I don't know if you've ever been on I-10 West, but there is just about Jack and Shit and Jack left town for the bright lights of Houston. We passed through plains and hills and then mountains. It was lovely. The same small towns greeted me as had the last time I drove out here: Sonora, Ozona, Ft. Stockton. In Sonora we got water and gas. In Ozona we blew right through. Ft. Stockton we stopped at Dairy Queen for Blizzards and to recheck our maps. By this point night had fallen but the afternoon chill remained. Just our luck to do this on the only weekend that isn't 60+ degrees all winter but oh, well. From Ft. Stockton we were trying to boogie. The front desk of our hotel colsed at 10PM and we wanted to try to make it before that so we'd, you know, have a place to sleep and all that good stuff. We tore down Highway 90, whipping past Alpine on the way to Marfa. Welsh Girl had never seen mountains before so even in the dark she was glued to the windows looking. Not that she could much. It was so dark out there, the way it can only be dark in a novel. The one thing the weather did right was making the sky overcast. I didn't want her to see the stars until Saturday night at the Observatory the same way that you don't want a child to see his present before Christmas.
We hit Marfa at just after 10PM. We got to the hotel at 10:15. Luckily, they were nice enough to tape a key to the door so we could get some sleep.
The Hotel Paisano is in the middle of scenic Marfa (we parked unter that middle tree). It didn't look quite so cheery, though. It was dark and cold and the fountain was frozen over and dripping down. The inside was that weird half small town half American Southwest theme with lots of autographed pictures around. You see, the film Giant was filmed nearby and the entire cast and crew stayed here during the filming. We started lugging our crap up to our room when we were found by the hotel's resident cat (who we would later learn was named Liz Taylor). This created a minor detour as Welsh Girl played with her for a bit. The room was nice, though certainly not the Rock Hudson Suite. We didn't get one of the rooms with a plasma TV :( but we did get a balcony overlooking the frozen courtyard. We setteled in , washed road dust off and hunkered down for the night (after not watching BSG since I didn't know they had SciFi).
Saturday morning we were up early. We arranged ourselves and checked in with the front desk. Our inquiry into breakfast led us to the Austin Street Cafe a block over and a block up.
The Austin Street Café is a small Santa Fe style restaurant built into a house. It’s got a certain bright cheery alterno-yuppie feel to it but all that’s not a turn off. I’m sure that has to do with the proprietors John and Lisa. If they were less friendly than they are, I wouldn’t have liked the place. But they’re friendly as hell (almost a little “too friendly”) and a nice couple who seem to be able to cook. There’s not much on the menu, a few breakfast items and a few lunch items, but that’s alright since they’re only open on the weekend. I can easily see why and how people might slip off there for some food.
A little conversation and some Belgian waffles later, Welsh Girl and I were off. The road to Ft. Davis and Macdonald Observatory was much like the road from Ft. Stockton to Marfa except you could see for miles in the daylight. Once again she watched the mountains while I tore down the road.
I don’t know why she lets me drive. She says she’s scared of my driving, but the second there’s something to see, she puts me behind the wheel so she can watch and when you’re on these far out country roads with nobody in sight for miles, how can you not open it up and go? I was actually a little frosty about driving around here. You see, I got a speeding ticket in Davis County about 5 years ago and I never paid it. It disappeared into the ether (never got any calls or warrants for it) but it would be just my luck that it’s still on file there. But I digress…
We whipped through Ft. Davis which has grown at least 300% since I was last there, which isn’t saying much since all I could remember being there was a barbeque place and some speed limit signs. It might have been cool to poke around the historic and disused museum Ft. Davis but we had bigger fish to fry. You can see the domes of the Observatory from town but we had another 16 miles of winding mountain road to traverse for that. We went from hill to higher point, passed ranches and small farms in the valleys and then started the real climb up the mountain.
We pulled up in front of the Visitor’s Center, got out of the car and took a breath. I almost forgot what the air smelled like up there. And the scenery was pretty. For a few minutes at a time I would just say nothing and listen to the sound of silence which, for me, is like a small buzzing/ringing noise in my ears that I bring with me from the city that goes away when I spend a few days in the quiet. They built a new one since last I was here. It’s bigger than the old one with a café and bigger displays for the public. I paid for the passes for the day ($15 each for a solar viewing, a tour of the facilities and the star party: a bargain at twice the price!). The gift shop, however, sells more crap whereas the old one actually sold better equipment to serve your nighttime observational needs. Welsh Girl and I roamed through the display looking at the life cycles of stars and the rudiments of spectroscopy. I noticed a few familiar faces while I was there. A professor I worked under apparently relocated out here for a few years and then moved back to Austin (I think). There was a guy we stayed next door to in a couple of mobile home trailers they were using for temporary housing. I put a hole through his wall firing a nickel from a slingshot. Well, that guy is Director of Education there now. Small world…
The solar viewing was interesting. Of course, since it was in a darkened hall with a speaker, I had to fight to not doze off. I forgot how pretty prominences and flares could look. Of course, I got a quick refresher on stellar dynamics. I haven’t thought about a lot of this stuff in years. Then we went up the mountain and took a look at the 104” telescope. That involved a lot of stairs, but it was worth it. Afterwards we went over to the Hobby-Eberly telescope which is a newer one. What makes it special is that instead of having one giant mirror it has lots of smaller mirrors that are computer controlled to behave as one large mirror. They were just about to build the first one of its kind out there when I was last there, the SST which I believe stood for Separate Segment Telescope or something like that. On a minor side note, there’s another larger one being built called the OWL or Over-Whelmingly Large telescope. I’m sure by 2050 there’ll be an HSOMGZWTFJCMPUH or Holy Shit Oh My God Zombies What The Fuck Just Crapped My Pants Uber-Huge Telescope. It’ll probably have to be on the Moon or perhaps a large asteroid since it will be roughly the size of Gujarat. Once again, I digress…
After the tour was over, Welsh Girl and I went back up the mountain and had a couple of sammiches (me pastrami, she turkey) under the shadow of the domes. That road is, coincidentally, the highest elevated state highway in Texas. Once we finished our repast, I had a little project to tend to that Welsh Girl was too pussy to come with me on. However, while we were talking about this mission, a cat came up to her to play and display its hurt eye. While she tended to it, I was off.
Remember that aforementioned Director of Education? Well, he and one of the other guys on the trip had this project they had been working on while they were living there involving a rock perched precariously on a hillside and a desire to watch destruction as it rolled down the mountainside. Well, two tried for a while but couldn’t get it to go. My week up there we had 6 guys. We knew we could make it go. But we were Astronomy majors, not football players. Pushing didn’t do it. Tools did little more. What we lacked in muscles we made up for in brains. One of us made some explosives (acetone + pool cleaner * drying time=boom). I practiced with a slingshot to set them off (hence nickel practice). A couple others put grooves in the rock base in hope of creating the most effective rock cleavage. In the end, the explosion worked and loosened the rock enough for all of us to push it over. It fell on its most stable side, slid about 15 feet and never moved again. So much for mountainside destruction… Well, I wanted to find that rock again so I went scurrying around on the mountain side in the right area. Welsh Girl didn’t want to come because it involved going in "Employees Only" areas. But how do you restrict someone from nature? How do you keep someone from a mountain side? I mean, without guards and concertina wire? You don’t. I got to the right place near our old housing, but disappointment was to be mine. That housing had been replaced with permanent housing and it had been built over where our stone had been. Well, at least I think it was. It has been more than a decade since I was there last. And what was I gonna do? Go to the offices and say "Hello, I’d like to speak to the Director of Education so I can find a rock he and I tried to roll down the mountain about 15 years ago?" While that probably would have gotten some response, and I was thinking about it, I had no time. Welsh Girl was summoning me.
On the way back up the hillside I remembered something very important. Mountain air is thinner than normal. By the time I made it back to her, I was panting in an almost canine fashion without a drop of sweat to show for it. I guess I’m just not the young buck I used to be. Actually, I’m better than the young buck I was when I was there.
We headed down the mountain after ditching Welsh Girl’s new friend to grab a little real food at the café before the star party. We managed some salad and quesadillas before the big event. I even tried a little late night photography but digital cameras and stars don’t seem to work so well. If anyone know how to do it, any advice or info would be welcome.
The only flaw with the star party (other than it being close to freezing) is that it was the night before the full moon. Bright moons obscure so many stars. :( On the other hand, the night was so dark and moon so bright it was causing shadows and we could still see more stars in the brightly moonlit sky than you can see here in Austin on a new moon. I pity you guys who live in big places like New York and Los Angeles who no longer get to see the stars at night because of all the light pollution, but that night in the mountains I pitied myself that I didn’t get to see this more often. Welsh Girl was loving it. She’s never looked through a telescope before so this was all new to her. That and I let her wear my thermals so she was toasty while my teeth were chattering. We got to see the Orion Nebula and a few star clusters. We watched the Pleiades and Saturn lay close to the moon. And of course, the moon view was great. And to top it all off, we even got a short movie narrated by Morgan Freeman explaining the concept of scale to all of us by powers of 10. Welsh Girl and I snuggled up together and ate gummi space shuttles as we watched. It was love-r-ly.
But all good things come to an end. We headed back down the mountain on the way back to Marfa. She wanted to try to see the Marfa Lights because she was warm and toasty in my thermals. I did not want to go see them because I wasn’t. We went anyway. There’s not much to see out there at night, but there we stood with the jackrabbits pouncing all around, her trying to keep me warm in her arms.
Back at the hotel, they were having a ball. No, seriously. There was a benefit ball being held there. The dress was thrift store chic, but there were a few older women and hot chicks in dresses that would never be seen dead in a thrift store. Had we known about the ball before we came, we might have attended. I’m always happy to have a reason to wear my tux and I wouldn’t have been the only tux there either. But by this point, even though we had been invited to have some of the desert, we were knackered. We ended up getting a bottle of Riesling and adjourning to our room.
Sunday morning was once again cold and sunny. We did our morning ablutions and packed up to check out. We managed to find Liz Taylor before we left so Welsh Girl loved on her a little more and then we packed our crap in the car and grabbed lunch.
The Café was a little more crowded Sunday since a lot of people like to do the brunch thing, but we were there between church releases so it wasn’t crowded yet. There was lunch and more talk with the proprietors. They told us something of note. They have a little apartment behind their house/restaurant that they rent out under the radar. It’s got a little kitchen in it and is a little bigger than our hotel room at half the price. So when we go back, we’re definitely staying there. We also got a tour of the rest of the house. It was a nice tasteful place. Their bathroom was absolutely decadent. In fact, if it had a minifridge and a hot plate, there’d be little reason to leave that room. We even met their dogs and caused them to escape the house causing the owners to make chase.
We dropped a letter to Welsh Girl’s parents at the post office and browsed the local bookstore. It has a small gallery attached and we saw the exhibit. It wasn’t that great. Geometric designs are a little difficult in art to begin with. Leaving guide lines on the pieces makes them look unfinished and more amateur than they already seemed, but considering there was even that in such a small town, I have to give them credit for trying. But all good things come to an end so we had to leave Marfa and hit the road back to Austin.
We made good time despite our two extended stops. One was a scenic loop that led to another abandoned fort, Ft. Lancaster. We spent about 45 minutes wandering the ruins and enjoying the view of the valley it was in. We spent another 45 minutes gassing up and getting food in Sonora. It would have been faster but we ended up behind a child’s birthday party at Pizza Hut so there was some waiting involved. Eventually, at 11PM on the nose, we made it back to Welsh Girl’s place. We unpacked, grabbed our pictures off the camera and went to bed.
From the mountaintop looking at the Hobby-Eberly
The 104" scope from beneath
Shadows of the Hege...? Oh, whatever...
A landscape shot
The highest highway in Texas and the 104" dome
Welsh Girl and the one-eyed mountain puma
Moon rise or some kind of crap like that
Moon risen or some kind of crap like that
A view from the balcony
The most decadent bathroom
The other half of the most decadent bathroom
On the road again...
The Moon again on I-10
And in the morning, I girded myself for war with the world again.
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