours we finally left Missouri
and crossed the border into Oklahoma,
where we spent the majority of our day. This route took us through most
of Oklahoma's major
cities; first Springfield,
then Tulsa, and finally Oklahoma
City. My summation of Oklahoma
is this; rolling wheat farmland and semi-wooded cattle rangeland. Yes,
lots of bovines! After 11 hours of driving we finally arrived in Texas,
but we were a LONG way from FortDavis. One more
hour of driving through Texas
and we stopped in Wichita Falls.
It seems strange to have a city named Wichita
Falls in flat, mostly barren Texas.
The town was first settled in 1882 and named after a 5 foot water fall,
which was washed away by a flood four years later. After 105 years, the
city of Wichita Falls
restored a piece of its past when it reestablished the falls in 1987.
This time with a 54 foot high cascade that was built downstream from
the original waterfall.
We were on the road again come morning. For a brief
time we continued on I-44, but jumped onto I-20 near Abilene,
Texas and headed due
west. Finally things began to change. Thus far in our journey, the
climate resembled Michigan;
green trees and grassy fields - just a lot flatter. Now, however,
everything was taking on a more arid appearance; lots of scrub brush
with some cacti scattered here and there. Occasionally we had to slow
down for small, four corner towns and even a larger town like Big
Spring and Midland.
I wished we could have stopped in each of these towns and explored for
a bit, but our goal was clear. Get to FortDavis as soon as
we could. There was one stop that we just had to make. As we approached
Odessa I saw a
road sign that said "Meteor Crater". I had almost forgotten. We were
getting close to the Odessa Meteor Crater. Finally, the astronomical
part of our trip had begun. We jumped off I-20 and did a little
exploring. After a brief wrong turn we finally found our way to Meteor
Crater Road and then to the crater itself,
which is in the middle of an oil field. Hey, it's Texas!
I had already warned Jean not to expect too much. This wouldn't look
like the famous Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona.
The information area was certainly underwhelming. It was just a rough
picnic-like shelter with a few shotgun holes in the roof. Hey, it's Texas!
However, all the information given on the posted signs was sufficient.
The crater was formed when an iron meteorite plunged to Earth some
25,000 years ago, shattering Cretaceous limestone bedrock and leaving
an explosion pit 550 feet in diameter. Over the centuries desert winds
silted the crater level with surrounding plains, and the site was not
identified until 1922. Today a marked crater trail winds through the
crater. You only realize that this is indeed a crater until you view
the crater rim from the inside. There are actually three craters on the
site, but the other two bare no resemblance to an impact feature. Maybe
not the most exciting astronomical attraction in the U.S., but if
you're ever on your way to TSP and see the sign labeled "Meteor Crater"
then by all means take the time to check it out.
After our visit to the crater Jean and I hopped back onto I-20 and
continued our journey. This was it. Our next stop was the Prude Ranch!
I don't remember exactly where we were, but finally we saw some
mountains off in the distance. We concluded that those must be the DavisMountains, but
we still had a ways to go. The drive into the mountains was incredible.
The megalith appearance of the rock strata is amazing. It looks so
manmade, but they're totally natural. Finally, as we curved around one
mountain road after another we saw a ranch filled with many
dust-covered telescopes. After nearly 1600 miles of travel we pulled
into the main entrance of the Prude Ranch. I couldn't believe I was
finally there! We gave our names to a TSP volunteer and proceeded to
office to check in. Amazingly enough Kerry and Dave were there to greet
us. How did they know exactly when we would arrive? Our first task was
to pay for our housing in the office and then register with the TSP
people. We then drove up to our home for the next week; the Harmony 5
Our bunkhouse was just that, a house filled with a line of bunkbeds
with an adequate bathroom and shower. We had wondered if another club
or TSP attendees would share the bunkhouse with us. It didn't turn out
that way. There were several empty bunks, but space would have been
tight with every ones bags, so everything worked out perfectly. Kerry
then rode with me to the upper observing field, which is considered the
best because of its higher elevation. I then proceeded to setup my
Meade 10" LX200 next to Kerry's 16" truss-tube Dobsonian. Kerry
reported that skies were clear for only a brief time on Sunday night,
so I didn't miss that much. Monday night wasn't much better. The sky
was covered in a layer of haze. Even through the haze I could tell I
was in store for some of the darkest skies I've ever encountered. I
could wait another day. Jean and I were both fatigued from a 10 hour
day behind the wheel, so we turned in after learning to navigate our
way around the ranch at night.
Tuesday was a day with no activities scheduled (besides a bus tour to
McDonald Observatory, which was already booked to capacity), so Jean
and I decided to pack up some water and snacks and headed south. Our
first stop was at FortDavis,
which is the highest elevated town in Texas.
was a bit bigger than I had imagined, but most of the main buildings
were on a single road. The centerpiece of FortDavis is the
Limpia Hotel, which is named after Limpia Creek. The first thing on our
agenda was to look for a tarp, so we went to the only hardware store.
Predictably enough they were completely sold out. We continued on to
the next town, Alpine, which is quite a bit larger than FortDavis. A
suitable tarp was found at the True Value and Jean found some goodies
at the local dollar store. We left Alpine and continued south on
Highway 118 until we reached our destination; Big
Words cannot describe the beautiful landscapes we saw and we only had
time to explore a tiny percentage of the park. After a great afternoon
of examining the local vegetation and viewing the rugged terrain we
headed back to the Prude Ranch for dinner.
Tuesday night was the first and only totally cloud free night. My main
objective of the week was to photograph as much as I could, but I
wanted to spend at least the first night or two just observing. Of
course, once the stars began to appear my first task was to polar align
my telescope. Once that little chore was out of the way I finally got
to observe under truly dark skies. Most of what I observed that night
was stuff I've seen before, but many of my old friends look different
through the transparent Texas
skies. The galaxies of Leo stood out like never before and the bright
nebulae in the heart of the Milky Way were breathtaking. Then I made
new friends, which I visited over and over again throughout the week. I
wasn't going home until I visited Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) and
Centaurus A (NGC 5128). Omega Centauri, an immense globular cluster
15,600 light-years away, was first. No photograph can do this
collection of perhaps 1 million stars justice. M13, the best globular
cluster in northern skies, is dwarfed by the metropolis of stars.
Actually, it wasn't as bright as I had thought, but it's VERY rich in
stars. Centaurus A is a curious object. It's an elliptical galaxy
wrapped in a shroud of dust - obviously the scene of two galaxies that
collided eons ago. I will have the image of this galaxy as it appeared
through my 'scope etched in my mind for as long as I live and I can't
wait to see it again.
Wednesday was a day of interesting presentation giving mostly by Texas
amateurs. Becky Ramotowski of San Antonio
gave a nice presentation on "Keeping an Astronomical Journal" despite
the fact that she was about ready to lose her voice! Houston's
Larry Mitchell, who had his 36" Dobsonian setup just down field from
me, gave the next presentation entitled "Explosions". Steve Coe of Phoenix,
AZ discussed "Dark
Nebula" at NASA's
Elizabeth Warner was invited to talk about the Deep Impact mission to a
comet. Finally, Paul Derrick of Waco
gave a nice presentation called "First Views of the Southern Sky". This
was about his trip to New Zealand.
The keynote speaker of the evening was Pamela Gay from the University
of Texas. She talked about
her research which dealt with moderate red-shift galaxy clusters.
That's a whole other article! Wednesday night was once again
unfortunately clouded out, so we just spent some time walking around
the ranch and talked with whomever we bumped into during the night.
None of the afternoon presentations on Thursday
really interested us, so Rich Mather, Jean, and I once again left the
ranch and continued to explore the area. Another attraction of the FortDavis area is
the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, which has a nature trail
related to the local desert flora and a greenhouse containing dozens of
variety of cacti. You could even buy your own cacti to take home, which
Jean couldn't pass up. One the way back we checked out the DavisMountainState
Park, which was the original locale of the
Texas Star Party. We didn't have time to check out the trails, so we
check out their rooms which are very nice. The keynote speaker on
Thursday night was noted author Timothy Ferris. The main part of
Timothy's presentation was to read a chapter from his upcoming book
"Seeing in the Dark". After the excellent presentation I made sure to
get my copy of "Galaxies" (written by Mr. Ferris) autographed.
Thursday night started out cloudy, so we decided to catch some sleep
and check the skies later in the night. Rich Mather woke me up at about
and told me
the skies were incredibly clear! So I dragged myself up to the
observing field. This was the night I decided to spend taking some
photos. My first was my one hour shot of the heart of the Milky Way
with my 28 mm lens. Next was a 25 minute exposure of the M6 & M7
region with a 135 mm lens. My next target was the North American
Nebula. I was 20 minutes into a 45 minute exposure when the waning
crescent Moon rose over the mountains in the east. I'm curious as to
why the TSP people scheduled this year's event from May 13 - 20. May 20
- 27 would have been more ideal for us astrophotographers.
Friday was the day we finally took the bus trip to
McDonald Observatory. We rode on an old school bus, which seemed to
just barely get us up the mountain to the visitor center and
observatory. We first viewed the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the third
largest telescope in the world through glass, which has its massive
mirror turned away from us. Still a great site though.We then visited the Otto Struve Telescope 82", which
was the first big 'scope built on the mountain in 1939. Next was the
107" Harlan J. Smith Telescope dedicated in 1969. After the tour we
spent some time spending money in the VisitorCenter, which
has lots of stuff every amateur astronomer must have. Great T-shirts
and hats! The evening speaker was Sky
& Telescope Contributing Editor Stephen J. O'Meara who
discussed the theory that the Lunar cycles are related to volcanic
activity on Earth. This was followed by part 1 of the Great Texas
Giveaway. We didn't win anything!
We awoke on Saturday to a brief rain shower, which
was great for the local residents since they've been going through a
drought the past 11 years. It is the desert you know! After attending
several of the afternoon presentations Jean, Rich, and I checked out
the Fort Davis Historic Site. This well preserved frontier military
post was a key defense post against American Indian attacks. The final
speaker was supposed to be Sky &
Telescope's Editor-In-Chief Richard Fienberg, but he had to
cancel due to a death in the family. Stephen O'Meara filled in with a
talk on the "Green Flash". Saturday night was excellent despite clouds
drifting across the sky from time to time. This was good enough for
observing, but not for photography.
I tore down my 'scope on Sunday morning, which was a
sad task. Once all the bags were packed we said goodbye to the Prude
Ranch and continued our astronomical vacation...