Sunday, November 19, 2023


Issue 598: When is a Star Party Not a Star Party? Redux…


The answer is still the same as it was many a year ago, muchachos: “Never!” I almost always have a great time at an astronomy event, even when I don’t see much—or anything at all. It’s nice to hang out with friends, look at other folks’ astro-gear, yadda-yadda-yadda. But for all that, there is, as I have also said before, one big reason I go to a star party that trumps all:  To see the deep sky. Alas, that is the one thing that was in short supply at the just completed 41st annual Deep South Star Gaze (née, Deep South Regional Star Gaze).

The extended forecasts for the event’s location near Sandy Hook, Mississippi hadn’t been looking good for weeks. They indicated the time Miss Dorothy and I would be on site, Thursday – Sunday, would be resolutely cloudy, and most likely rainy—game over, end of story zip up your fly. The “safe” thing to have done would have been not to even register. Or, to have saved some gas and not hit the road for the Mississippi backwoods when November 9th came around.

Nope. No way. I was finally back in the mood for a star party, and, in particular, for this star party after a lay-off of six years. After not the best star party experience in 2017, mostly thanks to deteriorating conditions at the event’s previous location, the Feliciana Retreat Center in Louisiana, and the change of venue in ’18 to the current White Horse Christian Retreat Center, we took a couple of years off. Then came covid. And we hadn’t been back since the end of the plague. Once you get out of the habit of going to a star party, it’s sometimes hard to get with it again, but this year, I’d decided, would be different.  

In dipping-toe-into-shallow-end-of-pool fashion, Miss D. and I began slowly, ever so slowly, planning for the 2023 Deep South Star Gaze. At first it seemed strange to be rounding up the sleeping bags and the tent canopy again (I sprayed plenty of waterproofing on the latter in view of the forecast). But mostly, it just seemed right and natural. After all, Deep South was something we’d been doing together since we were married in 1994. What was feeling strange now was those six autumns without a Deep South.

In addition to gathering up the ancillary gear, I naturally had to decide “Which telescope?” The weather forecasts didn’t quite look horrible, not yet, but they did not look good. It was not a year for fancy mounts and SCTs and computers. Also, something simpler would be more in line with the “dipping-a-toe-back-in” theme for the year. So, what I decided on (at first) was my 10-inch GSO Dobsonian, Zelda. Object finding assistance? Her 50mm finder, her Rigel Quickfinder, and Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition backed by my treasured deck of George Kepple’s legendary Astro Cards.

Wednesday evening before our departure, I loaded up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt. What I did not load up, after all, was Zelda. Why lug a 10-inch when there was little—if any—doubt it would be clouds and rain for our entire stay at White Horse? The forecasts had just got worse, not better. I wouldn’t be without a scope, though. I packed a smallish one just in case we saw something. Frankly, for reasonable people (obviously that does not include your strange, old Uncle) this would have been the time to say, “Let’s stay home and watch it rain in comfort.”

Nope, nosir-buddy. Not only were we interested in giving the new star party site a look-see, we wanted to show we still support the event, and, maybe more than anything else, we wanted to see friends we hadn’t seen in years and whom I’d begun to wonder if we we’d ever seen again. I finished loading the truck, just like the good, old days and called it a night reasonably early…after indulging our resident black cat, Thomas Aquinas, by watching WWII videos on YouTube (he favors “Midway” and “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”).

Interior of the rustic lodge...
Thursday morning dawned to heavy clouds—which have been the rule rather than the exception down here for weeks and weeks.  There was no need to get on the road early. The drive is a reasonably short one, about two-and-a-half hours, and the event’s only meal, supper, would not be served until 4pm daily. With that situation in mind, I’d loaded up on snacks and Hormel’s “Compleats” stabilized microwave dinners (like I used to keep in my desk at work long ago).

The drive was, yeah, a short one, and there wouldn’t have been much to say about it if not for the nostalgia factor. Like our long-ago visits to Percy Quin State Park, original home of the star party, the journey to White Horse is up Highway 98 to Hattiesburg (and then on to Sandy Hook). Miss D. and I sure did a lot of reminiscin’ about our trip on this very road through the Mississippi piney woods in 1994 when we were newlyweds.

A big difference this time? No AAA trip-ticks or Rand McNally Road Atlas. It was GPS all the way, and she did get us to White Horse, albeit not without one bit of minor unpleasantness. As we neared our destination, the GPS, Samantha, told us to turn onto THE ROAD. Yep, no name, just “the road.” A dirt road that quickly devolved into a rutted two-lane track, and then into mudholes just short of a swamp. Miss Van Pelt loved it, since she rarely gets to be a real off-road 4Runner. Dorothy and I sure were bemused…to put it mildly…wondering what would have happened if we’d turned down THE ROAD in her Camry!  I am still washing the mud off Miss Van P.

Soon, we were on another nondescript (but at least paved) road.  The excellent directions Barry provided for the area near the site reassured us we were indeed in the right place. Soon, there was, as mentioned in said directions, a column with, yep, a white horse sculpture atop it. And…in just a moment we were at the facility.

White Horse Observing Field...
What was it like? See the pictures…but what it reminded me of was the hunting camps the daddies of my pals used to belong to back in the sixties (my own Daddy was not exactly an outdoors type), and which I’d visited occasionally. That is, a complex of structures that involved tin sheeting and which the owners appeared to have expanded as they’d gone along.

Driving toward the building we noticed a paddock-like area on the right festooned with a few tent canopies and even a few telescopes. We figgered that must be the place, parked there, grabbed our suitcases, and headed back to the main building. Inside, we were informed by the friendly star-partiers there that DSSG Director Barry Simon had left the site for lunch and would be back shortly. We spent half an hour or so looking around and getting a feel for the place. The interior of the lodge continued the hunting camp theme but was really purty darned nice. Oh, and there was Wi-Fi. At poor, old Feliciana that had often been missing.

Upon Barry’s return, he pointed us at our room—the facility has several small motel-like rooms in addition to bunkhouses. It was even tinier than what we had become accustomed to at Feliciana, but was clean and really just perfect for us. The window air conditioner was noisy but cooled remarkably well.

The storied pumpkin...
Thence to the field for a prize drawing. Despite Dorothy drawing the tickets from the legendary orange DSRSG plastic pumpkin (the same one from back in the vaunted Percy Quin days), I didn’t win a dadgum thing—and they were giving away a real nice widefield eyepiece and some other cool stuff besides. That ain’t exactly a surprise. I rarely win anything in a raffle—other than a raffle for ham radio gear. That, I win again and again—strange.

Afterwards, there not being much to do before supper, it was back to the main building, “the lodge,” for web surfing and getting reacquainted with old friends. If I don’t list your name here, I’m not slighting you. It’s just that I’d have to list 40 or more. All of you, old friends and new ones alike, are important to us.

That hour or two in the lodge was the high point of the star party. What else did I do other then get caught up with buddies?  I took frequent trips outside for looks at the sky—all in vain. And I kept my eye on an app recommended to me by Sky & Telescope’s Sean Walker some time back, Astropheric. It took a while for me to get used to it, but, yeah, it really is better than Clear Sky Charts. In fact, it’s like CSC on steroids. If you don’t have it on your phone already, you should (it's free).

Then came supper. Miss Dorothy and I were signed up for the meal plan, but were informed that had been cancelled (because the weather kept attendance down so much, I guess). Instead, there were hamburger and hotdog plates available for a reasonable price. Dorothy and I ordered hamburgers…and were a little surprised at their definitely different taste. The ebullient lady who owns White Horse informed us that was because they were made from not just beef, but pork, and deer meat, too! Well, when in Rome do as the Romans do, I reckon.

My usual mascot promoting "Dark Nights."
And so, we hung out in the lodge till the Sun was long gone. Outside, Len Philpot pointed out the only light dome visible around the horizon was miniscule. Far smaller than what we’d had at Feliciana and certainly minor compared to what Percy Quin’s sky must be like today (it’s near what is now verging on a small city, McComb, Mississippi). I suspected the sky would have been great if it had been clear. Which it wasn’t. Since it was obvious there wouldn’t even be sucker holes, I said my goodnights and headed back to the room where Dorothy was already relaxing.

The good thing? While the Wi-Fi was not exactly strong outside the lodge, it was strong enough in our room for my Macintosh Airbook M2 to pull in YouTube with ease. I spent the evening looking at whatever whack-a-doodle videos my heart desired until it was nigh-on ten o’clock.

In the morning, another cloudy morning, Dorothy and I showered, dressed, and said our farewells. There were to be talks Friday, but we’d decided it would be best to get back down Highway 98 before the weather worsened. Barry was already planning on finishing up with all the talks and the prize drawings as well that afternoon. Which was wise—the field was already practically empty, and it was clear few folks would hang on till Saturday, much less the official end of DSSG Sunday morning.

As we pulled away from White Horse, was I sad to be leaving? Well, sort of. I was happy to have seen my old buddies again. But…leaving a clouded-out star party just doesn’t have the same feel—that wistful regret—you get when departing one that’s had nights and nights of deep space voyaging. Well, maybe next fall.  Maybe even this coming spring (Deep South still does its smaller Spring Scrimmage edition).

Glad you still gave it a go, Rob! If you go to star parties long enough, it’s bound to happen. Of my recent debacles was Okie Tex 2018. It was my first visit there and the first time in about 30 yrs that it was cloudy every night save a few hours the first night. Never took the scope out of the car and they shut down the star party early due to the threat of SNOW Saturday AM. Many RVs towed out of the mud from rain all week. That part was awful, but I got to meet lot of friends from Cloudy Nights, and me and my 2 Astro buddies made the best of it with day trips and hikes. I’ll be back again someday, just like you were! -Kevin
I haven't been to DSRSG - oops, DSSG - since the Percy Quin days. Haven't been to Mid South since Jim Hill had to leave. Like you said, it's hard to get back into the swing of things.
Nice to see your return to the star party scene. Hopefully you'll get clear skies at the Spring Scrimmage.
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