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McDonald Observatory 1 – West Texas Heat Wave

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

2021.06.11 - The pandemic has been a trying time for so many reasons, but it is striking how it attacked every facet of our lives, even down to the little things that once brought us joy and provided an escape from the stress of the daily grind. For me, it severely restricted my ability to photograph anything beyond my backyard, which unquestionably affected my mental health under a seemingly endless quarantine. However, an impromptu opportunity came up and my family was sweet enough to let me escape into the boiling hot desert of West Texas in June for my first photography-centric trip in over a year.

Sunset over the Davis Mountains from Mount Locke

I have been a huge fan of the McDonald Observatory for most of my life, but due to its very secluded location, I have only visited it a handful of times. I actually had a Star Party (a guided evening event on top of a mountain underneath the stars) lined up and a campsite reserved for my best friend and me back in March of 2020, but as you might expect, at the last minute that was all canceled as COVID19 began its relentless march across the nation. The Observatory and Davis Mountain State Park were gracious enough to refund our reservations, but our great adventure West was over in the blink of an eye…and so was most all travel/human interaction for over a year.

The pandemic has been hard in one way or another for almost everyone. Two parents working from home with a 3-year-old was mentally and physically taxing, and the stress of daily life certainly wore on our family even though I must admit that we were still extremely fortunate. Stress is relative though…that’s a thing I have to remind myself constantly. There are always people doing better and people doing worse than you are at any moment, so it isn’t worth devaluing your own experience just because it could be relatively better or worse. Mental health is personal, relative, and ultimately subjective, but above all it is real and it can have a profound impact on your life and the health of your body and your relationships. Ignoring problems with mental health can send anyone on a downward spiral that slowly destroys their life as a whole, so it shouldn't be taken lightly.

I keep up with the Observatory most often via NPR and the daily StarDate radio program currently voiced by Bill Henry, but for most of my life the announcer was the indelible Sandy Wood 1991-2019. I also follow the McDonald Observatory’s Twitter and Instagram accounts because I am that kind of space nerd. One evening a notification popped up that the Observatory was finally opening back up (though slowly and with health precautions). Additionally, for the first time, they would be hosting "Photography Nights at McDonald Observatory" which was a night photography event where photographers with their own equipment could reserve a spot on the otherwise restricted Observatory grounds late into the night. The evening would consist of about 5 hours on the summit of Mount Locke with two hosts staying with the group through the evening. Our “handlers” for the evening would be two employees from the facility that were knowledgeable not only of the facility, but also the stars and the process of night photography. It looked like an amazing opportunity, and to be honest, both my wife and I knew that I could definitely benefit from the mental health-promoting stress relief that the zen-like process of photography provides me. West Texas is also my second home, so going back always fills me with a sense of happiness and belonging. In short, the solo photography trip into the desert sounded perfect.

Entrance of the obersvatory with COVID restricted entry and hours posted
The Observatory entrance with COVID restricted entry and hours posted

My wife graciously offered to travel with me to San Antonio where she and our son would stay with her parents for the weekend while I disappeared into the desert. The shift westward reduced the 11-12 hour trip to a much more manageable 8-9 hours, and it gave me the opportunity to say goodbye to my son in an environment where he had plenty of loving family to take care of him. Parting has been very difficult over these first few years of his life (for both of us), especially since he spent so many months of the pandemic home alone with us 24/7, so it was great to wave goodbye to a smiling boy instead of a crying one.

However, life always has a way of making things more complicated. I had some work to complete the night before leaving, but the screen on my computer decided to suddenly stop working and would flicker constantly making it very difficult to work. This forced me to stay up extra late trying to get everything completed. It also meant that I didn’t have time to calibrate any of my astrophotography equipment, so I was heading out unprepared. This was also an issue because the star tracker and other equipment are highly dependent on my computer to work. Polar alignment for the star tracker and star calibration for the autoguider are both handled by software I only have on my portable computer. My in-the-moment solution was to pick up a portable monitor on the way out of town. I managed to find a single, pre-opened monitor across town that was mediocre at best, but it was better than nothing.

The late night, monitor issue, and removing the cargo topper from the Subaru (it’s a 5-8 mpg killer of fuel efficiency), all lead to a late start that was going to make arriving at the observatory by 20:00 very difficult. I jumped on I10 and headed Northwest out of San Antonio and into the beautiful rolling hills of the Texas Hill Country. However, as I passed the small city of Junction, turns in earnest became a forgotten memory as the endless black, white, and yellow lines of I10 stretched long across the landscape and out to the horizon. There is an incredible beauty to this area that is truly unique, and not replicated anywhere else I have traveled. However, I am so used to the drive that I didn't take many pictures through my already bug-covered windshield because I have plenty that will certainly make it to this blog someday in the future.

I10 vanishing into the horizon with the towering, rainless clouds dotting the sky
I10 vanishing into the horizon with foreboding, rainless clouds dotting the sky

The heat of Houston and San Antonio had been merciless as I packed and unpacked the Sube for this trip, but as I headed into the dry oven of the West Texas, I truly began to question my decision to camp in the desert in the middle of a particularly hot June. The sun saturated the undulating great plains of the Edwards and Stockton Plateaus, and poured mercilessly into my bright white car. The AC screamed trying to fend off the endless deluge of UV rays penetrating the vehicle, and the thermometer on my dashboard quickly broke 100…105…110 on its progressive uptick to a max of 112 F. I honestly began to wonder if my car's cooling system would survive the trip as I traversed the long, flat remnants of an old sea floor geographically known as Toyah Basin. (If you're a geography/geology nerd, check out this fantastic page from the Texas Almanac here).

Strong storms are very common in this area as moisture and energy from Pacific storms roll through the flat basin during the hot summer months and intensify with the abundant heat and large swaths of open land. On a previous trip, I was unlucky enough to get caught under a Supercell that pummeled my car with hail, gusting winds, and torrential rain. It didn't break my windows (though it sounded as though it might), but it dented up my entire Subaru from front to back. My Sube wears the dents like badges of honor, proof of an adventure well lived, but for that reason I always keep a close eye on the the West Texas summer sky just in case it has another big storm lying in wait for me.

I stopped for a moment in Fort Stockton to fill up on gas at one of the handful of locations that I have come to know well over my many travels along this isolated desert road. As I got out of the car, a gust of hot wind, akin to holding a blow dryer in front of my face, stung my cheeks and flooded my lungs and eyes with hot, dusty air. It was as if I had walked into an oven…and I was standing in the shade. I filled up my tank (certain I had lost at least a gallon to vapor fumes) and grabbed a few snacks and extra water for the road ahead. This was not a good omen for the next few days that I planned to spend almost entirely outdoors.

Dash of my car with the temperature reading 111 degrees
It reached 112 F degrees while I was driving, but it dropped to 111 F in the shade when I stopped for gas

After driving for another hour or so Northwest on I10, past the out-of-place groves of pecan trees and circular fields of vegetation desperately clinging to life in the sweltering heat, I finally made my first left turn in hours as I took the exit for State Hwy 17 heading South towards Balmorhea. After hours of traveling at the posted speed limit of 80mph (one of the best parts of driving on I10 in the middle of nowhere), dropping down to the pedestrian speeds of rural roads felt mind-numbingly slow. At high speeds for long hours, the mind begins to accept the blur of the roadway in its peripheral vision. It creates a largely unnoticeable tunnel-vision until you stop or slow down, which can be rather disorienting for a while as the brain continues to simulate motion in the peripheral even while the actual data entering the brain indicates a slower speed.

Small farmhouses flanked the small road until it opened up slightly into the main street through the heart of Balmorhea. Passing through the center of town, it felt as though there should have been a crowd bustling about had the pandemic not shuttered everyone indoors. The road lumbered on for a few miles until Balmorhea State Park (a small oasis in the surrounding desert) passed on my left. I considered stopping for a moment, but I was late, and the park looked as though they were closing up for the evening anyway. I followed SH17 in a long arc as it headed due South, and the speed limit finally returned to a more comfortable 70mph.

At first the dark black asphalt of the newly-refreshed SH17 struck out linearly into the banal, flat desert, but it soon traversed a shallow dry ravine and began cutting into the ever-growing mountainous terrain of the Southern Davis Mountains along the southeast tip of the geographic region known as the Basin & Range Province. Following the undulating valleys of the surrounding landscape, the road bobbed and weaved in long arcs of high-speed road. It was a truly enjoyable experience in a 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive Subaru Outback; these are the kind of conditions where this otherwise utilitarian vehicle is truly a joy to drive. The mountains are an Outback’s natural habitat…as opposed to bears who prefer Studebakers (yes, I am well aware of how old that reference is and how much it dates me, but it's a solid dad joke that makes me smile).

The sun dropped lower into the sky as I finally reached the small town of Fort Davis nestled into the foothills at an elevation of approximately 4900 feet. Coming from the Houston Metroplex which supports over 7 million people, driving into a small desert town with a population of 1,200 is a notable change. There is really only one place to get food and gas before turning up the long mountain road to the Observatory, but it was in the opposite direction and I just didn’t have the time, so I decided to risk it and head straight up. However, my pace was immediately disrupted by a line of cars sitting behind a hot, tired gentlemen holding a bright orange octagon. To my frustration, my trip coincided with the re-paving of the singular two-lane road that lead up to the Observatory. The construction crew was alternating groups up and down the single open road which required us to sit for 15 minutes until it was our turn to head up. Finally, the guide truck arrived and u-turned to take us up, and other than a misinformed truck that drove straight at us midway up, it was smooth sailing all the way up to one of my favorite campsites in Texas: Davis Mountain State Park.

I stopped by my pre-paid campsite to verify that it was clear, but there wasn’t enough time to set up camp. I knew this meant that I would be pitching my tent in the dark around 2 am, but honestly I’m rather used to that given how far Houston is from my favorite campsites, so it wasn't too big of a deal. However, there was some risk that the State Park might close the gates after hours, but I couldn't do much about it as I didn't see a Ranger and the front office was already closed.

With my accommodations mostly verified, I headed back out of the park and turned North onto TX-118. The narrow, two-lane road traversed the mountainous landscape in sweeping curves up and down the terrain, often flanked on one side or the other by sheer cliffs into the rocky ravines below. The sun settled ever deeper into layers of hot, dry atmosphere which stretched out the light and casted a warm golden hue across waving fields of glistening grass. For moments at a time, the brilliant white shell of the telescopes would appear on the horizon, beckoning me ever further up the mountain range.

There are a surprising number of homes along the road to the Observatory. Certainly some house the many scientists and employees of the Observatory, but I am always surprised at how many people embrace the isolation of the desert. I’m certainly an introvert, and I enjoy having some space between me and others, but this level of desert isolation certainly seems beyond me.

The Subaru sunk into the curves as I danced from apex to apex, running the smooth 6-speed manual transmission back and forth through the gears in search of driving perfection. I was lost in the variation of the terrain until finally arriving at the entrance to the Observatory where a small, slow road turned right through a wall of trees and ended at the barren parking lot of the McDonald Observatory’s Frank N Bash Visitor Center. The brief car ride had quickly lifted me up to 6,100 feet, finally exceeding a mile above sea level (the elevation I had started at only a day prior). The beautifully designed center opened in 2002, and was named after the serving Director of the McDonald Observatory from 1991-2003 who is presently (2021) Professor Emeritus in Astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. UT Austin works closely with the Observatory, which was a key selling point back when I considered studying Astronomy at UT for my undergraduate degree. I didn't end up following that path, but it was the first time I really became aware of the close relationship between the two.

The silver dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope glistens in the late afternoon sun above the Visitor's Center
The silver dome of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope glistened in the late afternoon sun above the Visitor's Center

COVID restrictions had limited the operational hours of the publicly-accessible portion of the Observatory, and visitation was limited to online, reservation-only tickets for a short window of time. It made the previously lively and inviting center feel a bit more isolated and lonelier than I had remembered; another inescapable effect of the pandemic even this far from dense, urban populations.

The great sundial at the entrance to the Visitor's Center was rendered inert by the obscured setting sun
The great sundial at the entrance to the Visitor's Center was rendered inert by the obscured setting sun

In time though, the parking lot began to fill with half a dozen cars, as the other participants of the Photography Nights Event began to arrive. It was a varied group of people, from pilots and engineers to professional photographers and me, the lone Architect. We spoke briefly in the parking lot before heading to the Visitor’s Center to sign in. It was only a few minutes before everyone in the small group had arrived, and we headed back out to our cars in order to caravan up the mountain to the peak of Mount Locke via Spur 78. The narrow road lead up a steep incline to a small and similarly inclined parking lot. At an altitude of 6,790 feet, it is the highest road in the Texas Highway system, though it is not the highest point in the state, which is held by Guadalupe Peak (8,751ft) further North on the border with New Mexico.

Sunset along the mountainous horizon from Mount Locke
The sun began to set as we gathered in the Mount Locke parking lot to discuss the evening

The evening on Mount Lock started with an initial tour around the summit to familiarize the group with the facility and the views around the mountain before the moonless night would make way-finding much more challenging. As the tour began, the Harlan J Smith 2.72m Telescope suddenly sprung to life. The dome shutters slid open and the dome started slowly rotating to the South. My hands were full when this started, so I scrambled to get out my phone out of my pocket while shifting my gear to my left hand. I took the video with one hand and slightly off balance, so unfortunately the video moves around more than I would prefer. However, it is the only image I have that gives you a sense of how large the telescope is as compared to the truck in the foreground.

From the height of the Mount Locke, we could easily see the adjacent summit of Mount Fowlkes to the Northeast where the much larger Hobby-Eberly 10m Telescope stood prominently and quietly in the distance, eagerly awaiting the return of the stars as much as we were.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope on an adjacent mountain to Mount Locke

The previously unrelenting heat slowly began to ebb as the sun lost its grip on the sky, and the dry air of the desert progressively began to cool the exposed mountain top. The sunset ushered in a very welcome reprieve from the boiling heat of the day, and added to the excitement of the evening.

As we traversed the summit for the first time in the waning golden light, I diverted for a few moments to capture the rippled ridge line of the iconic Sawtooth Mountain jutting above the undulating Western horizon at over 7,600ft. It was very hard not to focus on the beautiful sunset, but there was work to be done to set up for the night that would soon follow, and my time on the mountain was limited.

You can click on the images in the mosaic for an enlarged view

The main road led to a round-about with access to the two large telescopes, while a small maintenance road diverted off and dipped below the peak along the Southern side. Our guides walked us around the upper and lower sections before returning to the parking lot. With the approved photographing areas designated, it was time to pick where to start shooting. The lower road had a clearer shot of the valley without the obstruction of as many trees, and it also gave me a good vantage point to catch star trails behind the Harlan J Smith telescope, so I grabbed the first round (about 80 lbs) of gear and headed down the steep, metal staircase anchored precariously to the side of the mountain.

While I love to look at the Moon, I was happy that our evening beneath the stars coincided with the early setting of a mostly-waned Moon. The lack of the moonlight would make the landscape very dark and hard to photograph, but it was the best opportunity to see the stars and the Milky Way Galaxy at their fullest brilliance against the backdrop of a deep black sky. As I headed down with my gear, the thin sliver of the crescent Moon paired closely with Venus as they both drifted ever further towards the Southwest horizon in a wash of vibrant sunset colors.

I set up the D750 on my old Manfrotto aluminum tripod with the Bower 14mm super wide, manual focus lens on front. By this point it was too dark to see much through the viewfinder, but after a few test photos at around 30 seconds each, I had an acceptable composition on the Harlan J Smith Telescope. After a few additional test shots, I dialed in on an exposure time of around 20 minutes to balance longer star trails with the noise and artifacts that come with a hot sensor. I didn’t have time to set up my finicky intervalometer on the older D750, so I just kept the stopwatch on my phone going as I worked on setting up the star tracker and the D850 on the carbon fiber tripod for a shot across the valley. It wasn’t the perfect solution, but given the relatively short amount of time we had on the mountain and the two tasks I had given myself, it was good enough.

A consistent accumulation of thick clouds had loomed in the hot Texas sky for the entire long drive into the mountains which had made me nervous about the night's prospects. However, as the heat of the day dissipated from the dry air, the clouds also faded into a broad, open dome of shimmering stars. However, that was only the beginning as the undulating edge of the Milky Way Galaxy had yet to emerge from behind a ring of dense clouds still hugging the Southeastern horizon. After such a long day of driving across the State of Texas, I was overjoyed that it was finally time for a night of astrophotography underneath the stars.

© 2017-2021 Shaun C Tarpley


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