2.1 The Approach
I had embarked on this “Nightscape Odyssey” to search out dark sky locations in the western U.S. and to hone my astrophoto skills. Although the Table Mountain Star Party (TMSP) in Washington’s Cascade Mountains was a long way from Minnesota, I had selected it as a fitting launch point for my ambitious summer plan.
The “star party” is an interesting concept, especially to those who are not close to amateur astronomy circles. For them it creates an amusing image of revelers eating and drinking outside, occasionally looking up at the sky, pointing to various stars and having a good laugh over them.
Maybe there are some star parties like this. They certainly come in different sizes and settings, but I had never attended a large regional star party such as the TMSP. The largest gathering of telescopes and their avid owners I had attended probably numbered around 20. I understood the basics of the event: arrive, set up telescopes before twilight ends, find your way around with dim red flashlights, and share your enthusiasm for viewing the night sky with the anonymous others who wander past in the dark, hoping to get a look through a telescope at an interesting celestial object. This is the general outline of an amateur astronomy star party. Oh, and have some cookies sometime during the night.
The Table Mountain Star Party had the same core principles, but it was on an enormously grander scale. The setting deserves it. Most people think of the state of Washington as a lush rainforest region in the Pacific Northwest. In reality, only the western edge of the state deserves that description: most of the state is an arid, sparsely populated desert. Arid, but irrigated. And fertile. The famous fruit orchards of Washington are here, and its towns are oriented to the business of agriculture. Ellensburg is such a town and is nearly at the geographic center of the state. It’s the closest civilization to TMSP, but its small size and remote location keep the light pollution of the desert’s dark skies minimal.
I was in some danger of being late to the party. I had delayed my departure from Minneapolis to attend a last important social event, and then on my way through South Dakota, the skies were clear and I was compelled to start my nighttime photography sessions. This was a consequence of an important lesson I had learned early on: if the sky is clear now, take the picture. Who knows what conditions would exist by the time I get to Washington? It’s the sure thing over a yet-to-be-decided situation. There were forest fires out west– the smoke could be bad, or the access road could be closed, or clouds could cover the state, or a dozen other things might interfere. So this is why I spent a night in a cow pasture in South Dakota, and was now desperately trying to make up the delayed miles.
I got to Ellensburg in the late afternoon on the first day of the event. I was pleased. Table Mountain was some uncertain distance from the town–I had a not-to-scale map–but I was sure I could figure it out before dark. I took the prescribed forest road and headed up.
The prescribed forest road was one serious road. In different weather it would deserve the adjective treacherous. I had never been on a mountain road like this one: a single lane, hairpin turns, no guardrails, no recommended speed signs (in fact no signs at all), and steep! These forest roads are no-nonsense pathways to the top.
Somehow the single lane works. When traffic meets, there are enough wide spots to eke past, maybe someone has to back up a little, but it seems to work. Or at least mostly work. I noticed occasional skid marks, punctuated at one location by shards of glass.
At the twenty-mile mark I encountered a team of cyclists. I was startled to have the brightly colored lycra-clad athletes suddenly appear as I rounded a blind curve. The road was too steep to walk, but here they were, cycling as if training for the Tour d’ France. Maybe they were. If so, they’d selected the right road. As extreme as it seemed to me, it was actually luxurious by forest road standards: it was paved!
Eventually however, the asphalt ran out. A few more miles of gravel reached a last curve that revealed an expansive view of a sea of vehicles: cars, trucks, vans, RVs and tents covering the hilltop. It was the first indicator that this was no small-scale star party.
Although I had arrived on the first official day (Thursday), it seemed that everyone else had arrived the day before. I registered at the entrance and was ushered by a group of highly organized parking directors who offered the choice of parking in the mosh pit of campers (the field had been marked off into rows and columns of parking territory and a few cells remained), or of finding my way to the overflow area. After a quick survey I opted for the overflow, a fraction of a mile further. It was out of the thick of the action, but still had a great view, and some room to pitch my tent and spread out a bit.
But even the overflow area was full. I eased my minivan off the road into a vacancy. It was vacant for a reason; the sudden ditch and the large rocks had discouraged prior vehicles, but I was becoming desperate as other vehicles were claiming the last of these remnant spaces. The minivan lurched into position. I wondered whether and how I would get it out again, but decided I could put that problem off for a few days. I wanted to set up camp and set up my equipment before dark. After all, that was my whole purpose for being here!