Monday, September 02, 2013

West Texas travels - part 2


Day 3: McDonald Observatory




Wednesday morning, we started with some instant oatmeal in our room, rather than trying to hunt for a breakfast spot again. And here we come to lesson #4: The coffee in west Texas sucks.  Granted, it was hotel room coffee, but even the stuff from the lobby was bad. Even Alice’s coffee on Tuesday was bad. And the trend continued through McDonald and Fort Davis. Or maybe I’m just spoiled by the awesome coffee maker we have at home, and the ready access to Starbucks, which hasn’t made it out to Marfa yet. Just sayin’. 

I stopped in the gift shop for a Marfa t-shirt, and we set off to the north for Fort Davis and the McDonald Observatory. We stopped for lunch in Fort Davis at Murphy’s and had subs. They were really good. We also learned lesson #5: everything comes with a bag of Lay’s potato chips.  At first, I ate them, but later in the trip we just started hanging on to them, and came home with 4 bags in our “snack sack,” which accumulated munchies as the week went on. From Marfa to Fort Davis, it's only 21 miles.  At the restaurant, we picked up a map of town that was sponsored by a store called Fort Davis Outfitters, which looked like the modern equivalent of a General Store, so we had to check it out. It was exactly that – they had everything from cosmetics to cowboy boots to kitchen gadgets to car repair kits, and everything in between – except Lactaid! We spent a long time talking to the proprietor, who moved down with his wife from New Hampshire and opened the store at the end of last year. They’ve got a 50 page list of new items that they’re going to start carrying, and he added Lactaid pills to the list.  He did have something I needed, though – I bought a new cosmetics bag to replace the minty one.  The proprietor, even though he had moved down from New Hampshire, was an Aggie (graduated a few years before John). Lesson #6: Outside of Austin, there are a LOT of Aggies around!

We drove through town (tiny, at 1211 people) and passed the actual fort for which Fort Davis is named – we’ll be back there on Thursday – and started the drive up to the Observatory. The weather was fabulous – 80 degrees and sunny. We drove with the windows down! (This made it a lot easier to stop and take photos of the mountains, too.) We got to the Visitors Center (16 miles) just in time for our 2:30 tour. First we learned about the sun. They have a telescope that just looks at the sun, and the tour guide (Rachel) showed us a live image, so we could see the sun spots. My lack of coffee was starting to take its toll, but then it was time to head up the mountain! First stop, the 107” Harlan J. Smith telescope, on Mount Locke – 6790 ft elevation. We climbed the stairs to the floor of the telescope dome (whew, 50 steps at that elevation was rough) and learned about how the telescope works, the mirrors, and how it takes in spectral information and the scientists review it.  The kids on our tour got to move the telescope to different points; when there were no more kids to volunteer, I got to take the controls and rotate the dome itself! So cool!  The view from the telescope area is also amazing – Rachel pointed south to where, on a really clear day like the one we were having, you can see all the way to Mexico. And somewhere in Mexico, they can see “la montaña con dos huevos” :) 

Then we went over to the Hobby-Everly telescope, 6,640 feet up, atop Mount Fowlkes.  This one is very different from the 107” telescope – instead of one big tube with a mirror, it’s made up of 91 hexagonal mirrors, and is 433 inches across. It was also built for a lot less money than other modern telescopes, re-purposing previously used technologies like a radar dome, and the kind of metal frames that are used in construction. The dome panels were covered by hand with silver tape to reflect more light – you can see the stripes of silver on the outside. They are currently doing some modifications to the mirror base, widening it so it can participate in the HETDEX project.  When we looked through the glass in the HET visitors’ center, they were bringing a cherry-picker down from its lofty position, rotating the telescope at the same time. It had to be done really carefully – it was like a ballet! I also noticed that of the five people working in the telescope room, three were women. 

After the tour, we drove back around to the Mt. Locke side and checked in to the Astronomers’ Lodge. It’s where all of the visiting scientists stay when they come to do research at McD. There are signs everywhere warning you to turn lights off, and there are blackout shades in every room. Unfortunately, I don’t think the décor in the lodge has changed much since the 70’s. The room was sparse, and the bed was uncomfortable, but they had amazing water pressure. Not the best wireless access either (we were hoping for a UT connection, but alas…) but it was enough.


Dinner was with our tour group for the special viewing at the 107” telescope. The lodge provides three meals a day for the staff and scientists, as well as items you can take to go, like peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and fruit.  It turned out we were really lucky to have gone on the earlier tour – there were a lot of people in our later group who didn’t know as much about the Observatory or how it worked.  Our evening guide took us back up to the same seats in front of the Smith telescope, but he gave us a presentation on Spectroscopy, which is mostly what the two instruments at McDonald are used for.

Then we had a presentation by an astronomy grad student, who also had been sitting with us at dinner. He was a very bright guy, but he had a strong stutter. During dinner, when people would ask questions about the telescope, I was able to answer them, so he didn’t have to. But he had to give his presentation to the group. There were times when you could tell he really loved his work, so he didn’t stutter. He said if he had to choose, he’d go on being a researcher instead of a professor… I totally understand why.

Unfortunately, in order to equalize the temperature in the room, when they start moving the telescope they open the doors on both sides, and it got COLD up there with the wind blowing!  But we got to go into the monitoring room and look through an eyepiece and see Saturn! You could see it as a tiny bright dot with the naked eye, but through the telescope, it filled the view! That was my favorite moment, I think. They also brought up two Messier objects, which John had shown me earlier – the M13 globular cluster, and M57, the ring nebula.  We were looking in an area of the sky that was very near Cygnus, which is where the “Melyssa” star is, but we couldn’t ask them to find it – there were too many people there. The full moon was also beautiful, but it was too cold for me to stand out there and look for very long.

The full moon was useful, though, because we had to walk back down to the lodge in the dark. :) We grabbed some cookies and went to bed.

Total mileage, day 3: ~17 miles.
Total mileage overall:  750 miles 

Day 4: Scenic Loop to Fort Davis




It wasn’t hard to sleep in a room that was pitch black (with the exception of my phone battery charger, which makes a handy night-light), and I was exhausted. We ate breakfast with some of the same folks from our tour, and made ourselves some PB&Js to have later.  We decided to do the “Scenic Loop” drive around the Fort Davis mountains, which leaves from McDonald and goes counter-clockwise, ending up back at the road into town (near Murphy’s). 

First, though, we stopped back at the McDonald Visitors’ Center to see the exhibits (which we’d missed before our tour) and do some shopping.  Turns out we didn’t miss much -- the exhibits are kind of dated and over-used.  But there was a plaque on the wall thanking everyone who had been involved in creating the exhibits, and the first name on the list was Brad Armosky. I’ll have to send him a note.  John got a t-shirt and a shot glass with the observatory logo, and we were off!

Here again, we were the only car on the road most of the time, and with the speed limit at 45 (lots of twists and turns and rolling hills), we drove with the windows down. It was beautiful. We stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures a lot, because … there was nobody else there! We kept seeing signs for a “Wildlife Viewing Area” – all the way around the loop – that never really materialized. (Lesson #7: there is no wildlife viewing area; or, alternatively, the whole loop is a WVA. We haven’t decided which.)  With the windows open, we kept hearing a popping noise, but we thought it was just the tires on rocks or gravel, until John pointed out what became lesson #8: Grasshoppers (especially the giant, west Texas kind) make a loud popping noise when you run over them. (eeeeewwwwww)  Scenic Loop: ~60 miles. 

We also drove over a lot of cattle grates on the scenic loop. There are a lot of ranches out there, and the cattle are just roaming the hills. Some goats, too, but mostly cattle. We saw a few on the wrong side (road side) of fences, but they were content to stay put. We kept thinking if we were seeing sheep, rather than cattle, we could be in Scotland. (Well, aside from the large palm-like succulents growing everywhere.) It’s that green!

Just as we were pulling up in the parking lot of the Fort Davis National Historic site, the black clouds overhead opened up, so we sat in the car and ate our PB&J’s and hard boiled eggs, and waited. We probably sat there for about 20 minutes, using the convenient Park Service wireless. Between the slowing rain and my need to find a restroom, it was time to get out. We went to the visitors center and got a map of the site, and some background info. It turns out that the Buffalo soldiers were once stationed at Fort Davis. The first black man ever to graduate from West Point, Henry O.Flipper, was also stationed there, but he was court-martialed for embezzlement (even though he was not guilty) and dishonorably discharged in 1882. (He was posthumously pardoned by President Clinton in 1999.) 

They have restored a few of the buildings, and have marked off the ruins of others. We stopped in the Commissary, the Hospital, and the Officers’ Quarters. John found the Magazine (complete with boxes of ammo) way out behind the hospital, too.  The scenery is just breathtaking – all of these buildings were constructed at the base of a huge mountain, along what used to be the San Antonio-El Paso road. The road isn't there anymore, it’s mostly dirt and overgrown, but there are signs.  

After walking around the site in the sun and occasional rain shower, it was time to go check in to our last hotel. We had driven by it a few times already, the Davis Mountain Inn.  A lovely blue house that would've had a perfect backdrop, except for the RV park that seems to have sprung up next to it. Ah well. It’s a lovely B&B, with a big kitchen, rooms that hold a total of 12 guests, a large living room, and more cookies! (Lesson #9, chocolate chip cookies are everywhere. Always grab one when presented with the opportunity!) Our room was the one with the king bed, giant spa bathtub, and equally huge tiled shower. We were in heaven. I think my bedroom growing up was smaller than the walk-in closet.  (2 miles from the Fort)



We rested for a bit – John spent too much time out in the sun, and it took its toll – and then we decided to go to the Fort Davis Drug Store for dinner.   It has a long history – the original drugstore opened across the street from where it is now, in 1913. It moved in 1950, and has been in the same spot ever since. The food is traditional Texan – meat, meat and more meat. John had chicken-fried-steak, and I had a ½ lb burger that almost took over the table!  And since it’s an ice cream parlor, we had to have dessert too. I was worried that I didn’t have enough Lactaid pills, but they sell it (individual pill packets for $0.50 each) behind the counter! Lesson #10: Every ice cream shop should sell Lactaid!  So I got to have a nice big scoop of mint chocolate chip.

I also noticed that the young guy who waited on us at Murphy’s on Wednesday afternoon was there at the Drug Store on Thursday night. We learned more about him the next day.

Then we walked around the “center” of town – the square, which has the County Courthouse, the library, the state bank, and the Hotel Limpia. We looked in the bank window, and it still has the old fashioned teller windows… if I were going to film a bank robbery movie in a small town, I’d use this town!  

That was enough of an evening for us, so we went back to the Inn, watched some tv and went to bed.

Total mileage, day 4: ~62 miles
Total mileage overall: 812 miles
Here's a map of our route

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