The stars at night are big and bright…

…in West Texas, which is why the McDonald Observatory is located there. This is one of the major astronomy centers in the country, and it contains some of our major research telescopes. Why, when they tell you that the nearest Walmart is 90 miles away, you have an immediate sense of how isolated (and deprived) this part of the world actually is.  Telescopes don’t do well in lit areas, and this observatory is here because this is considered the darkest place in the country.  No ambient light for miles and miles, and what light there is from the few small communities anywhere nearby has been adjusted to a type of lamp that shoots light down, not up.

The folks here are major champions of what I guess is called the “dark skies” movement, saying that smarter lighting will be safer, cheaper, and give us all a chance to see the stars.  Sounds like a great plan.

We weren’t there at night, though they often host “star parties” which allow visitors to explore the actual heavens with a guide, and see what is going on via one of their telescopes.

The observatory is at the top of the highest road in Texas (you know everything in Texas has to be the most something), and we were over 6,000 feet up when we reached the two major telescope locations.

Now I am going to spare you the impassioned tour guide’s three-hour discussion of space, the sun, astronomical spectroscopy, and the construction of two telescopes.  No, I did not rush home to make notes so that I could build my own.  However, I am a bit concerned that the Boy Scout troop on our tour now knows just enough about reflection and refraction to be a little dangerous.  And they were far too curious about dark matter…

The views were gorgeous and the huge older telescope was fascinating to see move and adjust to any calibration a scientist could want.  That one was used by NASA to shoot a laser beam off a piece of aluminum Neil Armstrong planted on the moon, and here’s how good it was, ladies and gentlemen:  On its first try, it was only six inches off.

A few miles down the road is Fort Davis.  It was named for our old friend Jeff Davis, Secretary of War in 1854, and it was active until 1891.  Its primary role was to protect settlers and travelers from the Comanche and Apache raiders who made that area less than secure.

Much of the fort is preserved today.  On one side of the parade grounds are the barracks for the enlisted men, and on the other are the homes of the officers, which were quite nice.  Rank indeed had its privileges.

The fort is also notable for the fact that it contained two regiments of Buffalo Soldiers, the black army infantry and cavalry men who acquitted themselves quite nobly in the Indian wars.  The obligatory visitor center video is narrated by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who looks a bit strange in a western shirt and cowboy hat.  But his script makes the interesting, albeit somewhat defensive, statement that those soldiers were just following the imperative of the times, and can’t be judged by the fact that later generations chose to view our treatment of the Indians in a less kindly light.  Here are some views of what remains, against the magnificent backdrop of the Texas landscape.

Nearby is the actual town of Fort Davis – a real old-fashioned Western relic.

A salute to the glories of the West Texas skies, its history and its beauty.  The land is stunning and romantic in a way we didn’t expect.  The light, the hills, the vegetation all made it absolutely beautiful and captivating to drive through.  I could have stopped every five minutes to capture a different nuance. And more than once, I fully expected to see a band of Indians lined up on a ridge, waiting to swoop down on us.  Naturally, we would have told them we were all in favor of them keeping their lands and moving us off.  Kareem would be so proud of us.

This was our last day in Texas, and it has been a real adventure.  I loved the hill country till I saw West Texas, and after we left the big cities, the terrain has just been a revelation.  Texas does deserve more time, but at least we leave knowing more than we knew before, and having had some wonderful Texas-size experiences.

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