Sunday, March 22, 2009


Deep in the Heart

As most of y’all who’ve been reading this blog for a while know, I’ve been an amateur astronomer for a long time. I’ve seen the Caves and Optical Craftsmen and Coulters come and I’ve seen ‘em go. I’ve been going to star parties for quite a  while too. But I had never been to the Texas Star Party, muchachos.

Oh, I’d thought about doing TSP many times over the years, but that trip from Possum Swamp to West Texas always seemed just too daunting.  I still wanted to go, though, and as my career(s) began to move off Square One, that heretofore elusive goal out at Prude Ranch began to seem suddenly doable. For one reason or anudder, though, the stars didn’t quite align for me until about a dozen years back, when—what’s that? “What’s the Texas Star Party?” you ask?!

I doubt there are too many seasoned amateurs who have not heard of “TSP,” but if’n you are a wet behind the ears tenderfoot, here is the straight poop. Like quite a few of the biggest and most famous star parties that survive till this day, The Texas Star Party got its start way back in the 1970s, 1979 to be exact. The first several TSPs were small affairs held at the state park down the road from McDonald observatory. The prime mover in the beginning was Deborah Byrd, whose name should be familiar to y’all from her long-running and excellent Stardate radio show and her current project, Earth and Sky. Deborah was ably assisted by the McDonald staff (University of Texas), the Austin Astronomical Society, and a small group of deep-sky-crazy amateur astronomers.

The Texas Star Party did not stay small for long. Soon it had outgrown the state park and had moved across the road to Prude Ranch, a “dude ranch” well equipped for the enormous (in a smallish amateur astronomy sorta way) crowds it was obvious the star party would soon be attracting. And attract it did, reaching a peak of over 800 amateurs in the 1990s before TSP and ranch personnel reluctantly decided it was necessary to limit registration to 700 because of badly stressed facilities. What made and makes the Texas Star Party so popular, such a big thing in our little world?

It came along at just the right time. When TSP was aborning, there wasn’t, first of all, too much competition. Oh there was Stellafane on the East coast and Riverside on the west, but not a whole lot in between. Even the justly famous Winter Star Party was still just a gleam in Tippy D’Auria’s eye. In the 1970s, amateur astronomy was changing, too. Light pollution and a growing interest by amateurs in deep sky observing and photography meant that folks had to travel to dark sites to observe. So they needed a place to travel to—and Prude was that in spades. Out in the Big Bend area of the Lone Star State, TSP is blessed with skies that are both dark and dry (which is often more important than dark for seeing the real faint fuzzies). Limiting magnitude? I’ve never seriously tried to ascertain that, but I’d guess “7 or better at zenith.”

After sitting on the sidelines, my long-time observing companion, Pat Rochford, and I resolved that 1997 was gonna be the year for us, and just after Christmas we started planning a massive observing expedition. What would we take with us? If the skies were as good as we thought they was gonna be, we’d better go loaded for bear. I’d be equipped with my trusty 12.5-inch Meade StarFinder Dob for general observing, and, for photography under those lustrous skies, I’d have my Ultima C8. Of course we would need deep sky Dobsonian horsepower, too; for that we’d bring Pat’s massive 24-inch. Just in case, he’d bring another, smaller telescope along as well.

That was four. But we’d also invited a fellow club member and deep sky observer, Joe Diefenbach, along for the trip, and he’d want a scope of his own; his 12-inch ultra-portable truss made five. Since we’d decided to tent-camp (still not sure why we did that), we’d need tents, sleeping bags, and all the other accouterments required for a week of roughing it as well. How would we tote all that stuff across four states? We’d rent a truck. Not a van. Not a small rent-a-truck, but the biggest thing Ryder offered before you got to tractor-trailers; something deuce-and-a-half sized.

So we was set by late winter, checklists composed, gear gathered. I was a mite skeptical about tent-camping in Texas in May, but not too much. I was not as adverse to tents then as I am now. Everything looked like it would work out just ducky till we began hearing rumors over that new-fangled Internet thingie that there was big trouble in River City—or Prude Ranch. Seemed as there was a disagreement between the TSP organizers and the ranch’s owners. The result? A last minute decision was made to move the event from Prude to a new site, the Alto Frio Baptist Encampment near Leakey, Texas in the hill country (not far from San Antonio, that is). We were put-out we would not get to experience the storied Prude, but, on the other hand, Alto Frio was somewhat closer for us. When time came to load up the Big Rig and head west, we’d convinced ourselves that the move to Alto Frio might actually be a Good Thing.

The actual trip to TSP ’97 was not really that bad, anticlimactic almost. Yeah, it was derned close to 800-miles, and, being (relatively) young and foolish, we did all them miles in one day, setting out before dawn, and, yeah, being penny-pinchers all, the quick meals we took along the way was the worst sort of fast-food, Hardees and Dairy Queen, for god’s sake. Fortunately, when you are still on the sweet side of 50, roughing it don’t seem so rough.

Only thing I really didn’t like? Driving that big truck over the long, high, narrow bridge at Lake Charles, Louisiana. I don’t like bridges, was unlucky enough to be at the wheel when we got to this one, and by the time I knew what was ahead, it was too late to pull over and switch drivers. I made it across by the simple expedient of centering the truck on the white line and ignoring the irate honking behind me. Once we passed San Antonio, the rest of the ride was pleasant and pretty. Maybe too pretty. As we approached TSP’s new Alto Frio site, Joe began chirping about the “beautiful wildflowers.” I turned to him and said, “You know what makes wildflowers, doncha? RAIN.”

Once we hit the Baptist Encampment, we, in short order, got registered, found a few trees at the edge of the field under which to erect our tents, unloaded scopes and other gear, and stashed the truck, which I’d taken to calling “Big Mama,” in a vacant corner of the humongous field. Almost before we knew it, the sky was darkening, and, from the looks of it, it was apt to be a beautiful night. And it was, for the most part, with just a couple of irritations.

Rod's Omega:  C8 and Fuji Super G800 film.
Unfortunately, them irritations was major. Yeah, the skies were pretty, but it was windy. I wasn’t sure whether this was because of the passage of a front, or whether it was in advance of a front, but one thing I did know was that even my “small” 12-inch Dob suddenly decided it was a weathervane. That pushed me over to the Ultima 8, which showed that the race ain’t always to the swift (or largest aperture). Despite the winds, I was able to do quite a bit of observing with the U8, and even got a credible shot of Omega Centauri (on the fondly remembered Fuji Super G800 35 film) before clouds began to roll in. Which they did after a while, closing the sky with a thud (or, more accurately, with a boom of distant thunder).

The next several days was both good and bad. The Good was the friendly folks, both TSPers and the Alto Frio staff. Also good were the exceptional speakers, who included David Levy, Steve O’Meara, Richard Berry, and everybody’s fave imager, Robert Reeves. The talks were given in the facility’s main hall, which was one of the best venues for star party talks I have ever seen. The food, served in Alto Frio’s massive cafeteria complex, was also excellent. There was a nice building for use by vendors, who included the fondly remembered Pocono Mountain Optics, Lumicon, TeleVue, and many other biggies of the day.

The Bads? The bathrooms/showers were OK to begin with, but the Alto Frio folks never did clean them. At all. Not a lick. By the end of the event the bath house resembled the Black Hole of Calcutta. More serious was the light pollution problem. Not from Leakey, Texas; that was minimal. The problem was passing cars. One edge of the observing field was bordered by a road.

I don’t know if traffic along it is always as heavy as it was that week, or whether the locals were just out in force to look at the crazy astronomers, but headlights were a problem. The TSP folks had known about this from the beginning, and had endeavored to erect a “light fence” by stringing tarps along the field edge. Unfortunately, winds on that first, clear evening made this all but useless. Not that it made much difference, since the lingering and sometimes threatening clouds meant we went most of the week without seeing a blessed thing other than the insides of our eyelids. Luckily we had a bottle or three of the Rebel Yell to help keep our spirits up and which we (mostly me) consumed discretely--this was a Baptist Encampment, afterall.

By midweek, I began to notice tension between the long-time attendees and TSP organizers, which came to a head during an open discussion forum one (cloudy) evening. There was evident and expressed anger over the move to Alto Frio. People wanted Prude, not the Texas Hill Country. The feeling was so obviously and strongly against the Baptist Encampment; so many attendees were obviously disappointed in the new venue and pining for the old location's "better skies" (despite the fact that, according to weather reports, the ranch was also clouded out) that I had little doubt that come hell or high water TSP would move back to Prude for “next time.” If the skies had been clear for most of the star party at Alto Frio, it might have been different. But they were not. The week wore on with only minor respites from gray skies, and culminated in a thunderstorm and torrential rain that collapsed our tents and sent me, Pat, and Joe scrambling for the safety of Big Mama.

Once the storm passed, it, as you might expect, brought clearing. As you also might expect, that didn’t happen till the last night of TSP ’97. Oh, the three of us tried to stick with it as long as we could, but the knowledge we didn’t just have to pack up and leave in the morning, but had to do an 800-mile trip in one go put a bit of a damper on our enjoyment. I’d had a good time as I always do at any star party, but, yes, TSP ’97 was a bit of a wash. We’d spent the majority of our time looking at satellite weather images instead of the sky. Not that I regretted the trip; there were great speakers, great food, great vendors, and great people. This was my first major star party since I’d attended Riverside ages back; how could I not have a good time spending a week with 600 fellow amateurs? Would I be back to TSP? If it continued in Alto Frio? Prob’ly not. If it returned to Prude? Maybe someday.

The more I thought about the “taste” of TSP I’d got, the more I resolved to experience the Real Thing. But that was not to be the following year. I had a destroyer to take to sea trials and there was no way I could absent myself from the good old shipyard. 1998 came and went without me. But 1999 was different. My decks were clear for another try at deep sky heaven. This would be a different medium and mode, though. Pat couldn’t do 1999, and Joe had moved away. Miss Dorothy, however, expressed interest, and soon we were planning a TSP-cum-family vacation.

One small fly in the always sticky ointment? We missed out on the cabin lottery (back then there were always more amateurs wanting Ranch accommodations than there were accommodations for them). I was a mite distressed at first, but a couple of phone calls revealed that if we could make do for a couple of days “something will turn up.” To that end we purchased a new tent and arranged for a motel room for Miss D. in nearby Fort Davis. Being still (relatively) young and stupid and figgered I could easily put up with a tent for a week. Ha.

I gotta say the trip to TSP ’99, while longer than the ill-fated expedition to Alto Frio, was much more pleasant. It wasn't just having Dorothy along, but also the difference between driving a deuce-and-a-half and a Toyota Camry over rutted Texas Interstates. It was like, well, yeah, night and day. Dorothy and I also didn’t try to push it. Leaving early on Saturday morning rather than Sunday, we spent the night at Dorothy’s brother’s place in Houston. Yeah, that made for one heck of a drive Sunday, but still better than going all the way to that dadgummed Baptist Encampment in one day. The drive itself, once we got past Hill Country, was interesting, with the land rapidly changing to desert southwest with dry expanses and mesas as far as the eye could see an’ no wildflowers in sight.

When we finally made it to the vaunted Prude Sunday afternoon, we were pleasantly surprised. Rather than being a ramshackle collection of lean-tos as we’d feared, Prude Ranch was a dude ranch in the old and kinda elaborate mold. Think Gene Autry’s TV show. In addition to a large “ranch-house” containing offices, cafeteria style dining, and a large meeting hall, Prude featured an indoor swimming pool, many cabins and motel type rooms (too bad we weren’t in one), and an adequate vendor building. Following registration, a quick drive around (done slowly so as not to stir up the deep, fine dust; Prude had not had appreciable rain in months) showed the Upper Field was wall-to-wall telescopes. Somewhat disappointedly, I set up scope and tent on the Middle Field, which actually had the advantage of better horizons in some directions, but, at the time, the liability of a lot more of that intrusive dust.

Once we’d checked Dorothy into her old and plain but clean motel, we investigated the other major question mark: food. We’d heard some chilling tales of Prude Ranch food, but these turned out to be quite inaccurate. Every meal we had at TSP was several cuts above normal star party fare, and was served in pleasant surroundings by courteous and attentive staff. A glance outside as I finished stuffing myself showed it wouldn’t be too long before the main course, the sky. Actually, we had several hours to get ready before getting down to it. Prude is way far west in the central time zone, so it don’t get truly dark until about 9pm in the spring.

Dark did come, though, and when it did, MAN ALIVE. If you’re an East-of-the-Mississippier like Unk, you are ripe to be shocked by southwest desert skies. At first you don’t realize how much better they are. The sky doesn’t look black. Despite the absence of light-pollution at Prude, it looks more a shade of gray. But then you realize how much you are seeing. For even well-experienced sky-watchers, the constellations take on a disturbingly unfamiliar look as hordes of normally unseen stars wink into existence. By the time the night grew old, the Milky Way was arching overhead like some monstrous burning rainbow. Looking to the south, I finally found out why they call NGC 6231 “The False Comet.”

Long before the Milky Way reigned overhead, though, I was in deep sky heaven. At the time, my 12.5-inch Dobbie was not equipped with digital setting circles. She did have a decent 50-mm finder in addition to her Telrad, but I found I didn’t need to use the finderscope. With so many stars to hop by, the zero-power finder was more than sufficient as I effortlessly cruised from object to object, marvel to mystery. I had one major goal on this first evening, locating and observing the famous Double Quasar. Well, sort of a goal, anyhow. More like “faint hope” given the Double’s frighteningly dim magnitude figure of 16.5. The Double Quasar is a gravitationally lensed QSO, with its two components bein’ about six seconds apart. Finding is not a problem, since the pair is less than 15 arc minutes northwest of prominent NGC 3079.

When I landed on the proper eyepiece field, the first surprise was 3079. This 11th magnitude galaxy is normally just a smudge even from good skies back home. Here, it was a showpiece, displaying considerable detail in the form of contrasty dust lanes. So good I had a hard time pulling myself away to continue on to the Quasar. What did I notice in the field right away besides the NGC? The little sprite of a galaxy CGCG 266-7. This 14.8 magnitude fuzzball was bold. OK, nudge the scope a little west and north. There’s the “dipper” asterism they talked about on Adventures in Deep Space and…and…and there she is! No, I won’t say I saw the double as a resolved double object, but I did see a small smidge-smudge in the proper place. Not easy, but THERE!

As the night grew old, I worked and worked hiking through the great forest of galaxies that extends from northernmost Coma to southernmost Virgo and then, as the summer skies came in, wandering through trackless Milky Way star fields until a small and old Moon began to peep over the mountain and the east began to lighten noticeably. As I crawled into the tent, Miss Dorothy was still sitting outside, listening to the horses in the nearby corral come awake and watching that slim crescent float into the sky to the accompaniment of their neighs and snuffles.

Only complaint at the end of our first day? I found it impossible to sleep long in the tent with the Sun over the horizon. Due to the low humidity, I never felt hot outside, but in the tent, even with it well ventilated, humidity built-up and made it aitch-oh-tee-tee hot. What to do? Miss Dorothy decided to haunt the ranch office and get us a room. Her persistence paid off; by Tuesday afternoon, we were in one of the “family cabins” right across from our position on the field. These are actually large attached motel-type rooms and feature blessed air conditioning and hot showers. Frankly, I don’t think I could have done a week in a tent and continued to observe all night.

What else do I remember from ‘99? What sticks in my mind observing-wise in addition to the QSO is how wondrous M51 looked. Yeah, like you I’d seen it a million times before, but rarely—if ever—like this. At high magnification, it stretched on forever, and I wandered up and down its arms picking off HII regions as I went. Also still bright in memory is another familiar object, M8, The Lagoon Nebula, which in a 12-mm Nagler and OIII was a towering thing, seeming to stretch way over my head and almost inspiring vertigo. It wasn’t just the sky, though. I also recall how many wonderful friends we made that year. Oh, and we still chuckle about the evening a herd of deer almost charged onto the field, the buck in the lead screeching to a halt and turning his gang away at the last moment when he noticed them weird humans all over the place. And the speakers. World class starting with David Levy and Steve O’Meara and working all the way down to li’l ol’ me who served on a discussion panel.

So it went night after night after night of ‘99. I, who couldn’t imagine ever getting enough of the deep sky, almost had a surfeit by week’s end. When the sky closed-in with clouds for the first and only time on Saturday night, the last night, I don’t think I was alone in heaving a small sigh of relief. The sky seemed to say, “OK, I’ve given you everything I have to give; that’s enough for this year.” I agreed—for a little while. Despite the wonderful time we’d had, I couldn’t help feelin’ a bit melancholy as Dorothy and I passed under the “Vaya Con Dios” sign at the ranch entrance on our way out. For once, though, I was satisfied to a “T” with a star party experience. It had all come together: sky, people, scope, facilities. But satisfied as I was, you’d better believe I was plotting our return before we hit I-10 on the way home.

To my disappointment, that return did not come in 2000. This time it was Miss D. who was snowed under with work. TSP 2000 fell right smack in the middle of final-exam time, no time for a professor to be away from her university. But the following year, 2001, those stars all came into alignment again, and we were gearin’ up for another expedition west. Only thing that worried us? We had such fond memories of 1999, we didn’t see how 2001 could possibly equal that. Would it be a letdown?

The trip out sure wasn’t. This time we decided to push on as far past Houston as possible on the first day in hopes of making Day Two a mite less stressful. We resolved to not stop before San Antonio, and by the time we got to San-An, we found that we were not very tired, and also that there didn’t seem to be any near-the-Interstate-ramp motels that looked overly appealing. We kept on trucking till we hit the small town of Kerrville. This wee retirement community was blessed with both nice motels and a selection of restaurants. The Best Western we chose was straight out of the 1960s with huge, clean rooms and an elaborate pool area. For eats, we did as the Desk Clerk suggested and gave Mamacita’s Mexican Restaurant a try. Ice cold margaritas soon washed away the dust of the road and Tex-mex soon cured the hunger pangs. Add excellent service in attractive surroundings and what more could a middle-aged astronomer ask for?

Next morning we was up bright and early and raring to go, hitting Prude just after noon. Dorothy suggested I drop her off at the ranch house to take care of registration details while I scoped out the field sitchy-ation. Second time, once you’ve got the lay of the land, is always so much easier. Not only did I find a spot on the upper field, but I found myself setting up next to one of the friends I’d made at 1999, Tom Wideman of Dallas. Soon we had my 12.5 setup next to Tom’s beautiful LX200 10-inch f/6.3 and was chomping at the bit for darkness.

Dorothy appeared in due time with our registration material and a key to our ranch motel room. That room, close to the upper field, was even better than the family cabin we’d enjoyed in 1999. Maybe not quite as fancy as your average Holiday Inn Express, but clean and comfortable, and featuring those musts for Prude living, air conditioning and showers. I wouldn’t have to endure the walk through the thick Prude dust (a superb blend of the manure of uncounted generations of horses, microfine dust, and leftover plutonium blowing in from Nevada) on my way to the bath-house. In 1999, I believe I was actually dirtier after my showers than before.

While waiting for the Sun to finally give up the field to the stars, I ran into another of my acquaintances from 1999, the late Jeff Medkeff. Jeff, who was taken from us way too soon, was one of the best observers, writers, and people I’ve run into in this game. If you knew Jeff, you also know that in addition to being a literal storehouse of astronomical knowledge, he had quite a (dry) sense of humor. In the picture, he is on the left and Tom on the right. I cut Tom’s head off because I was laughin’ so hard at whatever it was that Jeff had just said. All I know is that when we lost Jeff Medkeff, the astronomy writing business and amateur astronomy in general suffered a severe blow.

What was memorable about 2001? While the sky was not quite as good as it was in 1999—there were a couple of evenings that was partially closed out by clouds—the star gazing was still a couple of clicks past “awesome.” What I remember best is probably the time Tom Wideman and I observed till dawn and capped that off by tracking the International Space Station in Tom’s LX200 just ahead of Sunrise. That and running John Wagoner’s yearly observin’ program. Not only were the objects almost as tough as 1999’s “Planetary Party” (somebody opined that year that “TSP” must stand for “Twenty-five Stinkin’ Planetaries”), Mr. Wagoner said, cryptically, that there was a surprise awaiting us at the end. Much as Tom and I tried to determine what that “surprise” might be, it was not until we turned in our lists to collect our pins that John pointed out that plotting the objects on a star chart and connecting ‘em formed the numbers “2001” (the theme/t-shirt for the year was “Open the Pod Bay Doors Hal, I'm Late for TSP 2001!”).

That was 2001, though. Eight years back. If the Texas Star Party is do gosh-darned groovy, why haven’t Miss D. and I been back since? It’s not for lack of wanting to. Everytime spring rolls around, I get nostalgic for “the ranch,” and so does Dorothy. It’s just that as we—and especially she—have moved up the career ladder, it’s become more and more difficult to take off a week and a half in the spring (after a week of the TSP experience you will definitely need a day or two to recharge your batteries before putting your nose back to the grindstone). I’ll tell you right now: I’ve been to a lot of star parties, including some great star parties, but my heart is still in Texas. I have never had a better time and I guess I never will. I won’t make it this year, but I will be there in spirit. I’ll be back, too, many times. I may have to wait till I’m a little closer to retirement, but I will be back on that hallowed and luminous observing field.

As these days I am a truck driver (used to be an electronic technician) I can tell you that one, the Texas interstate is non-rutted now, two, the sky out that way is still as dark and clear, and three, you will never be a truck driver if you felt the need to ride the middle of two lanes on the Lake Charles I-10 bridge! LOL
When I retire I will be living out that way myself, and you are right to miss the TSP. I hoped to attend this year, but it's not to be. Hopefully next year.
As usual, you have done a good'un.
Doug Bailey
Another great one, Unk. As fortune would have it I'm reading this from my "dark site" in the Texas Hill Country, in a sleepy little town just a few miles West of Kerrville called Ingram. The margaritas at Mamacitas are as good as ever, I sampled some yesterday ;-), and they've completely remodeled the place - the ceiling is a simulated star field, with meteors streaking across periodically! Sometimes thats all the star gazing I get up here. I'm up here for the week and have had only one clear night so far. I'm going after galaxies while I'm up here since they're next to impossible from my home site in the Houston 'burbs. I'm finally able to fit my LX90 into the van now that my children do not require 40 cubic feet of storage space to travel with. I'm seeing more galaxies than ever, but not quite the detail I'm expecting... Maybe its too much moisture in the air, maybe its all the hillbillies with their mercury vapor lights at every corner of their property I'm surrounded by, but the sky itself looks plenty black. Really makes your point about the difference between Hill Country dark and Southwest Desert dark. I might put up a post about what to expect from a site like this on sct-user next.
Another great one, Unk. As fortune would have it I'm reading this from my "dark site" in the Texas Hill Country, in a sleepy little town just a few miles West of Kerrville called Ingram. The margaritas at Mamacitas are as good as ever, I sampled some yesterday ;-), and they've completely remodeled the place - the seiling is a simulated star field, with meteors streaking across periodically! Sometimes thats all the star gazing I get up here. I'm up here for the week and have had only one clear night so far. I'm going after galaxies while I'm up here since they're next to impossible from my home site in the Houston 'burbs. I'm finally able to fit my LX90 into the van now that my children do not require 40 cubic feet of storage space to travel with. I'm seeing more galaxies than ever, but not quite the detail I'm expecting... Maybe its too much moisture in the air, maybe its all the hillbillies with their mercury vapor lights at every corner of their property I'm surrounded by, but the sky itself looks plenty black. Really makes your point about the difference between Hill Country dark and Southwest Desert dark. I might put up a post about what to expect from a site like this on sct-user next.

--Robert Harris
Hi Unk,
Wow you can sure paint a picture... You know after 5 years in the hobby, I have never hit a big star party. Kinda sad since I could go to RTMC easily (about 3 hours away). You sure make TSP sound tasty. I'll try to make plans for next year!
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