My sister and I flew out to west Texas for a telescope dedication ceremony at McDonald Observatory located in the mountains near the town of Fort Davis. The ceremony was only one event within a week filled with star parties, lectures and banquets. When I heard we were going to visit Texas during mid-July, I was a little worried about how hot it gets in the desert during summer, but the temperature was actually delightful all throughout the trip! I found it pretty funny that we were going to Texas, but also going to mountains…apparently, I needed a little help with my geography still. However, there are in fact mountains in Texas and its actually one of the darkest locations in the area making it perfect for viewing space. McDonald Observatory is tucked away at the top of Mount Locke, with the largest research telescopes sitting at the peak.
Fort Davis, TX is a pleasant little town at the base of the mountains with a population hovering around 1,000. It is everything I’d ever hoped for in a small southwestern town; it has a simple charm to it, but it’s not easy getting there. We flew down to Houston and then caught a puddle jumper to Midland/Odessa where we then had a 2-and-a-half-hour drive to our final destination. The drive is mostly desert, but it isn’t without its magical views, Jessica of course made us stop at least twice so she could shoot. We weren’t staying in a 5-star hotel, but I rarely plan to spend any amount of time sitting in my hotel room other than to sleep and shower. We spent the rest of the day settling in and grabbing some food, but the next day it was right into the adventure!
Our first outing of the trip was to visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. The drive wasn’t far, but it was a whole lot of nothing. Once we got to the state border, we had to stop to take a picture. The sign to welcome you into New Mexico is FULL of bullet holes. I mean I know people in the south love their guns, but I don’t see why they’d shoot up the sign. The entrance to the caverns is at the top of a hill. They have a gift shop and a food court since there really isn’t anything else around for miles it’s really important to eat there or bring lunch with you. The 100 plus caves are millions of years old and protected by law. If you plan to go on a tour beneath the surface definitely bring a lightweight jacket with you (unless you love cold, damp areas) because it gets down to around 50 degrees in the caves during mid-July. The caves were fun and definitely worth a visit! Jessica and I both got our favorite cowboy hats at their shop and I picked up my absolute favorite ring made with white buffalo turquoise, which I wear every day.
During our trip, we attended a few telescope events that included lectures, ceremonies and even star parties. The whole week we were in town had events like this, but we could only take so much telescope talk! We ended up finding a ranch to go horseback riding. If you’ve read a couple of our blog posts you should know by now that I love to go horseback riding and usually make a point of it to go when I think it’ll be a nice ride, but I was so right. We were taken on about an hour-long ride around the mountain, through the forest and at the end we saw a vicious thunderstorm rolling over the peak. It was probably my favorite ride to this day.
After our ride, we went back to the hotel and changed for the outdoor banquet dinner event we were attending that night. We got back up to the observatory and waited to meet up with the rest of our group. While waiting we ended up talking to this man who we later found out manages the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network at McDonald Observatory, which is a network of telescopes from all over the world connected to provide constant surveillance of any astronomical object. He was so nice, that when we bumped into him later while roaming around one of the research telescopes he let us do some after-hours goofing off with the telescope. This isn’t something everyone gets to do and we felt incredibly lucky that we just happened to meet the guy who could keep the telescope open late and let us move it around. We were told later that everyone down by the observatory visitor center was wondering why it was moving back and forth (Jessa and I got a chuckle out of that).
Probably one of the more educational nights we had was during a star party. A star party consists of getting tours from telescope to telescope showing different things throughout the night sky. Because our group was there for the telescope dedication, we got a private tour from Wayne Rosing, former VP of Engineering at Google and Founder of the Global Telescope Network. He was one of the nicest guys we had met all week and you’d never be able to tell this man is a millionaire; any question you might want to ask (no matter how dumb) he would answer it in detail. He even said he liked my LED hula hoop (yes of course I brought it)! It was so dark, I bet you could see the lights for miles.
One of our last days there we decided to visit the town of Marfa. This town is widely known as an artist’s hub because creative types have always been drawn there. Among the artistic installations is what the artists call a pop architectural land art. It looks like a Prada storefront and actually contains real Prada shoes and handbags picked out by Miuccia Prada herself. Marfa is an absolutely adorable town, idyllic for the creative type. Not on the beaten path, but it is definitely a tourist stop to see!
All in all, the trip was busy, but so much fun. I realize that most people aren’t jumping out of their seats to visit west Texas, but I do think it’s an awesome stop if you like astronomy and if not that then the fresh mountain air.