I got to the Prude Ranch about noon yesterday, after driving about six hours through very nice scenery. Terrain! Hills! Mountains!
I joined a line of about 20 cars and RV’s at the gate, going through initial check-in. Then I went to the Ranch office to get my room key. They gave me directions up the hill to where the upper observing field is located, and I found the room. I unloaded some luggage and sundries.
On the field, which is about the size of a football field, lots of astronomers were staking their claims to their turf. Hmmmm….prime spots were going quickly. I drove my CR-V down and pulled it around to a likely spot, then started to unload. The first thing I did was pull my indoor-outdoor carpeting out and spread it on the ground. The first thing I should have done was get some sunscreen. Noon sun, 5000 feet elevation – it was brutal.
With pauses to get some water (and a helpful fellow next to me who saw my red face and doused me with sunscreen), I nailed the carpeting to the dry Texas soil. Even with a four pound sledge, it was some work.
I had decided in advance that my first evening was going to be one with binoculars and star charts, trying to get familiar with a sky that would be far more crowded with stars than I’m used to. Therefore, I unloaded and sent up the G-11 tripod, but I didn’t set up the scope itself. I covered it with a tarp and secured with bungee cables. I chatted with the other amateurs around me, looked over their equipment (an amazing array of gear), then headed back up the hill to the room.
I had met my roommate, Rick Hillier, earlier. We talked a bit about observing plans. I decided I needed nothing more than about two hours of sleep – I was exhausted. The room was gradually growing cooler, so I sweated, sucked down some more water, and finally dozed.
About 4:30 I awoke. I splashed some water in my face and went outside – and they were still at it on the field. I could hear the pounding of stakes and snatches of conversation. I took a couple of things more down to the field that I would need, then it was down to the dining hall to see what was for supper. I caught a ride with Dennis and Tracy.
Not a bad meal. Pot roast, scalloped potatoes, green beans, different beverages. I sat with the fellow Bendonites (Fort Bend Astronomy Club members) and wolfed down my food.
Afterwards, we drove back to the motel rooms (actually, cabins that are little quadriplexes) and I stretched out again. Then came the crew to tape foil over the windows facing the field – this is the so-called “darkout” where they try to eliminate the possibility of stray light interfering with observations.
About 8 pm, I went down to field. I spent about a half-hour going around taking pictures of the telescopes that were set up. I’ve never seen so much astronomical gear in one area, and this is just one field out of four.
Sunset. Finally, some of the brighter stars start to come out. Saturn and Mars were first visible, and people tested their scopes out those standards. It took 9:30 to become dark enough to see the brighter stars, and about 10:30 before it was fully dark.
It was incredible. I reclined in my lawn chair and scanned the heavens. Steve Cotton, the amateur observer in front of me, was nailing globular after globular with his Celestron, while his wife tooled around with the little go-to Meade that she had. He’d call me over whenever he’d got something good. Like Omega Centuari – this is the finest globular cluster in the skies, and it was like cluster of diamond dust filling the eyepiece.
The Milky Way rising was like it had been described – it looked like clouds coming over the horizon. I was told that some have seen that, decided the observations were going to be over, and started to pack their gear.
I stuck around. From Cygnus through the tail of Scorpio, a hazy river of light was flowing across the night. I spent a good deal of time with binoculars on Sagittarius and Scorpio – there’s so much to see there.
After a bit, I wandered around, ran into Barbara Wilson and her big Dob. She had M-51 ( a galaxy) through and 8mm Tele Vue Ethos eyepiece (something new and expensive to want, dammit) and it was beautiful.
I went back to my observing area, spent a little more time with the binoculars, then finally called it quits about 1:30. I followed my little red light shining on the ground, got inside, tumbled into bed.
It’s the kind of night astronomers dream of.