Sunday, March 31, 2013

 

My Favorite Star Parties: TSP 1997


When I started this series of reminiscences, I warned y’all “favorite” would not always equate to “best” where the sky and what I saw were concerned. Some of my best times have actually been at star parties that were clouded out or near about, muchachos. What do you do at a cloudy star party? You hang with your friends, your brother and sister amateurs, you learn new stuff, you buy things, and you drink, of course.

So it was with the 1997 edition of the vaunted Texas Star Party.  Logically, it should be in the “worst” column instead of being among my favorites. Looking over my notes from sixteen long years ago, I’m surprised to see we had three-and-a-half nights out of seven that were good enough for some deep sky voyaging. I tend to remember ’97 as the year when the weather was so bad we didn’t see a cotton-picking thing. Still, I also recall it as a year when I had a great time in spite of everything the weather gods and various other gremlins could throw at me.

The story began in the fall of 1996, when my friend and observing companion, Pat Rochford, and I began talking about something we’d skylarked on for a couple of years:  attending the famous Texas Star Party held in the spring under the dark skies of Fort Davis not far from McDonald Observatory. Yeah, we’d talked about it before, but this time was different, this year we were serious. We were going. We even sent off for registration materials. And got ahold of a former PSAS member, Joe Diefenbach, an enthusiastic ATM and observer whose job had required him to move back to Germany. Joe had been to TSP before and we suspected he might want to go again.

He did, which was good. What was not so good was that we began to drift off the beam. The first misstep we made was deciding we would camp instead of pony-up for beds in a bunkhouse. I guess Pat and I just didn’t understand how brutal the Sun and weather can be in Texas, and apparently Joe had forgotten. If we were going to camp for a cotton-picking week, Unk should at least have trotted to the sporting goods store and bought a decent-sized tent. Instead, I borrowed a small pup tent from Pat.

The next misstep? It’s hard to say our desire to take so much dadgum gear to the Texas Star Party was a mistake. It’s more the way we chose to do so. We rented the biggest Ryder truck this side of a tractor-trailer. Between the three of us that was easy to afford. The problem would turn out to be one of practicality, not expense.

The truck was more than we needed. Hard to park. Hard riding enough to rattle our bones good given the decrepit state of much of I-10 in Texas. We could have got Pat’s telescope, a big 24-inch in Dobsonian, in the next size of truck down, maybe even in a large van, and could have crammed Joe’s 12-inch Dob and my 8-inch SCT in there with it. Chances are we couldn’t have got the additional scopes we were dead-set on packing, Pat’s 8-inch f/7 Newtonian and Old Betsy, my 12-inch f/4.8 Dobbie, in even a large van. But a nice van sure would have been easier to handle and a lot more comfortable.

What was probably our most profound mistake? Deciding to do 1997 at all. As Christmas season 1996 approached, we began hearing disturbing rumors on the nascent amateur astronomy Internet and in particular on the sci.astro.amateur bulletin board. Seemed as there’d been a big falling out between the TSP organizers and the owners of the Prude (dude) Ranch where the event had been held almost from the beginning.

Well before December was out, the rumors had turned to cold, hard facts. There would be no Texas Star Party in Fort Davis in 1997. The organizers were now looking for a new location. Mr. Pat and I did some ruminating over the situation. Even if TSP was no-go, we really, really wanted to experience a big star party that spring. Not a semi-local event like The Peach State Star Gaze (held in May that year), but one under genuinely dark skies way out west.

What could that be? There was another and similar star party out there, a new one, The Nebraska Star Party, which would be in its third year. Unfortunately, a look at the NSP website revealed it was still in its developmental stages, without much in the way of amenities—like food and shelter, for god’s sake. It would also be an even longer drive for us than Fort Davis.

Just as I began to think I’d be headed to Jackson, Georgia and the PSSG after all, we got an email from the TSP folks. The star party would be held, but in a new location, one they thought would be purty good: The Alto Frio Baptist Encampment (church camp) near Leakey, Texas in the Hill Country. Supposedly, the site had good facilities and was eager to have us. That sounded OK, but I still wasn’t happy, “The ONE gull-dern year me and Pat get to do TSP, we don’t get to do it at Prude Ranch!”

There was a bright side, though. Leakey, Texas was over four hours closer to us than Fort Davis, and that was a Good Thing given a joint decision to drive the entire 14 hour trip in one day. Above all, we was het-up for a big star party and were not about to change our plans.

I did look at a map of Texas, and what I saw was disturbing. Appeared to me Leakey was close enough to San Antonio to be in range of the light dome of that big city when the air was humid, and I knew from having been stationed in San Antone when I was in the Air Force in the 70s that the air is almost always humid in the Hill Country in spring. Still, the site had been checked and blessed by TSP honchos and the skies of Jackson would have been even more light dome and humidity challenged than those of Leakey, I supposed. What Could Happen?

At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday morning May 4, a truck even larger than I’d imagined pulled up in front of Chaos Manor South and shortly we were on I-10 headed west. We could do 65 mph, and that was about it, so it was a long and wearying journey across the Gulf Coast and Louisiana and into Texas. Not exactly an unmemorable one, however.

I took over driving from Pat at the Louisiana line. Miss Dorothy had warned me about a bridge she said I wouldn’t like one bit, and I presumed that was the I-10 Mississippi River bridge. It wasn’t fun shepherding the huge truck over the long bridge over the Mississip, but it wasn’t that bad, either. Smooth sailing after that, I thought. Ha!

Rolling through Lake Charles, Louisiana, I became aware of an odd-looking structure up ahead. In a few minutes, we were close enough to see what it was: an enormous, towering bridge, the Calcasieu River Bridge. It was high, with a grade that seemed to approach 45-degrees—to slightly gephyrophobic Unk, anyway. Good thing I didn’t know the bridge had been rated structurally deficient for years.

By the time I realized what was up ahead, I had no choice but to keep going. We were on the bridge approach and there was no place to stop and let Pat or Joe take over. I gripped the wheel with cold and sweaty hands, put the truck squarely on the white line despite the honking of the cars behind me, slowed to 45, and finally got to the other side.

As we approached Alto Frio after 14-hours on the road, Joe, who was driving, commented on the beauty of the Hill Country hills, which were more like small mountains, and all the pretty wildflowers. Rut-roh. Says Unk, “You know what causes wildflowers, doncha, Joe? RAIN.” A look out the window showed there was every chance of the flowers getting more. The sky wasn’t socked in, but there were plenty of drifting clouds to go with the spring sunshine.

What would be would be. At 4:30 p.m., we were pulling in the front gate of Alto Frio Baptist Encampment, getting registered, and heading for the observing field we planned to use, the smaller of the two, the South Field. Parked the hulking engine of destruction along the fence and started looking for a place to pitch our tents. Unk was of the opinion we should stay next to the truck, but I was overruled by my compadres, who voted for someplace under trees and out of the Sun. Which turned out to be good and bad in the end. The good was that we found a nice patch of shade for the tents on the opposite side of the field. The bad? That would come later.

After setting up our five telescopes on the field not far from the truck, we were ready for some grub—big-time. What were the three best things about Alto Frio? That’s easy: food, food, and food. That first night we dined on grilled Texas ribeyes with all the fixings and the rest of the meals were every bit as good. The dining hall was huge and lovely and this was the best food I have had at a star party anywhere over the last thirty-something years.

After supper, I turned a critical eye on the sky as we strolled back to the field. “Not good, but not bad” was my verdict. There were still plenty of the drifting clouds I’d noticed on the way in, but there was little doubt we’d get some observing in on Sunday night.

And we did, we did. In addition to cloudy patches, there was some haze to devil us off and on, but overall the night wound up in the “plus” column. As I feared, humidity and haze made for a prominent light dome in the direction of San Antonio, but the sky was reasonably dark elsewhere. It was indeed better than what I’d have had at Peach State, if not worlds better.

The only loudly buzzing fly in the butter was that my friends and I were some kind of tired. Up at 1:30 a.m. that morning and only catnaps on the trip did not make for an all-nighter. My original goal had been to set up the C8, Celeste, for prime focus astrophotography and get some shots on the first night in case the weather turned punk—which, alas, the weather reports we’d heard since our arrival indicated it might. As I struggled to remember how to do a polar alignment, howsomeever, I gave in and admitted I wasn’t up to guided imaging. It would be visual all the way with Old Betsy.

Turned out it had been a good idea to bring Bets along after all. Her 12-inch mirror delivered plenty of dim marvels, and even though she was still in her original Meade Sonotube body, she was less affected by the wind that began to blow at mid evening than the big truss tube dobs that littered the field.

Best things I saw Sunday night? M51 was spectacular, with the “bridge” between it and its little companion, NGC 5195, easier than I ever remembered it being. Oh, it wasn’t nearly as good as it would be two years hence when Miss Dorothy and I finally made it out to Prude Ranch, but it was spectacular nevertheless, with its spiral structure blatantly obvious.

Of course I looked at Omega Centauri, which was a mind-blowing swarm of fireflies, but the best object that night was M83, The Southern Pinwheel. In light pollution it is usually a blob, here its spiral arms and central bar were more than evident and it looked, as Timothy Ferris describes it in his book Galaxies, “alive with motion.” If it was wonderful in Old Betsy, it was dern near indescribable in the 30-inch Dobsonian set up next to me.

There were times we had to wait for sucker holes, but we pressed on till 2:30 a.m. anyway, when the three of us threw in the towel. Not because we were exhausted, which we were, but because the clouds had been getting increasingly more numerous since midnight and the wind kept building and building. We headed back to the area of our tents, where I plopped down in a lawn chair, opened a bottle of Yell, and assessed the evening. Not perfect, not close to it, and not comparable to what I’d been told to expect of the desert skies at Prude. But good, very good, and if we could get a week of nights at least as good, Unk would be a happy camper.

Dawn brought skies no clearer than Sunday’s, but they didn’t look much worse, either. I’d had a restful enough night in my sleeping bag and had begun to think this camping thing would be just alright. My rude awakening in that regard came when I headed to the bathrooms/bathhouse for my morning ablutions.

The bathhouse for our camping area proved to be the only substandard part of Alto Frio’s facilities. Concrete floors that had not been washed in quite a while—months it looked to me like. No shower curtains. Poorly lighted. Worst of all, even though we complained, the Alto Frio staff did not clean the place the whole time we were there. Not once. By the following Saturday it would be referred to as “The Black Hole of Calcutta.” If not for that, the Texas camping experience would have turned out to be mostly OK by me.

We had elected not to participate in the breakfast part of the meal plan, since we thought we’d never be up early enough to make that pay. What we hadn’t considered was that the three of us were used to getting up early and would have a hard time sleeping in, even after late nights, and especially after early nights. We had had the good sense to bring along a Mr. Coffee, which made us awfully popular on the field early in the morning, since our fellow attendees had mostly eschewed the breakfasts, too.

How did we fill the long hours between dawn and the late DST sunset? Enjoying lunch in the cafeteria. Getting acquainted with a few of the nearly 550 fellow amateurs present—we soon ran into a contingent of Deep South Regional Star Gaze buddies from the Ponchartrain Astronomical Society. Buying stuff in Vendors’ Hall.

And what a vendors’ hall it was. If anything at Alto Frio was better than at Prude, it was the spacious building assigned to dealers. Almost everybody who was anybody back in them days was there. Our old friend Rex from Rex’s AstroStuff, Lumicon, Mag 1 (the famous Portaball telescope people), AstroSystems, Astronomy to Go, Pocono Mountain Optics, and more. I was sorry Celestron didn’t show, but there was plenty of stuff to drool over.

I immediately turned over 150 Georgie Washingtons to the much-loved and now gone Pocono for a Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector, which I’d decided weeks ago would be my major purchase. I was back into imaging with the SCT, was tired of doing that at f/10, and hoped the 6.3 would be better than the putrid f/5 reducer lenses I’d used over the years.

After another good supper, it was time for observing. Monday evening wasn’t quite as good as Sunday evening, with more haze and longer waits between cloudy stretches, but it was OK. I was able to complete my astrophotography agenda for the star party by getting a couple of shots of Omega Centauri though my new reducer corrector. After Omega, I imaged some Messiers including M13, M3, and M53 and did some visual observing with both Celeste and Big Bertha before the weather gods decided it would be an early evening for us, with the sky closing down around one.

It wasn’t all flat-out pedal-to-the-metal observing Monday. We’d had to take a few breaks due to cloudy stretches, and strolled over to the big North Observing Field during one. It was there that Pat and I discovered a major down-check for the site. Both fields were bordered by the main road we’d come in on and there was a surprising amount of traffic on it. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem for our field, which was set slightly farther back and shielded by some trees; it was a big problem for the North Field. TSP organizers had tried to protect the telescopes from the headlights of passing cars by hanging dozens and dozens of tarps (donated by local folks) along the site’s fence.

This 8’ tall “light fence” worked somewhat for some observers—until the wind began to blow the tarps. It didn’t work at all for the users of the biggest Dobs, who were above the fence/tarps on their tall ladders and constantly bathed in headlights. The only saving grace was that the traffic died out late in the evening. But by then the clouds had shut down observing, anyway. This headlight problem, if nothing else, would make Alto Frio’s viability as a permanent home for the TSP doubtful, Unk thought.

Tuesday morning brought worse weather still. At dawn, the sky was completely overcast and stayed that way all day long. What did we poor pilgrims do? Wandered around, running into old friends and making new ones like Tom and Jeannie Clark and legendary observer Barbara Wilson and her husband, Buster. There was also the Birmingham Astronomical Society’s ever-ebullient Ed Boutwell, who was as good-humored as ever despite the clouds.

What else did we do? We ate and took yet another tour of Vendors’ Hall. That was all we could do, since lectures and programs would not begin until Wednesday. Well, not quite all. We kept wandering by the TSP Office near the main gate where weather reports were posted. That did nothing for our spirits, since the forecasts were uniformly dismal, showing a cold front stalled just north of Alto Frio. We would get no clear skies till it moved through, and it didn’t appear to be in any hurry to do that.

Tuesday night was unbroken cloud cover without a sucker hole big enough to reveal a single star. Mr. Pat and I sat around a table on the field with a few other folks drinking “sarsaparilla” and talking telescopes. I am usually up for that, but, for one reason or another, this particular conversation did not light my fire; I excused myself and headed to the tent, hoping for a better night Wednesday.

Wouldn’t you know it? More and thicker clouds at dawn and the bathhouse was dirtier and smellier than ever. At least there was lunch, and, even better, the beginning of the TSP’s renowned programs. I particularly enjoyed astrophotographer Robert Reeves’ presentation on wide-field imaging. I only hoped I’d get a chance to try some of the tips I picked up from him at his talk before the dadgum star party was over.

Other highlights Wednesday? Pat and I were introduced to former Astronomy Magazine Editor Richard Berry, a hero of mine. Richard was at the top of his game, riding the crest of the incredible popularity (in a small amateur astronomy way) of his CCD Camera Cookbook. Even silly old Unk eventually tried to build one of Mr. Berry’s Cookbook Cameras, which got more than one top imager of today started.

The evening’s talks were all good, with (then) Sky and Telescope Contributing Editor Steve O’Meara’s being a standout, I reckon. It was cloudy when we went in and it was cloudy every time I peeped outside the big meeting hall/auditorium during the programs, so at least everybody was relaxed and not worried speakers were going to cut into observing time. After the talks were done, I retrieved a brewski and hung out outside the auditorium, shooting the breeze with Mr. O’Meara and other folks who, like me, weren’t even close to ready to turn in.

If we had been hoping the weather would be better Thursday, those hopes were dashed at dawn when that cold front finally began to roar through. At 5 a.m., raindrops on my tent awakened me. A pleasant enough sound that, combined with the hush of the breeze blowing through the trees, soon had me drifting back to sleep. Till, just a few minutes later, my tent began to shudder in a gale force wind that was threatening to blow it down.

I freaked. I jumped up, pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, wrapped my sleeping bag and pillow in a tarp to keep them dry if the tent did collapse, and ran for the truck. I was soaked by the time I got to the Ryder, but at least I was ahead of the worst of the storm, which included awesome thunder and lightning. I was now sorry I had listened to reason concerning the shade trees and hadn’t pitched my tent alongside our vehicle anyway. Pat, also soaked, was there ahead of me.

We were concerned Joe was MIA, but needn’t have been. His tent stood up to the storm and he, unlike us, was dry. When the rain slacked up, we found Joe and discovered our tents had remained standing, too. The Dobsonians were fine under tarps staked to the ground, and the C8 was in her case in the back of the truck—Wednesday night we’d had a good idea severe weather was coming and soon.

We spent Thursday afternoon hanging out on the field, which was getting a little old, I had to admit, but doing sightseeing in a deuce-and-a-half truck didn’t seem practical. Joe had made friends with a couple of guys he met on the field, who gave him a ride into town to the local donut shop. They were kind enough to bring me and Pat some of the fat-pills, though it wasn’t like we were starving given Alto Frio’s good food.

The highlight of Thursday was again the evening talks, and especially Richard Berry’s “What CCDs Bring to Amateur Astronomy.” In 1997, CCD cameras were still mysteries to us Joe and Jane amateurs, and we were eager for information about the supposed revolution in astrophotography. The inimitable Mr. Berry gave us that information in spades. His presentation almost made up for the fact that there was absolutely no observing Thursday night. What did I think of that? I thought it was getting ridiculous, and also thought that if the weather didn’t improve it might not be a bad idea for us to head home Friday. I had just about reached my infamous I Have Had Enough stage.

Friday morning came in with still cloudy but slightly improved skies, so I held my peace about hitting the road. I was well aware that when you pull up stakes early you usually miss some good observing. A lot of folks apparently didn’t share my opinion; both observing fields were beginning to empty out by early afternoon.

What went on during the remainder of Friday after lunch? I did a little more buying, but not for me, for Miss Dorothy. I purchased a piece of jewelry made from a meteorite from AstroSystems. Randy Cunningham’s wife, Judy, who handled the jewelry part of their business, was showing off some nice pieces indeed. I was pleased with what I got for D., who’d been such a good sport about our slightly hare-brained expedition.

Most of the rest of Friday was pleasant, but not all. After supper, the TSP held a general meeting to discuss plans for next year’s event, and it was a contentious one. It’s hard for amateurs to be upbeat when the skies are cloudy, and that was made worse by the fact that most of us had traveled so far and had been looking forward to TSP ’97 for so long. It was easy to blame the TSP organizers’ choice of site, and one outraged woman stood up and nearly screamed at the stage that they had RUINED THE TSP AND HER WHOLE VACATION.

She wasn’t the only one who felt that-a-way. Even easygoing Unk was right put out, conveniently overlooking the fact that even if we had been at Prude the story would have been the same. Fort Davis was resolutely clouded-out too. The meeting ended with the organizing committee assuring the audience that they would go back to negotiating with the Prudes in hopes of returning The Texas Star Party to Prude Ranch in 1998.

Thankfully, Friday night also brought a moving talk by David Levy, TSP ‘97’s keynote speaker, “A Time for Comets,” which got everybody in a better mood. What got us in a better humor still was, almost unbelievably, semi-clear skies. We were absolutely floored when we left the hall after the evening presentations and saw there were a few stars winking on. By 11:30, I could almost describe the Texas skies as “clear,” and it was time to untarp the scopes.

My initial plan was to take some insurance shots of Omega Centauri, but it was soon obvious the sky would be not good enough for astrophotography. It was a lot like Monday night:  fairly good stretches followed by lengthy intermissions. What did Betsy and I essay? Quite a few objects bright and dim. The highlight was probably peculiar galaxy NGC 5128, Centaurus A, which looked much better than it ever did from home. Both lobes were easy, as was the incredible dark lane. Yeah, we had to take some breaks, but were able to keep going till 2 a.m. when thick haze rolled in.

Saturday morning brought the last day of the star party. Was I sorry about that? Yes and no with more “no” than “yes,” I’m afraid. I’d had a great time with Pat and Joe and the whole the TSP gang, but I was weary of sleeping in a tent and trying to get clean in that dadgum Black Hole of a bathhouse. Did I mention the bugs? There were some, including fracking ticks.

Dawn didn’t just bring the last full day of TSP ’97, though; it brought clear blue skies. Finally. The anticipation of good viewing actually made it harder to get through that long, long Saturday. The only highlight of which was the prize drawing, the fabled Great Texas Giveaway. Naturally, I didn’t win a consarned thing.

Eventually, the Sun sank and we were able to begin observing on what was the best night, the only really good night, of the star party. The Milky Way burned fiercely, but my appreciation of it was tempered by the knowledge we’d be driving home in the morning, Sunday morning, and would, again, do the whole thing in one stinking day.

Nevertheless, Saturday night was one for the books. The Milky Way was a great edge-on spiral galaxy stretching from horizon to horizon. I spent the first part of the evening doing piggyback imaging all up and down its spine, everything from the North America Nebula, to the star fields of Centaurus. That done, I reimaged Omega just in case. I ended the evening doing visual observing with Betsy, with the last object of the night and the star party being The Eagle Nebula. With my OIII filter, the “fingers of god” dark nebulae at the Eagle’s heart were as good as I’d ever seen ‘em visually. We were tempted to go till dawn, but there was that drive. My turns-into-a-pumpkin time came at two in the a.m.

The drive back home was something I’d as soon forget. It was long and dreary with the three of us being as tired as we were. We stopped for burgers and cokes as we neared Louisiana, but that only helped marginally. When I took my turn for one of the last legs, darkness coming on, it was all I could do to keep my peepers open. I will tell y’all the truth:  even though I was substantially younger than I am today, it took me a pea-picking week to recover from “the TSP experience.”

When all was said and done, I was glad I went to the 1997 Texas Star Party. There is no use sugar coating it, though. The site was a poor one. Oh, the facilities were good—with the exception of that slimy bathroom—but it was just not a good place to practice astronomy. All would be forgiven in 1999 when Dorothy and I got the real TSP experience in Fort Davis, but you know what? I still treasure my memories of ’97. Not for the skies, although I did see and photograph some nice stuff, but for the memories of the amateur astronomers I spent time with, some of whom I’ll never see again. That is what amateur astronomy is really all about, muchachos.

Next Time:  MORE HERSCHEL FUN!

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