Sunday, July 08, 2012

 

My Favorite Star Parties: Texas Star Party 2001


The Texas Star Party, the TSP, is what we Boomers used to call “a happening.” Close to 1000 hardcore amateur astronomers under the dark skies of Fort Davis Texas’ Prude Ranch for a week of pedal-to-the-metal observing. As I have said before in this series, my best star party experiences have not necessarily been at those held under the best skies, but there is no doubt my best observing experiences have been at the TSP. And the everything else ain’t been bad, either, muchachos.

TSP 2001 would be my third pilgrimage that Mecca of deep sky fanatics. 1999 had been crazy good. Some folks still think it’s the best year ever, even including this year’s event, which I understand got back into the groove of “whole week of black skies; how long can you go?” after some years of so-so weather. The only bringdowns in 1999 were that it was so crowded we had to set up on the extra-dusty Lower (Middle) Field, and we couldn’t get a room on the ranch until we’d been there a couple of days. Still, it was wildly good fun and me and Miss Dorothy resolved to make it back as soon as we could.

What about my first TSP? The less said about that the better, I reckon. Oh, the company was good, my old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society buddies Pat Rochford and Joe Diefenbach, but the weather was lousy. The star party was held that year in the Texas Hill Country instead of its normal Prude Ranch home in the Big Bend region of west Texas, and the weather was just not good enough. I had fun, and I might say more about TSP 1997 someday, but there was not much observing.

D. and I wanted to do TSP 2000, but there were a couple of flies in that ointment. Mainly that for us TSP was a massive vacation involving over a week of leave, a two-day drive from Possum Swamp (if’n you are smart), and a fair amount of $$$. The real killer, though? The date of the event. Naturally, it shifts to accommodate the time of the New Moon, and it was not always in the mid-May time frame perfect for us back when Dorothy was teaching. So, TSP 2000 came and went without us. Sigh.

2001? The stars were properly aligned again. I don’t know if the Moon was in the Seventh House or not, but it was New in that perfect May time-frame. TSP 2001 would be held Sunday 13 May – Sunday 20 May. And it got better. We were able to reserve one of the “motel rooms” (well, sorta), just off the vaunted Upper Field, the place where everybody who’s anybody wants to be.

Packing was not too bad. Since we had that much-coveted Room on the Ranch, we were able to leave the tent and other camping gear (don’t ask how that worked in 1999) at home. Still, packing a fairly sizeable scope, Old Betsy, my 12.5-inch truss tube Dobsonian, eyepieces, the ancillary observing gear, and clothes and everything else we’d need for a week’s stay was a challenge when it all had to go in a Toyota Camry. We managed somehow. At the last minute, I recalled Prude Ranch is in a dry county (there still are such things), and ran out to the green-front store for a bottle of, natch, Rebel Yell.

Why did I choose Old Betsy? Couple of reasons. Mainly because of her aperture. At the time, my next largest scope was my Ultima C8; the NexStar 11 was still a year in my future. Even if I’d had the NS11 I might have looked askance at taking her to Prude. Yeah, I know people haul even bigger and fancier scopes out there—Jason Ware used to bring his 16-inch monster of an LX200—but I couldn’t help thinking that was asking for trouble given the crazy dust.

By the time TSP 2001 rolled around, I’d just barely finished cleaning the last of that fine Prude Ranch dust out of Betsy’s various nooks and crannies (and off her Teflon bearing pads).  I used to say the dust is a blend of the manure of countless generations of horses mixed with plutonium particles blowing in from Nevada. I don’t know if that is true or not, but the stuff is nasty. While I didn’t want to expose the U8 to it, I figured my little 60mm ETX60 go-to scope, “Snoopy,” was expendable and stuffed him in the overflowing trunk somehow.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, they say. Not that I much liked that step. The first part of the journey, the stretch between Chaos Manor South and Houston, is as boring as boring can be. About like the trip up I-65 to Montgomery, but longer and over more poorly maintained Interstate. In 1999, Miss Dorothy and I stopped in Houston overnight, which made for a punishing drive on day two. Not this time. We got an early start Saturday morning and planned to push on at least to San Antonio.

After a stop for fuel and food at one of the many bar-b-que joints-cum-gas stations scattered along the Texas Interstate, we were approaching San Antone.  We were making good time since, for some bizarre reason, there were none of the frequent slowdowns for road construction we’d encountered on the last trip. We were rested, didn’t spy a good stopping place on the outskirts of or in San Antonio, and decided to press on a while longer, mindful that “more today = less tomorrow.”

Where to stop? I thought we shouldn’t go too much farther, since I recalled the next stretch of I-10, where you leave the Hill Country and enter in upon the real Way Out West, was barren of motels for a while. The solution presented itself in the form of Kerrville, Texas, a neat little retirement community 40-miles west of the big city.

As soon as we exited I-10, we saw a big Best Western. It was obviously a refugee from the seventies, but it looked good on the outside, so we took a chance. We were impressed by the lobby’s condition—the motel had recently been remodeled—the friendliness of the staff, and, especially, our huge room. Settled in, it was soon suppertime. We asked the front desk clerk what was good in the vicinity and he unhesitatingly responded with one word, “Mamacita’s!”

I said a while back that Huntsville, Alabama’s Rosie’s Mexican Cantina is Unk’s second favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. Mamacita’s is his first. Big dining room (good thing, since the restaurant was full of prom-going couples that night), big portions, and big Margaritas. They do say everything is big in Texas, but big ain’t worth a hoot if “good” ain’t also part of the equation. Not only was there plenty of food, it was fresh. No frozen bags of tortillas here. They were cranking them out on a big machine as we watched. I loved the food, and those Margaritas sure helped clear ol' Unk’s throat of road dust.

Sunday morning, it was “on the road again.” We were back on I-10 ASAP for the West Texas portion of the trip, which ought to be boring but ain’t. After you leave Hill Country, you begin to get real western scenery: mesas and mountains. The fun of seeing that is offset a little by anticipation. You know you will soon be hanging out with hordes of like-minded amateur astronomers and can hardly wait to get to the ranch. 

Almost before we knew it, Miss Dorothy and I were taking that well remembered exit and pulling onto Prude Ranch—which is a dude ranch 51 weeks of the year. Driving up to the main building, which houses registration, the dining hall, and the auditorium for presentations and other events, we could see there was a long line of amateurs waiting to sign in. D. suggested I get us a spot on the field while she took care of registration. Has anybody ever had a better wife? I don’t think so.

Depending on how many amateurs are registered, there may be as many as three observing fields in use. Upper, Lower, and one near the front gate. The Lower Field is, as we found out in ‘99, kinda dusty, and the area out by the gate is mostly used by RVers who can’t get one of the limited number of hookups adjacent to the Upper Field. Yeah, everybody wants to be on that Upper Field, and for good reason. It is less dusty, though any place on Prude is dusty in dry weather, it is near the motel rooms and the Vendors’ Hall, and, well, it’s where all your buddies will be.

By midday Sunday, the field was beginning to fill up, but I was able to snag us a spot near the southern end. It wasn’t perfect for the most southern of southerly objects due to a semi-obstructing hill, but it was still good, and I spotted my old observing buddy, Tom Wideman, nearby. Setting up next to Tom would make observing that year even more fun than it otherwise would have been.

I got the scope and other gear unloaded, which was not a huge task, since all there was was Betsy, who took 15-minutes to assemble, tops; a card table; the star atlas and a notebook of charts printed with Megastar; and the eyepieces. I don’t know how the rules read these days, but back then you were not permitted to leave vehicles on the field or erect tent/dining canopies there. A good thing, since in those days the Upper Field was one crowded place.

Set up done, I took a few minutes to look around. Dust would not, it appeared, be the problem it had been the last time. The rains had come. When we were at Prude for TSP ‘99, they had not had appreciable rain since the previous November. 2001 was different. It was obvious there’d been wet stuff falling not long ago, and the sometimes numerous afternoon clouds hinted that could happen again at any time. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about shoveling dust off my primary mirror this year.

I drove back and picked up D., who’d completed our registration, and we went to check out our room. No, a motel room at Prude ain’t the equal of even one at the Day’s Inn in Chiefland, Florida, but our room was OK and a dang sight better than a tent. It was clean and spacious, but there was no point in looking for a refrigerator, or a microwave, or a telephone, or even a TV. In typical dude ranch fashion, there was none of that stuff. There was an air conditioner, though. There is no way you can observe all night long, night after night, if you can’t get adequate rest in the daytime. If I don’t have air conditioning in West Texas, this old boy ain’t gonna get no rest.

After we’d got arranged in the room and some nice star party staffers had stopped by to give us some red lightbulbs and finish blocking our winders, it was time for our first meal on the ranch. You have probably heard folks joke about the quality—or lack thereof—of food at Prude. That has not been my experience. The big hazard in that regard is that you are likely to put on a few pounds before the star party is over. I know I overdid it on Mexican Food Night in ought one.

The grub was both good and plentiful and was served cafeteria-style in an attractive old-timey-western dining room. Dorothy and I had a great meal Sunday evening, and afterwards strolled around the ranch house area, reacquainting ourselves with the many amateurs we only saw at TSP. Yeah, by 2001 the Internet was a fact of amateur-astronomy life, and made it easier to stay in touch with friends, but there ain’t nothing like the occasional eyeball QSO, as the hams say.

Talking to buds was cool, but observing under crazy-dark desert skies was the main course on the menu. Unfortunately, at Prude in the late springtime you have to wait for that. Fort Davis is so far west in its time zone that it doesn’t get dark till dern near 10 p.m. It seemed like it took forever for astronomical twilight to arrive on Sunday, but when it finally did, Urania put on quite the sky show.

What did I look at? I was tired and wasn’t in the mood to hunt up stuff like Copeland’s Septet (no Digital Setting Circles on Betsy back then). I pretty much stuck to the easy stuff this first TSP night; you know, the bright fuzzies that look good anywhere, but are mind-blowing from the desert. Best one? Probably M51, which, with the 12mm Nagler 2, showed more detail in my 12-inch than it does in 18-inchers back home. The spiral arms were trivially easy. The “bridge” of material connecting big mutha M51 to little NGC 5195 was easy if not trivial. The face of the galaxy was peppered with glimmering little field stars that gave the image incredible depth. Wish y’all had been there.

What was the experience of observing from the legendary upper field like? I jotted down a few impressions that first night:

Sunday evening, night one of TSP 2001, and the field is crowded with happy observers wielding telescopes of every size and description. At sunset, there’s plenty of conversation, but as the sky darkens to purple and the desert Milky Way begins to burn, a hush falls over the company and the cool night air is punctuated only by the whirring of telescope motors. My scope points to the heart of the Virgo Cluster, whose marvels are without number in my eyepiece. I’m after the bright and easy Messiers tonight, but I soon almost lose my way among hordes of normally dim island Universes that aren’t so dim anymore.

Even at TSP not every moment is quite so cosmic. In the earlier part of the evening a city boy (I presume) noticed a skunk crossing the edge of the field. The skunk was minding his own business and not bothering anybody. Mr. City Slicker thought he should take action; however, “I’ll throw a rock at Mr. Skunk and make him run away.” Some of us wild-eyed southern boys restrained this worthy before he could bring on Mr. Skunk’s terrible retribution.

Be ready for both benevolent and not so benevolent wildlife if you come to TSP. Miss Dorothy saw her first real roadrunner that year, and she loved watching the ranch horses run around and play in the twilight. But one night some folks from the University of Texas who were set up near the motel rooms noticed (luckily) a rattlesnake curled around a telescope's metal pier soaking up the nice warmth, thank you.

I’d felt a little weary during the first hours of Sunday night, but I got a second wind somehow in those dark days before the coming of Monster Energy Drinks. Suddenly, I felt like I should and could observe till dawn. ‘Twas not to be. Those dadgum clouds I’d noticed earlier moved back in and shut us down at about 1 a.m.  Desert storm cover on Bets, I headed back to the room. There, the adrenaline rush engendered by the Texas skies wore off and I was some kinda tired. A little Yell and it was night-night time.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, the first order of bidness was COFFEE. Since there was no demand for breakfast by late-sleeping observers, the chow hall didn’t open till 11:30 a.m. Luckily, the vendors’ building was just a short distance from our room and always had a big urn of coffee brewing. After a swallow or two of the blessed liquid, I began to feel human again and took a look at the cool astro-stuff on display.

Good dealer turnout that year. There was Lumicon, the now-gone Pocono Mountain Optics, TeleVue, Lymax, Sky Publications, Astronomy to Go, and even our old buddy Rex of Rex’s Astrostuff among others. I saw plenty of pretties I wouldn’t have minded having, but I’d resolved to limit my buying this year, since the price of gas was so high (or so we thought), DANG NEAR TWO BUCKS A GALLON!

That didn’t mean Dorothy and I didn’t buy anything. Are you kidding? At TSP? We not only got a copy of Kepple and Sanner’s two-volume Night Sky Observer’s Guide, the deep sky observer’s best friend in the days before we all used SkyTools, we were able to get both authors to autograph the books. That was cool. What was cooler? A couple of folks noticed me wandering the Vendor Hall, and asked me to autograph copies of my recently published first book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. That was a new and heady experience for Unk.

Monday night? Not so hotsky. Not good at all. It was purty much a cloud-out, with occasional sucker holes doing little more than teasing the assembled multitude of amateurs. I stuck it out on the field for quite a while, talking with pals old and new and checking out their equipment. Every once in a while, I’d head over to a little kiosk on the field edge where there was a monitor displaying current weather. But I might as well have saved the shoe leather. It didn’t get any better Monday. Oh, well, I got a good night’s sleep. This was to be the last night I’d snooze the dark hours away.

Tuesday dawned hot, dusty, and clear and stayed that way. The afternoon brought the first assault by the notorious West Texas dust devils. Dust devils? More like mini-tornadoes. Unfortunately, there were some folks who hadn’t heeded the warnings and taken the precautions stressed in the TSP literature and on their website: stake down your tripod with landscaping nails, leave a Dob depressed in altitude and free to “weathervane.” There was no major damage, luckily. I saw a beautiful Orange Tube C8 get levitated, and figured it was a goner, but the devil let it down surprisingly gently.

If Sunday night was good, Tuesday night was great. The sky at dark was substantially better than it had been two days before. I could tell because, as it always is when the desert sky is in tip-top shape, the sky was not inky black but more a very dark gray.

I spent the evening working my way through deep sky guru John Wagoner’s yearly observing list. Not only are his lists “challenging,” John inevitably directs you to some wonderful objects you didn’t know existed. The skies were so good I even did some of the (very) faint fuzzies on master observer Larry Mitchell’s Advanced List. It was really intended for scopes bigger than my 12-inch, but I ran down some of his picks, anyway.

Mostly, though, Tom and I worked on John’s “An Astronomical Odyssey” observing program. In the directions that came with it, Mr. Wagoner asserted there was a mystery associated with the list, and that TSP could not be responsible for any observers who might be ABDUCTED BY ALIENS!

We slogged our way through the Odyssey objects, many of which were pretty dadgum tough. John sent us from a rarely observed planetary nebula in Hercules, to a dark nebula in Aquila, and everywhere north, south, east and west of that. We had some theories about the “mystery,” but danged if any of ‘em made much sense. Nevertheless, we kept going, finishing the list’s 25 objects and moving on to many more until the sky began to brighten with dawn and a rising old Moon began to interfere.

All was revealed the next morning (LATE the next morning). When I turned my completed list in to John to receive my reward, a beautiful pin, he spilled the beans: “Connect the ‘dots’ of the objects on a large-scale chart and you’ll form ‘2-0-0-1.’” Doh! The pin, which I still have and treasure, bore a picture of the 2001: a Space Odyssey monolith.

Hard to believe we were at the halfway point of TSP 2001, but we were. Midweek brought excellent talks and other daytime activities. Standouts? My late friend Jeff Medkeff’s presentation on astronomy software, even then an obsession of mine. Also real good were Larry Mitchell’s deep sky presentation and Tom Clark’s talk about the development of the Dobsonian telescope.

Since it doesn’t get dark at Prude till very late, there were early evening talks throughout the week, too. Timothy Ferris shared a chapter of his forthcoming book Seeing in the Dark, and Steve O’Meara gave a surprisingly intriguing talk on vulcanology. The star party Keynote Speaker was supposed to have been (then) new Sky and Telescope Editor Rich Fienberg. Unfortunately, due to a death in the family he had to bow out. His shoes were ably filled by Mr. O’Meara. He didn’t have much time to prepare, but his presentation Saturday night on the green flash was one of the more interesting talks I’ve heard at TSP or any other star party.

Wednesday afternoon we took the tour of nearby McDonald Observatory. We’d done it in 1999, too, but it was fun to go up the mountain again. Dorothy and I really couldn’t get enough of the giant state-of-the-art Hobby-Ebberly Telescope, but the historic 88-inch Otto Struve Telescope was even more interesting.  The almost art-deco looking instrument was in good shape and its beautiful, antique-looking control console was still present even though the scope was now run by computers. The observatory gift shop was a treat, with Unk bringing back a McDonald coffee mug, a couple of beer cozies, and an excellent book on the history of the facility, Big and Bright.

Wednesday night? We were back to haze and sometimes sucker holes. It seemed the perfect time to let Snoopy have a go at the Texas skies. I’d had fun with the little 60mm f/5.8 scope back home, but this fast refractor really came into his own in the desert. In a 40mm eyepiece equipped with an OIII filter, I had the best view of NGC 7000, The North America Nebula, I’d ever had in any scope from anywhere. When the sky was clear, Snoop Doggie Dog had no trouble with even hard ones like M101.

Thursday night at first looked like it was gonna be another heartbreaker. Drifting cloud banks allowed us little or nothing for the first four hours of the evening. But Tom and I stuck it out, as did most of the residents of the upper field. At 2 a.m. the sky finally opened up, and I do mean opened up. Suddenly, the Milky Way was arching overhead like a giant burning rainbow.

How did I take advantage of the superb condx? I started out by doing John’s list from the previous year, 2000, “Glorious Globulars.” Later, I even made a little more progress with Larry Mitchell’s objects. How hard were they? Well, one of Larry’s targets was Einstein’s Cross. Need I say I didn’t catch that one?

Best moment of the night? That came near dawn. Tom had loaded up a new program on his Macintosh (yes he is one of those people), that would supposedly allow his LX200 classic SCT to track satellites. It just so happened the International Space Station was due make a good pass just before sunrise, so he thought we’d give it a try on that. I was skeptical, but it worked, it really, really worked, tracking the ISS not in fits and starts but smoothly and accurately. The sight of the ISS, whose solar panels were visible in the LX200, accompanied by the snuffling of awakening horses, and birds calling to greet the Sun, was unforgettable.

What was there to do at Prude in the daytime? When yet another turn around the vendor hall began to lose its luster, there was Fort Davis. Stop number one there? The Fort Davis Hotel and Drugstore. The attraction there was the old time soda fountain. In addition to ice cream treats, The Drugstore offered breakfast, burgers, and even steaks. It was out of business for a while, I believe, but is now, thankfully, open again I hear.

Across the street is the historic Hotel Limpia. It’s a beautiful and beautifully kept old place, and I’ve often thought that, if I couldn’t get a Ranch Room some year, the Limpia would be just great. You don’t have to stay there to enjoy it, though. Their dining room serves awful good grub including insane chicken fried chicken.

Our favorite day trip destination in 2001 was just down the road from the Ranch, The Davis Mountains State Park. It was particularly beautiful that year because the (dratted) rain had caused wildflowers and cacti to bloom with abandon. The drive up to the top of the mountain along Skyline Drive was beautiful, in part because it was a beauty that was utterly alien to us back-easters. Stopped at the park's historic stone building, the North Lookout Shelter, gazing down the mountain, I thought the valley below us looked like it could have easily been used for atomic tests. Or it might have spawned the giant spiders and ants and lizards that haunted the west in all those 50s B sci-fi movies. Slightly creepy, but pretty.

Friday night we were back on the roller coaster. The sky was not horrible, but it was definitely not as good as Thursday. I went on as long as I could, but by early morning banks of clouds were pouring in. The objects I’d seen earlier had mostly been brighter ones; even when it looked clear transparency was not good enough to encourage me to go galaxy cluster hunting.

Saturday morning, the last full day of TSP, dawned to leaden skies, and worse, light RAIN. As if that weren’t depressing enough, it was time to begin contemplating the prospect of the long drive home. Weather reports we were getting were contradictory, but it did not look like the night would be that hot, so I decided I might as well pack Bertha in the Toyota in the interests of a quick getaway Sunday morning.

Surprise! As sunset approached, the clouds almost magically began to clear. While Tom kindly offered to help me unload Bertha again, I said, no; I was going to put in a night of minimalist astronomy. It would be Snoopy the ETX all the away, assisted by charts generated with Planetarium on my Palm III handheld computer/PDA.

How well did that work? I won’t say I didn’t miss Bertha’s big 12-inch eye at times, but it was amazing how much ground I covered with a 2.4-inch go-to. The wide field nature of the telescope helped, but, still, the way the computer put every single object in the field of this inexpensive scope was just slightly amazing. I spent hours touring along the Cygnus Milky Way, scoping out big open clusters and dark nebulae that don’t look like much in a large telescope, but come to life in a little guy.

Which is not to say I didn’t do some looking through the big guns of my fellow observers. The field had cleared out a little since the peak on Wednesday night, when it had been wall-to-wall telescopes, but there were still plenty of observers going at it. I loved every object I looked at, and even if the sky wasn’t the best Prude could offer, it sure was better than what I would have had back home. The only problem? Departure in the morning. “How late will I go?” I compromised and pulled the big switch at 2:30 a.m.

Come morning, I was glad I’d put Betsy away early. Sunday’s departure was painless. Well, not quite painless. Passing under the “Vaya Con Dios” sign leaving the ranch for the last time did make me a little sad. It had been a good one, though; I’d seen plenty of stuff, spent lots of time with friends, and even bought an astro-goodie or three. ’99 was better for observing, yes, but somehow I still love 2001 best. There was an ineffable something about it that made it as special as a star party can be.

And that, muchachos, is the end of my TSP history. If I love it so much, why haven’t I been back? Well, sprouts, you’ll find as you get older that your career doesn’t become easier; it becomes more demanding with more responsibilities. That was true for both me and D. and put an end to our adventures out west. But I am planning and plotting a return. Maybe in the next three-four-five years. Maybe with a bigger gun than good old Betsy. Well I can dream, anyway, can’t I?

Next Time:  The Parade’s Gone By…

Comments:
I have always been curious about TSP and yours is the best account I've read or heard. Thank you.

I see from the little excerpt you included in this post that what you "jot down" in your field journal can immediately be printed - and actually it is some prose!

Your description of "minimalist astronomy" - that's with a go-to and a planetarium program on a handheld - made me smile. Relative to me, you live in the future, Unk.
 
These little scopes sure do work well under dark skies. I've never once seen M101 from home, even with the 10", but I had no problem spotting the core with an ETX-80 from Big Trees State Park in California this weekend.

The great thing about small scopes is that you'll be willing to take them on trips that aren't primarily about astronomy.

Rod, are you still making regular use of Stella, your C90? Has it largely replaced Snoopy, as you hinted in an earlier post?

Have you ever considered flying to a star party instead of driving? If you limited yourself to Stella or Snoopy, it seems likely it would be doable.
 
HI Cathy:

Alas, the ETX60 hasn't been used since Stella the C90 came.

I fly to star parties fairly frequently (in my role as traveling astronomy author/speaker), and have put together a nice little flyaway kit consisting of the C90. ;-)
 
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