Never pass up a chance to sit down or relieve yourself. -old Apache saying

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 2 - Observatory

Saturday, October 17, started much like Friday, October 16, had ended: with a thump and a rattle and a loud BANG! I was entombed in the windowless upper bunk of our roomette on this Amtrak train to hell, and my wonderful wife was lying restlessly in the lower bunk. We both remarked after one particularly violent lurch, "WHAT THE FUCK!?!"

Somewhere west of Houston, probably about halfway to San Antonio, the train calmed down a bit. Enough so that we were able to catnap a bit, only to be awakened now and then by random lurching and shuddering. It was this way all the way to San Antonio. I lay in the upper bunk, miraculously not motion-sick, thinking that, next time, there was no way in hell we would travel by train. ANYWHERE.

As the train slowed and pulled into San Antonio, the lurching subsided. It was almost 3:00am. I could feel the train jerk to a stop. Suddenly, two of the lights that we had purposefully left on in our roomette went dark, and the ceiling air vent that I had relied upon for some "fresh" (recycled) air, went dead.

Now the train was dead still, dead silent, and the coffin-like upper bunk seemed even smaller and darker than ever. The roomette was still illuminated, but just barely, by a faint glow from an overhead light that had never gone out, but claustrophobia began to set in.

The lurching and noise out of Houston had been bad enough, but now, not even the vent was blowing, it was eerily quiet and darker than ever, and I felt a different kind of fear creeping into the tiny space with me.

I unhooked the netting and struggled out of the bunk. The wife was sleeping peacefully, miraculously. I put on my shoes and walked down the darkened hallway, coming upon our red cap attendant.

"Are we in San Antonio?" I mumbled. "Yes," the attendant said.

"How long will we be here?" I asked. "About two and a half hours," was his answer.

Oh, geez. San Antonio is a switching point for those travelers coming or going from Chicago. We were going to drop off one car that was due to head north to Chicago and would pick up two others that were traveling westbound with us. This whole dance would last until 5:30am?!

Looking and feeling disheveled and sleep-deprived, I returned to our roomette. This is not the time to strike up conversations with strangers, so I took a couple of deep breaths and climbed back inside the coffin. Other people do this all the time, right? Right?

Somehow, I climbed up into the bunk without waking up the wife below and quickly, mercifully, fell asleep. Sometime around 6:00am, we both awoke at the same time, hungry. Open breakfast (no reservations) would not be served until 6:30am in the dining car, but we gathered ourselves anyway, brushed our teeth in the airplane-like "restroom" and headed that way.

Here's a short video of moving between the cars.

Since it was too early for breakfast, we settled into the lounge car, one car past the dining car, and had it all to ourselves. One attendant was nice enough to bring us some coffee while we waited for breakfast. The moving train was rather smooth here. Whattaya know. But it was still pitch-dark outside. Could not see a thing.

One good thing about purchasing a sleeping arrangement is that all meals are included with your ticket. And free water. And coffee. The breakfast was fairly typical: the wife had a couple of waffles and bacon, which was pretty good, but I made the mistake of ordering something the waiter described as "like a quiche." I guess I wasn't thinking too clearly at the time. It was pretty horrible, but I nibbled enough from the wifes plate to satisfy my appetite. And the coffee was very good.

After breakfast, even after a gallon of coffee, we were both still so tired from the harrowing "sleep" the night before that we went back to the roomette and napped for a couple of hours. The attendant had converted the roomette to its sitting arrangement in our absence, but it was easy to lower the upper bunk once again. It was also much easier to sleep now, because the train was running smoothly and quietly, with hardly any rocking at all. Strange, but very welcome. We awoke around 10:00am to a nice gentle swaying of the train.

By this time, we were past Del Rio, and the train was climbing in altitude. From Houston, which is about 100' above sea level, to Alpine at 4400', most of this second day was a constant climbing higher and higher, which made the train go slower, and smoother. It was a very pleasant ride now, so much different from the Houston to San Antonio stretch.

The hamburger at lunch was delicious. Perfect. Feeling human again, we retired to the lounge car for awhile. Our arrival in Alpine came quickly enough, but we had some time to sit and enjoy the (somewhat austere) scenery in the lounge car. Now THIS was "train travel" that was actually enjoyable.

We rolled into Alpine about an hour early, and our rental car was there at the train station, waiting for us.

Alpine Auto Rental is the only game in town, unfortunately, which allows them to get away with charging a daily rental fee (no weekly rates - sorry!) PLUS $0.10 per mile! Take it or leave it. We took it. They keep in touch with the train's progress and so they knew it would be early, and were there with the car for us. Nice touch. It was a 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt, fully equipped.

We stuffed our bags into the car and headed north to the McDonald Observatory, our overnight destination, 10 miles west of Fort Davis, on state highway 118.

Alpine is a nice little town tucked into the mountains of West Texas, population 5,000 or so, and home to Sul Ross State University. We would hang around the town a bit later in our journey, so, for now, we headed straight for the Observatory.

It's a scenic 30-mile drive up to Fort Davis from Alpine. Hell, anything not flat is scenic to us Houstonians. No, really, it was beautiful, and a gorgeous, clear, deep-blue-sky helped no small amount.

The McDonald Observatory is home to several large telescopes run by the University of Texas at Austin.

Atop Mount Locke, at 6650' elevation in the Davis Mountains, the weather was cool and perfect for stargazing.

We stopped at the Visitors Center to get our bearings around 2:00pm...

...and since check-in was not until 3:00pm, we spent some time in the Exhibit Hall (museum) of the Visitors Center. Some very cool stuff in there: interactive exhibits of astronomy, galaxies, star chemistry, the history of exploration, etc, and one of the best things is that there were CHAIRS in front of each exhibit so that you could sit and read and take your time. Since we were the only people in the Exhibit Hall at the moment, we took full advantage. Imagine! CHAIRS in a museum! Highly recommended. Since we were sleeping overnight at the Astronomers Lodge, the price of admission to the Exhibit Hall was nada.

Did you know that 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's 1609 initial use of a spyglass to view the heavens? 400 years. And the Catholic Church "forgave" Galileo for heresy what? 5 years ago? Better late than never, I guess.

From the Visitors Center, we drove up the rest of the mountain to the Astronomers Lodge and checked in. Until just a few years ago, this Lodge was only available for astronomers, but they decided to open it up to visitors who were there for one of the viewing programs.

The largest telescopes on the mountain are the 107", the 82" and the 36", but there are several smaller ones. The even-bigger HET (Hobby-Eberly Telescope) occupies a nearby mountaintop. Since we had signed up for the 36" viewing program, we got to stay in the Astronomers Lodge. For a fee, of course.

This area of Texas is still the darkest region on the continental United States, so it is ideal for telescopes. They take darkness and silence seriously up here. Astronomers typically are up all night making observations and doing research, and so sleep during the daytime.

Meals are included in the cost of the Astronomers Lodge. Dinner was a make-your-own salad and make-your-own tortillas filled with your choice of beef or chicken, along with the usual Mexican-food style condiments. It was delicious. Not much of a menu, no waiters, but as much as you wanted, and it was good. Not many Texans do not like tortillas like this.

Nice view from the dining room of the Lodge...

During dinner, we struck up a conversation with a woman and her daughter at our table. Turns out she is the wife of a University of Texas astronomy professor, and was up here helping him with research while he was in Austin teaching. She had the keys to the 82" telescope and invited us to take a private tour of the dome. A private tour? Well ... hell yeah!

Once inside the telescope's dome, she gave us the history of the Observatory. Astronomers used to stay for months at the Observatory, sleeping in quarters right inside the dome. Nowadays, they use the Lodge. We went into the main telescop
e room and the instrument was just massive. The 82" Otto Struve telescope is the first one built, in 1939, at the Observatory, and it does look rather old, but still works great. She even let us operate the controls to move the telescope into position and rotate the dome. I don't think they let you do that on the normal tour. It was too cool.

The time was getting close for our official reason for being there - the 36" telescope viewing program - so we said goodbye and thank you so much and left for the smaller telescope.

I had tinkered with the idea of majoring in Astronomy in college but didn't follow through. I can only wonder.....

The 36" telescope is just a short walk from the Lodge, so we ambled on over there and met up with a few others who were already there waiting. Our visitors group consisted of about 15 in total, ranging from old folks from Germany and Australia to young female science students from Washington State to a metal-studded couple moving from Austin to L.A.

One of the young girls (8th grade) was very sharp and was quick to answer most of our host's questions. It's good to see some interest in science in our young kids. After noticing another dim satellite passing slowly overhead through the telescopes' open dome, she told me she won an honor back at her school for noticing things moving in the sky. She spotted about five satellites in orbit, which was pretty amazing.

Our host for the 36" program, Joe, was from Indiana and had a most-unusual manner of speaking. We kept listening to the odd way he spoke and didn't pay much attention to what he was saying. Check out this video...

Silly and superficial, I know, but are we not human?

Joe pointed the 36" telescope to Jupiter (particularly bright throughout October), Neptune, and a couple of stars and galaxies several thousand light-years away. It is humbling to look at these objects, so far away, and wonder again takes over....

We also went outside the dome at one point and Joe pointed out several objects in the dark, clear night sky. The number of stars was just phenomenal. We hadn't seen so many stars since we were kids living in small towns.

The "new" moon was due on Sunday the 18th, so we had optimal stargazing conditions. Joe talked about astronomy and pointed out several constellations and clusters and we all marveled at what the hell the Greeks were thinking when they saw patterns in the sky and gave common names to the curious arrangements they saw. It is simply a profound experience to view the heavens on a clear night. That is, if you are not sitting in a brightspot like Houston.

Joe had this really cool laser pointer that, when he pointed at objects in the sky, would actually go up 50-100 feet in the air with a solid narrow beam of light, to make it really easy to see what he was pointing at, even if you weren't that close to him. I gotta get one of those. I promise I won't point it at airplanes or helicopters flying overhead!

These viewing programs are long. We started at 8:30pm and took a break around 10:00pm to walk back to the Lodge for some coffee, cookies and chitchat, and to warm up a bit. The weather gauge read 50 degrees outside, but the strong breeze must have dropped the windchill down to 40. Or less. It was COLD outside, but we were prepared by dressing snugly.

Rather than re-join the group and go back to the 36" telescope for the second half of the program (which we were told later lasted another 90 minutes!) we stayed behind at the Astronomers Lodge and called it a night.

A horrible train ride. A great train ride. A nice drive in the mountains. A mind-bending museum. Good dinner. Private tour of the 82" telescope. A wonder-inducing 36" telescope program. Trembling with awe under the Milky Way. All-in-all, a really great day.

To read about Day 1 - Amtrak, click here.

To go to Day 3 & 4 - Marfa, TX., click here.

To go to Day 5 & 6 - Big Bend, click here.

To go to Day 7 & 8 - Terlingua, TX., click here.

No comments: