American Locations 20 – McDonald Observatory

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

McDonald Observatory, Davis Mountain, Texas

Leaving Davis Mountains State Park the next morning after the wind had died down, we drove north-west on Hwy 118 to the McDonald Observatory.

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Reasons for choosing this site for an observatory was the lack of light pollution, the clarity of the air, and the height of the mountain. Which meant the mountaintop provided quite a view.

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This was a working observatory, affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin, but it was open for tours. First stop was an auditorium in the visitor center where live images of the sun were projected onto a large screen. Naturally, this was live minus the 7-8 minutes it takes light to reach us from the sun. Our tour guide pointed out the solar features we were viewing, such as flares and spots and prominences. Then it was off to see the first of two telescopes.

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Inside, it was cool. She explained the observatory is kept at normal nighttime temperatures to prevent fogging of lenses when the dome was opened for viewing.

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This was a traditional telescope, with a 107-inch reflector, which could be maneuvered and aimed at whatever the astronomer desired to see. Additional equipment could be installed on it, depending upon what the astronomer was wanting to study.

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There are no longer eyepieces to look through. Everything is done by computer.

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Astronomers submit the projects they want to use the telescope on. A board of scientists in charge of the observatory decide which projects are worthy and prioritize them according to what they feel is most urgent or useful. There are barracks for astronomers to live in while their projects are being carried out. But nowadays most astronomers don’t even stay on site. Their projects are carried out for them by astronomers on staff and the results are sent to them via Internet. Our tour guide opened and closed the dome, then maneuvered the telescope all about for us. She could do this since no experiments were being carried out at the time. They take place at night, of course.

Next, we boarded a bus and it was off to the second telescope.

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This was the newest telescope, with a radically different design.

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It could not be aimed like the other telescope. Its design incorporated 91 meter-sized hexagonal mirrors mounted on a frame to give an effective collection area 8.5 meters in diameter. At a fixed altitude setting of 55 degrees, almost all objects in the northern sky are accessible when the telescope is appropriately turned on a vertical axis. In other words, it remained pretty much stationary and captured images that passed directly over it. But with 8.5 meters of reflecting surface, it was much more powerful than the other.

The tour was well-worth my time. This was the one and only time I’d ever been in a working observatory and the tour guide was very informative. I highly recommend it if you are ever in the area.

The next Location is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas.



American Locations 19 – Davis Mountains 2

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Davis Mountains State Park, Texas

Although the wind howled outside the park as predicted, being down in a hole like we were kept us safe. Stranded for the day, I spent my time hiking. There are trails all over the mountainsides.

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Which gave good vistas from below.

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And even better vistas from on high.

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Note the road zigzagging up the mountain. It leads to the highest point in the park, from where there are those great views I posted in the previous blog entry.

I got close-up looks at some interesting plants and rock formations.

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I also got a look at an observatory perched upon a nearby mountaintop.

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More about that in the next post.

The next Location is the McDonald Observatory, Davis Mountains, Texas.


American Locations 18 – Davis Mountains

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Davis Mountains State Park, Texas

In Presidio, a small town on the Rio Grande River directly across from Ojinga, Mexico, and which is on the western side of Big Bend Ranch State Park , we headed north-east on Hwy 67. We passed the Presidio International Airport. I saw two runways and one hanger. But it is only 2 to 3 miles from the Mexican border. Not up there with LAX, but if planes taking off from there make flights across the Rio Grande, I guess that makes them international.

On the drive north we passed through mostly grazing land for cattle. We also saw a lot of pipe being laid. This oil pipeline was a major project. I assume it is for pumping oil out of Mexico.

It was on this stretch of road we went through our first border checkpoint. It was professionally done promptly and courteously. While we were lined up agents with dogs walked by our vehicle. We then drove through an array of sensors. They looked so sophisticated and there were so many I assumed they could tell what color underwear we were wearing. Then we spoke to a young agent, who politely asked several innocuous questions, the most probing being if we had anyone traveling with us. Of course it was only me and my wife, and I told him so. But the question was probably just a formality anyway. After the dog and all the sensors I’m sure they knew perfectly well no one else was in our vehicle. Then we drove on. The entire incident, from pulling up in line to driving away, took about 10 minutes. No problem at all. I told the agent we spoke to that I appreciated his efforts to keep us safe.

We continued north into Marfa. It was daytime, so I didn’t see any lights. For anyone unaware of the phenomenon, I will include a Wikipedia entry:

the Marfa lights, visible on clear nights between Marfa and the Paisano Pass when one is facing southwest (toward the Chinati Mountains). According to the Handbook of Texas Online, “… at times they appear colored as they twinkle in the distance. They move about, split apart, melt together, disappear, and reappear. Presidio County residents have watched the lights for over a hundred years. The first historical record of them dates to 1883.[14] Presidio County has built a viewing station 9 miles east of town on US 67 near the site of the old air base. Each year, enthusiasts gather for the annual Marfa Lights Festival. The lights have been featured and mentioned in various media, including the television show Unsolved Mysteries and an episode of King of the Hill (“Of Mice and Little Green Men”) and in an episode of Disney Channel Original Series So Weird.

At Marfa we headed north on Hwy 17 to Fort Davis. We ate dinner there in a historic inn which had a very well-decorated fifties-era soda shop. Another memorable feature of the small town was it had the largest greenhouse I have ever seen. I thought it big when we drove past it, but later when we saw it from on high in the Davis Mountains I realized how really huge it is. It is the largest glass structure I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what they grow there, but whatever it is they grow a lot of it.

From Fort Davis we continued first north, then west, on Hwy 118 to Davis Mountains State Park.

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It is situated down in a hole surrounded by mountains. Since the weather forecast was for strong winds the next day, with gusts up to 70 MPH, we decided to stay off the road an extra day and shelter in place. This was an interesting place, anyway.

The rock formations were interesting.

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There was a lodge with a restaurant.

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Several bird viewing areas with scheduled feeding times.

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We also drove up Skyline Drive to reach the highest peak in the park, which gave us a beautiful vista of the surrounding countryside.

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Then we set up camp and hunkered down to wait out a windy day.

The next Location is Davis Mountain State Park 2.

American Locations 17 – Big Bend Ranch State Park

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

After lunch at La Kiva in Study Butte, we drove west on Hwy 170 to Lajitas, the eastern entrance to Big Bend Ranch State Park. We stopped at the visitor center.

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At 311,000 acres this is the biggest state park in Texas. But there is only one paved road going through it. The vast majority of the park is accessed by four-wheel drive and ATV’s and horseback and hiking. So we only saw the small portion alongside Hwy 170, which follows the Rio Grande River.

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But what a drive. This was one of my favorite drives on the entire trip. Sometimes the drive is better than the destination, and this was the case here. Not to knock the park, I’m sure there are plenty of sights in its interior I never got to see. But driving west on Hwy 170 out of Lajitas was amazing. The first half of the trip the road followed the deep twisting canyons the Rio Grande River flows through, sometimes dropping down to the riverside, other times arching high above the river to offer astounding views.

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The park ranger at the visitor center at the eastern entrance gave us a map and informed us of some stops we didn’t want to miss. The first was an old movie set. Some John Wayne western was filmed here in the fifties and a few of the sets are still here. It was filmed on the bank of the Rio Grande.


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Here you see my wife leaning against a hitching post in front of the saloon.

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Actually, she is holding it up. She leaned against it to pose for the picture, and it started to topple over. So she grabbed it. I told her it had stood for over 60 years until she came along and destroyed it. But we propped it back up with some rocks. The thing fell over so easily I’m sure it wasn’t the first time it had done so and had been propped back up.

The next stop was to take a hike in the desert.

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At a picnic area along the road teepees had been erected over the tables.

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The next stop was to hike up a dry canyon. First we had to hike to the mouth of the canyon.

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Then we could walk into it.

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It was steep and narrow.

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And twisty.

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It got narrower.

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Until it became impassable.

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At the visitor center the park ranger told us there had been a rock slide and the trail was blocked, that we couldn’t follow it all the way down to the Rio Grande. So we turned around and walked back out. Here is a good shot of us emerging from the canyon.

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Further down the road we stopped to see some hoodoos perched on the side of the Rio Grande.

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About half-way through the park the canyon opens up and the road levels off and straightens out, so the drive became less interesting. But just before exiting Big Bend Ranch State Park on the western side we stopped to see Ft. Leahy.

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It claims to be the largest still-standing adobe structure in the country.

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Once we finished looking around here we drove out of western side of Big Bend Ranch State Park on Hwy . 170 and found a private campground on the edge of Presidio to spend the night.

The next location is Davis Mountain State Park, Texas.



American Locations 16 – Terlingua & Study Butte

The trip is from Natchez Trace, Tennessee, to Dodge City, Kansas, by way of Tucson, Arizona.

Terlingua and Study Butte, Texas

When we left Cottonwood Campground we drove north on Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to its end, then turned west on Panther Junction Road. We passed more interesting desert landscape as we headed for the west entrance to Big Bend National Park.

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Exiting Big Bend National Park on the west side, we visited the ghost town of Terlingua.

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Ruins were scattered upon the desert hillsides of this small community.

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Some of which had been rebuilt and used as parks, cafes, theaters and art galleries.

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Even a church.

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Some of them had even been rehabbed into residences. Notice the glass in the windows of the structure on the right, while the one on the left is still in ruins.

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Here are several in even better condition.

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My wife and I spent several hours roaming around the ruins and the shops. When it was time for lunch we went to La Kiva in the nearby community of Study Butte. It was recommended to us by a local in Fort Stockton. It didn’t look like much on the outside.

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But the interior was fascinating and filled with southwestern décor.

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Notice the incredible chair and table in this one.

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And more décor.

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Another beautiful table.

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This huge table was fashioned from a single piece of wood.

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And the bar! Could that actually have been fashioned from one piece of wood, too?

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Yet another table. Articles like this were all over the place.

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Although the skeleton on the wall of what looks like a saber-tooth tiger was a little much. But funny. Including the plaque which purports it to be one.

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La Kiva is an interesting place you should check out if you are ever in the area. No visit to Big Bend National Park would be complete without a meal here.

The next location is Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.