Witnessing the sunrise on Easter morning was an unexpected gift. After two visits to the McDonald Observatory, I thought I had exhausted my quota of celestial events. Maybe they all prepared me for this one?
In any event, I woke up Easter morning before dawn and spotted Venus, the morning star, just above the horizon. I realized that it might be clear enough to drive up Skyline Road at Davis Mountains State Park for sunrise. From that vantage point, one can view the wide open valley that includes three counties (Jeff Davis, Brewster, Presidio) with 30% more area than the state of Vermont and a total population of 20,000. This is sparsely populated west Texas.
We got up and drove to the vista. There were about two dozen people gathered and mulling around in silence awaiting the rising sun. Looking east, a wide ribbon of clouds stretched along the distant mountains which provided the staging for the event. From this 360 degree vantage point I could look west to the McDonald Observatory, south toward Marfa and north into the vast expanse of this wild, beautiful and open land. In the cool and still morning, surrounded by other pilgrims, I wondered what new beginnings was I a silent witness to.
As the sun rose, the bands of light, like a painter’s brush, swept across the valley and up the narrow canyons below me. A bright splash of light shone on the yellow-green cottonwoods, adorned in their Easter finery. The band of sunlight highlighted the tall, dry grasses of last summer and they began bowing in the breeze, as if in silent acknowledgement of this witness’s appreciation. Overhead, and in the west, the moon, still visible, silently observed it all. Easter morning, 2017.
This was a return stay at Davis Mountains State Park and it was restful, though not entirely uneventful, visit. On our first night in the park a wild hail storm blew in around 1:00AM. We had recently met a couple of Airstreamers who got caught in a hail storm in Illinois that had destroyed their aluminum shiny house. As a result, a hail storm gets our attention, and not just because of the noise it makes bouncing off the roof. The hail was about the size of green peas and while it sounded more ferocious, we had no collateral damage. Our first trip to this park (2016) we had the only encounter with snow since our time on the road so this was not entirely unexpected in the Davis Mountains.
The tours of the McDonald Observatory, which is just six miles from the park, were great. We did the daytime tour of the largest telescopes. The tour started at the Visitor’s Center with a live look at the surface of the sun through three smaller telescopes. The morning cloud cover cooperated (mostly) and we got to see the roiling surface of the sun, 93 million miles away, and some solar flares and plumes. Awesome! Our guided tour then took us up the mountain to the Harlan J. Smith 107″ telescope, which at one time had been the largest in the U.S. when it was built in 1968. Today, research astronomers apply for time on the telescope up to four months in advance and if awarded a slot, they have the place to themselves and weather-permitting, get to study the night sky all they want. Free of charge. Our guide let some of us “drive” the telescope, rotating it to the various positions that research astronomers may need to make in their studies. I got to open the dome-shaped roof. Another visitor got to raise and lower the floor of the station. Very cool.
From here we got a tour of the big boy on site, the Hobby-Eberly at 432″. Its 91 hexagonal mirrors act like a giant eye making up one primary mirror which is spherical in shape. The Hobby-Eberly is studying dark space. This is the first major experiment to measure how the expansion of our universe has changed its shape. By mapping the expansion of the universe in great detail, astronomers look far into the universe, gathering light from galaxies that existed when the universe was just a couple of billion years old. By collecting all this data, astronomers plan to build the most detailed three-dimensional map of the universe ever created. We got to look through the glass observation wall at the monster telescope where technicians were at work installing some new optical recording equipment. It was pretty extraordinary to see, even though I was not able to comprehend the enormity of the research project. We also learned that currently, a consortium of universities are at work building the largest telescope ever constructed in the world. The 960″ telescope, called Magellan, is cited in Chile high in the Andes Mountains. Whoa.
The Star Party we attended this time reminded us that the universe is constantly in motion. We saw things this time that were completely different from our trip in February. No moon or Venus this time. But Jupiter was awesome. We saw four of the moons and the recognizable “stripes” of dark gases along the equator of the behemoth planet. We looked 25 million light years away at two galaxies that are moving closer and closer together. The larger one, Whirlpool, has been photographed by the Hubble telescope.
One of the most amazing events of the night was a double-sighting of both the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. The first, the space station, passed overhead about 9:20PM, traveling from west to east about 200 miles overhead. We got to follow it for several minutes until the shadow of the earth blocked the reflecting light of the sun and it disappeared into the night sky. About 30 minutes later we looked into the southwestern sky and watched the Hubble, at 350 miles overhead, slide across the night canvas. We crawled back down the hill at nearly midnight after a mind-blowing celestial display.
We took some earth-based trips around the west Texas neighborhood which included a visit to the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine. A jewel of a find, it gives a great overview of Big Bend Country. The current exhibit “Big Bend Legacy” introduces visitors to the distinctive natural history, human history and confluence of cultures in the Big Bend region. Native Americans inhabited the area for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. The Spanish, through their system of missions and presidios, imprinted their customs on the region only to be replaced by the nation of Mexico. The westward expansion of the United States brought yet another unique culture to the Big Bend. Big Bend Legacy invites the visitor to experience this panorama of natural and human history. One of the highlights of the museum included a short video on the love affair that Hollywood has had with west Texas over the decades. Snippets from movies like Giant (1956) and Paris, Texas (1984) were fun to watch as they highlighted this glorious country.
As we have written before, we live our life on the road exploring connections and nurturing community. For Peter, community includes AA and he attended a meeting one evening in Alpine. In addition to the heart connection, he met some great guys and came home with an invitation to a bar-b-que over the weekend at a historic ranch up the valley. We did go and met some really interesting people from west Texas. The personal stories were moving and encyclopedic knowledge of the forces of nature were inspiring. One guy said that the hail storms and thunderstorms are de rigueur. They live through droughts, and wind, and occasional runs of cold weather but the most devastating are the invasion of the locusts. “They devour everything in their path”, he said solemnly.
I got a personal lesson in dialect and pronunciation while chatting with some of the other guests. One guy from Fort Davis corrected my pronunciation of our first campground in Texas, Hueco Tanks State Park. I said “whey-ko” and he said “who-ko”. For the place we are heading to in hill country, Pedernales Falls State Park, I pronounced the first name, “Ped-er-nal-is” and he corrected me with “Purr-nall-is”. I jokingly asked him if he would like to tag along on our Texas trip acting as a translator since it is certainly a different world down here. Joyful discovery!
We left Davis Mountains Easter morning, so grateful for the restful and restorative nature of our time here.
Liz and Peter continue their easterly journey through Texas in their Airstream.