The darkest place in America?

stargazing logo“We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884

We won’t be traveling by night, of course. But when our cross-country bicycle caravan passes though the vast empty country of West Texas on a 91-mile ride from Van Horn to Fort Davis on Oct. 13, we’ll be in a place with some of the darkest, clearest night skies in the continental United States.
The lack of human habitation and light and industrial pollution was a major factor in siting the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains northwest of Fort Davis, where we’re scheduled for a layover rest day on Oct. 14. The closest city of any size is El Paso, more than 200 miles to the northwest.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope

That makes for splendid stargazing, whether from the observatory facilities atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes, or just lying on our backs, like Huck and Jim on their raft, and looking upward into the night sky.
McDonald Observatory, a research unit of UT-Austin, is one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research, teaching and public education.
The primary instrument at the McDonald Observatory is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, dedicated in 1997. Atop Mount Fowlkes, it’s one of the world’s largest optical telescopes with a 433-inch mirror. The Harlan J. Smith Telescope has a 107-inch mirror, which was the third-largest in the world when it was built in 1966-1968. The Otto Struve Telescope, built from 1933 to 1939, was the first major telescope to be built at McDonald Observatory. Its 82-inch mirror was the second-largest in the world at the time.
A star party at McDonald Observatory

A star party at McDonald Observatory

As part of its public outreach, the observatory popularizes science with its “StarDate” segments on National Public Radio and online, conducts tours and holds “star parties” for visitors throughout the year on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
We should arrive at Fort Davis on a Tuesday, Oct. 13. But I believe I’ll skip the star party. I, for one, after 91 miles on a bike, will probably be more in the mood for some cold adult beverages than riding another 10 miles up a steep mountain road to the observatory.



Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Journeys, Texana

2 responses to “The darkest place in America?

  1. Ben P.

    How about cold adult beverages at the star party?

  2. Barry Rand, Houston

    I can suggest a very dark sky location in the western region of Texas. I lease property there for deer hunting (if you go anytime other than Nov 25 to Dec 31 its very safe to camp and hike/bike because Texas Parks and Wildlife only allow deer hunting during those dates so its great for bikers and hikers to travel there especially in late March thru mid June and sometimes on a not so hot Texas summer right on thru Labor Day. The local ranchers strongly enforce anti-poaching because they make good income from legal deer hunting and don’t like poachers thinning out the good deer.
    I will tell you this place is dark. During Dec. 2011 I was hunting and on a ranch in the area and was sleeping my travel trailer with my 2 boys. About 2 am I was awakened by a very bright light streaming into the trailer window by my bed. I thought this strange so I got out of my bedroll and went out the door. It was pitch black but the stars made a great night sky of diamonds. The reason is that there are no humans withing about a radius of 60 miles in every direction. For example San Antonio is 3 hours away east on I-10. To the southeast is Del Rio, Texas and its almost 40 miles. To the North is Sonora, Texas about 2 hours driving. The highways in this part of Texas are beautiful and in great condition because they get little use by autos just mostly trucks hauling cattle from the ranches to markets/meat processors in San Antonio. The only place that has a gas station is Mountain Home pop. of about 500 (that’s very liberal number). Its located on Texas Highway 277 which runs from Del Rio to Sonora. The light coming in the window looked like the moon and the area was black as pitch and completely clear but the stars were brilliant. I looked up at the bright light which looked like a big stationary flashlight. I looked at it for several minutes and marveled at its clarity like looking at a giant diamond. I went back to bed. The next day I mentioned it to one of our fellows who is with NASA Houston. He said — that is the International Space Station and it will be visible for a couple of more nights. MARVELOUS SIGHT TO SEE. If you go camping there just note that at night with no moon you can see very well on some nights with the lights from the stars

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