Sunday, September 21, 2014


My Favorite Star Parties: TSP 1999

For those who've been lucky enough to make the pilgrimage to Fort Davis, Texas and the Prude Ranch for the Texas Star Party, there is no question in our minds that it is indeed the mother of all star parties. That being the case, muchachos, I was gobsmacked to realize I’ve never said much about my first and maybe best visit to that legendary gathering of amateur astronomers.
Actually, TSP 1999 was technically not my first year at the Texas Star Party; that came in 1997.  But ‘97 didn’t really count. It wasn’t held at the Prude Ranch, you see, but at Leakey, Texas in the Hill Country to the accompaniment of mucho humidity and clouds and one violent thunderstorm. I didn't have a very good time at the supposedly legendary Texas Star Party, but I wasn't ready to give up on it. I was determined to do the real TSP “someday.”
That day did not come in 1998, but it did arrive the following year when Miss Dorothy and I found our work schedules at the height of our careers would actually allow us to not only take a week off, but to take a week off at the same time. In May. The month of TSP 1999, which would be held from Sunday, May 9 to Sunday, May 16.
That’s been, strange as it is for me to realize, all of 15 years ago now, but I still remember how pleased I was Miss Dorothy was positively enthusiastic about doing the TSP and making it our big summer vacation, especially given the bloodcurdling tales I’d told about 1997. Yeah, I was on quite a high—till I learned all the rooms on the ranch were gone.
Today, I’d have thought long and hard about making the trip without having lodging on the Prude (dude) Ranch. A decade and a half ago, though, I was a little younger and a lot braver. Hell, I’d survived Leakey, Texas in a pup tent. Prude Ranch should be duck soup compared to that, especially with a better tent. Miss Dorothy was not overly enthusiastic about a week sleeping under canvas, however, so we reserved her a room at a nearby motel, the Fort Davis Motor Inn. She could stay on the field when she wanted to, and be comfortable in the motel when she didn’t. I’d also had some semi-assurances from the TSP staff that a room would “probably” become available for us in a day or three.
The only remaining question? How would we get everything we needed for the trip in a Toyota Camry? “Everything” to include, in addition to a 12-inch Dobsonian telescope, all the clothes and camping gear for a week way out west. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I crammed it all into our Japanese sedan and even managed to leave room for me and Miss D. I suppose the only thing that made that possible was the fact that talented amateur telescope maker, Pat Rochford (with a VERY small amount of help from me), had converted the 12-inch, a Meade StarFinder, “Old Betsy,” to a truss-style configuration the previous year.
Early on Saturday morning the 8th of May, we pointed the car west on I-10 and began our journey. We’d decided not to push hard on day one, with our goal being merely to reach Houston, where we’d spend the night with Dorothy’s brother, Ed, and his wife Bobbie. It was fun seeing Ed and Bobbie, and it was nice to take a break after what is probably the worst part of the trip west, the drive across the Gulf Coast and into Texas. Not only is that stretch boring, in 1999 the roads were in terrible shape with construction slowdowns everywhere—we were routed off the Interstate at least once and for quite a few miles in the area of Lafayette, Louisiana. Still, stopping at Houston was a bad idea.
We paid for our break the next day—in spades. It is a long, punishing drive from Houston to Fort Davis, which is about as far west as you can go without running out of Texas. Over 11 hours. While we got an early start, 5:30 in the a.m., that wasn’t early enough.
What is west Texas like? It comes on you slowly. After the Texas coast comes San Antonio and the Hill Country, which is really more like Houston (or Mobile) than it is different. After San Antone is in the rear-view mirror, however, I-10 turns north as it meanders west and you eventually realize you haven’t seen a tree in a while. Humid east and coastal Tejas is replaced by the more arid landscape of Texas’ fertile ranch land. A few hours farther west, and the landscape morphs again, becoming near-desert. Finally, the horizon begins to bloom with hills way different from the gopher mounds of the Hill Country, hills that soon grow into (small) mountains.
It took freaking forever, y’all, but eventually we were just about at the fabled Prude Ranch. We stopped for gas one last time at a station that would have been right at home in a 1950s science fiction movie. One with a giant bug/spider/lizard crawling in off a spooky desert to menace the townsfolk as tumbleweeds blow in an eerie wind.
The Upper Field...
Shortly after that stop, we left I-10 for good and before too much longer were rolling onto the ranch, which, late on Sunday—it was getting on toward 5 p.m.—was a bustle of activity. There were amateurs everywhere, setting up scopes, erecting tents, and just getting ready in general for a night that would obviously be a spectacular one. There wasn’t a cloud in the late-afternoon sky, which had that purplish tint that spells “great observing.” 
That was the good; there was also the semi-bad. After we checked in at the main ranch building, which includes not only the registration desk, but also the dining hall and the large auditorium where TSP talks and other star party events are held, we headed for what I’d been told was the place to set up, the Upper Field. Alas, it was packed to the gills. Not surprising when you consider the attendance figure for 1999 topped out at around 800 deep sky crazy astronomers. We orbited the field several times, but there just wasn’t a single square foot of space on which to set up even a modest sized Dobbie.
Luckily, the Upper Field was only one of two main fields in use. We settled for the less desirable Lower Field. What else could we do? Actually, the Lower Field was fine. It was pretty dusty, but so was the Upper Field that year; the Ranch hadn’t received appreciable rain since the previous November. Yes, there was a line of hills to the east that throttled back the horizon, but there really ain’t no bad sightlines on Prude Ranch. One thing was actually superior on the Lower field:  there was a stand of several trees on its western side and we found space for our little tent under one of ‘em. I was hoping that would do at least a little to keep the tent cool in heat I feared would verge on the brutal.
With the day rapidly wearing away, D. and I didn’t waste time getting the scope and other gear set up, which was amazingly simple in those innocent pre-computer/goto days. Plunk down rocker box, insert mirror box, bolt truss tubes and upper cage to mirror box and I was done. Other gear? That consisted of my observing (card) table, the eyepiece box, a notebook containing my observing list, and a copy of the vaunted Herald - Bobroff Astro-Atlas.
Miss D. hanging out in our little home...
Erecting the tent could have been a problem but wasn’t. Despite my loathing for tent camping these days, I did some in my youth and was a fairly experienced tent-pitcher. I’d also had the good sense to set up our new Coleman in the backyard as a test before we left home. The dome tent was easy to get together, but it sure looked smaller than it had in the backyard. Unfortunately, I hadn’t learned my lesson from TSP 1997: never buy a tent you can’t stand up in. When it’s time to change clothes, you will hate it. Anyhow, with the tent up, we inflated the air mattresses and declared ourselves done.
Since Dorothy planned to stay onsite the first night, we didn’t have to visit the motel; all we had to do was wait for darkness. Which takes a long and weary old time in the spring at Fort Davis. You are far west in the Central time zone, and it’s not dark enough to do much of anything before nearly 10 p.m. Luckily, it was suppertime, and our first meal in the Ranch House’s picturesque dining hall filled the empty hours.
I’m sure you’ve heard tales about the quality (or lack of it) of Prude food. I am here to call B.S on that—leastways concerning the years I’ve attended. The meals, served cafeteria style, featured large portions, the entrees were varied, and there were always fresh vegetables—and even a salad bar. Most attendees were content to eat on site, and I know Dorothy and I never got around to trying any of the restaurants in Fort Davis. No need to.
Supper wasn’t just about food, it was about becoming reacquainted with fellow amateurs we hadn’t seen or heard from in many a Moon. Internet astronomy was burgeoning in 1999, but it still wasn’t the big deal it is today. Even in the late 90s, the main way you kept in touch with your amateur buddies was still by attending club meetings and going to star parties.
Supper done, we strolled the Ranch in the gloaming. It was obvious everybody was in a good mood and having a good time. A sign on the windshield of a car parked next to ours read, “For I am gone to Texas to confer, converse, and otherwise hob-nob with my brother wizards,” and that was purty much how we all felt on the cusp of an outstanding night of astronomy.
Land of the BigDobs...
What else did we find out during our stroll? Prude Ranch was a lot like what I imagined an old fashioned dude ranch from the 1930s - 1950s would be: rustic, but not too rustic, clean, and staffed by friendly folks. That was the good. The bad was that because of the lack of rain the dust was incredible.  There was no stopping it from getting into your eyes and hair and clothes—and telescope.
The Prude dust is not like what you might imagine, either; it is nothing like sand. It is very fine, talcum fine. I used to joke that what it was was fine dust mixed with the manure of countless generations of horses and spiced with plutonium dust blowing in from the Nevada Test Side to the west. The bottom line was that you just had to live with it. A water truck went around every afternoon wetting the ranch roads to try to keep dust raised by vehicles down, but that was a futile effort in a land so parched.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, a Texas spring night arrived. Out at Prude, that means it is considerably darker than what you are used to. There was no appreciable light dome from Fort Davis that I could see, and the legendarily draconian Texas Star Party light rules (a Coke machine on the far south end of the ranch had its plug pulled so its rather dim red illumination couldn’t disturb us) meant walking around the Ranch, even with a (suitably dim) red light, was challenging. I didn’t do too much wandering the first night, however. After spending a few minutes just staring open-mouthed at the stellar multitudes, I got Old Betsy rocking.
I’d planned to take it relatively easy the first night, doing bright Messiers and other showpiece objects and turning in when I got tired(er). It had been one hell of a long day—to the tune of eleven freaking hours on the road. I figgered I’d be lucky to make it till midnight.
Oh, how glorious those Ms were! The bright galaxies M101, M51, M81, M82, and M83 looked as much like their photographs as they likely ever will in Old Betsy. And they were all so danged easy to find. I didn’t even remove the lens cap from my 50mm finder. With so many “guide” stars visible, it was trivially easy to find anything with just a Telrad (this was long before Betsy got her digital setting circles).
Old Betsy and Unk's LX-1...
My telescope was performing amazingly well, with the most distant reaches of the Great Out There opening before me. An hour or two passed, and I discovered that not only was I not ready for bed, I wasn’t as tired as I had been when I began the run. In fact, I was ready for challenges. I’d had my fill of the bright and easy and grabbed the notebook of charts I’d printed out with my favorite computer program in them days, Megastar.
I began chasing the hard and the weird. Stuff like the Twin (Double) Quasar in Ursa Major and Copeland’s freaking Septet in Leo. I wasn’t sure how many of these out-on-the-edge type objects I’d find, but I was ready to try for them. Amazingly, the most difficult objects on my list kept falling prey to my “little” 12-inch. One of my epiphanies on this trip was that under the right skies a medium sized scope can be an incredibly powerful performer.
Almost before I knew it, it was after 3 a.m., then or now my usual limit. Actually, it’s rare that I go that long when standing at a scope observing visually. It’s different at TSP, however. For one thing, you have plenty of moral support. The folks around you, and there are plenty of them, have driven as far or farther than you have, and nobody wants to waste a minute of the amazing skies. It’s a matter of honor to keep on keeping on as long as your pals.
Another help was The Voice of the Texas Star Party, K211BI, the TSP’s very own FM radio station. An eclectic mix of music—Beethoven followed by the Grateful Dead followed by big band music—was broadcast all night long (together with star party news and announcements) and kept me alert when conversation with my neighbors, like a new buddy who was set up next to me, airline pilot and amateur astronomer extraordinaire, Tom Wideman, lagged.
Finally, a big plus was the late-late night concession stand in the area of the Ranch House, adjacent to Prude’s indoor swimming pool.  They were selling not just hot coffee, but everything from burritos to ice cream. I blundered around the Ranch by red flashlight and got  lost a time or two on my way to the food, but the grub was well worth it.
After I finished my burrito, I decided to do a little walk-about of the fields to relax. By this time of the night/morning, most folks were, like me, finished with their observing programs, and I was able to cadge some looks through the Upper Field’s monster scopes. This was the first time I’d observed with a 36-inch scope other than a slow focal ratio professional instrument, and I was floored by what a really big Dob will do for the most nondescript NGC galaxies.
I finished my night with a tour of the summer Milky Way with my old Simmons 10x50 binoculars, which, like Betsy, seemed to have increased their aperture at least twofold. As the hills to the east began to become visible in the rosy light of coming dawn, Dorothy arose to see the stars turn out their lamps, a very old horned Moon rise over the mountain, and hear the horses begin to snuffle as they awoke.
Sun setting. the bathhouse is in the background center...
Not everything was poetic that morning, however. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable a sleeping bag on an air mattress is. Not that that made much difference. I was only able to sleep a few hours anyway. By nine, the interior of the tent was like an oven. I never felt hot outside on the hottest days thanks to the low humidity, but inside an enclosed space like a tent, it was a mucho different matter, campers.
Monday morning, fairly early Monday morning, we were up thanks to the high temps in our poor little tent. First order of bidness was my morning ablutions in the bathhouse on the north end of the field. How was it? Oh-so-much better than the Black Hole of Alto Frio in ‘97 at Leakey. The only problem was that the dust around the bathhouse was so deep that you were dirty again before you made it back to your tent. It was bearable, in other words, but I sure hoped we’d get that sorta-promised Room on the Ranch ASAP.
Next up was getting Miss Dorothy settled at the Fort Davis Motor Inn. The name made the place sound a little more substantial than it turned out to be. It was your average small independently owned motel. Not much different from what you used to see all over the country until the end of the 1970s. It was clean enough, and it was air conditioned, and there was no doubt Miss D. would be way more comfortable sleeping in her room than I would be in that Coleman tent.
Monday proceeded at a decent enough pace. There were meals in the Ranch House and plenty of friends old and new to hang with, and, maybe most of all, cool astro-stuff to drool over in the spacious vendor’s hall.
Well, “spacious” is maybe not quite the word. There was sufficient room in the little structure just off the Upper Field, but it was nothing like the huge building at Leakey in 1997. Nevertheless, the 1999 vendor lineup was impressive, and included TeleVue, Lumicon, Pocono Mountain Optics, Eagle Optics, Telescope Warehouse, Astronomy to Go, and AstroSystems among others. I was thrilled to meet the legendary (and friendly) Al Nagler for the first time.
I had also been hoping to meet the author of SkyMap, Chris Mariott. If there was a program that was neck and neck with Megastar in the hearts of us deep sky fanatics in those days, it was Chris’  SkyMap Pro which is still going strong). Unfortunately, while there was a Skymap table, the person manning it informed me Chris wasn’t there. Apparently, he was not a fan of air travel and demurred when it came to flying in all the way from the UK.
Behind the Vendor Hall...
“Hell, we know you, Unk. What did you buy, huh, what did you buy?” I was going through a planetary observing phase at the time, and was awful tempted to grab a handful of the new TeleVue Radian eyepieces, especially after receiving a personal demo of them in a TV refractor by Uncle Al himself, but given the expense of the trip out west, I held my buying in check. I’d been needing a 2-inch Barlow, and satisfied my gear lust with TV’s Big Barlow (purchased from the much-loved and long gone TV dealer Pocono Mountain Optics), which I still have and use to this very day.
The rest of Monday? Following supper, we had plenty of time to get Miss D, who was in the mood to do some resting after our crazy Sunday, to her motel before sundown. Out on the lower field when darkness came, it was much the same as the previous night:  nothing but clear skies and amazing views. It was a very late night for Unk. I didn’t stay awake just to continue hitting the harduns, either. The real treat came in the wee hours with an incredible naked eye view of the summer Milky Way when it crept over the mountains. It didn’t look like the Milky Way I was used to. What it looked like was exactly what it was:  an enormous spiral galaxy viewed edge-on and sporting a mind-blowingly detailed equatorial dust lane.
I didn't just look at the Milky Way, I imaged it in my simple fashion of those days. I mounted my old Ricoh 35mm SLR or a home-made "barn-door" tracking platform (which my fellow star partiers dubbed "Rod's LX-1") and fired away with that beloved emulsion, Fuji Super G800. Today, I'm surprised I got anything with such cheap, simple gear, but my pictures actually ain't bad at all.
One other thing I did before throwing the Big Switch Monday night/Tuesday morning was something I hadn’t done (or at least tried to do) in a long time. Using a printout from Megastar, I tracked down Pluto’s rich field, drew it, and came back to it a couple of nights later to see the speck I’d identified as our favorite dwarf planet had moved. 
Tuesday, Miss Dorothy declared she Had Had Enough of the motel, and camped out in the Ranch office, resolving to stay there till we were given that vaunted Room on the Ranch. Guess what? It worked. By late afternoon, we’d checked Dorothy out of the motel and were moving into one of the “Family Cabins,” actually one of several motel-like rooms adjacent to the Lower Field. It wasn’t like staying at the Hilton, or even the Chiefland Days Inn, but it was large, air conditioned, and had a real bathroom with a shower. It was freaking luxurious after my little tent on that dusty field.
Zombie Unk at mid-week...
Wednesday was notable for bringing the start of the daytime presentations, including the Planetary Panel, which consisted of my late friend Jeff Medkeff, S&T’s Gary Seronik, another late friend, David Healy, and myself. Yeah, it seemed a little strange to be discussing the planets at a star party devoted to deep sky voyaging, but our presentation was well received. One dude did come up to me shortly after we left the stage to apologetically say, “Hey, man, real sorry I missed y’all’s talk on planetary nebulae.”
This was an excellent year for daytime talks at the TSP, with some standouts being “Observing the Bear at the TSP” from powerhouse deep sky observer Larry Mitchell, and “Planetary Nebulae Beyond the NGC:  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” given by Houston amateur Jay McNeil.
Wednesday night found your poor Uncle on the horns of a dilemma. I’d finished my long, long observing list. I’d been all the way through that thick notebook of Megastar charts. What do do? Only one thing: get started on the TSP’s official 1999 observing project, “A Planetary Party.” This was a list of 49 planetary nebulae put together by the Houston’s  John Wagoner. Challenging? I’ll say. Many were tiny, requiring “blinking” with an OIII filter for identification, and many were in unfamiliar constellations like Lupus or tucked away in dusty, out of the way corners of more familiar star pictures.
By Thursday, Mr. Wagoner was sporting a t-shirt that read “TSP:  Twenty-five Stinking Planetaries.” Our goal was to observe at least 25 of the 49, a number I achieved on Friday night. It was a long journey, and one that couldn’t begin in earnest until early morning when the Milky Way was above the mountains to the east. Nevertheless, Unk and a record number of observers persevered, earning the coveted Planetary Pin.
The star party’s evening speakers, which the TSP has long been noted for, were outstanding. On Wednesday night, Steve O’Meara gave a presentation I particularly enjoyed, “Oh Night Divine: A Tribute to Walter Scott Houston.” O’Meara’s tribute to the dean of deep sky observers left us well and truly pumped for a night of deep space exploration.
I still wear my pin with pride today...
Thursday evening (the talks always wrapped up before the coming of astronomical twilight) was the U.S Naval Observatory’s Brent Archinal with “Like Gold and Silver in Sands in Some Ravine: Star Clusters.” Brent’s program on the neglected open clusters of the NGC was very well done.
Finally, on Friday night came the keynote by David Levy. On this last night of TSP 1999, he brought us “More Things in Heaven and Earth:  Finding Passion in Nature.” David’s presentation touched on many things, but what was mostly on display was the passion for the night sky for which he is famous.
‘Course there was the earthly as well as the sublime. One evening just at sundown, a herd of deer came charging onto the Lower Field at full gallop. I thought for sure the result would be wrecked telescopes and injured deer aplenty, but their leader, a big buck, saw that those crazy humans were on the field with their crazy stuff, and turned his herd around at the very last moment.
Our luck with the sky continued through the week. On Thursday night, we did leave the meeting hall to find the sky covered in clouds, and some of us even pretended to be disappointed (in truth, more than a few observers would have welcomed a break after four long, uninterrupted nights). The weather reports we were getting suggested the sky might clear at full dark, however, and that was just what happened. As twilight ended, the masses of clouds scuttled off, leaving in their wake one of the best nights of the whole star party.
Friday? More of the same. Incredibly dark and clear skies all night long. One thing I should mention for the uninitiated: the truly dark, clear skies of the southwest don’t look that dark. The sky background actually looks dark gray rather than inky black. You’ve obtained full dark adaptation and are registering every single photon, photons from things like airglow, zodiacal light, and far distant earthly sources.
As the end of the week came, Dorothy and I had settled into the TSP routine and were thoroughly enjoying Ranch life. In addition to observing and visiting with our fellow astronomers, we found time to do a little sightseeing. We toured the nearby Davis Mountains State Park, which offered some incredible vistas. The drive through the park wound to the top of a small peak, and standing there looking out at the valley below, the view was strange and almost alien. I wouldn’t have been surprised to witness a saucer landing—or an atomic bomb blowing its top in a landscape that looked a lot like Jornada del Muerto Valley.
We also made it to “downtown” Fort Davis, for ice cream at the famous Fort Davis Drug Store, which has an old-timey lunch counter cum soda fountain right out of Dobie Gillis. There were a couple of nice restaurants in town, too, including one at the historic Limpia Hotel. I never did get by for their legendary “chicken fried chicken,” unfortunately. The evening we planned to do that turned out to be Mexican Food Night on the Ranch and no way we were gonna miss that.

Only one thing remained on our agenda: a tour of nearby McDonald Observatory. Not only was visiting both the modern telescopes—like the gargantuan Hobby - Ebberly—and the historic instruments fun, the drive up the mountain was exciting, to put it mildly. An old-fashioned cowboy right out of Zane Grey “helped” by his dog drove us up in the most cantankerous jalopy of an old bus I’d ever been on. Naturally, we paid a visit to the Observatory gift shop for goodies before bracing ourselves for the trip back down to the Ranch.

And, suddenly, the end was nearing, dangit. Saturday evening brought the huge TSP raffle, the Great Texas Giveaway. There were tons of prizes from Nagler eyepieces to a portable observatory tent. Even Unk, who never wins anything, came away with a Milky Way print by David Lee. Then it was time for one last journey to the stars.
Like everybody else, I was exhausted from nearly a week of hitting it hard every single night, but on I pushed, nevertheless. By midnight, however, I knew Big Switch Time was approaching. There was the beginning of that fearsome drive home to face on the morrow. The great goddess Urania seemed to agree, as clouds moved in at 1 a.m. “That’s enough sky for this year, Unk. I’ve given you all I have to give. Now, go to bed and leave me alone for a while.” And so I did.
Passing under the “Vaya Con Dios” sign as we quitted the ranch Sunday morning, Dorothy and I promised ourselves we’d make it back to the TSP as soon as we could, which turned out to be in 2001, another spectacular year. Which was to be our last TSP for a while—we've actually never made it back—but not our last forever, I hope. I intend to do the big star party at least one more time before I am too decrepit to face traveling across the Lone Star State with a ton of astro gear. Maybe not next year, but the year after for sure. I have to, you see, because in 1999 I learned that the stars at night really are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas.
Nota Bene:  You can see more pictures from TSP 1999 on Unk's Facebook page...
2018 Update:

When it comes to observing, at least, I have never had a better star party experience than I did that spring week at Prude Ranch nearly (can it be?) twenty years ago. Oh, there were other years after that, but none quite as memorable.

Have I been back to TSP? Will I be back to TSP? It's been a long time now, and while I've occasionally contemplated another trip west, that has yet to happen. In part because I'm just not a fan of long car trips in these latter days. Oh, I could fly out, but what fun is TSP unless you lug a ton of gear with you?

Also, as is only natural, I suppose, I hear there've been some fairly substantial changes happening with TSP.  Natural,  yeah, as one generation passes the torch to the next. But I guess I fear today's star party just wouldn't live up to my memories of glorious 1999.

Rod, you captured the essence of this star party so well, from the dust to the burritos and the horses naying with the onset of dawn. It was if I was transported back there. Thankyou. Now to check to see if TSP'15 has opened for registration yet, lol.
Thanks for your very kind words. As I said...I don't know about '15, but '16 for sure. ;)

Rod, the TSP in 1999 was my first year going and the last my father went. He passed away in 2000. You reminded me of some wonderful memories!! I still have my t-shirt from the even and wear it to this day even though it is very faded! Thank you for sharing.

Well, thank you Katherine! As for TSP, I've often thought about going back...but...a look at their website seems to suggest that some things have changed. The world, I guess, has moved on, and maybe it's best to just be content with my memories. :)
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