Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Star Party (We're back, Baby!)

We stayed in Ft. Davis specifically to participate in the “star party” at the McDonald Observatory here in this remote area of west Texas. The observatory is affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin and boasts the third largest telescope in the world, the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope, named for the Hobby family of Texas and the Ebberly family of Pennsylvania who donated generously to make the telescope possible.

If I understand the story right, the University of Texas had plans to build a telescope when they learned that a university in Pennsylvania had plans to build a similar telescope at 15% of the cost. The two schools began negotiations to build a telescope together and these two families were involved in the initial development plans. This area is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It would be hard to find any place in the country any farther away from even a very small city. There is no sky glow from any city or town. We were outside in the frigid cold for several hours last night, and we could detect none. The sky was so dark, in fact, that we were able to see a sheen of light that looked like sky glow; in fact, it was made up of particles of dust in the air—the same dust that formed our planet—called zodiacal glow. Mike, being an astronomy buff, was very excited about this since he had never seen or heard of it before.

As a part of the talk beforehand, we were treated to a view of an iridian (sp) flare. These are caused by the system of satellites that were put into orbit by a pre-cell phone-era company that was banking on the ubiquitous use of satellite phones. They were, unfortunately, not practical for the casual user and the company went belly-up. They sold the satellites to the US government to be used for military communications. As they pass overhead, they are constantly being adjusted and readjusted. Because of that, they catch the light of the sun in the same way and mirror would, and they flash VERY brightly. We were looking at Sirius (the brightest star in our field of vision) for scale, and as the satellite passed by, it did indeed flash much, much brighter than Sirius for just a few seconds. Very cool.

After the talk, we were treated to five telescopes trained on different celestial objects: Saturn, a nebula within Orion’s belt, the Andromeda Galaxy, a star cluster (M46 to you astronomy buffs), and the Pleiades (Just think of the Seven Sisters—or Subaru in Japanese, we’re told). It was great fun, and although it was extremely cold on this high hill, it was well worth the shivering to see all this stuff.

So this afternoon we moved on to Balmorhea State Park, still in west Texas. We are finding we like west Texas very well. No sign of the idiot thus far. It has taken me quite a while to get through this particular blog entry, and I still have many pictures to sort through. We have been out of touch for more than a week, and I can’t post my slideshows, or even upload them, without an internet connection. We have used Mike’s cell phone for virtually all of our internet usage, and so without cell phone coverage, we are out of luck. (And, of course, if there is no cell phone, you can bet that there is no internet either.) So stay tuned. I have lots of pictures to post, and more to bring you up to date on our comings and goings. We have missed being in touch with you for this past week, and we are very glad to be back in some semblance of civilization. I will be posting pictures of the things I've been telling you about within the next day or two.

Ft. Davis, Texas

We’ve moved on to Fort Davis from Big Bend. (Update: This would have been this past Sunday.) We spent four nights in Big Bend, and it was absolutely lovely. Very warm, but such a nice breeze. We slept with our windows open for the first time. We’ve learned quite a few things on this trip that will help us in years to come. One thing we’ve learned is that if we really want to find warm weather, we will have to go to the desert. That is fine with us because we like the desert. We’ve seen all four of the deserts in the American southwest, and we agree that the Sonoran Desert (in Arizona) is the most beautiful.

To get back to Big Bend, we drove the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive yesterday. It is a 32-mile drive where one can see most of the major features of the park. (By the way, Ross Maxwell designed the scenic drive. He was a geologist and also was the first superintendent of the park.) The road dead-ends at the Santa Elena canyon where the Rio Grande has cut a 1,500 foot tall canyon that is about 40 feet across. There is a hike that takes you back nearly a full mile into the canyon itself. The beginning of the hike takes you about halfway up the canyon wall, and then down to the water’s edge.

There are only a few places that you would want to put your feet in the water, but we were warned against that since the river is polluted with farm and ranch run-off. It is a pea-soup green and filled with silt. It is a “lazy” river. By that I mean, that it is barely moving. One wonders how it could have cut such a deep canyon; but it is filled with silt, which, given a million years, can easily carve out such a formation.

Along the river’s edge grows a “hedge” of reeds that are about 12 feet tall. The reeds were used by Indians and settlers to make roofs and other structures. Indeed, we stopped in at the visitor’s center before we reached the trailhead, and there was a nice patio that had a reed roof. It was a nice place to stop and have some lunch before we did the hike. It was very warm that day (over 90 degrees), and the temperature in the canyon was absolutely heavenly. It would have been uncomfortably warm to do it with the sun directly overhead, but we were there around 2:00 pm, and so the sun had dipped below the canyon wall on the Mexican side. Which brings me to the other thing we loved about this hike: there is something very special about standing at the river’s edge on the American side and looking across at the opposite wall where Mexico begins. This was true wherever we stood next to the river, and some of the most beautiful formations were in Mexico.

The previous day we had hiked the Rio Grande Nature Trail which started in the campground where we were staying. It was a self-guiding trail, meaning that we dropped a quarter in the slot at the beginning of the trail, and took one of the pamphlets that talked about various features along the trail. One of the things we saw was the metatas, which were nearly perfectly round holes in the rock where the Indians ground up grains for food—like a natural mortar and pestle. We have seen these in Mesa Verde NP as well. We also saw fossilized seashells, attesting to the fact that Big Bend was once completely underwater.

One of the most charming things we noticed along the trail were hand-made wire scorpions, painted walking sticks, necklaces and polished stones that were left along with a donation can by the Mexicans who crossed the river and left them there for American’s to purchase. (Donations were also welcomed.) Interestingly, a sign at the beginning of the trail warned us that it was illegal to possess these items; however, they were for sale in the visitor’s center. Sheesh. I had already ignored the prohibition and purchased some of the items along the trail—they were so charming—before I noticed they were for sale in the visitor’s center. I would way prefer the Mexicans have their profit than to give it to the federal government. I am a national park lover, but I thought that particular bit of profit-taking was shameful.

I have been talking along the way of acting like a real photographer and getting up before dawn to take pictures in the best light. (Sunset is also a good time when the colors are very saturated.) I found a spot along the trail that was enticing and so I did get my equipment ready the night before so that I could go the next morning. The only thing left for me to do was to drag my bones out of bed early enough to hike up to the ridge before the sunrise. And I did it!! I will post some of the images I took in that early morning trek. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the sun come up, and also, I saw Venus in the early morning light. It was the brightest object in the sky.

So this morning, we woke up still uncertain whether we could stay another day or move on. I kind of wanted to stay for the sunset photo-op when the Sierra del Carmen mountain range (on the Mexican side) was particularly beautiful. We were in for a very hot day, and despite the nice breeze that kept us cool, we decided to move on. (Now we have a reason to return. There is nothing on the way to this park and it is a long way to reach it. If you go, it will be your destination.)

This afternoon, we drove into Davis Mountain State Park in Fort Davis, TX. (There are a lot of forts in Texas.) We weren’t sure what we would find here. It is above 5,000 feet, and so we were worried, needlessly, about the temperature. It is 80 degrees at 6:00 p.m., and we still have a perfect breeze keeping us comfortable. Fort Davis is in the heart of the Davis Mountains. It grew as a strategic point on the San Antonio-Texas Road. It was established in 1854 and manned by troops of the Eighth U. S. Infantry who, mounted on mules, fought the Comanche Indians.

The canyon is formed by Limpia Creek, flows through the Davis Mountains, and is a centuries-old oasis for travelers. The park includes a part of the creek and nearly 2,000 acres of rolling grasslands and intermittent Desert Oak trees that cover the mountains. There is a 74-mile scenic highway that makes a loop through the Davis Mountains and includes Madera Canyon and McDonald Observatory, which is part of the University of Texas.

The observatory hosts star parties on Tuesday evenings. A giant Hobby-Eberly Telescope is connected to a gallery that offers interpretive programs. We will be able to view the stars and planets through telescopes, and so we are staying three nights here to take it in. The moon happens to be at a good phase for this since it doesn’t rise until late into the evening. Since there are no large cities within 200 miles of this place, the sky should be very dark. We are looking forward to driving the scenic drive, and to attending the star party.

We are still out of cell phone range, and therefore, no internet. We will be able to use our phones in town (about 10 miles away), but we still will not have internet access. I could post these entries, but I cannot make a slide show without internet access. Therefore, I’ll still have to wait to post these entries. Sorry for the length of all this. We are definitely making our way back now. I will continue to blog until we get home.

The plan at this point is to return to the park where we stayed in Las Cruces. (We really LOVED that hot tub.) We’ll probably spend a few days there. Then on to Yuma, AZ, which is snowbird heaven. My own grandparents used to winter over there from Nampa, Idaho, when I was a little girl. I hadn’t even learned to swim yet, and so you will know that was a very long time ago.

After Yuma, we are planning to spend a day or two in San Diego where my mother’s grave is. I have not been there, and I would like to visit her. I attended her memorial service when she died, but I have not seen the place where her cremains are interred. After that we will continue to head north. We are planning to stop the Palm Springs/ Palm Desert area. We are still searching for the place we might want to winter over as a permanent destination. By that I mean that we will pull our trailer down and stay for the entire three months, or at least the bulk of that time. We wish all of you well. Take good care.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

We reached Big Bend National Park two days ago. (To update: this would have been one week ago as I publish this entry.) We are in a wonderful park campground with nice big Cottonwoods for shade trees. This is called the Rio Grande Village campground, and the river is just over some mesquite. We can reach it from the Rio Grande Nature Trail, which we have yet to walk. As I write this it is around 2:30 p.m., and the sun is still high in the sky. Our plan is to walk it when the sun is lower in the sky. At sunset, the mountains to the east of us turn pink, and they are very pretty. I’m hoping I can get some shots of them.

This is one of the few places where it has been warm enough that we can wear shorts and sleeveless t-shirts. The temperatures have been running in the 80’s and there is a perfect cool breeze making it very pleasant. There are a lot of birds in this area since it is a transition point for birds migrating north from South and Central America, and south from North America. Just now, I took a walk through the campground and was able to get some good pictures of Roadrunners, which seem to run the place. There are also Gila Woodpeckers, White-winged Doves, crows (of course), and a red bird called a Summer Tanager.

Big Bend is one of the least known and most remote of our national parks. The riverbanks of the Rio Grande are a wetland habitat for birds and other river critters. There are also black bears, mountain lions, deer, javelina and bobcats. North America contains four big deserts: the Great Basin Desert, the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert, which is the most easterly and southern of the four. One of the most common plants in the Chihauhua Desert is the Lechuguilla (lay-choo-GEE-ya), and it does not grow in anywhere else. Like the Century Plant, it blooms just once in its lifetime before it dies. When it blooms, it sends up a fifteen-foot, asparagus-like stalk with tightly packed purple and yellow blossoms. It is not a cactus, but is actually related to the daffodils, while the agaves are related to the amaryllis family.

Yesterday, we hiked the Window Trail into the Chisos Basin. The Chisos Mountains are a rugged range that is completely within the boundaries of the park. There is a narrow canyon that runs between the mountains called the Chisos Basin. Within this area there is a small stream that flows down and pours from pool to pool to drop through “The Window” on the west side of the basin. This waterfall drops over two-hundred feet into a small inaccessible grotto covered with ferns and surrounded with oaks and maples—down on the edge of the desert.

This was a rugged, but beautiful hike between towering red bluffs. At times, the trees shaded the trail, making it comfortable, even though the temperatures were warm. There is quite an elevation change, but the switchbacks, steps, and areas of relatively flat terrain made it an easy hike both in and out (4 miles round trip). Toward the extreme end of the hike, the canyon becomes very narrow, and the rocks quite slippery. The view from the edge is quite impressive, and a big wind blows, making it seem all the more forbidding. The slick rocks made it quite dangerous to attempt to go to the edge and look over, but it was enticing all the same. I will post what pictures I have of it, but it was difficult to encompass with the shadows on the canyon walls and the bright valley below. ( . . . I saw below me a golden valley . . . ) We also saw a few javelinas and some white-tail deer, which are small. I would estimate their size to be a little smaller than an antelope. There is only one deer species that is smaller, and it lives in Florida. We enjoyed this hike very much. While the goal of the hike (reaching the window) is a short-lived thrill, it was very much worth the effort it took to get there.
I suppose that’s about all I have to say for now. I will post some pictures as soon as I am able, but we are out of cell phone range, and there is no internet available here. I’m afraid this will be one of those times when I post several days worth of entries. For those of you still reading, I apologize.