Sunday, February 09, 2014


Old Man Winter

“He just keeps rollin’, he just keeps rollin’ along.” Or sumpin like that anyways, muchachos. If’n you live in the northern U.S. of A., I don’t have to tell you it’s been a nasty winter. But those of us way south of the Mason - Dixon Line had missed the bad stuff. Oh, there were a couple of nights where the thermometer went purty low and I had to let the water faucets drip, but nothing too much out of the ordinary—though last winter I don’t believe we had a single hard freeze.

Then came this nasty dude named “Leon.” When did they start naming winter storms like they do dadgum hurricanes? I don’t know exactly, because I normally don’t pay much attention to the icy blasts that rock the midwest and northeast. But I figgered beginning to name ‘em wasn’t a good sign.

Anyhoo, a couple of days before the coming of Leon, I did sit up and take notice, since the weather goobers on TWC and elsewhere were hinting I might want to. That his icy breath would be felt as far south as our Gulf Coast.

While those of us who reside on this normally sunny and placid coast knew Leon was coming, we welcomed him at first, believe it or no. Snow is such an extraordinary thing for us down here that we actually long to see it. Well, “we” not to include your old Uncle Rod, who spent some weeks of the winter of ought-six in Bath, Maine, and saw more than enough snow to last him a cotton-picking lifetime.

didn't long for snow, and I was growing ever more concerned about what the storm would bring to us, since for most of our area what was on the weather map was “wintry mix,” which means lots of sleet and ice in addition to snow. I knew very well that sleet and ice would shut everything down. Get that stuff on the roads, it melts a tiny bit and freezes again, and you get surfaces even the most hardened Yankee snowbird can’t drive on. Without any snow removal equipment to clear the roads, things could get nasty, real nasty, in a hurry.

How much would this impact me and Miss Dorothy? Not much, I hoped. We are both retired and wouldn’t have to go out on Tuesday – Wednesday when conditions would be the worst. I do, of course, teach my astronomy labs at the University of South Alabama, but I’m only doing one day/night a week, Monday. Preparations? We did our usual grocery trip a day early, but didn't buy anything out of the ordinary. Other than that? I knew from bitter experience that if you’ve got a big Victorian home like Chaos Manor South with miles of water pipes running underneath it, you’ve got to let the water drip inside and out when it is real cold.

The beeeeeg question was what Leon would do to our January CAV trip. Making a run down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village in January is a tradition with Unk, something I’ve been doing since at least 2008, and I was hoping we wouldn’t have to cancel it because of lousy weather. Thankfully, it appeared the storm would miss CAV by a large margin, passing to the north. What I was worried about was getting thereDidn't look like the Florida Panhandle would be spared, and we’d have to traverse that to get to Chiefland. Still, if the storm hit as predicted on Tuesday, that gave us two days for things to get back to normal before our Thursday departure. I crossed my fingers and toes.

Tuesday dawned cloudy and cold, but there was absolutely nothing falling out of the skies at noontime, by which time Leon was supposed to have struck. Afternoon came and went and nothing, absolutely nothing happened. Unk began to relax, “We’ll have to drip water tonight, but it will be warming up by Wednesday afternoon. I’ll get the truck packed and we will skedaddle south early Thursday a.m.” Then I started hearing a curious noise coming from outside.

I hied myself to the front porch and saw white beginning to appear on the front lawn. Not the white of snow. The white of ice crystals, of sleet. The funny sound I was hearing was heavy sleet falling. And it kept going and going and going like the pea-picking Energizer Bunny. The lawn got whiter and whiter—with ice. I may have seen a flake or two of honest-to-god snow, but not much. Not much at all. It finally let up about ten p.m. as Unk was watching an episode of his fave “new Sherlock Holmes" series, Elementary. There was plenty of ice in the yard, and, worse, on the road, but I figured it would have plenty of time to melt both in Possum Swamp and on the Florida Panhandle before we left for CAV.

Wednesday? Absolutely miserable. While it did warm up some and some of the ice did melt, not all of it did. Then the power went out and Unk got colder and colder. At his advanced age, your old Unk thinks “75F” is on the chilly side, so you can imagine.

But the power did come back on in a couple of hours—I suspect they’d turned it off in our neighborhood because they needed to do maintenance somewhere else. I saw no downed or ice laden power lines, anyhow. Things was looking up, I thought. I set about loading up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt.

As y’all know, I hate, absolutely despise, packing on a star party morning. It is oh-so-much nicer to be able to get up, throw a suitcase or two in the truck and boogie. And packing the Toyota ain't hard these days. I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the packing “problem”  recently, and after all these years finally developed a PLAN, so despite the punk weather, gear load-out was a snap. It was cold and I had to be careful going up and down the ice coated steps of the Old Manse, but I got ‘er done.

I spent remainder the evening watching another Sherlock Holmes show, Sherlock, which is fine even if it doesn't tickle my fancy quite like Elementary does. Honestly, I am not that hip to modern dress Holmes, anyway, but if I have to choose, I’ll choose Elementary.

Up bright and early Thursday, all seemed A.O.K. We did delay our accustomed 8 a.m. departure to let the temperature get high enough that we could shut off the dripping water, but that appeared to be the only hangup. I thought that would be the only hangup, till I wisely heeded Miss Dorothy’s recommendation that I check the status of I-10 in Florida. Surely, though, it wouldn’t be closed. Not in Florida.

But it was. A long stretch east of Panama City was marked in red on the map I got from the Florida D.O.T. website. Should we take the chance it would be open by the time we got there? Risk being shuttled off to side roads that might be worse? Sadly, I didn't think we should. I thought the wisest thing would be to change our motel reservations from Thursday through Sunday to Friday through Sunday and see what things looked like in the morning.

Which is what we did. That would only give us two days at the CAV, but we had cabin fever big time, and were sick of sitting in the cold (you are not going to get a big, old Victorian that warm) and wanted a vacation in warmer climes, even a shortened one.

I was kinda sad not to be out on the Chiefland observing field Thursday afternoon as we’d planned, but we declared ourselves on vacation anyway, and seeing as how the surface streets looked passable, we went out to one of Unk’s fave restaurants, Logan’s Steakhouse. I tell Miss D. it is lucky for our bank account that Unk has plebeian tastes in restaurants:  Logan’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, with a BBQ joint or three thrown in. I like Logan's steaks and enjoyed my Onion Brewski Sirloin, which was accompanied by a couple of their monstrous Tall Boy beers.

Back home, a little Call of Duty on the Xbox 360, a little Ghost Adventures on the cable TV, and I was on my way upstairs. I wanted to make it as early an evening as I possible. The drive to CAV is not too long, six hours, but not entirely inconsequential. I wanted to ensure I was rested and raring to go as possible for the trip and for a long night at the scope Friday evening. I had packed a full Mallincam setup. The Xtreme. The Junior Pro, too. The Edge 800 and her VX mount. Computer and video display. Lots of gear boxes. I planned at the very least to image 75 – 80 Herschel 2500 objects that were originally shot with my old black and white video camera, the Stellacam II, and which I needed to retake with the Mallincams.

If I got a chance to do any shooting. Friday morning, the CAV weather forecasts, which had looked good earlier in the week, had degraded, going from “mostly clear” to “partly cloudy” and even “mostly cloudy.” Whatever. Chiefland’s weather is hard to predict, and, honestly, we really didn't care if we saw a dang thing through the scope or not. We just wanted to escape the cold, dreary Swamp.

The trip down south, which began after Unk had his customary fried chicken biscuit at Micky D’s, wouldn’t have been bad if the Sun had been out. We saw some ice, just a little, on a couple bridges between Pensacola and Tallahassee, and even that would have been gone with a little Sun. But there was no Sun. What there was was fog. Heavy fog. Enough to make me slow down and switch on Miss Van P.’s fog lamps once in a while.

Nevertheless, we made it to the spot just east of Tallahassee where we exit I-10 and pick up Highway 19 in goodly time. As always, I refueled the vee-hickle at the Sunoco station there, grabbed a Jack Link Sasquatch Big Stick, and proceeded down the Florida – Georgia Parkway, the Gateway to the Nature Coast, at a good clip. How did the sky look? Not that good and not that bad. At first it appeared we were running out of clouds and into blue, but the closer we got to the Suwannee River, the more the fluffy white devils multiplied, and when we hit C-land, it was completely overcast.

I did not panic. As always, we stuck to The Plan: Check in at the motel, head to CAV, set up if set up is possible, back to town for a Wal-Mart run and supper.

How was the motel? Not bad, even though, almost unbelievably, the same thing has happened to the Best Western that happened to the Holiday Inn Express. It has changed chains and gone one click down, just like the Holiday Inn (now a Days Inn) did. In this case, to Quality Inns.  The sign that once read “Best Western” was slightly pitiful looking, covered with a tarp and some ancient looking plywood. I suspect the same cost-conscious (and short-sighted) bunch who own the Days Inn now own the Best Western—err, “Quality Inn”—too.

Despite that, the place actually seemed in better repair than it had been when we were there in July. I even saw workmen doing painting and other renovations. The main downcheck? No Internet. None. I mentioned that to the little girl at the desk (who seemed somewhat confused about running a motel), and she allowed as they’d “had a lot of problems with it lately.” It never did come on, as a matter of fact. But that was alright, I had the iPhone if I just had to look at the web—like at the Clear Sky Clock—or read email. Having fewer distractions allowed me to get some writing work done. Including on a new/old book project you-all will hear about in due course.

The next part of The Plan was a run out to the CAV. I was slightly worried about that, imagining the place would be utterly deserted due to the clouds. Nope. Plenty of my old buddies were or soon would be onsite: Carl, Paul, John, Bobbie, Margie, Marty, and a couple more. That was the good. As we stood out on the field shooting the breeze about Paul’s new Astro - Physics mount, it began to drizzle. Bobbie, Margie, and Dorothy declared we didn't have the sense to come in out of the rain, and Unk and D. were shortly on our way back to town.

What’s that? Gear set up? Nope. No way. There was simply no chance of it clearing Friday night. And not only would the drizzle have made putting up the tailgating canopy and scope extremely unpleasant, I was beginning to think the only thing that would come of it would be me having to repack wet gear in the truck come Sunday morning. I took a few photos of the field and my friends and that was it.

In a changing world one thing remains a constant, the Chiefland WallyWorld. Same bargain basement stuff, same slightly countrified folks (nothing like the mutants you see on People of, however). What did we get? As always, we stuck to The Plan:  granola bars and Jack Links for field snacking, bottled water for the room and the field, Monster Energy Drinks to keep me going through long nights, Kolorado Kool-Aid for post run celebrating, and a new Star Wars T-shirt for Unk’s wardrobe. And one other thing whose purchase did not bode well, a fracking umbrella.

After that, it was back to the room for a short interlude. In more normal circumstances, with clear skies expected, we would have grabbed a quick supper, usually consisting of, for Unk, the Dorito Taco BIG BOX from the nearby Taco Bell. But this would not be a clear night. The clouds meant we had plenty of time to kill. At the motel, I tried the Internet (nada), and got the beer chilling in the room refrigerator. Shortly thereafter, it was going on five and time to eat.

Supper at Bill’s Bar-b-que has, unfortunately, become a tradition for us over the last year. It’s something to do when we have clouded-out no-way-in-heck nights at the CAV, which seem to have become all too frequent of late. On those evenings, I usually order Bill’s excellent rib-eye with all the fixins, but I’d had a steak the previous night, so I went with the Pork Plate Special. Which consists of a heap of sliced pork, mound of fries, garlic bread, BBQ beans, and the old-fashioned salad bar. How was it? Danged if it wasn't better than ever. It’s as if the food at Bill’s has gotten ever better as the weather pattern has gotten ever worse. Go figger. Washed it down with several beers, and then back to the motel for some Big Bang Theory and hopes that Saturday night would be better.

Our time in Chiefland had been shortened and so had our itinerary. Normally we’d do Manatee Springs State Park or Fanning Springs State Park Friday morning followed by lunch at Bill’s or the superb 19-98 Grill. Saturday would bring a trip to beautiful Cedar Key (a.k.a. “Duma Key”). Unfortunately, losing a day and us waking to the threat of rain Saturday scotched our park and Cedar Key plans. Instead, on Saturday morning Miss Dorothy relaxed in the room and Unk headed to the CAV to see what was up and what the consensus was about the weekend.

I was excited to see Paul’s beautiful new AP1100 mount in action. Well, slewing around under cloudy skies, anyway. What wasn’t so exciting was the glum looks on everybody’s faces engendered by the complete overcast. Too thick to even get a hydrogen alpha scope pointed at Sol. Dorothy and I had been discussing maybe extending through Sunday night, but it ‘peared we’d be alone if we did. Also, while the weather forecast looked better for Sunday night, it was not better enough to make me want get up at oh-dark-thirty Monday to get home in time to teach my 3:30 p.m. astronomy class.

Anyhow, Paul’s massive new rig, which had a beautiful Edge 1100 and a big Explore Scientific refractor riding on it, was extremely impressive. Unk has neither the skies nor the talent to put an A-P GEM to good use, but I suspect Paul will do great things with it in the imaging realm, and seeing the gleaming white mount in all its glory, yes, made me want one. Alas, Meade and Celestron, like Logan’s and Olive Garden, are more your old Unk’s speed.

I told my friends they could bet that if the clouds began to break before dark, I’d be back in a flash. And that if that didn't happen I’d see them again at the Spring Picnic run in March. I suspected as I was leaving the field that I wouldn’t be back till the picnic. The overcast didn't look at bit thinner; if anything it appeared thicker.

At the room, I sat down at MS Word and did some more hunting and pecking. No, there still wasn’t any pea-picking Internet, and, again, that was maybe a good thing. I was able to do some more on the book and also on the missive you are reading right now. I kept sneaking peeks out the door, but nothing had changed and it didn't look like anything would. We’d head home in the morning. There was only one decision left to be made, and it had nothing to do with setting up telescopes:  “What’s for supper?”

We considered Bubbaque’s Barbecue across the street. I used to joke about the place’s name, but we really enjoyed their food the last time we were Down Chiefland Way.  There was also  the excellent ABC Pizza, which I’d often eaten out on the field when somebody made a run into town for a pie. We could walk to ABC right next door to the motel, so it seemed a natural. Alas, ‘twas not to be. In the course of getting an umbrella out of the truck “just in case,” Unk tripped over the curb and went face-first into gravel. Wham! "Miss Dorothy, HALP!"

I hit pretty danged hard, and my first thought was, “Oh, for god’s sake. I’ll have to hunt up a doctor in fraking Chiefland, Florida on a Saturday night.” Luckily, it was not quite that bad. My upper lip bled copious amounts, but eventually stopped, and my teeth seemed intact. My knee had a real good scrape, but no worse than I used to get when I crashed my bike as a youngun. Lest y’all think I am getting too old to be allowed abroad, I did the same freaking thing back in ’03 at the Tennessee Star Party, if not with quite such dire results.

The pain of my split lip, which was admittedly pretty intense, was assuaged by the ice Miss D.  kindly fetched me (she also went and got a large pepperoni at ABC in case I felt like eating later). The “medicine” I “applied” most enthusiastically, however, came out of a great, huge bottle of Rebel Yell, which I’d been prescient enough to purchase at Bubbaque’s liquor store earlier that afternoon. It took all my pain away.

Such was the denouement of a slightly misbegotten CAV odyssey. It was a complete and utter skunking, no use denying it. This was, in fact, the first time I've been at CAV and not had a single minute's observing time since March 2009. But in spite of it all, in spite of being clouded out and falling flat on my face—ironically before I had had drink one—I still had a better, or at least a more “interesting,” time than I would have had sitting home shivering in front of the boob tube. Anyway, as you-all know, muchachos, when it comes to Uncle Rod observing runs anything can happenand usually does. Just ask Miss Dorothy.

Nota Bene:  You can find plenty of pictures of our Chiefland trip on Unk’s Facebook page.

Next Time:  Chasin' Supernovae with Unk...

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