2.4 Dinner and a Moonset

Beautifully crafted telescopes also included superb engineering, such as this secondary mirror suspended by nearly invisible wires.

The next day’s weather was a repeat of the previous: partly cloudy, occasionally overcast, threat of rain, but then open periods of bright sun.  Alongside the coffee vendors, protective canopies were set up for astronomy-related businesses and causes. Artists, photographers, telescope and accessory retailers, social and political organizations: all had the equivalent of a wilderness storefront along “vendor row”.

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2.2 Flat Tires, Cloudy Skies

Some of the “big guns” at the Table Mountain Star Party. Large aperture Dobsonians abounded in the telescope field. The height to the eyepiece occasionally requires a ladder, one of them is seen here, strewn like many others on the ground. Also visible in this picture are a platoon of observing tents (upper right); multi-room tents with sections that open to the sky. The threat from the clouds kept the telescopes covered and the tents closed for much of the time.

I started lugging stuff out of my car and was struggling with my oversized tent when I met my neighbor to the east, Barry, a friendly bearded fellow who reminded me of a mild-mannered graduate student.  In reality he was a programmer, but his interests fell strongly in the areas of ham radio and astronomy. He was modest about his beginner status in astronomy, but he had attended prior years of TMSP and enjoyed them immensely, hence his return this year.

Barry felt responsible for letting me know that the rear tire on my car was flat.  I was surprised at this news, since I had just arrived and had not experienced any sort of tire problems on my way up the mountain, but there it was.  It wasn’t just low on air– it was dead flat!  Had I been driving on a rubber-covered rim all the way up that road?  I suppose it’s possible, but let’s instead think that it must have happened as I maneuvered into the field. A sharp rock maybe?

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Table Mountain Star Party

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.

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1.3 Crossing the Prairie

Even as one exits daily life, its anxieties drag along. I headed west on highway 12, a route that could take me to Montana and beyond. The interval between rural Minnesota towns was a consistent five miles, a day’s round trip in the days of horse-driven vehicles. Although I had no need or desire to stop, I found these distances between  oases of civilization annoying–my progress seemed so slow. As I crossed into South Dakota however, and the distances started getting longer, I found my tempo slowing to match. The rhythm of the car on the pavement was beginning to seem more natural. I had no appointments or obligations, other than my desire to reach Washington for the Table Mountain Star Party.  And even that was not an obligation, I could change my plans at will!

Go west!  Ride the road and make my plans on the run. I could go as far as I wanted, stop where I felt like it, and make my way, my way. And like the title of the book by William Least Heat-Moon, I was traveling the blue highways. Except by the conventions of today’s maps, the lesser traveled roads are marked in red, not blue. The two-lane roads serviced the rural business, farms and ranches, and the segments between the small-town hives of activities became longer as the hives themselves became smaller.

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