Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Trip Report: McDonald Observatory

Sitting atop Mt. Locke, a 6,791 foot tall peak in the Davis Mountains a few miles northwest of Ft. Davis, is McDonald Observatory, a research unit of the University of Texas at Austin. Three domes sit at or near the top of Mount Locke while another observatory sits atop nearby Mount Fowlkes. To learn more about the telescopes used at McDonald Observatory, click here.

Donna and I arrived at the Frank N. Bash Visitors' Center -- at the base of Mount Locke -- a few minutes prior to 11:00 AM one morning.


Frank N. Bash Visitors' Center, with domes atop Mt. Locke in background.
What a stroke of luck! We were just in time for the Solar Viewing tour. We started with a program in the theater. An employee spent almost one hour showing live shots of the sun and explaining about sun spots, solar flares, and prominences. Only 2 other people were in the theater, so Donna and I were able to ask questions and interact with the presenter on a personal level.

Next, the presenter loaded Donna and me (the other two people did not join us for this part of the tour) in a bus and drove us to the top of Mt. Locke where we had some wonderful views to the south.

View from atop Mt. Locke. Pointed spire in center is Mitre Peak, about 25 miles or so to the south. Between the two flat-topped mountains is Cathedral Mountain, probably 50 or more miles to the south.
We then entered the dome housing the Harlan J. Smith 2.7 meter telescope. At the time of construction (1966-68), this was the third largest telescope in the world. Since this telescope is only used at night, we were shown how the telescope moves, how the doors to the dome opened, and other mechanical operations.

Harlan J. Smith Telescope

We finished our tour on Mt. Fowlkes, which is home to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, one of the world's largest optical telescopes with a 9.2 meter mirror. This is the newest addition to the telescopes at McDonald Observatory, and it was dedicated in 1997.

Hobby-Eberly Telescope (dome) atop Mount Fowlkes

Mirror of Hobby-Eberly Telescope. It is difficult to actually see the mirror -- look for reflections of poles. We had a difficult time seeing the mirror in person, and we were only about 10 yards from it.

Approaching the Hobby-Eberly Telescope atop Mount Fowlkes from the taller Mount Locke.

Otto Struve and Harlan J. Smith telescopes atop Mount Locke (center) and Hobby-Eberly Telescope atop Mount Fowlkes (right)

I believe this is the Otto Struve Telescope, which is very close to the Harlan J. Smith Telescope atop Mount Locke.

This is a smaller telescope on a ledge of Mount Locke below the Harlan J. Smith Telescope.
This was a fascinating tour, and well worth the $8 per person admission. It began at 11:00 AM (promptly) and finished about 1:30 PM. I was actually able to man the controls in the Harlan J. Smith Telescope and not only manipulate the telescope but to rotate the dome.

McDonald Observatory is a different world. A small community exists at Mount Locke. Employees are housed on site. The scientists work at night. After all, the observatory is located there due to the dark, clear skies, a result of being so far removed from population areas. Also, the land was donated, so the price was right.

The University of Texas partners with many other institutes around the world, and scientists from non-partner insitutes can reserve time on the telescopes -- at a price, of course. There are also many opportunities for regular folks to enjoy the observatory, including regularly scheduled "star parties".

This is a  must-see site for anyone passing through this area of West Texas.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Trip Report: Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis National Historic Site is located at the mouth of a box canyon on the north edge of the town of Ft. Davis, the highest incorporated town in Texas. The fort was established in 1854 to protect emigrants and stagecoaches from Apaches and Comanches along the San Antonio-El Paso Road, which came directly through the grounds of the post. The fort was closed in 1891. It is regarded as one of the best preserved frontier forts in the Southwest.

Today, visitors can enjoy self-guided tours of furnished buildings and ruins and hiking on designated nature trails, which connect with trails of adjacent Davis Mountains State Park. One of the more unique features of the post are the bugle calls and sound representation of an 1875 dress retreat parade heard over the parade ground at scheduled times throughout the day. Five restored and refurnished structures are open on a self-guided basis.


Parade ground with officers' quarters
Donna and I visited the fort in the 1980s, but wanted to tour the grounds again. We began at the visitor center, which contains numerous exhibits. The visitor center is housed in a restored barracks. Next door is a restored and furnished barracks detailing what living conditions would have been like in the 1880s.

Interior of restored and furnished barracks
Next, we toured the restored/furnished commisary building, and then took a short hike to the post cemetery. Following this short detour, our route took us by several two-story officers' quarters. Next we stopped to tour some of the houses along "Officers' Row".

Ruins of two-story officers' quarters in foreground. Restored two-story officers' quarters in center. Officers' Row beyond this with Sleeping Lion Mountain in background.
The first house we toured was that belonging to the commanding officer, which is located near the center of Officers' Row. We then toured a house shared by lieutenants.

Quarters for commanding officer. Note 3 chimneys on near side, with 2 more on opposite side.
Much of the fort is comprised of foundation ruins. Work is being done constantly to improve and maintain the buildings.

Originally, the post was located deeper in the canyon than the buildings indicate. During the War-Between-the-States, the post was eventually abandoned. When re-occupied in 1867, buildings were located farther out on the flat area at the mouth of the canyon.

The fort is located in a very scenic area, with rocky escarpments on the west side of the post. Limpia Creek lies just to the north, and this served as the main water source. There were also numerous trees nearby, a rarity in much of West Texas, and these were useful for building materials and fuel.


North edge of Officers' Row at left. Intact two-story officers' quarters and ruins of another officers' quarters. Ruins of fort chapel at right. Note canyon escarpment in background.

Fort Davis had a colorful history. In addition to protecting emigrants and settlers, it was involved in an experiment beginning in 1855 to use camels in the southwest to carry supplies. During 1859 and 1860, Fort Davis served as the base of operations for this experiment, and the camels were able to carry heavier loads than horses, mules, and oxen while requiring less water and food. However, with the outbreak of the War-Between-the-States, the experiment was forgotten.

Following the war, buffalo soldiers occupied the post, as they did many other frontier posts. By 1880, things became peaceful on the frontier, and the post was finally closed in 1891.

Visitors to the fort should allow 2 or 3 hours to walk the grounds, tour the furnished buildings and visitor center, and watch an interpretive film.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Trip Report: Davis Mountains State Park

Since moving back to West Texas, Donna and I have been looking forward to camping in the Davis Mountains at Davis Mountains State Park. Years ago, when our daughter was not yet in school, we used to go to the Davis Mountains to tent camp. We always talked about coming back one day when we had a travel trailer. That day has finally come.

Davis Mountains State Park consists of 2,708.9 acres in the Davis Mountains, which is the most extensive mountain range in Texas. The elevation ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 feet, which makes for a pleasant summer climate. During our stay, the daily highs were in the low 90s and the nightly lows were in the low 60s. After baking in 105 degree weather for the past 3 months, this felt great.

After setting up our trailer, we drove around the park to see how much it had changed since our last visit there in the early 1990s. It looked relatively unchanged. One of our favorite areas of the park is Skyline Drive, the roadway which goes to the summit of the highest point in the park. From here, views of the surrounding countryside are outstanding.

Below are a series of pictures taken from our perch atop Skyline Drive.

Our trailer in red circle. Large structure at top is Indian Lodge, the historic hotel built in pueblo fashion by the CCC in the early 1930s. Campground is located along Keesey Creek.

Same picture as above, but showing greater vista and how the park is located in a valley.


Highway 118 weaving north along Limpia Creek.

I've always liked how light and shadows play against a mountain background.

True West Texas high plateau ranch country. Looking south towards Marfa and Alpine. Structure in right center is massive greenhouse where Ft. Davis hot house tomatoes are grown.

Rocky canyon in foreground. Mitre Peak in center distance. Looking towards Alpine.

Mountain vista

Mount Locke with domes in center. Another observatory on Mount Fowlkes towards the right.

Park entrance in center off Highway 118
We enjoyed viewing quite a bit of wildlife during our trip. Almost daily, a mule deer (doe) wandered through or near our campsite, as did a group of javelinas. Unfortunately, we were also visited by several skunks. Although we did not get sprayed, fear of being sprayed as well as rabies drove us inside the trailer whenever these varmints approached. We also saw a badger and a coyote, as well as some other mule deer.

Over the next several days -- as time allows -- I'll post entries for Ft. Davis National Historic Site, McDonald Observatory, and the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.

Friday, August 19, 2011

New Curbing

We recently had some work done on the house.

One day during one of our walks, we passed a house that was having some curbing put in place. I stopped and visited with the workers and got their contact information. A few days later I called and requested a quote for some similar work at our place.

We had concrete curbing put in place to outline the front flower bed as well as the oak tree in the front yard. Below are some before and after pictures.


"Before" picture: July 13, 2011

"After" picture: August 19, 2011
The curbing really makes a difference, I think, and it makes the yard look much neater, much cleaner. Below are some other angles of the yard with the new curbing in place.



The "after" pictures were taken a few days after we had received a very good rain over a period of 2 days. The bermuda grass really responds well to rain and sun.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Good Eats: Packsaddle BBQ, San Angelo, Texas

I have a confession to make.

Donna and I have lived in West Texas off and on ever since 1979. We have always loved living out here: the people are great, the "big sky" is fantastic, and we've generally enjoyed the drier climate. However, there is one thing in West Texas I've not been too fond of until recently, and that is barbeque.

In the past, much of the BBQ I've sampled in West Texas has been more grilled than smoked. As a result, I've always favored East Texas BBQ, especially that cooked over hickory and oak. However, we recently gave Packsaddle BBQ a try, and I really enjoyed my meal.

Packsaddle BBQ is located on Knickerbocker Road near Lake Nasworthy. It is packed for lunch every day it is open. The day we went, there didn't seem to be as many cars since it was well past noon, so we thought we'd have no trouble getting a seat.

We were wrong.

Although it did not have its normal large crowd, we still had to wait to get a table, but the meal was worth the wait.

Since this was my first visit, I wanted to try something basic that would let me sample several items, so I had the sliced-beef plate with potato salad and beans, served with 2 slices of white bread. Everything was excellent, including the $6.95 price. Service was traditional Texas home style where the waitress kept my tea glass full. Some friendly folks work there.

The menu is pretty extensive for a BBQ place, so I'm anxious to venture back and try some other dishes, such as chicken fried steak, onion rings, and burgers.

There are several other BBQ places located in San Angelo, including Bodacious (an East Texas-based chain), and I'm eager to try each of them. But it's nice to know Packsaddle is there with some quality BBQ.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dry Lake

O. C. Fisher Reservoir is located within San Angelo State Park. The lake was completed by the US Corps of Engineers in 1952 for flood control on the North Concho River. The lake normally occuppies a surface area of 5,440 acres with a maximum depth of 58 feet. That is not the case now.

O.C. Fisher Reservoir now is completely dry.


Donna at bottom of boat ramp
Back in April, I posted an entry on the lake with some pictures. Now is a good time to compare those images.

Boat ramp, April 2011

Same boat ramp, August 2011
We need some rain.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Angelo State Theater

Donna and I recently purchased season memberships for the Angelo State University Theatre. The season tickets entitle us to attend 5 plays this year, including 2 dinner theaters.

We attended our first play this past Thursday night: Butterflies are Free, a comedy written by Leonard Gershe. This particular play was one of the 2 dinner theaters available throughout the year, so we really enjoyed ourselves.

The play was originally produced in 1969. In 1972, a film version was made starring Edward Albert and Goldie Hawn. In the movie version, the setting was moved from the original Manhattan location to San Francisco.

The plot revolves around a blind man whose controlling mother disapproves of his relationship with a free-spirited hippie. The title was inspired by a passage in Charles Dickens' Bleak House: "I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.

The set design was good, but the acting left something to be desired. For example, I was never convinced that the leading male was blind, and the female lead had to work too hard to come across as being "free-spirited". I was always aware that the lines were just that -- lines which had been memorized. They never came across as being natural; and that, after all, is the quality that makes acting convincing.

Still, it was an enjoyable evening. And in defense of the cast anbd crew, it was opening night of a two-week run, so there may have been some opening night jitters.