Wednesday, September 22, 2010

UNT Star Party

One of my many tasks is to identify field trips, which will grab the imagination and hold my wife’s interest for a day. In my search, I discovered that the University of North Texas (UNT-Go Meangreen) has a little known astronomical observatory, The Rafes Urban Astronomy Center, on the west side of the Denton County Airport, the site of a former Nike Missile Base. On the first Saturday of each month, they hold a “Star Party” at the facility and allow adults and kids to see and learn about the stars. Thus, on a beautiful, warm and very clear Summer night, we found ourselves westbound through the city of Denton, Texas.

UNT has two large domes, which each house an 8-inch refracting telescope and 3 open bay covered buildings with roll back roofs, which contain several smaller refractor and reflecting telescopes. Think really expensive amateur off-the-shelf telescopes. We had been fortunate in having some heavy rain during the preceding week, which had both cooled and cleared the skies above us. But first, I must take a moment to talk about the drive out to the facility.

As we’ve learned from countless westerns and TV shows, Texas is big. And pretty flat. Except for the region known euphemistically as the “Hill Country” of the southwest and a couple of mountains east of El Paso, you can watch the sun rise and set from horizon to horizon unless you get into a major city where the buildings get in the way. Being so big means there’s a lot of open space and thus places and things tend to be far apart. And not densely populated. It is not uncommon in the rural areas for homes to be a mile or more apart, which is very picturesque in the daylight, but can cause your nighttime drive to be a very dark one. Without a moon up, it can be pitch black.

So, with this in mind, I scheduled our foray so we would dine in Denton, drive the 5 miles to the Observatory (still in the waning daylight) and be able to spend the evening looking for ET. The Star Party was scheduled to begin at 30 minutes past sunset. As usual, I was able to mix business with pleasure and get a meal out of the deal.
It wasn’t our first time to Denton; we had been through there a couple of times with friends. Denton is the County Seat of Denton County and has a very handsome Courthouse built around 1896 at it’s city square. Denton, historically, was and is a major player in the region with a railroad running through the town, not only the home of UNT but Texas Women’s University (originally founded in 1901 as the Girls Industrial College, Go Pioneers) was the first all-women’s college chartered in Texas. It is the largest state-supported university for women in the United States. They also house the WASP Archival Collection, which features one of the largest repositories of women in aviation in the world, housing the history of Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, the Whirly-Girls International Helicopter Pilots, Women Military Aviators, and others.

Two blocks southeast of the square is a great Tex-Mex restaurant named “Fuzzy’s Taco Shop”. It’s situated on the end of a bank of former warehouses, which now house two restaurants and a bar. We had our favorite, chicken nachos. This may be a good time to reflect on the use of real cheese and Velveeta. I am no food snob but there are certain standards we have all grown up with and I have to split hairs on this one.
Folks in Texas have an historic love of Velveeta cheese. Velveeta, as many of you know, is mostly whey, a bi-product of regular cheese making and a common substitute for real cheese. The key term here is real. Kraft started making it in 1927. Being a manufactured product, it did not require much refrigeration and had a shelf life of about three centuries if left undisturbed. This made it a crossover favorite of the rural ranching and farming families of Texas. Many of whom didn’t have the electricity or refrigeration we enjoy today.

Velveeta is not sought after by discriminating pallets for it’s aged taste or old world texture but for it’s utility. It is inexpensive and can be adapted to many of our traditional favorites like grilled cheese sandwiches, Mac and cheese, and (God forgive me) Nachos. So it is part of our restaurant checklist to note the use of Velveeta whenever we dine and we’ve seen some crazy adaptations, like Chicken Primavera and a weird American cheese Pasta Alfredo at an Italian Restaurant outside Glen Rose, Texas. The place which was playing Country music instead of Sinatra over the Musak.

Fuzzy’s passed the test and got a big thumbs up for their use of what appeared to be real grated mild Cheddar and Monterey Jack. They also liberally drizzled this concoction with a spicy Chipotle sauce.

Now, our bellies full, we mounted our Nissan Rogue and, with Google Maps on the iPhone, made our way westward toward the Observatory. This is where things got dicey. If any of you have ever used Google Maps, there is that little-viewed caveat about doing a “reality check” when accepting their directions. It calls for due diligence in making sure the roads suggested are actually open and not closed to traffic (well if I knew that…I wouldn’t be using the mapping service, now would I). And, of course, like most men, I have been blessed with the razor sharp instincts of an ancient navigator and if all else fails….I can maneuver using landmarks and the stars if need be (yeah, right).

The initial guide was straight forward and took us from Fuzzy’s due west over the I-35 and got us to the east entrance of the Denton County Airport. Now mind you, the Observatory is a mere 5.7 miles, as the crow flies, ( I never understood why we gauged our travels by crows…why not Eagles or Carrier Pigeons?) on the west side of the airport. An estimated travel time of 17 minutes. Here we came to a dead end. The perimeter road had been closed for construction. This required a re-evaluation of Google Maps and a work-around.

Now my friend Dana will tell you that this only requires a touch of his little Tom Tom screen for Alice ( yeah, he named it) to recalculate a new path for him. Not so easy with the iPhone. It has no such editing feature so you must widen the view to discern streets and highways around you to visually figure an alternate way to your destination. Here in lies the next problem with Google Maps. God love ‘em, they have digitized the entire world into their little servers all over the planet and, I swear, they must have digested all known maps of the New World going back to Cortez. Suffice it to say, that “reality check” thing really comes into play especially in rural Texas. I came to believe they might even have digitized the maps scrawled on the napkins of Davy Crockett and William Travis from that little Mexican Café when they used to meet at the Alamo.

Then the geography comes in to play as well. Remember big, flat, few homes and landmarks, oh yeah..did I mention dark? My vaunted time schedule was now shot to hell and the darkness was now upon us. I’m talking “can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face” dark. Recall that Texas is spread out and trying to get anywhere is not always straightforward. It can lead one many miles in what seems like a totally different direction to ultimately get to one’s destination. It takes the concentration of a bomb maker and the patience of Jobe to work it out (neither of which my wife possesses).

My competitive side takes over. The clock is ticking and I, for one, am determined to get to the Observatory before the “party” begins. Dianna has now ditched her iPod book on tape and is trying to help. So begins my desperate attempt to navigate us through the landscape and to the finish line while fending off Dianna’s helpful reminders, “The speed limit says 30 not 45,” and, (does this sound familiar?) “Maybe we should stop and ask directions.”

Now, mind you, we are careening (I’m sorry, traveling) down tree lined County and Farm-to-Market roads which are quickly dwindling down to less than a single travel lane moving from paved to dirt. The trees have formed a dense canopy which has blocked out any possible sky light we may have had left. We haven’t seen a living soul for about an hour. I’m talking those backwoods roads in scenes from the X-Files where all you can see is by the glow of your headlights and, when stopped, all you hear is the rustling of the trees and the sound of banjo playing in the background. Which brings out the occasional observation from Dianna, “You know, we could die here and no one would ever find us.” That’s my girl.

Now my wife and I have been together for some time and she has developed a certain threshold for my map quests. As we all know, driving and navigating while looking down at your lap at a bobbing, glowing cell phone is not only ill advised but downright dangerous. She has taken a motherly stance as to my treatment of her beloved mother-of-pearl Rogue as I skitter around rock-strewn bends in the road and the occasional pothole. But then…just as she prepared another, “Maybe we should stop and ask directions?”, we arrive, unscathed.

The trees open up and we’re stopped among parked cars and our first sighting of humans in a long while. At the end of the lane, almost mockingly, in my headlights, I can clearly see the reflectors of the Denton County Airport perimeter gate and the control tower in the distance. Like Columbus stepping off onto the sand and addressing his crew, I turned to Dianna and said, “See, I told you we’d find it.” And…. there’s the roll of her eyes. I still have it.

Being prepared, I brought my flashlight and we stumbled our way to the entrance gate. We were directed to one of the domes and told it was locked onto Venus and to take a look. We got up onto a ladder and could see the image of Venus undulating in the eyepiece. I am not an astronomer and was surprised to see only a “half moon” image of the second planet from the Sun. I kinda thought it would be like the full moon. Dianna, without blinking, suggested it was due to Venus’ position relative to the Sun that gave it that half moon look to us.
Ok, in my household, I hold the coveted title of “Keeper of all Trivial Knowledge.” Not a day (or an awkward moment) goes by that my family, friends, or co-workers can depend on me to come up with some little known fact or long forgotten snippet of data. The revelation usually is preceded by the dreaded, “Did you know….”? It is usually met with rolling eyes, sighs and, often, looks of disdain as I elucidate to those around me.

I don’t take my mission lightly. No sir, the world needs my help and seemingly limitless ability to bring forth critical knowledge that, by it’s very utterance, could very well press the walls of ignorance aside. Though, unfortunately, this counsel is not highly sought after, it’s a burden I’m willing to bear that others might benefit. Let’s face it, somebody has to do it.

So, when clearly trumped by my wife’s superior knowledge of the cosmos, I was taken aback and knocked just a little off balance. I approached one of the docents and asked the question about the half moon effect and, without missing a beat, told me it was Venus’ relative position to the Sun, which dictates how much of it we see in the night sky. For it is the Sun that lights up the Moon and the planets, not the Earth. I now felt doubly ashamed in that I hadn’t believed my wife and was now accused of being an old world “Earth centrist” bigot.

Trying to deflect her criticism of me, I asked her what she did at the Observatory. She said she is an instructor at the facility. Even in the darkness, I could sense this young woman was maybe 23 or 24 years of age and couldn’t possibly qualify as a teacher for UNT. She may have sensed this because she then cheerfully told me Astronomy was her lifelong hobby and because of her passion for the subject, they made her an instructor to assist Physics undergrads with their work. I asked her if she was a grad student teacher. She happily replied she was actually an English major undergrad and hadn’t gotten her degree yet. Wow.

We then moved on to the rest of the facility and checked out the other telescope mounts in the roll back buildings. Unfortunately, some parents had brought little kids with them and they were yelling and running around jumping up onto the different telescopes. The telescopes had been locked onto different stars in the sky but the kids kept grabbing and pulling the eyepieces around and knocking them off their targets. The parents were not keeping pace and were just letting them run amok. The Astronomy students on hand were ill equipped to handle the situation and we had to leave to escape the bedlam.

But the best part was convening back between the domes for the English Major to talk to us about Astronomy. She had this really cool green Laser pointer (this thing was like a Light Saber from Star Wars) and was very adept at pointing out the various stars and constellations in the clear night sky. She even waxed poetic as she explained some of the Greek and Roman myths surrounding the creation of the constellations.

Having gotten our fill of all things Astronomical, it was time to leave and now came the hard part. Deciding how to get back through the winding maze that formed our arrival. I approached one of the students and asked what was the fastest way back. He pointed to the little map on our handout and said to just follow it back to the main highway.

With my tail between my legs, under the watchful (and jaundiced) eye of my wife, we made one left turn onto a County dirt road, which took us to a paved Farm-to-Market road. Turning due east we quickly (we’re talking minutes) came upon I-35 and a quick return trip home. Turns out, it’s the same map displayed on their website advertising the Star Party. Who Knew?


  1. Only one thing is lacking in your vivid account of peregrinations on dark deserted roads in the Texas outback: creepy music. I recommend "Weird" by Harry Lubin, with an orchestral variation called "Celestial Bodies".

    Vintage readers like me may recall this eerie yet beautiful music as the theme "Fear" from the TV series, "One Step Beyond . I am not the only person who said as a child this music made their flesh creep. and run away covering their ears until the music finished.

    Here is a link to Lubin's best known composition --conducted by the composer-- in a serene video which actually does the music artistic justice: . (I dare you to play it late at night when you are alone in the house.)

    Aunt Raven, "Texpatriate" living in England

    Aunt Raven, "Texpatriate" now living in England

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