When I envisioned what I’d be doing on my 52nd birthday, strains of the ‘80’s punk rock band, The B52’s, played in my head—“Rock Lobster”, “Private Idaho”, and my favorite “Love Shack”. Well, I did indeed queue up my B52’s playlist for my drive from Fort Stockton to meet up with Suzanne out in Fort Davis. But she had come up with a much better idea for my birthday celebration—a trip up to the McDonald Observatory, a place renowned for the darkest skies in the U.S. (and thus, best star gazing and astronomic research).
The drive over to Fort Davis was a “picture postcard” West Texas day—big blue sky with polka dot white puffy clouds.
But soon, I began to see two small white dots on one of the hilltops….the observatory!
I originally thought I’d drive just the Tracker up the 8,000 foot mountain, but after calculating that I’d not be back down the mountain until midnight, thought I’d just better take Millie and the View up there with me to keep her dinner and potty schedule on track.
The View’s little turbo diesel did great at chugging us up the hill, and while there was no overnight parking allowed at the Observatory, they did have a few nice long RV and Bus parking spaces for day/evening parking.
Suzanne arrived about an hour later just in time for the “Twilight Program”, half inside auditorium presentation to review the solar system and constellations with us, and the second half in the circular outdoor theatre where the presenter asked 3 kids to volunteer to demonstrate the different orbits of the Earth, Mars, and Jupiter.
I took my seat in the Pisces section with the other birthday boys and girls!
After the program, we had a couple hours to kill before the main event “Star Party” where we would finally be able to get inside these domes to peer through the really big telescopes!
It was fun to check our watches against the sun dial in front of the visitors center. Yep, it had perfect time except for the daylight savings time adjustment!
And as Suzanne and I are prone to do whenever we get together, we had to do a goofy “Lucy & Ethel” kind of photo at some point too!
After a few gift shop purchases, we retreated to the View for some wine and cheese while Millie enjoyed her on-time dinner. Meanwhile, the parking lot began to fill…and fill…and fill! It was Spring Break week in Texas, and the Observatory was now running nightly Star Parties this week to keep up with the demand. It turns out that 1,000 people made it up the mountain that night for my birthday Star Party. Wow!
The Observatory had a completely different feel after dark and they had deployed a number of additional smaller telescopes to try and keep the lines of folks waiting at each dome to a minimum. It all worked out pretty well. Our only drawback was that the moon was up and nearing Full (so the lesser stars were not as visible). But we still got to see quite a bit—Jupiter with its moons, our moon’s craters, the Orion nebulae, the Seven Sisters, and more. It was like spending the evening being transported to a completely new world!
Of course, Suzanne and I had to take pictures of each other at the telescope! I suggested we hold our cameras up to our chest so that their LCD screens would not disrupt our “night vision”. It worked pretty well!
What an incredible party and one I will remember for quite some time…thanks Suzanne!
Afterwards, we made our way slowly down the mountain—Suzanne headed back to her campsite at Balmorhea State Park, and me headed to a boondocking site about 15 miles south. I was about to break almost every single rule I normally follow to boondock safely as a solo woman. The picnic area where I’d be staying was remote, it was out of cell phone signal range, and I was the only one parking there for the night. Yikes! But, on the other hand, I arrived at midnight and planned to leave early the next morning, and I had already scoped it out earlier in the day to know what it looked like.
Aside from a brief scare at 4am when a car pulled into the lot, idled behind me for a minute, and then drove off, all was fine and I lived a new day (albeit, now a year older!). It was hard to photograph just how dark the skies were (and full of stars) at this boondocking spot, but it was certainly memorable!