It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my uncle, Dr. Robert Olson. After a lengthy battle with multiple myeloma that included periods of remission, he succumbed on September 15, 2022. He was a remarkable man, and there will be many tributes that capture his many talents, his professional contributions, his passion for gardening, and his strong friendships and family relations. They will all be inadequate, as is any attempt to capture the essence of a person’s life.
But to the list of inadequate tributes, I would like to add mine, an anecdote that I wrote a few years ago following a Thanksgiving dinner, one of many large and boisterous holiday gatherings that he loved to host, with his daughters handling cooking and logistics. I was able to share it with Bob in a letter, at a time of better health. He was an important influence on me during a formative period of my life.
I intended to visit Big Bend Park and found it on my Texas road atlas southeast of Marfa—except that it was labelled “Big Bend Ranch State Park”. It had what appeared to be a major route through it, Casa Piedra Road, that I could take and see the terrain and park facilities, then continue through to the town of Presidio, where I could find lunch, and then take another major road back home.
So that was the plan. But it turns out that Big Bend Ranch State Park is entirely different from Big Bend National Park. I was confused but it didn’t matter. I missed the turnoff for the road through the park and stayed on US 67 to Presidio.
And I continued to follow US 67, thinking it would show me how to get to Big Bend Park. Eventually I found myself approaching a major checkpoint—the customs and border inspections.
I looked for a way to turn around before actually getting there, but I saw no convenient way to do this and suddenly found myself going through a covered channel with many many speed bumps—aggressive and alternating sides of the lane, then full width and strategically placed. There was no place to exit; the lane continued on and I thought maybe there would still be a turnaround opportunity. But there wasn’t, and I was now passing a long line of cars headed in the other direction, nearly all with Texas plates, stopped, waiting their turn to be inspected and pass into the U.S.
Fort Davis is the name of the town, “Historic Fort Davis” is the reconstructed early fort, established here in the 1850’s to protect the growing number of emigrants, and the mail and freight traffic to support and supply them in the westward expansion. My national parks pass gave me entry and access to a walking tour of the fort grounds to see the buildings that have been restored, and exhibits in some of them depicting the conditions and resources of a military outpost. It was very interesting to learn of the difficult conditions on the frontier, and the life of enlisted men stationed at the fort. It is probably not so interesting to small children; a rudimentary awareness of US history is helpful. I recommend visiting in the morning, before the temperatures become excessive.
This is a very dark sky part of Texas, and so it makes sense to locate an observatory here. It is semi-open to the public for self-guided tours at the visitor center, and the grounds hosting three major observatory domes and many smaller ones. One of them allowed a peek at the 10-meter Hobby Eberly Telescope, a multifaceted composite mirror on a huge mount structure. I saw it in its resting position, perhaps for maintenance, or an instrument changeover. As I tried to identify the mirror segments, I realized that what appeared to be the interior of the dome building, was actually its reflection on the mirrors, their reflectivity so high as to make them seem invisible!
I turned away from the path of the eclipse onto a route that would take me to deeper and darker skies. There are a number of dark sky areas in Texas, and one of them hosts a famous observatory- McDonald Observatory, home of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (10m aperture, tied for 2nd largest in the world). The nearest town is Fort Davis (population ~1000), a 45-minute drive away.
Just outside of Fort Davis is Davis Mountains State Park, where, earlier in the day, before leaving the wifi and phone services of Leakey, I was able to reserve a campsite. I learned by calling that there was a lodge at the state park, but it was full (and had been and would be for quite a while). Similarly, I learned that the campground was nearly full—six sites remained! So I provided my credit credentials and reserved one.
I am still adjusting to the new way of getting away, through the use of smart phones and websites to make camping arrangements. I understand this can make the process of accommodating an ever-growing set of camping clients more efficient, but it removes some of the spontaneity of life on the open road– exploring without fixed destinations, and deciding at whim the right place to stop for the night.
On my way to claim my reserved campsite, I was diverted from the highway to a Border Patrol checkpoint. Two uniformed officers, one with a dog, questioned every vehicle. I asked what they were looking for. “Narcotics and human trafficking” was the response. I replied I had neither, eliciting a harsh look. After noting my Minnesota license plates, they gave me a pass and I continued on.
This was on US-90, at a location a hundred miles or more from the border. It seemed odd to me that there would be a large permanent checkpoint here. But I don’t know the patterns of drug and human smuggling.
The times of traveling all day and then stopping and finding a place to spend the night are becoming rare. Places fill up, and it is now necessary to make reservations ahead of time, even for campgrounds, maybe especially for campgrounds during the travel season. On this day however I was lucky. Of the few hotels in Leakey TX, “The Historic Leakey Inn” still had a room available as I pulled up at around 6:00.
The reception desk was empty when I found it and so I waited, anticipating that someone would eventually notice me. While I was there, the rustic fireplace lobby was filling with people, locals who greeted each other by name and seemed to be looking forward to some sort of event or activity. A number of the women were wearing the same style sweatshirt, decorated with a yellow ribbon and declaring “Prayer is the Answer”.
Eventually the manager/owner/wife found me at the check in counter. Her past training as a flight attendant probably contributed to her natural style, being very friendly and helpful as she located a room for me. I learned that there was a large patio and dining room that was offering their nightly specials—drinks and a few food items. This was what had attracted the locals to this time and place. The host told me that they had hatched this idea a few years ago, but it had now become this popular “monster” that they had to keep up with. Oh, the burden of a successful business!
After settling into my rustic but clean room with stone walls and too few outlets for my collection of digital gadgets, I went back to the patio lounge and ordered a margarita. The young bartender had to check my ID. Not for my birth date, but for membership. Seeing my confusion, a man next to me explained that the Texas rules for small town liquor licenses required I join a private “club”, before they could serve me. The man turned out to be the manager/owner/husband, and he went on to explain that this was one of several defects in the state’s liquor laws, which for some reason the governor had not seen fit to correct in a recent update to those laws. The last thing I wanted to do was discuss politics in Texas, so I said (aware of my Yankee accent) “That’s interesting.”
I am now a full-fledged member of the “Leakey Inn Club”.
I also ordered one of the food items offered that evening: “Tacos Tapatio” a descriptor I had to look up, which meant “tacos from the city of Guadalajara”. Maybe the two cooks working furiously in the small kitchen were from there. The tacos were unique rolled up tortilla tubes of carnitas, deep fried, then covered with lettuce and veggies in a white sauce like coleslaw, with sliced tomatoes on top. Delicious!
In fact the Mexican food has gotten even better the farther south I go! The previous night, in Llano, I enjoyed a burrito with beef, jalapenos, and other goodies. This just kept proving there was more to discover.
The Texans in this rural area are hard to describe—they seem like ranchers, mechanics and laborers, often wearing seed caps, usually with short-cropped hair but many with extensive beards of various forms—full beard, chin beard, mustache, each trying to be distinctive if not distinguished. They are boisterous, in a way that is both polite and rebellious, which, to my surprise, I found endearing.
I spent the day driving southwest along the eclipse path visiting candidate viewing sites that I had researched prior to the trip. I found them with the help of Google Maps of course, and with the wonderful customization of it for the eclipse by Xavier Jubier. I also bought the most recent version of the DeLorme road atlas for Texas. I actively looked for the places closest to the center line with the longest totality duration. At the time I thought I was two years ahead of schedule, not two years behind! Here are the notes I made.
I headed to the northernmost point of my eclipse path survey, to Poppy’s Pointe, an RV park with cabins on Buchanan Lake. It reminded me, not pleasantly, of a place we had stayed along the Ontario shore of Lake Superior
As I drove in and located the office, I was met by a man in a golf cart. I asked if he was the owner—no he was the maintenance guy, but he could take me to her, get in. I got into the cart and he drove about 100 feet to her trailer. She seemed a little annoyed but took me to her office in her golf cart, about 150 feet back from where we had just come.
I eventually told her about the eclipse in 2024. She said she was contracting the whole place to someone, they just had to agree on a price. She also told me that she had been getting calls for four years. The property is 750 feet from the eclipse centerline. This was the moment when I realized that despite being here two years ahead, I was already too late!
Poppy’s Pointe is a private RV park. There are some other parks on Buchanan Lake which for some reason were not on my list to stop and visit. I wish I had, because Black Rock Park also has camping (tents and RVs) and cabins. It is part of the LCRA Parks system (Lower Colorado River Authority). From their website, it looks like the reservation system goes one year out.
There are numerous other resorts around Buchanan Lake. Check Google Maps to find them; It may be possible to book them for the eclipse.
There is a direct route from Minneapolis to the eclipse path in Texas—just take I35 to Austin and turn right. It is not a terribly interesting route, and you’ll be sharing it with the trucking industry, but it is fast—at least where there isn’t construction.
The cool rainy weather of early May in Minneapolis gradually became warmer as I drove south. By Iowa, my jacket was no longer needed, and wouldn’t be again. By the time I got to Texas, the temperature would be 100 degrees, and reached or exceeded that temperature every day I was there.
I was trying to cover the miles quickly, so I did not take on the overhead of overnight camping, instead staying at traveler’s hotels, where I still struggled to get a good sleep—perhaps the combination of too much coffee and caffeinated non-alcoholic drinks. But I did get “free” breakfast and recharged my cooler with hotel ice and continued on, not quite reaching my destination goal each day. I stayed at Emporia instead of Wichita, Waco instead of Austin.
As I drove along the interstate, I noticed that the roadside rest areas, which are reliably spaced every 50 miles or so in Minnesota, became infrequent, and then completely absent after Iowa. Missouri and Kansas had none, and Kansas Interstate 35 was a tollway! It had “service islands” for gas and snacks, but I didn’t find them very appealing and did not stop at any. I saw one rest area in Texas, but by the time I saw the sign, it was too late to exit.
Near the Oklahoma border with Texas, I stopped for a ham sandwich at a local stop. Outside was a sign listing mileage to cities in TX and OK. No entry was there for Austin. I asked the two women running the shop “Why no Austin?” In her distinctive (and pleasant) Oklahoma accent, one replied, “Maybe no one wants to go there.”
Introduction In May, I made a solo road trip to Texas in order to do “reconnaissance” and to plan for the upcoming total eclipse of the sun on April 8, 2024. I had made similar explorations of the western states prior to the 2017 Great American Eclipse which turned out to be very helpful in preparing for it.
You may ask “why Texas?” It is not my usual road trip destination, but celestial mechanics is oblivious to human-drawn political maps. It is also oblivious to weather, so to optimize the likelihood of clear skies on eclipse day, we need to be as far south and west along the eclipse path as possible. Here is a chart of the cloud cover for the time in April along the eclipse path.
I’m not sure if this chart represents how much of the sky is covered, or how often the sky is covered, but it is apparent that Mexico is the best place to observe the eclipse. Not eager to drive through Mexico, I am limiting the search to the US, which takes us to… Texas.
It turns out that the eclipse path runs through a pleasant part of south central Texas known as “Hill Country,” that contrasts with its flatter or harsher or more urban or more desolate areas. For Texans, it is the equivalent of what Minnesotans call “Up North”, a place to escape the city, or to relax on vacation. To me, it is not quite as nice as the North Woods, but I may be biased.
As I said, Texas is not my usual road trip destination. I have not been to the state for decades, and, having observed Texas politics from afar, I am a bit intimidated. But eclipse-viewing is something that can be enjoyed regardless of political view, so I packed up some observing gear and headed south.
In the next series of blog posts, I’ll describe what I encountered along the way. If you enjoy my travelogues, or if you just want to glean information that might be relevant to your 2024 eclipse plans, I invite you to subscribe (meaning that you will get an email notification when I publish a blog entry). Don’t worry, I’m not prolific at this, and you can unsubscribe at will.