Thursday, March 21, 2019


BREAKING NEWS!!  World-famous McDonald Observatory, known for its telescopes that study the stars above, has a new mission on the horizon!  If plans go as scheduled, in the year 2022, McDonald Observatory will have the state of the art equipment installed to also be known as a Geodetic Observatory. (Since I had never heard of geodesy before, I was thankful to see the placard below, that explains it is the science of Earth's shape, gravity, and rotation--and how these change over time.) 

Visitors to McDonald Observatory can see the most visible part of this project as soon as they enter the parking lot, because the 12-meter wide radio telescope is adjacent to the Visitor Center Entrance.  When I picture "telescope" in my mind, an image of structural steel beams, sitting on a saucer, is not what pops up.  However, the geodetic telescope will be using lasers and ultra-precise Global Positions System receivers, to compile data on minute changes in the earth's physical characteristics.  The photo below shows how different the geodetic telescope set-up in the foreground, differs from the traditional telescope observatory, as seen by the silver dome in the background.
My visit to McDonald Observatory ( ) was part of a long-anticipated trip to the Big Bend area of Texas, as part of a lifelong learning organization called Road Scholar ( ).  For weeks, I had been praying that there would be clear skies on the day our visit to the mountain was scheduled, as clouds and rain cause major limitations on what can be seen in the sky.  The photo below of the crystal clear, azure skies that day, shows my prayers were answered!
Considering how sparsely populated this part of Texas is, a first-time visitor may be surprised to find such an expansive building at the entrance.  However, when you learn that McDonald Observatory is a research facility of the University of Texas at Austin, one can understand, since Texans have the motto, "Everything is bigger in Texas"!
The visitor center is named in honor of Frank N. Bash, who was the Director of McDonald Observatory from 1989 to 2003.  At the visitor center, one can see exhibits, a video, use the restroom facilities, grab a bite in the StarDate Cafe, and visit the astronomy gift shop---all free of charge!  This is also the location where visitors can purchase tickets for their Twilight Programs, Daytime Solar Viewing and Tour, and nighttime Star Party.  To ensure tickets, they recommend that visitors make advance reservations by calling toll free at 1-877-984-7827.
The visitor can walk around the grounds of the observatory, following this rust-colored wall, to see the outdoor amphitheater where the nighttime programs are held.  Our tour leaders recommended that we scope out the area in the daytime, to make us more "sure-footed" when we returned later that evening in total darkness.
 Our tour included getting to go inside this silver observatory shown below, made up of hundreds of triangular structures.  The rectangular "patch" on the side of the dome is the movable "window" that can be opened up (weather permitting), allowing the telescope inside to view the sky above. 

When you are at the top of Mount Locke, you can not only see the observatories, but at the Scenic Overlook West, you will see the Staff Residences below.   Since astronomers come from all over the world to do research here, a place to house them is a necessity!  The mountains visible in the distance are called the Davis Mountains, with Mount Livermore being the highest peak in the Davis Mountains, with an elevation of 8,378 feet .

The Texas historical marker in this photo tells some of the history of McDonald Observatory.  It was originally endowed by Texas banker William Johnson McDonald, who left the bulk of his fortune (about one million dollars) to the University of Texas to endow an astronomical observatory.  At the time it opened in 1939, it housed the 2nd largest telescope in the world.

Today, research going on at McDonald Observatory covers planetary systems, stars, stellar spectroscopy, and theoretical astronomy 

It is a public highway that leads to the McDonald Observatory, and this sign shows that the highway has the distinction of being the highest point of the entire Texas highway system, at 6,791 feet.
This placard shows the location of other observatories around north America.  What makes McDonald Observatory unique is the fact that it sits on the largest piece of land in the world, with its night sky darkness protected by ordinances.

A different side of the observatory is seen in this photo, and shows the viewer the projectiles that the sliding window of the observatory used, to open up a portion of its roof to the night sky.  

One of the "off limits to visitors" area contains a large container of liquid nitrogen.  The liquid nitrogen is used to cool the instruments on the telescopes, reducing "heat noise" in the data.

This photo of the valley below McDonald Observatory shows Texas State Highway 118, as it snakes between the mountains toward Fort Davis.  It was along this road that some javolinas were seen, as our motorcoach  was driving on it at twilight, headed for the star party.  Since javolinas are not part of the "wildlife scene" in the Ozarks, this was a new "critter" for me to learn about!

From Spur 78, our guided tour took us via Spur 77 highway to the summit of Mount Fowlkes (6,659 feet), where we went inside the silver domed observatory (their staff refers to it as the HET dome) to see the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (abbreviated by staff as HET).  The Hobby-Eberly Telescope was dedicated on October 8, 1997, and is operated by a consortium of four universities:  The University of Texas at Austin, The Pennsylvania State University, and two universities in Germany.  Five flagpoles in front of the HET dome are for the flags of the USA and the home states of the partners.

Seeing our astronomer guide in front of the Harlan J. Smith Telescope, should give you an idea of its immensity!!  He demonstrated its mobility, by using the electronic control panels to open the roof, and "spin" the telescope at various heights, and pointing in various directions.  It was an awesome sound to hear the motors operate to do all these actions with the flip of a switch!  (Harlan Smith was McDonald Observatory director from 1963-1989.) 

A native Alaskan from above the Arctic Circle might see this structure and be reminded of an igloo back in their native land.  I can assure you, however, this this a much more "high tech" shelter than the most advanced igloo!  The building houses the Otto Stuve telescope, constructed from 1933-1939.  Otto was the first Director of McDonald Observatory, and served from 1932-1950. 

One of the placards in the HET dome explains that this very sophisticated telescope was placed at this location for several reasons:  It has a great view of the night sky, the beneficial high altitude, the dark sky, and the pure, dry air offer astronomers clear, sharp views of the universe. 

I took this photograph of the inside of the HET dome, while standing in the George T. Abell Gallery.  It was built in order to make this powerful telescope visible to the public.  By stepping to the back of the gallery, one can see onto the dome floor to see the telescope through the viewing window.  Likewise, one can see the ceiling of the dome. 

The 30 foot aperture Hobby-Everly telescope is one of the largest optical telescopes in the world.  HET was built in a revolutionary way that differed from more traditionally-designed telescopes.  The new design, with its many mirrors, reduced the initial construction costs, as well as the cost to operate (i.e., move) the telescope into various viewing positions.  The diagram below shows its "erector-set" design qualities, and its size relative to the HET dome that houses it.

After our Road Scholar group had completed the daytime tour of McDonald Observatory, we went back down the mountain to have a delicious supper in Fort Davis, at "The Porch".  Some of our group can be seen enjoying the small-town ambience of "porch sitting and visiting"!  Fort Davis is a small, unincorporated community of about 1,200 people, and is the location of Fort Davis National Historic Site, which was established in 1854.  It was named after Jefferson Davis, who was then-Secretary of War, under President Franklin Pierce.

After our meal, and a stroll through the community, we boarded the motorcoach a little before dark, to travel the slow, windy road back up the mountain to attend the McDonald Observatory Star Party.  This photo shows the sticker each of us were given to show that we had paid the required fee to sit in the outdoor amphitheater on a cold February evening, in complete darkness.  With a description like that, I anticipated there our Road Scholar group would probably be the only ones there.  WOW!!  Was I wrong!! There were hundreds of people there, bundled up with only their eyes showing, from all across the USA, and some foreign countries!  I was completely amazed that every spot in the 600-seat amphitheater was filled up!

Bright lights illuminating the Visitors Center had been turned off when we returned, and the only light was from this colored spectrum on the front of the building.  This was a reminder that one of the research areas here, is for stellar spectroscopy, and the astronomer that gave our talk that evening taught us how to see the different colors of stars in the night sky.  The Astronomer used his laser pointer and excellent commentary, to teach about the constellations in a way that even I could understand!  It was an absolutely DIVINE evening!

Psalm 19:1-4 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.  They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.  Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."   Considering so much of God's magnificent creation is visible in the darkness of an area remote from electricity, I think it is a worthwhile effort to protect that darkness, in the same way we protect other aspects of God's creation.   There is an organization that has this goal as its mission, and that is the International Dark Sky Association ( ).  They have designated March 31-April 7, 2019, as International Dark Sky Week.  This is a world-wide event drawing attention to the wonder of the night sky and the work being done to protect it.  Many national parks will have nighttime, outdoor programs during that week, to help folks appreciate the beauty above their heads.  In fact, at Buffalo River National Park near where I live, park rangers will be having a nighttime "Star Party" at Buffalo Point, on April 6, from 8 - 10 pm. You can check out the National Park website ( ) to find an astronomy program location near you.  It is an experience I can highly recommend, because the Star Party I attended at the McDonald Observatory gave me "MILES OF SMILES"!!!  Tricia

Friday, March 1, 2019


I am leading off this blog post with a photo of a placard with the word "March" in it, because this blog is being published in the month of March, in recognition that the Battle of Pea Ridge was fought in the month of March (March 7-8), with the year being 1862.  And continuing with the "march" theme, the Bible verse I am trying to memorize in conjunction with these photos says, "O God, when You went out before Your people, When You MARCHED through the wilderness, the earth shook"  Psalm 65:7. 

The photo below shows the NPS logo, along with the official National Park Service date/location stamps that I always like to get whenever I visit a NPS location.  Many people have purchased the NPS "Passport Stamp" book, where they keep an ongoing record of the parks they have visited, and the dates when they visited them.  I wish I had started one of those official passport books years ago; however, I DID start collecting the stamps  about thirty years ago, when my husband and I were on  cross-country motorcycle trips.  Since the space I had to place everything I needed for two weeks consisted of one saddlebag, I had to learn to pack light!  Therefore, I would just get the stamp on a piece of paper, and transfer it later to the travel journal I kept about our motorcycle adventures.  I continue that same practice, but now I just cut out the stamped paper, and affix it to my daily Gratitude Journal.  My Gratitude Journal, (and my heart!) abound with thanksgiving for the national parks we have in the United States of America!
The photo below shows me standing beside a Civil War canon that is on display at the Pea Ridge National Military Park's Visitor Center, in Garfield, Arkansas.  For those who are not familiar with that city name, it is located in northwest Arkansas, near the Missouri border. 
I am writing these blog comments in early  March of 2019, and the temperature this morning was a very chilly ten degrees Fahrenheit!  Since it is not unusual for it to be that cold in early March, in northern Arkansas, it is easy to understand why a soldier in this battle would need to be very "bundled up" to protect themselves from the cold.  The mannequin on display at the Visitor Center had a hand-knitted scarf around their neck, probably made by a loved one back home, and given to the young soldier, as he marched off to war.  It reminded me of how my son (who was visiting from California) was wearing a cap that his wife had knitted him. 
The photo below shows one of the many stops along the driving tour.  Since it was very early on a November weekday morning, we pretty much had the park to ourselves, and there was not problem finding a parking space at any of the stops.  I mention this because in the last year, I visited several national parks where finding a parking space was a consideration that determined where one might be able to stop and enjoy a certain aspect of that particular national park.
Most of the deciduous trees in the park had lost their leaves by the time this photo was taken, but I did manage to find one colorful maple tree that was a "hold-out", just waiting for me to come along and take its photo, before it dropped its leaves in preparation for the upcoming winter temperatures. 
The photo below shows my son striking out on one of the many hiking trails throughout the park. 
The hiking trails throughout the park are well marked, as indicated by this sign I am leaning on, and there are also hiking trail maps available in the Visitor Center.  I would encourage everyone to take advantage of the "Hiking Through History" opportunities at Pea Ridge National Military Battlefield Park!
I am very thankful that my son has developed an interest in Civil War history, after he became an adult.  His ancestors fought in the Civil War, and there are records about their service at the Visitor Center of the Vicksburg National Military Park (See September 26, 2014,  blog I published on that Vicksburg park, in the archives).
The Battle of Pea Ridge was a victory for the Union and was one of the most pivotal battles of the Civil War.  The Pea Ridge Battlefield is the most intact Civil War battlefield in the country and acknowledged as one of the best preserved Civil War Battlefields.  In addition to the Visitor Center, Museum, driving tour, restored battlefields, and hiking trails, it also has a portion of the old Telegraph/Wire Road.  In addition, there is a 2.5 mile section of the Trail of Tears within the park.
One reason the park is so well preserved is because a 1956 Congressional delegation proposed legislation to make Pea Ridge a National Military Park, which was a major breakthrough in American Civil War Battlefield preservation.  That is because at that time under National Park Service classification systems, only one acre would have been preserved, along with a monument.  But in 1956, Congress enacted legislation to accept a 5,000 acre donation from the state of Arkansas. 
The federal government purchased, or used eminent domain, to acquire dozens of farms and residences in the Garfield area.  All of those structures were demolished or removed, except the Elkhorn Tavern.  The photo below shows my son walking to a covered overlook that sits on a knoll above the sprawling fields below.

Interpretive placards on the semicircular structure, explain  how the battle played out in the areas the visitor is viewing, as depicted in the photo above. 
Hikers and mountaineers can enjoy exploring the limestone cliffs found around the edge of the park, as shown in the photo above.
Many reunions were held here before it was a park, with the first being in 1887, 25 years after the battle.  The reunion promoted remembrance and healing.  The veterans decorated monuments to both the union and confederate dead.  These monuments are still located within the park. 
The Elkhorn Tavern is the only structure from the battlefield area that was not removed when the area became a National Park.  One reason it remains is because it was the epicenter of much of the battle.
 The photo above shows the elk horns mounted on the roof of the old tavern, and explain it being named the "Elkhorn Tavern". 
At the time my son and I visited, the tavern was not open to go inside, although it does open up for various special functions.
The photo above of one of the monuments illustrates the post-war goal of a "A Reunited Soldiery" , and the desire for unity and healing of all those who had been at war.  This was especially true for this particular area of the USA because Arkansas was a part of the Southern Army, and its border state of Missouri ended up being included with the Northern Army.  This is one of the reasons you hear it said that the Civil War had many instances of "brother against brother" fighting.  Many of the personal diaries and letters of the soldiers, as well as online tours, are available on the official website,   Getting to tour this historic location with my son gave me "MILES OF SMILES"!