My best friend and I decided to take a three day weekend out to West Texas to visit McDonald Observatory, which is part of the University of Texas' system. My boss highly recommended it a few months ago when I first started dabbling in astrophotography. I had not been that far west before, which was about a 6hr drive from where I live. We were very close to the Mexico border and my phone was often trying to geo-tag us in the Chihuahua Desert.
We stayed at the Indian Lodge in the Fort Davis State Park, part of the Texas Parks & Wildlife system. The lodge was a renovated pueblo style structure nestled in the Davis mountains that had gorgeous views. It was strung with Christmas lights and decor, which really added a homely ambiance to such a beautiful establishment. The staff was the most wonderfully kind hearted and friendly I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. They were very slow that weekend with maybe 2 other groups of people visiting and I guess they had holiday events and activities planned for that weekend, but really no one showed. So, they invited us to decorate cookies with them and hang out. We became friends with the staff and got on a first name basis. It was 80 when we arrived on Friday afternoon and by Saturday night it was snowing with temperatures dropping below freezing. I'm told this is not unusual for the desert, but it was for us. I am from the prairies of Texas where the climate is a bit more predictable. It seldom jumps between such extremes, so unfortunately between the higher elevation and intense temperature change, we got a little sick. The staff gave us free coffee and let us start a fire in their lobby to unwind and relax for the evening. I could go on and on about how sweet they were.
We went to the observatory Friday night for the star party. It is supposed to be one of the darkest spots in the continental US and I suppose a major tourist attraction for astronomy aficionados, as there were many people from Europe and Asia that were visiting. It was kind of odd to me that foreigners would pick Texas for their vacations and honeymoons, let alone such an isolated and off the map little unincorporated town such as Fort Davis---then I saw the stars come out and for several minutes I was unable to move or speak, in complete awe of the spectacle above me. We watched meteors and satellites fly through the sky and watched the milky way twinkle. We were taught several constellations and got to view many stars through telescopes they had set up for the visitors. I was the only one running around with a camera (that could handle pictures like this), so I drew the attention of many people wanting to know what I was doing and if I could set their little point and shoot cameras to capture the stars. Not exactly....but I did take a lot of family photos for people and emailed it to them as a keepsake.
I had full intentions to purchase a tracking mount for this trip, that allows my camera to actually follow the rotation of the Earth, eliminating unwanted blurring and star trails. However...it is close to Christmas and my checks are tight.
On Saturday we headed to the Fort Davis historical site, which is a very interesting location hidden in the valley of the Davis Mountains. The fort was established in 1800s during manifest destination as a route was being developed from San Antonio to California. Many of the buildings are in ruin or barely standing, and many have been restored that you can go inside where genuine artifacts have been donated by the descendants of the fort dwellers...such as clothes, journals, medical supplies, smoking pipes, books and other things.
There is an excerpt from the death log kept during the time, which cause of death ranged in everything from accidental gun shot wound to being killed by the Apache Indians to abscessed livers and acute dysentery. The original hospital is still standing with isolation rooms and people had carved their names in the walls. "J Knox, 1868" and such. Much of the medical equipment, prosthetics, books and journals have been passed down through the generations and the owners have kindly donated them to the park.
We went on a hike and rock climbing for a few hours. There are some 50 species of yucca, with a large chunk of them found here in Texas that flourish throughout the state. Some bloom with beautiful flowers, some just stab you. I'm painfully familiar with both the cacti and yucca, as I have often had to dig them out of my legs on hikes.
We climbed over the large rocks and boulders through the mountains for several hours, taking breaks and having deep heart to heart conversations about love and life, or telling each other bad pun jokes and laughing for several minutes...not because the jokes were good, it was just stupid funny that we were actually laughing at them. The jokes were awful. The final half hour of the rock climb, we heard the very distinct guttural grunts of a wild pig. I'm not sure about the hogs in West Texas, but the ones where I am from are violent and territorial and will attack and kill people. We both froze in fear and began scanning the landscape, only to realize the pig was just a few feet from us. We climbed back up the side of the rocks, down the other side, and made a dash back to the car. Wasn't gonna chance it. The pigs I saw running around there were smaller than the 600lb behemoths we have here, but I don't want to deal with getting eaten alive by a carnivorous, hairy oinker.
I got some good farewell shots of the mountains as we left for home. The iconic desert mountains that people often (wrongly) associate all of Texas with. Gorgeous landscape that was breathtaking with the changing atmosphere. I was born and raised here and have never seen anything like it, and I have traveled a good bit around the US.
It was a really fun 3 day weekend and a fairly inexpensive trip. I'm glad I got to spend it with my best friend, whom I seldom get to see anymore. We became intimate with the stars and desert mountains, and experienced 80 degree heat and 20 degree snow and sleet just hours later in the place, and shared a cold that developed from it. I'm really glad I followed through with this and just did it.