The stars last night, were big and bright …. and we got mashed potatoes!

It was a big deal! Like, galaxy-sized!

Here’s how it happened: Our younger son is a physics and astronomy major at UT. UT runs the McDonald Observatory in far west Texas. At a recent luncheon for parents of science majors, we met a gentleman who works for the observatory, and he comped us tickets for a tour, a Star Party, and dinner in the cafeteria where the actual astronomers eat, instead of at the cafe in the visitor’s center. See? Stellar deal.

Here are scenes from our daytime guided tour of two of the three giant telescopes: the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith atop Mount Locke, and the Hobby-Eberly on nearby Mount Fowlkes.

Map of the observatory compound, complete with my notes on what to pack for the star party. Temps were in the 30's!

Map of the observatory compound, complete with my notes on what to pack for the Star Party. Temps were in the 30’s!

The Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes

The Harlan J. Smith and Otto Struve telescopes

Inside the dome housing the Harlan J. Smith telescope. (Random guy from our tour group for comparison)

Inside the dome housing the Harlan J. Smith telescope.
(Random guy from our tour group for perspective)

The Hobby-Eberly telescope

The Hobby-Eberly telescope

We did not get to tour the Otto Struve Telescope, so we took a selfie in front of a model of it instead. You're welcome.

We did not get to tour the Otto Struve Telescope, so we took a selfie in front of a model of it.
Regrettably, my head is blocking the teensy little figurine of Mr. Struve.

Highest road maintained by TXDOT...

Highest road maintained by TXDOT…

... and the stunning view behind that sign

… and the stunning view behind that sign

The Astronomers Lodge, where visiting researchers and special guests stay while working at the observatory, is that low yellow building there below the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. (Home of the famous mashed potatoes!)

The Astronomers Lodge, where visiting researchers and special guests stay while working at the observatory, is that low yellow building there below the Harlan J. Smith Telescope.
(Home of the famous mashed potatoes!)

Our view from the dinner table: the sun is setting, and it's almost time for the Star Party!

Our view from the dinner table: the sun is setting, and it’s almost time for the Star Party!

The Star Party began at 7 p.m., and conditions could not have been better: no moon, the darkest spot in Texas, and skies so clear that we could see the Andromeda Galaxy just by looking up. OK, so it was a little blurry, but considering it’s 2.3 million light years away, that ain’t bad!

Another thing that made the evening special: there were only about 70 of us there. Last Tuesday? They had 7-hundred-70 people in attendance at the Star Party. This meant a lot less jostling in the dark, and very short wait times at the telescopes, from which we were able to view Uranus, the Ring Nebula, Globular Cluster M15, and the Andromeda Galaxy.

No photos were allowed at the Star Party, so as not to interfere with the dark skies. So here's a picture of my scarf, gloves, blanket, and party sticker. Visit to the McDonald Observatory: highly recommended

No photos were allowed at the Star Party, so as not to interfere with the dark skies. So here’s a picture of my scarf, gloves, blanket, and party sticker.
Visit to the McDonald Observatory: highly recommended

(Disclaimer: I don’t do science, so I’ve kept details to a minimum here, so as not to get stuff wrong and sound like an idiot. Sorry, sciency people. But I’ve included links to reputable sources of information, so that you can read more.)

Dismal when we got here, but then we saw wild pigs (the kind that can maim a dog) and swam wit’ da fishes

People aren’t kidding when they tell you West Texas is vast, wild and untamed. In fact, West Texas is the very definition of vast, wild and untamed. Look it up in a dictionary. I’m pretty sure it’s there. 
 
We’re parked at Davis Mountains State Park for a few days, and here’s what we’ve seen and done so far: 
When we got here, it looked like this. Brrrrrr and wet.

When we got here, it looked like this: brrrrrr and wet.

But the next morning? A herd of javelinas (see the baby?) next to our campsite!

But the next morning? There was a herd of javelinas (see the baby?) next to our campsite!

I thought this one was a rock. Until it moved.

I thought this one was a rock. Then it moved.

Sunday morning: a trip into town to get connected

Sunday morning: a trip into town to get connected

Nothing like a good old fashioned diner breakfast, with scenery like this!

Nothing like a good old fashioned diner breakfast, seated right next to an old-fashioned soda fountain!

Yyyyep. That about sums it up, in the best possible sarcastic way.

Yyyyep. That about sums it up, in the best possible sarcastic way.

Views from our hike on Sunday afternoon. We could see the McDonald Observatory from the trail. It's about 15 miles away, and we're going there on Tuesday for a tour and star party.

Views from our hike on Sunday afternoon. We could see the McDonald Observatory from the trail. It’s about 15 miles away, and we’re going there on Tuesday.

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Mule deer in the park. There's always that one...

Mule deer in the park. There’s always that one deer…

Adventure 2: The pool at Balmorhea State Park

Before today, I’d have said “You’re full of shit” to any one of these predictions

  1. You will swim in a spring-fed pool that’s so deep, people go scuba diving in it.
  2. And there will be fish and ducks swimming it it with you.
  3. And it’ll be 57 degrees outside, because it’s the last day of November.
From the park web site, “More than 15 million gallons of water flow through the pool each day, gushing from the San Solomon Springs. The pool is up to 25 feet deep, covers 1.75 acres, and holds 3.5 million gallons of water. The water temperature stays at 72 to 76 degrees year-round.” Well hello there, bucket list item we didn’t even know we had!
Tim contemplated it in his sweater for a few minutes...

Tim contemplated it in his sweater for a few minutes…

And despite the cold, the fish, the ducks (see them behind us?), and the depth, we took the plunge! Hey. I had cancer and teenagers at the same time. Not so much scares me anymore. Plus, I was wearing my magic shoes (see video below).

But despite the cold, the fish, the ducks (see them behind us?), and the depth, we took the plunge!
Hey. I had cancer and teenagers at the same time. Not so much scares me anymore. Plus, I was wearing my magic shoes (see video below).

That's me! In the deepest part of the deep! With the ducks!

That’s me! In the deepest part of the deep! With the ducks!

For those who are interested in the sciency part

For those who are interested in the sciency part

 Look. Some people need goggles, or nose clips, or a t-shirt for swimming. I happen to need shoes. I call them my magic shoes, I don’t care what you think, and I’m not giving them up anytime soon.