Sunday, September 04, 2011


Down Country Roads

I was skeptical. I was going to fly up the east coast to Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. just ahead of Hurricane Irene? And fly back out right after she had passed? Yeah, I was skeptical, but I decided to take a chance, anyway. Why would Unk do something dumb like that, muchachos? Because I didn’t want to give up my opportunity to attend the 2011 edition of one of the nation’s best star parties.

Lord knows why, but the organizers of the Almost Heaven Star Party, sponsored by NOVAC, the justly famous Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, decided to have your silly old Unk up once again to serve as one of their speakers. I have always had a wonderful time at AHSP with their great people and great facilities and was loath to give that up this year.

AHSP is held on the top of Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia at a Mountain Institute facility there, which would be well out of the direct path of the storm. That wouldn’t help much, however, since there is only one practical way to get to the event: fly into Dulles and drive into the Mountains of West Virginia. The good news was that it looked like my timing would be as perfect as could be. Flying into Washington Friday, I’d be well ahead of the storm. If the weather-goobers’ predictions held true, Irene would have passed DC by the time I was to leave on Sunday, and, theoretically, the airlines would be flying again. Star party honchos Bob Parks and Kathryn Scott assured me I’d be fine.

Worst case scenario? I’d be stuck at Almost Heaven till Monday. Throw me into the briar patch, Brer Fox. From what I could gather from the weather forecast for the closest town to Spruce Knob, Circleville, West Virginia, there would be plenty of clouds Friday night and gale conditions Saturday, but clearing Sunday - Monday. My experience is that you never get better, cleaner skies than you get in the wake of a big storm—someday I’ll tell y’all what I saw with my StarBlast the night after Katrina. I teach my university astronomy lab on Monday night, and I would have hated to cancel it, but if I had to, I’d just HAVE TO.

Come Friday morning, I was up early to pack. Was I a little nervous? Yep. I had no idea what was happening with the airline system. Would there be huge delays? As y’all know, any adverse event anywhere tends to immediately cascade all across our rickety air-travel infrastructure.

But air-travel wasn’t my only concern. What if the weather were so bad Friday afternoon that the club member detailed to pick me up at the airport couldn’t make it? I tried to stop worrying; what would be would be. I’d just soldier on in the face of potential adversity as I always do. The two rules us traveling astro-authors adhere to are BE PROFESSIONAL and BE RELIABLE. I’d promised I’d be there and if there were any way I could be there, I'd BE THERE. Worst case scenario? I'd spend a night in one of the motels adjoining Dulles watching TV and drinking "soda pop," and get on a return flight to the Swamp the next morning.

Resolved to press on, I felt a little better—till I got to Possum Swamp Regional Airport. My last time at AHSP I’d been foolish enough not to bring a heavy coat—it gets cold in the West Virginia mountains, even in August—this time I had one, which necessitated checking a bag. When I gave the nice lady at the counter my boarding pass, she took one look at it and frowned. Rut-roh.

My flight out of Possum Swamp was delayed for an hour. Not because of weather, but because of mechanical difficulties. Which meant I would miss my connection in Atlanta. Which meant I’d be several hours late getting into Dulles. The agent booked me on the 3:55 p.m. flight to Washington, but also put me on standby on one leaving ATL at 1:15, which would get me into DC only an hour later than originally planned. She told me not to get my hopes up, though, since the earlier flight was completely full to the point of “overbooked.” AHSP 2011 sure was off to a great start for me.

While cooling my heels at the MOB gate, I played “what did I forget?” Had my coat this time. Red flashlight? Check. PowerPoint remote clicker - laser pointer? Check. Telescope? Nope. I’d originally planned to tote my cute little Orange Tube C90, Stella, with me, but the forecasts for Friday night and Saturday night were poor and getting worse, so I demurred. I did throw a pair of Celestron 10x50s in my bag in case there were sucker holes. Had my netbook computer, of course. iPod, too. Cell phone? Yeah, though once you get to Spruce Knob, which is not far from the NRAO at Greenbank and smack in the middle of the National Radio Quiet Zone, one becomes a paperweight.

I eventually made it to Atlanta on the usual hot and crowded but short commuter flight out of the Swamp. At the gate for my standby flight, I was told right off the bat that it didn’t look good. I decided to hang out in the area anyway and see what happened, and with an hour to kill I wandered around the concourse. ATL’s fast food selection is better than ever, now featuring BOTH Checkers burgers and Popeye’s fried chicken. Needless to say, lunch was not a problem for your Uncle. I also noted Hartsfield now has “mini suites,” small motel-room accommodations right inside the airport. If I couldn’t make it to Washington or back to the Swamp, that might be a welcome option. I am way too old to sleep in airport chairs.

When the 1:15 flight was called, I was told “so sorry” and trotted off to my 3:55 one. I’d been able to communicate with both Ms. Scott and with the person detailed to pick me up and drive me to the AHSP, Elon Garfinkel, so I hoped everything would be well at the Washington end despite my late arrival.

What did I do with another couple of hours on my hands? I spent it with James Swanson’s book, Bloody Crimes, the true story of the funeral procession(s) of Abraham Lincoln and the flight of Jefferson Davis from fallen Richmond. Yes, I am on a Civil War jag again, and Bloody Crimes was made all the more interesting by the fact that Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina, a distant relative of Unk’s, is featured prominently. The book made the hours pass with amazing quickness, my flight out of Atlanta was on time, and other than extremely long stretches of extremely bumpy air the trip was without incident. Ah, the life of an astro-writer!

On the ground in Washington, I retrieved my bag and called my ride. Elon assured me he’d be along directly, so I stood out in front of the Delta baggage claim area and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, he showed. Turned out his car battery had died on him, and he’d had to get a jump. Was this trip CURSED?

The rest of my journey to Almost Heaven was smoother. The only challenge was negotiating those West Virginia country roads in the dark. As we neared the site, it was getting close to ten p.m. Eventually, the GPS instructed us to “TURN RIGHT!” Unfortunately, there was nothing to turn right onto. We did a little cruising back and forth, but located the correct road without too much fuss. After negotiating the long and occasionally rough final stretch up the mountain, I was HOME.

That’s what it felt like. Kathryn and the AHSP’s chief cook and bottle-washer, Phil Wheery, got me settled. Kathryn, knowing my silly and forgetful ways, had a flashlight for me that was bright enough to allow me to navigate in the dark without going you-know-what over teakettle. Yeah, I’d brought a light, but it was an observer’s light and not bright enough to help me avoid the rocks and ruts of the Mountain Institute. I dropped off my stuff in the yurt where I’d be staying, and headed for the field.

First order of bidness? SEE SOMETHING. It was good and dark, of course, and while they were quickly closing, there were still a few sucker holes, including one that allowed the Milky Way to shine through with at least some of its accustomed brilliance at this site. I was treated to a lovely view of M13 through an Ethos-equipped 30-inch Dob, and, needless to say, the Great Globular looked great, even if it wasn’t as great as it should have been from Spruce Knob in such a large and fine instrument.

The Dorms
I trotted on down the field, drawn by the sound of laughter in the dark and stumbled on a group of friends who were yukking it up, waiting to see what would happen to the sky. They invited me to have a sit and a beer, and you can bet I did both. Not only were the beer (and the malted milk ball COOKIES) good, these nice folks were kind enough to keep feeding them to me and keep listening to the continual stream of foolishness I offered in return (Chris: Dolly Madison still drools; Little Debbie RULES!).

And so it went for an hour or so, till it began to get a little chilly. Summer is already dying up in the Appalachians, and, naturally, I’d left the jacket I’d packed back at the yurt. I was offered the loan of a coat, but it looked like it might begin raining at any minute, and I was also undeniably weary after the travails of a day spent enjoying the U.S. air travel “system.” Back I went for night-night time.

Yep, I was staying in a yurt. An actual “yurt” is the peculiar round/multi-sided tent that originated on the steppes of Mongolia. The buildings and cabins at the Mountain Institute are not really yurts in that they are not felt-tents, but that was the inspiration. The yurt I was in was a modern, clean, dry, and snug dormitory. I fell into my excellent bed and knew no more till almost 8 a.m. the next morning—which is awful late sleeping for the Rodster.

I had awakened once briefly in the early hours and peered out the window, remembering the beautiful vista I’d had the previous year of Pegasus flying into the west. Not this time. The sky, like the land, was as black as the inside of a black cat at midnight. So when I got up I wasn’t surprised to see it had barely dawned. Thick clouds covered the sky, making everything dark and dreary.

The Big Yurt
Not a surprise and no need for disappointment. There’d be good talks and good people to occupy my day. The first thing on my agenda, though, was good food—breakfast—so I hustled down to the Big Yurt, which is actually two yurt buildings pasted together to house the site’s kitchen, office, and auditorium. It is surrounded by a large deck that offers a beautiful 180 degree view of mountain scenery and which is perfect for outdoor dining. When it’s not raining, which, luckily, it wasn’t at the moment.

Meals at the Mountain Institute tend to the “healthy” side and that is good, I suppose. What was better was that at breakfast Saturday there was also plenty of BACON. I mean, it really doesn’t get much better than that does it? I had a tablespoon of eggs with my bacon, and even though there were no grits I was happy with the star party grub.

My thoughts next turned to the condition of the AHSP. Looking west to the observing fields spread before me, I could see plenty of tents and tarp-covered telescopes. Not as many as last year, but an amazing number nevertheless considering the presence of Hurricane Irene nearby in the Atlantic. The star party was once again sold out, and I expected more observers would arrive Sunday with the promise of clear skies.

For now? We all sat around looking at satellite weather maps and wondering. Well, some of us wondered. I knew there would be no way I would see a blessed thing Saturday night, and, since I had to leave Sunday, I focused on those other parts of the star party equation: people and presentations.

I had been very much looking forward to Kelly Beatty’s talk, “The Sputnik Years,” a subject near and dear to my heart. He had, alas, not been able to make it in from Boston, the airlines being pretty much shut down up there. This being the modern age, Kelly was able to email his PowerPoint to Phil and give his talk Friday night via a speakerphone. I missed it, being in transit on those country roads at the time, but the people who heard it loved it. Kelly is as gifted a speaker as he is a writer and editor.

Bad, old Irene.
There was no shortage of excellent presentations Saturday morning and afternoon. First was ATM guru Guy Brandenburg with an excellent talk on Newtonian mirror making, which included a hands-on demo of rough grinding and a Ronchi tester set-up Guy used both to edumacate the newbies and to test primary mirrors brought in by star partiers. I am pretty sure he lit the glass-pushing fire in a couple of novices—and maybe even in some not-so-novices.

Next up was an impressive presentation on beginning astrophotography. I didn’t get to hear all of it, since I needed to spend the time putting some final touches on my own program, but I what I did hear was informative and well received. This talk was a last minute addition not listed in the program, and scatter-brained me is unable to pull up the speaker’s name on this Monday morning, but he did a nice job.

I wasn’t scheduled to go on till seven p.m., so what did I do once I was finished working on my simple slides? The Herschel Project. I still needed to record my observing notes from Nights 24 and 25 in SkyTools 3’s logbook. That was easy enough to do by copying then from the Word document in which they resided and pasting them into the ST3 log. That done, I was finally able to close the book on our latest Chiefland expedition to the tune of nearly 150 new objects.

What else? Wandered around. Took the pictures you see here. Looked in vain for vendors, but, not surprisingly with a major storm in the offing, there weren’t any. Astro-gizmos had promised to show up before all was said and done, but had not appeared by the time I left Sunday morning. Which maybe wasn’t a bad thing. It is never a good thing for me to be at a star party with a wallet full of credit cards and dealers showing off lots of play-pretties to buy. The U.S. rep/vendor for the increasingly popular ATIK CCD cameras was on site, and I wish I’d been able to talk to him on Saturday, but never got the chance.

Late in the afternoon, I put my raffle tickets in the jars without much hope. Without my lucky charm, Miss Dorothy, with me at a star party I’ve never won a blessed thing. Even when she is with me, she’s usually the one who gets a big prize. Why “jars”? AHSP does their raffle a little differently from what I’m used to. Each jar is marked with the name of a prize, and you put your tickets in the jars of the prizes you are most interested in. I think that is a cool idea.

I was pleased to be able to spend a little time with my friend and ex-Possum Swamper, Lyle Mars, and his lovely family Saturday afternoon. One day I will convince these talented amateur astronomers, Lyle, Carolyn, and son Will, that we need them back Down Home.

While I’d expected Saturday to drag, it literally flew by. In part because I had not come close to adjusting to the change from Central to Eastern time, and in part because there were so many nice amateur astronomers to shoot the breeze with. When I became a little tired in the late afternoon, I parked myself on a bench on the deck of the Big Yurt and drank in the pure (if now humid) and cool mountain air.

The weather did not improve as the day wore on; in fact, it got worse. The “feeder band” cloud patterns of Friday night had morphed into heavy overcast with nasty looking cloud banks moving through with incredible speed on storm-driven winds. At least—with most attendees in tents—winds at the surface weren’t blowing hard and the rain was still holding off. That was about to change.

We made it almost through supper before the bottom fell out. Just as a long line of AHSPers formed on the deck for ice cream with all the fixings (have some ice cream with your chocolate sauce), the rains came, sending everybody scurrying into the Big Yurt. More ice cream was set up inside, but I’d already had a hamburger, a hotdog, beans, slaw, and chips so I was set. I had the slightly queasy feeling I sometimes get just before going on and I didn’t want to make that worse.

I took the stage at 7 p.m. for my talk “Amateur Astronomy on the Cheap.” This novice-centric presentation about today’s inexpensive commercial telescopes and accessories was one of the best-received talks I’ve given in a while. Partly that was because AHSP, in addition to having a cadre of incredibly experienced and talented amateurs, always hosts plenty of novices and, best of all, novice families. NOVAC is obviously doing a great job of bringing new amateurs into the fold, and a presentation aimed primarily at new folks was a good fit.

It also didn’t hurt that I had a captive audience due to the rain. There were enough people to fill the auditorium area to overflowing. Computer guru Phil was ready for that and piped my talk’s audio and video to a large tent outside the yurt. With the rain pouring and the winds beginning to howl, there wasn’t much else for anybody to do other than to listen to your old Uncle, who, before getting down to serious business, naturally told plenty of uber-corny jokes:

Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar…
First hydrogen atom: “Hey! I think I lost an electron!”
Second hydrogen atom: “Are you sure?”
First hydrogen atom: “Yeah, I’m POSITIVE!”


I ran on for about an hour, followed by 30-minutes of questions from excited novices and other audience members. When I was done I was completely wrung-out but on a high. It was still raining off and on, so I couldn’t walk out to the field, but I was hardly ready to go to bed until I’d wound down a bit. I did that by sipping a can of “sarsaparilla” while sitting in the now-deserted tent that had been the satellite venue for my talk. What did I ruminate on? On what an amazingly good time I’d had despite my initial misgivings and how tempted I was to get on the phone with Delta and change my reservations to Monday.

I wanted to, but in the end demurred. I needed to get home to work and teach. I trotted to the yurt between squalls and drifted off to the tune of rain on the roof. When I awakened early Sunday a.m. and headed to the Big Yurt, I halfway expected to look out on a sea of downed tents. Luckily that didn’t happen. As it usually does, the Mars family tent did go down in gale force winds, but most tents and everybody’s telescopes withstood the brush of Irene.

All too soon I was back on my way down the mountainside for another year. My thanks to Kathryn and Phil for making it another great experience. And to Elon for going above and beyond the call of duty in ferrying me hundreds of miles to and from the airport. And to the AHSP rank and file, who were, as usual, just so darned nice to me.

Please allow me to vent....

Back in the good 'ol days, we had airline flights on time, free baggage, pillows, food and drink and smiling stewardesses.

Now, after deregulation, airline travel BLOWS CHUNKS!

It is a necessary evil,,,
Glad you enjoyed the view of M13 in the 30", touch and go as the conditions were. Sorry you missed it though, but Monday night was 'Almost Heaven' under those West Virginia dark skies!

Donovan Brock
30" Obsession
Morning Calm Observatory
Hi Donovan:

Sure did! Thanks for your hospitality and the only object I saw the whole time.

Cleared up after I left, huh? Yep...that is the story of my life! LOL!
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