South Plains Astronomy Club

Observing Under The Dark West Texas Skies

I had the toughest summer of work, if not in my entire career, at least in the last couple-odd decades this past summer of 2022.  Hadn’t taken a day of vacation since June, missing my extended family and 40th high school reunions stuck at work.  All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.  My wife was plain tired of me, and I knew I needed a break, too.  Just before the South Plains Astronomy Club’s third Thursday of the month meeting on the 15th, fellow member Kenneth discussed the upcoming Okie-Tex Star Party at September’s ending.  One of my best astronomy friends, the late Don Fritz who passed away in 2013, pronounced the skies of the Black Mesa country in the Oklahoma Panhandle as dark as he’d ever seen.  The call of dark skies in the Oklahoma Panhandle, far from cities and work sounded like a balm to my soul.

I’d hoped to attend opening night, Friday the 24th, but my own devil-may-care whimsy and bothersome work email had me leaving much later than anticipated.  I’d made plans to stay at the Great Plains Bunk House, and my texts to Lindsey Maness were quickly answered on my way in Dumas, Texas.  I’d not bothered to look closely at the (very good) directions, and just drove straight towards Kenton, Oklahoma.  But getting lost allowed me to reconnoiter, so wasn’t completely in vain.  Passed Camp Billy Joe, the very site of the Okie-Tex Star Party, the big sign announced in my headlights as I continued west on 325 to Kenton.  Finally in Kenton, I bothered to look at the Bunkhouse website, put the listed coordinates into GoogleMaps, and easily determined how to get to my actual crashpad destination.

The OK Bunkhouse is a friendly establishment, and I was soon in my room to get settled in.  Unloading, the wind picked up, and 3:30 AM can feel pretty darn cold in the western Oklahoma Panhandle in late September.  I’d stopped at the Walmart in Dumas on the drive northwest, stocking up on bagels, avocados, bananas, Pete’s Big Bang and some very tasty trail mixes.  The picture books showing Lindsey & LuShane Maness and family building the Bunkhouse in 2013 are great, and the kitchen section proved a nice place to sit and read with some coffee in the early afternoons when I’d get up after long evening hours at Okie-Tex.  The chicken coup before the vast plain and clear sky were welcome sights when I’d get moving in my “morning” (early afternoon according to Father Time).

Saturday the 24th I drove over to Okie-Tex to register, and as things turned out had dinner, too.  The lasagna was very tasty.  I should’ve been more prepared and brought my scope, but underestimated the amount of time it would take me to drive the dirt roads in my 2007 Mercury Milan.  Everyone anticipated Saturday night’s observing …

When I returned with my little red wagon and GSO 6″ F/6 dobsonian setup (thanks to Kevin Wagoner of AstroGoods.com), I put down near the entrance and met Kevin from Winnipeg, and his two friends from Toronto.  Kevin had hiked through a nearby creek bed and seen some fossils earlier in the day, and planned a trip Sunday to Capulin Volcano National Monument.  I’ve always wanted to go, but my family has been with me the various times we’ve driven by on our way to or from Colorado, and they’ve been more interested in getting to Colorado, or back home than to stop at a silly ole volcano 🙁 One day.

Kevin had just finished imaging barred spiral galaxy NGC 1097 in Fornax with fantastic results.  Very attractive image.  I also met retired choral teachers from the DFW area, Tony and his friend.  They had a 6″ Celestron refractor and a 10″ dob.  We all tried splitting Delta Cygni, but to no avail.  Though amazingly dark and vibrant, with the Milky Way beaming down on us and thousands of 6th magnitude points of light normally lost to light pollution bringing the night sky to abundant life, the skies were rather turbulent for high power viewing.  I was disappointed, but not surprised on the plains of central North America, a situation I’ve endured many times in the past here in West Texas.  But since I’d successfully split Delta Cygni from my own light polluted front driveway at a mere 100x in this same scope, it was frustrating that at over 200x and significantly more aperture we couldn’t do it here under these glorious skies.  C’est la vie.

On Sunday morning, I was feeling kind of lonely and blue.  Hadn’t been away from the wife and kids like this for two and a half years plus.  Always had at least one kid or my wife with me.  But I was decided to go to Okie-Tex and hike up the Mesa that overlooks the observing site, the eastern bluffs.  A person can’t go to Camp Billy Joe without having the desire to do this.  Besides, Saturday I spent time taking photos of the observing field, and that eastern bluff just begs you to climb it!

About 17:30 I began walking around the trailers and tents of the observing field, looking for anyone who had the same yen.  Most folks were chilling, drinking, eating or otherwise preparing for the long night of observing/imaging ahead of them.  I understood their predilections, but those eastern bluffs were a siren call I couldn’t ignore.  Certainly the field possessed at least one kindred spirit.  And, indeed, it did.  Voicing my desire to people, Molly of eastern Washington state, hailing from Bing Crosby’s hometown, responded with a concurring smile, someone who’d been eyeing that Bluff-that-could-be-ignored-no-more herself.  Besides, no pictures of Okie-Tex would be complete without a shot from up there — the pinnacle of a place designed to look at celestial pinnacles.  Not going to the top?  Why, that’d be communism!

Molly and I stopped for an initial photo as we girded our loins to climb up.

There was a bit of engineering and figuring, to be sure, but in no time we’d ascended the heights and were greeted by a wonderful view of our fellow observers’ tents and trailers.  I felt like Cagney in White Heat, “Top o’ the world!”  Fortunately, no police, bullets fired and nobody got blown up.  Molly showed me her trailer down below and we generally enjoyed our vista, taking a photo or two up there, before our descent.

Thanks to Eddy Treviño for taking pictures of us at the top of the Mesa from the field.  The way down was trickier, with gravity not so much a force to overcome as when ascending, but rather a carefully balanced, delicate dance that could go wrong with even a brief moment of overconfidence.  But we arrived back at the field without a scratch — ready to face the night with a sense of accomplishment.  We’d seen the pink flamingos, baby!

I had dinner again at the dining hall, this time chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and green beans.  Also, Kenneth from our Club had come up from Lubbock, so now I had an observing buddy I knew.  We ate by Trevor Jones and his wife, just come in from Canada, who were staying at an AirBnB with Rick Fienberg, in other words, we ate with astronomical royalty all by happenstance.  Dude, is Okie-Tex cool or what?

We’re not worthy!

Well, okay.  Maybe Ken and I were worthy.

As I left the mess hall, a gentleman walked in saying he wanted to register, and having just seen Susan, the woman who handles the registration for all of Okie-Tex just walk out the door, I hailed her and asked her to help this just-arrived fellow.  She gladly obliged, and afterward we talked of genealogy, 23andMe and family trees.  Susan is from Oklahoma City, and her friend was from the DFW area and we talked about genealogy, people, etc., for quite a while.  I was late leaving to the Bunkhouse, where I showered, grabbed my gear, and started back to Camp Billy Joe. Dark by this time, I reminisced my Lubbock Chorale days singing Mozart’s Requiem on the journey back.

The second night my poor little scope stayed in the wagon, so engrossed at the eyepieces of others’ telescopes.  I saw the Canadian trio again, who, like me, were leaving mañana, but they’d made it to Capulin and told tales of hiking inside the mouth of an extinct volcano.  Kenneth was at the Cosmic Café when I arrived, but noted he was setup near Mike Lockwood’s gear.  So after chatting with the Kevin, et alia, I wandered about asking the friendly people of Okie-Tex where Lockwood might be found, and was directed accordingly.  Never saw Mr. Lockwood himself, but was near his setup when Walt beckoned passers-by like me to have a gander at Jupiter through his Lockwood-mirror-ed 30″ F/3.3 tracking dob.  Walt had his 11mm Ethos in the eyepiece, so we were only at 228.6x, but oh my, what Jupiter at a mere 228.6 power looks like in a 30″ scope!  The “Great Blue Spot” Bob King writes of in the September 2022 Sky and Telescope article A New, Old Jupiter was clearly visible, like he wrote, just south of the equator.  The view was wavering, the skies still suffering from that blasted upper atmospheric turbulence so common on the plains of the middle of the continent, but a 30″ mirror puts a whole lot of photons into the ole eyeball, and man, was that nice!  We looked at Neptune and, yes, we saw Triton, but at only 228.6x, well, Neptune was still a little blue dot.

Across the driving path in the next “lane” of tents and trailers, Kenneth was setup near Zane Landers’ 14.7″ F/2.9 dobsonian.  Zane was kind enough to put the easily naked-eye in Okie-Tex skies Andromeda into his very nice 21mm Ethos (1.7° field of view) for the best view of the M31/32/110 galaxy complex a person might see.  Again, a 14.7″ mirror with that kind of wide field makes Andromeda sing like no other.  The dust lane on the M110 side standing out so nicely, and to still be able to see the other galaxies flying about each side of M31, wow!  Not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, and it was a highlight of the evening.

Zane screwed an O-III filter onto his Ethos and we got to tour the Veil, Witches Broom, Pickering’s Triangular Wisp and Network Nebula all clearly visible and so much fun to pan about.  They were truly beautiful, with lots of detail, like an artist’s drawing, intricate tendrils of dust and gas in mysterious illumination.

About then, Will, aka deepskydude on TikTok, showed up with his night vision eyepiece.  With the night vision eyepiece inserted, we first observed the Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888.  Ken Hewitt-White has a nice Going Deep article about it in the August Sky & Telescope.  It was an excellent beginning for night vision astronomy.

We went back to the Veil complex with the night vision eyepiece and it was an interesting perspective.  On the one hand, many features only hinted at in the Ethos/O-III combination were profoundly clear, Pickering’s Triangular Wisp, in particular, also detail about the cloud wisps of the Witches Broom and the Network Nebula.  But, there was also a scientific artlessness to the view, more detail, less beauty, like looking at an X-ray of his male model, versus looking at Michelangelo’s David, many details clear that were only hinted at optically, but a loss of aesthetics.  Too bad we hadn’t tried the Crescent with the Ethos-cum-O-III setup.  Oh, well.

In the night vision eyepiece, we also observed:
  NGC 2024, the Flame Tree, and across Alnitak, Barnard 33, the Horsehead Nebulae;
  NGC 7000, the North American Nebula;
  NGC 281, the Pacman Nebula;
  IC 1805, the Heart Nebula;
  NGC 2174, the Monkey Head Nebula; and
  M42, the Orion Nebula
  (uh, not necessarily in this order)

I think they said they viewed the Sculptor Galaxy, NGC 253, through the night vision eyepiece also.  I must have been talking or walking about amongst the people, because I don’t recall seeing that, but that’s not surprising, with so many interesting people to talk to.

And amongst the interesting people was Molly.  Besides being young, smart and accomplished, she was busy making some incredible images with her 5-odd telescopes and tracking camera, some really impressive equipment, mind you.  And many of the images she and others made have ended up on the Okie-Tex FaceBook page.  In particular, her dust shrowded image of the Pleides (M45) is as good a picture of the Seven Sisters a person might see.

Okie-Tex is one fantastic Star Party I cannot heap enough praises upon.  On the first night with the Canadians, Kevin noted there were NO light domes anywhere along the horizon.  We did a 360 around and, sure enough, no light domes nowhere.

Although I got to meet LuShane, the matriarch of the The Great Plains Bunkhouse, I didn’t actually meet Lindsey Maness, even though we had several friendly, communicative text exchanges.  As the mother of 5, I completely understand.  My wife and I have two and are always overwhelmed with the amount of work and time they take.  Can’t even imagine what life with more would be like, and over 2 times more boggles the mind.  In our final text exchange I sent her “I’ll be back”.  Then, reflecting on that a moment, added, “and not like Arnold Schwarzenegger — you know, friendly.”

As I drove back south and east, toward the South Plains of West Texas, I had had a blast, and recommend the pilgrimage to Okie-Tex for every astronomer, darker skies and a friendlier bunch you’re unlikely to find.

Okie-Tex website