Sunday, August 31, 2014


Unk's 2014 Country Roads Adventure

I love West Virginia, muchachos. Oh, I know, its economy is perennially depressed, it has far too many folks scrabbling to make do in today's tough economy, and it is still in the thrall of Big Coal, but I love it anyway. Its mountains and valleys just speak to your old Uncle and have for as long as I can remember.

I loved the state's soaring landscape and unchanging towns even as a sprout, when all I “knew” about West Virginia was what I saw on TV. On Then Came Bronson, when the show’s beatnik-philosopher-motorcyclist visited the Appalachian fastnesses. That was the romantic West Virginia. There was also the darkly mysterious side of the place, which young Unk read all about in John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies (the memory of which can still get me spooked on a lonely field).

Later on, there was the West Virginia of the 1950s in one of my favorite movies, October Sky, the filmed version of Homer Hickam's outstanding memoir, The Rocket Boys. I watched that film so many freaking times I came to feel as if I’d actually been to WV. It wasn’t till seven years ago, though, that I finally got the chance to stop enjoying West Virginia vicariously and pay it a real visit.

What finally allowed Unk to see the Mountain State for himself? I was invited to speak at the 2007 Almost Heaven Star Party, which was, then as now, held at the Mountain Institute’s Spruce Knob Facility near Circleville, West Virginia. For some unfathomable reason the organizers and attendees of the event, which was (and is) sponsored by NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (DC), liked Unk’s silly and rambling presentation enough to invite me back the next year. In fact, I’ve been to nearly every AHSP since ’07 and have always had an outstanding time.

So, I was danged pleased to hear from AHSP honcho Bob Parks, who invited me to bring my traveling show up the mountain for one more bow at the 2014 edition of the star party. Naturally, I said “yes.” I don’t like to play favorites, so I won’t say the Almost Heaven Star Party is the best astronomy event east of the Mississip—in some ways, every star party is “the best”—I will just say I love AHSP like I love its West Virginia setting.

I was even happier to hear Sky & Telescope Editor Bob Naeye—soon to be, as you may have heard, S&T Editor Emeritus—would also be back for another round of AHSPing. Bob and I have been meeting in DC and riding to Almost Heaven together for years. In no small part, the time we've spent on those trips navigating country roads in a rent-a-car is responsible for Bob becoming not just the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine I write for, but a friend.

Anyhoo, come Friday, August 22, Unk was up at oh-dark-thirty to catch the 6 a.m. flight out of Possum Swamp Regional Airport. I can’t say I was looking forward to that part of the AHSP experience overmuch. There would be a lot of time in the air for not much star partying. Both Bob and I needed to fly back Sunday morning for work on Monday (in Unk’s case, teaching his evening astronomy labs). That was fly Number One in the ointment. Number Two? The weather.

For well over a week, the forecasts for Circleville, WV, the town nearest Spruce Knob, had been looking grim. Mostly cloudy. Up to an 80% chance of rain Friday. Nearly as bad Saturday. It appeared the AHSPers might get some observing in on Monday, the last full day of the event, but even that looked dicey. The predicted temperatures, highs in the low 80s and lows in the lower 60s, while cool and comfortable in comparison to a Gulf Coast August, would be considerably warmer and no doubt more humid than normal for the star party site.

Unk certainly did grouse about “that dadgum weatherman,” but there was absolutely no doubt in my formerly military mind that I would have a good time at Spruce Knob no matter what. Hell, I can have a good time at any star party, even one that’s rained out, and the wonderful facilities and folks of Almost Heaven would make it even easier for me to enjoy myself.

The day’s air itinerary consisted of a Possum Swamp to Charlotte leg and a Charlotte to Reagan National Airport flight. As above, I’d meet Mr. Bob at the rent-a-car outfit and we’d head for the hills. While air travel is no picnic these days, I have to say my flights, both on U.S. Air, were bearable. The ground personnel and the flight crews were friendly and helpful, and in this old boy’s opinion were considerably better in that regard than their competitors.

Without much ado, I was plunked down at Reagan—née Washington National—right on schedule. It took a little while for my checked bag to appear on the carousel, but it did in due course.  I caught the bus to the Alamo car rental place and was soon shaking hands with Mr. Naeye and manhandling my overloaded suitcase into the trunk of the Nissan we’d been given.

As usual, I probably packed too much, though I certainly didn't go overboard on the astro gear. I’d wanted to take my li’l C90, Stella, with me, but given the forecasts I settled for a pair of 10x50 Celestron binoculars I won at the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Udder than that, all I had with me was a red flashlight.

Our car trip out of Virginia and into the mountains was uneventful. We had a GPS as well as Unk’s GPS equipped iPhone, but we've made the drive so many times now that we didn't need the gadgets. Bob and I occasionally referred to a (good) set of printed instructions off’n the AHSP website, but only occasionally. The journey is a mite less than four hours of small towns right out of October Sky punctuated by stretches of often awesome scenery.

What did we talk about on the (somewhat) long drive? As usual, sports mostly. One year, an AHSP person drove us up and was, I could tell, flabbergasted and maybe a little disappointed that we had more to say about the state of the NFL and the MLB's just-finished All-Star Game than we did about astronomy and far-out cosmic stuff, but that is just the way we roll.

There wasn’t much question of us getting to the star party before dark; we’d set out from the airport around noontime. So, we decided to stop for lunch somewhere—they don’t even give you peanuts in Coach anymore and neither of us had had a bite. After plenty of looking for something other than a Mickey D’s, we spotted a Pizza Hut in a little burg. While the folks in there seemed a mite surprised to have consarned furriners in their joint, the food was not bad at all. Unk’s Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza was actually purty tasty as well as alliterative.

After lunch, Unk took the wheel for the final run-in to Spruce Knob. I missed one turn along the way, but immediately realized what I’d done and got back on the straight and narrow. Not long after, we were making our ascent to the Mountain Institute on a sometimes rough but always passable dirt road.

First thing me and Bob noticed as we drove in? Attendance was obviously down. Oh, there were plenty of tents on the observing fields, but nothing like last year. That was no surprise; if the weather don't look perfect, some folks will stay home even though they've already paid their money. Which I don’t claim to understand.  A bad night at a star party is mucho bettero than a good night of cable TV if’n you axe me.

We pulled up to the registration tent and were soon greeted by the AHSP's Kathryn Scott who took good care of us, getting us settled in our rooms in the Dorms.  The rooms at in said dormitories are not fancy, but they are scrupulously clean and the beds are comfortable as star party beds go. Unk’s room not only looked freshly cleaned, it appeared to have been recently renovated.

First order of bidness after unpacking was trotting down to the Big Yurt to see what was up on Friday afternoon. Walking out of the dorm, I ran into AHSP Organizer Extraordinaire, Phil Wheery. I was glad to see Phil looked to be in fine fettle. He’d had to miss the 2013 edition due to health issues and it sure was nice to have him back and looking good for 2014.

Down the hill from the Dorms is the Big Yurt. Yes, “yurt.” Don’t ask me why, but whoever designed the Mountain Institute Facility decided to model the buildings after Mongolian Yurts. They are far from tents, but in their shapes they do somewhat resemble something you’d find on the steppes of Asia. The Big Yurt is where everything not related to observing happens at AHSP. There’s a large space for presentations, a kitchen where meals are prepared, limited dining area, and a large deck with plenty of room for tables for meals even when the star party is at full capacity.

Despite skies that looked so-so at best, there were lots of excited amateur astronomers hanging out at the yurt; many of them familiar faces from Unk’s previous AHSP expeditions. Udder than that? ‘Twas coming up on suppertime, and I was interested to see what the Mountain Institute had to offer in that regard.

Back in ’07 and for some years thereafter, the food, prepared by the M.I. folks, was on the healthy side. Maybe too healthy. As in brown rice, heaps o’ veggies, and fraking tofu. As the years have rolled on, however, I reckon the folks preparing the menus have realized they need to be a little less radical for our nerdy group. You can still eat super-healthy, but you no longer have to.

While there are still mucho veggies, to include veggie burgers, there’s now more normal fare for those of us a mite too set in their ways to go vegan. While I admire people who give up meat, I am afraid it is a little late in the game for me to do so. At supper Friday evening, you had a choice between sweet and sour chicken and curried chicken—along with plenty of sides. I was still purty full from that greasy Pizza Hut "pizza" a couple of hours previous, but I did have a small helping of the sweet and sour chicken. Danged good, I thought.

The time remaining till sunset was filled by Bob Naeye's presentation, “The Origin of Everything: How Things Got to Be the Way They Are Right Now” (Part I). What can I say about his talk? Simply that I hope that if I continue doing this long enough I will become as good a speaker as Bob. His presentation, which took us from the Big Bang to the modern Universe, was outstanding.

Naturally, Mr. Naeye was besieged by questions for quite a while after he quit, and by the time he finished answering 'em the Sun was about gone. Not that Unk thought darkness would do much for us. I poked my head out of the Yurt and had a look. The clouds were worse than ever, and I was pretty sure nobody would see a danged thing Friday evening. Nevertheless, I wanted to take a stroll around the observing field in case it poured rain all day and night Saturday, which it seemed a distinct possibility.

Retrieved my red light from the Dorm, the Brinkman “headlight” Kathryn gave me the previous year after I arrived on the mountain without a flashlight to my name, and headed up to the expansive observing area. While there are usually at least two busy observing fields, only one was in use this year for obvious reasons.

While the scope count was understandably lower than on a year with good weather, there was still plenty to see. The NOVAC folks dang sure have some good-looking gear. What was my fave? Probably the beautiful Takahashi Mewlon riding on a Synta EQ-6 (Atlas) mount. While some of y’all might consider the high-toned Tak too good for a “mere” EQ-6, the owner told Unk he absolutely loved the Atlas and had had nothing but good luck with it. No, it ain’t a freaking EM500, but who can tell in the dark?

After that, I headed back down to the Main Yurt for the vaunted “Informal Staff Meeting,” which was to be held in the Main Yurt rather than out on the field as per normal. Which was a good thing, I thought. Appeared to me that sitting out on the field would've been an invitation to disaster given the look of the sky, which now included some (distant) lightning flashes.

The dark skies of Spruce Knob can be amazing, but, still, my fondest memories of the event are the hours I’ve spent with my AHSP friends having some drinks and some laughs. The potations on this night? We were imbibing rather high-class wine instead of our usual beer. Unk is not a wine connoisseur by any means, and asked (in his Artful Dodger voice) whether he needed to extend a pinkie while drinking, but I have to admit it was good. We were all soon in better spirits and having a high old time despite what was going on outside, which was rain.

All too soon, it was time for Unk to say night-night. I’d been up since three that morning, and the idea of a soft bed was sounding better and better. Back at the Dorm, I got in some good  Zs. I did get up once in the night—it had turned surprisingly cold and I needed to find me a blanket stat. I popped outside to visit the bathroom in the bathhouse across from the Dorms, and found the clouds had not just thickened but lowered. The entire site was smothered in fog.

Somehow, I managed to get myself up in time for breakfast Saturday morning, and was glad I did. There was not a speck of tofu in evidence. What there was was biscuits, pretty good biscuits, gravy, and sausage. I dang sure ate my share, which I washed down with about a gallon of coffee.

One thing that’s always fun is browsing dealer tables. The AHSP has always had at least one astronomy vendor onsite, usually Gary Hand’s Hands-on-optics, and the HOO folks were indeed back with us for 2014. I am at a point where there is not much I need in the way of gear, but it was still cool to be able to look at all the astro-stuff. If I had needed something, I dang-sure would have bought it from Hands-on.  I try to make it a point to support the vendors who support us by participating in our star parties.

Mr. Naeye and I were not the only speakers for AHSP 2014. There was also a well-done talk on the future of the U.S. manned space program by Greg Redfern. Greg is an excellent presenter, and had some great slides. I wish I was as optimistic as he is about NASA’s future, but, if nothing else, it was encouraging to hear somebody so enthusiastic about space.

Next up would be Part II of Bob’s talk, and while waiting for that and for lunch, I killed some time reviewing the PowerPoint slides for my 6:30 talk. I also did some Internet surfing. This year, AHSP featured reliable, fast Internet. I was kinda sorry I hadn’t brought my big Toshiba laptop instead of my little Asus netbook, but it is just so freaking easy to tote the netbook around in airports. When it finally gives up the ghost, I will probably replace it with an iPad like many AHSPers were wielding, but the Asus worked well.

Lunch, like breakfast, was good—cold cuts, cheese, bread, and plenty of fixings for make your own sandwiches. It all tasted fresh and Unk didn't even mind that they didn't have good old Americano white bread, like the Sunbeam bread he favors. Out on the deck for lunch, amazingly, the Sun began to peep through the clouds. Before long, folks had Coronado PSTs set up for solar observing. Things was looking up.

Part II of Bob Naeye's presentation was different from what you usually hear at astronomy events in that it was centered on human history and culture rather than astronomy and the Great Out There, but it was every bit as well received as Part I. Maybe because those of us who do lots of star parties appreciate something different once in a while.

While the talks were excellent, that was hardly all there was to do Saturday. There was bird watching, canoeing, and more. The “more” included my geologist friend Lyle Mars’ yearly and very popular geology hike, and a bus tour to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in nearby Green Bank, West Virginia. Sunday there would be still more talks and activities. You never have to worry about being bored at Almost Heaven, cloudy skies or clear.

Supper Saturday, grilled burgers and dogs, came and I enjoyed it, though I didn’t load up. I’d be going on with my talk at 7 p.m. and I didn't want to feel over-stuffed. I had originally been scheduled for 6:30, but was pushed back half an hour to allow time for the 10th Anniversary AHSP ice cream (and cake) social. Hard to believe the star party has been going on for a decade, and I am proud to have been a part of it for most of that time.

Then it was showtime. Like Bob’s, my talk this year was different. Hearing about hard-core amateur astronomy is good, but I think all of us like an occasional break from “An In-depth Look at Ramsden and Kellner Eyepieces.” The title of my Saturday evening presentation was “What Goes There? Things that go BUMP in the Night Sky.”

In part, my talk concerned the UFO phenomenon. At public outreach events, you are almost sure to be asked whether you “believe” in UFOs, so I think it is a good thing to know a little about that convoluted controversy. Mostly, however, my presentation was about how to have fun viewing the odd, the strange, the outré in the nighttime and daytime skies not to include the pea-picking flying saucers.

Given the weather, I could have talked all night—I sure wouldn’t be keeping folks from observing—that semi-clear spell at supper didn't last long. As usual, however, I held my jibber-jabber to one hour with questions, which I consider the limit for a star party. How did it go? It went well. This was the first time I’d given this new talk, so there were a few rough edges, but my listeners seemed to have a good time, and the hour positively flew by.

When the questions were done, I stepped out into the gloaming to see how the sky looked. “What sky?” It would soon be as black as the inside of a black cat with clouds, fog, and drizzle that verged on rain. It was way too early to go to bed, though, so I was glad to hear there would be an Informal Staff Meeting Part Dos. Once again, I had a great time with all my old friends, Chris, Elizabeth, Phil, and all the rest of the AHSP's dedicated staffers. Alas, all too soon it was turn-into-a-pumpkin time for the Rodster. Bob and I needed to be on the road at 7 a.m. to make it back to DC for our afternoon flights. Reluctantly, I said my goodbyes and moseyed back to my room.

The next day wasn't exactly fun. Our drive back to the airport was uneventful, but my itinerary was the pits. In order to get me home at a reasonable hour, I had three flights to catch: DC to Charleston, Charleston to Charlotte, and Charlotte to Mobile. It almost worked. Unfortunately, there was a delay on the Charleston to Charlotte leg, and I missed my flight to Mobile by 10-minutes. That meant I had to take the 10 p.m. back to the Swamp. Good thing I had a thick book, David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, to occupy me for the four hours I had to sit cooling my heels in Charlotte. When Miss D. picked me up at Possum Swamp Regional at 11:15, I was one tired pup.

If not quite ready to call it a night, muchachos. I had dozed on the last flight and was now kinda wound up, so I sat in front of the cable TV watching my fave uber-silly reality show. I sure hope to be back in West Virginny in 2015, but until then I guess I’m back to experiencing West Virginia vicariously with Mountain Monsters. Anyhow, thanks, especially, to Bob Parks, Kathryn Scott, and Phil Wheery. I hope y’all got some observing in on Sunday or Monday, but whether that happened or not, you put on another great AHSP.

Nota Bene:  You can see lots more pix from Unk's trip on his Facebook page...

Next Time:  Project Scotty Begins…

Great recap! Loved seeing you again this year.
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