OSP 2004 - Return to Indian Trail Springs

Mid-August, and time for another Oregon Star Party! As one of the committee members for the big event, my preparations had been ongoing for some time; now at last I could focus on the actual astronomical end of it rather than the organizational end. Having made a hasty but prudent decision to have my 17.5-inch telescope mirror refigured, it was my 'primary' concern as the Party drew near. It was not my only concern, though: as the new door-prize coordinator (both collector and distributor), I was still finalizing, organizing and packing all the prizes. I had added a trailer hitch to my vehicle just in case; as time wound down and the prizes piled up, I found that a hitch-mounted shelf would fit the bill more conveniently than a trailer so I picked one up the week before the party. Another tragic event was also unfolding, as my first former father-in-law was killed while walking along a busy Portland-area street; as I made my plans to skip town it was clear that any memorial service would be a higher priority than a star party. Another issue had seized my back muscles the week before, during the combination family-camp and backpack trip; I had visited the chiropractor twice now, but still had some rehab to do before carrying parts of a large telescope over rough terrain. All in all, I was as ready as I could be.

As the week of the event began, my mirror had not reached Portland from the coating-shop; I had assurances that it would be here by Wednesday, my departure day. I then learned that the memorial service was also Wednesday, so it would be a very busy day. I worked for three hours that morning, attended the service, visited the chiropractor one more time, then raced home to pack. Everything fit nicely, but of course one vital part was not packed: where was that mirror?!? I called Steve Swayze and inquired, and he made some calls. He soon called me back with 'bad news and good news':

Funny guy.. the mirror was in fact sitting on Steve's porch! This was quite a relief, so I finished packing and went to his house to pick up the prize. The combination of events had delayed my departure far longer than I had hoped; what once was a 4PM arrival was much closer to a 4PM departure as Ifinally escaped Portland on my way south and east. I stopped once to buy rope for that rear carrier; bungees were just too flexible for my comfort, and I didn't want to arrive with a new mirror but no rocker-box. The rest of the drive was pleasant and free of any forest or brush fires; that was good news for our event, which has had its smokey years in the recent past (e.g. last year).

At last, as the sun seared the horizon directly in front of me, I arrived at the Indian Trail Springs site that has been our base since 1992. I began pre-selecting sites as I headed for the crowded hill-crest, where I would go first to announce my arrival. Joe, who had bought my previous large 'scope from me a few years ago, offered me enough space for my vehicle on the hilltop, so I accepted his gracious offer and squeezed in. On the other side of me were Tammy and Jan, meaning that our club library staff had magically assembled at the same spot for the party this year! I quickly put my telescope together and gently placed the 'new' mirror in its cell as the sun dropped below the western horizon, putting a decent collimation in place for its second first-light event (sounds complicated, but it's true). The mirror was in use for last year's Mars events, but anything over 200x was pretty poor; this is what the humorous Mr. Swayze was to correct, and as he predicted the problems were solved! I had 425x views of globular clusters in the first hour, and a little later a decent 850x view of the Ring Nebula (the atmosphere wasn't wearing its most transparent outfit this night, so any ill effects on the image were not attributable to the mirror). With that problem solved, that left me with a rather shaky focuser as the prime troublemaker; as long as I racked focus out from the inside the collimation was fine.. but a more permanent solution would be sought this weekend.

Much of the night was filled with the fleeting spark of Perseid meteors; this was their peak night, and many fast and bright streaks kept people gasping or cheering. Before bedtime I wandered over to the other side of the road that splits the hilltop; a dozen observers were sitting in chairs, leaving their instruments and enjoying the show. I finally tucked myself in at 2AM, after shifting enough prizes to one side of the car so I could roll over without damage to myself or the loot. One surprise was the still-warm temperature at our high-elevation site: this would not be a night for zipping up the sleeping bag!

Thursday marks the official beginning of the Oregon Star Party, and as usual a large percentage of the attendees were already onsite. I was surprised to learn that I was not one of the principal supervisors of the registration tent this year; surprised but not quite disappointed. The tent had sufficient staff to get things done, so I signed myself in and got out of their way. I returned to my site and began a final check of all the prizes that I had packed away, and solicited gifts from the vendors that were now going strong along the main road. I found a much more precise focuser with two-speed gearing, and also a 10mm eyepiece that was parfocal with the rest of my set; soon I was unscrewing the old focuser and found to my good fortune that the old screw-holes worked with the new focuser! I also read over the observers' packet that we each received, vaguely planning my evening's observations. I had sketched the area around ngc7606 on Wednesday, hoping to pin down minor planet Andromache; that would be one of my first Thursday targets.

At dinnertime I joined a couple from northwest Washington and enjoyed some pleasant conversation with the hot turkey sandwich. Their daughter joined us, and I was amazed to hear her name: is that not from Middle-Earth? In fact it was - no wonder these parents seemed easy to talk to! Having immersed myself in Tolkein since sixth grade, I was able to converse with them on new and unlikely topics, and Tinúviel (not her real name) and I discovered several surprising commonalities in no time. I invited them to drop by after dark for use of my PalantĂ­r, a name I have used for all my telescope mirrors since 1990. Tolkein says they are stones which allow one to see things far off in space and time; sounds right to me!

As darkness descended and the oppressive heat began to dissipate, I returned to my telescope. I re-collimated the optics to account for the new focuser and awaited an opportunity to put my best-ever telescope system to the test. Soon the meteors were flying as I tested the telescope yet again; from the observers' packet I began to pick up several planetaries, many of which were familiar but recently-unseen discs. As I contemplated other targets, Tinúviel joined me; she suggested Uranus and Neptune, and I returned to 7606 only to find that none of my plotted points had been the wanderer Andromache. We broke for hot drinks from the latte vendor, then returned to the telescope for a few more objects. I had unfortunately forgotten to bring my small stepladder, so such prizes as M13, 57 and the Veil had to drop lower before we could capture their photons; so we sat with a good view of the meteors and talked ourselves hoarse (well, I did!). We took turns commenting on the bright Perseid that passed over the other's shoulder.. perhaps we should have faced the same way? With conversation topics ranging from favorite sci-fi to Meyers-Briggs scores, higher education to Jethro Tull, the night passed swiftly. Both our topics and our conversational style were uncanny in their mutual familiarity! I had never before seen the sun actually rise at OSP, having satisfied myself that it was about to do so before turning in - but this day Tinúviel and I waited for the sun to clear the horizon before calling it a night. This memory will be a highlight of my star-party career, whatever comes after!

Friday began way too early, as raindrops began tapping on my rooftop within two hours of naptime! I roused myself and covered the telescope with my new solar tarp, then slept again for two more hours before yielding to the daylight and strong heat of the day. Shortly after breakfast Tinúviel passed by, and I thanked her for her company the previous night. She too had a telescope, and it didn't get much use that evening - so I agreed to visit her family for the Friday-night show. I was now gathering more door-prizes from the local vendors, so the laptop was put to use in organizing and updating the prize list; it was getting long and filling fast with excellent items including eyepieces, telescopes and a new book that contains thumbnail images of every NGC object in the sky! These were now sitting alongside the items from my front porch and additional prizes purchased by the OSP committee (little things like TeleVue eyepieces and Uranometria 3-book sets). I had done my share of public speaking, but this would be an entirely new experience for me (not to mention the audience - oopz, I just did). I wandered over to the food vendor for a cold drink, and later for a snow-cone.. Anything to dissipate the heat! High clouds were now gathered overhead, trapping the heat and focusing the sun like a Fresnel lens; some cumulus were also developing, and with them many lenticular clouds that look like flying saucers. You know it's a good star party when the Mother Ships drop by for a visit! Several cumulus had lenticular caps, in which form they are known as pileus; I captured images of these as they developed, but later in the day all the clouds began to merge and obscure the sun (good news for the heat, bad for observing). I joined my new adopted family again for dinner, where we all enjoyed the scalloped potatoes and ham while swapping more Tolkein stories ("why didn't the movie show us.." and other variants).

As the sun ended its reign under the clouds, a small seam appeared low in the west. Since Jupiter would soon appear in that spot, and with the sky elsewhere uncooperative, I waited with my binoculars for the show. Jove shone through the gap, and I savored the small prize without its moons. Several others nearby saw it as well. I wandered down to Tinúviel's family with about 30 seconds to spare; she was just waking up, her mom was reading with a red flashlight, and dad was elsewhere. Since no one saw me coming I spooked them a bit, so after noting Jupiter's departure I excused myself. The sky was in fact quite bewildering, since at twilight it was half-dark (clouds) and half-light. In an urban setting the half-light would be the clouds lit from below, so it was disorienting to see stars in the half-light instead! I was reminded of the Shadow homeworld from Babylon 5, whose name eluded both me and several others I accosted near my camp. The evening darkened with little hope of any breakthroughs - yet by 11PM some clearing revealed the Milky Way in places. I hit a few objects including n6717 in Sgr and 7331 in Pegasus - but Stefan's Quintet was too faint under the murky skies. By 12:30 hope for more clearing was as faint as the unlit clouds, and with only four hours' sleep the previous night I chose that time to get some more sleep. I would need my rest for the big Saturday show, after all..

Saturday I awoke well before my neighbors, who had sat up and socialized after I retreated to bed. More grey skies greeted me as I recharged with a fresh mocha before gathering up the last few door-prizes from the vendors and updated my list. Shortly after noon I met Tinúviel and her mom as they took the pilgrimage to the 1993 Lightning Tree. This is something that every '93 veteran needs to do annually, to recall that black-magical night when the world went very wrong, dumping 3-4 inches of rain with incessant lightning and a direct hit on a tree that was at the margin of our observing area. They allowed me to join them on the short trek, and I photographed them at the tree with its diagonal scar emblazoned on the trunk and snapped branches scattered at the base. We then visited some friends of the family who shared their supply of cookies, then visited with another man they had met only an hour or two before. Clearly these are people who are easy to get along with!! The light rain that started to fall near the infamous tree was beginning to soak in, turning from refreshing to slightly uncomfortable as I returned to my car and all those prizes. I went through the items one last time, satisfied that I now had prizes from all the local vendors along with all those that came along for the ride. The rain continued through the afternoon, and as 3PM came near it appeared that our group photo would be a damp one. I'm not sure that had ever happened at OSP, though we have been wet more than once - in the lightning year we had cleared up completely by photo time. My energy was elsewhere, though, as I pulled my car to the main tent and laid out the prizes along the long table where I would preside. Soon those who had been in the photo came to the tent, and it was showtime!

Chuck and Judy gave their usual fine talk, although this was nearly their last - next year Larry G. will begin to take the reins as OSP Director before the other two burn out completely (this was their seventeenth year at the helm!). Then it was prize time, with Jenny dealing out kids' prizes (more than usual, thanks to our donors). I then took over with the remainder of the program, and it went smoothly; we proceeded at a decent pace considering how much loot we had to dispense, and it was humorous and light-hearted throughout. When I finished I was tired and hungry, and the meatball dinner was waiting as we finished. I completed the trifecta by dining with my new friendly family yet again, then moved my car back under my pop-up canopy for the evening. Tinúvel joined me again for another dose of fine conversation, as we waited with waning hope for the stubborn clouds to depart. I offered her some of my holiday home-brew, which she enjoyed thoroughly; this drink was preferred over yesterday's offering by most of the OSP beer-tasting team. Others were going into social, telescope-free mode across the observing field, as scopes were shrouded by tarps or removed completely and replaced by half-circles of lounge chairs. Some lightning appeared in the distant south, too far away to hear but near enough to admire. As darkness descended it became more pronounced but kept its distance. My neighbors pulled out a bottle of wine, and I offered my huge bag of pretzels for group consumption. As we watched the show and discussed several topics, sci-fi came up - and within the larger group the name of the Shadows' home planet - Z'ha'dum - was recalled! I later wandered out to my scope to hear a few tunes and try to pierce the clouds at thin points, but essentially I saw nothing. I finally decided to rest up for the homeward drive, so at 11:30 I turned in, listening to the soft conversation and occasional laughter from the group next door.

Sunday is always odd in several ways. It means demolition day, in that our committee-members spend an hour rolling up rugs, packing boxes and filling a massive trailer for its return home. I also means farewells to those who are not on the committee, as the crowd swiftly dwindles from hundreds to about a dozen by noontime. For me it has always meant a noontime departure, no matter how swiftly or slowly I prepare to leave! This year it began early with me, since I had gone to bed beore most attendees; I reorganized and packed many of my quieter items before 8AM. I then moved on to a final breakfast sandwich and mocha, where I heartily thanked the producers for simplifying my life. The cars were rolling slowly toward the exit all morning, so plenty of waving and 'see you next year's ensued. I met Tinúviel a few last times and said for the (n+1) time how wonderful her presence had been those past few days. After all the committee-work was done I saw her again, with a radio that connected her to her parents in the next car. She wanted to thank the food vendors before going, so I tuned my radio to her channel and I passed it to our chuckwagon chef. The reception failed, but I made her point clear to Mary and her crew. Then with a wave of my hat I wished them a safe and smooth drive home, and began preparing myself for same. Somehow I had broken precedent: I was ready to leave before 11:30 this year! I took the long way home via Mitchell, Condon and Biggs, so any time saved before noon was swiftly spent; I arrived home around 6PM, ate dinner with my parents, unpacked the car and landed in a soft bed that was completely uncluttered by door prizes.