Okie-Tex Star Party 2007

by Mike Lockwood (photos and text Copyright 2007)

I thought for a while and tried to come up with one word that described this star party, this journey, this experience, and I couldn't come up with one.  There was simply too much involved to distill it down to a single word.  So, in this article I'll attempt to convey some of what we experienced going to, attending, and returning from Okie-Tex 2007.

The journey began around 10:45pm on Sunday night, as we slowly headed for the interstate in Mike Conron's minivan, towing a trailer containing a 30" telescope and lots of other stuff we chose to bring along.  I drove the first shift, which took us through St. Louis to central Missouri, where Mike C. took over the driving.  We drove around a very rainy and surprisingly busy Kansas City around 6am, and we discovered that their interstates were in need of MUCH more reflective paint, because it was very, very difficult to see the lane lines on the road!  Anyway, we made it around KC safely, daybreak came, and we finally saw the flatlands of Kansas, the first time I had been in the state.  After breakfast in a small town, we made our way towards Wichita, and I took my first photos of the journey in the very beautiful Flint Hills.

lake clouds road

The subtle colors, as the sunlight ate away at the clouds, were quite beautiful, and we nearly had the road to ourselves.  As we drove on, the clouds finally disappeared, and we found ourselves on straight roads in bright sunshine under a beautiful blue sky.  After some time we stopped and Bob Nonnemann, the third member of our expedition, took his turn driving.  Soon afterward we found ourselves passing through Greensburg, Kansas, which has been hit recently by an F5 tornado.  Some photos of what was left of the town are shown below, including a tent that was serving as a hospital.

building trees
rubble hospital

After this, we passed town after small town.  Finally, we came to Liberal, and were unimpressed.  On increasingly bumpy road, we drove on through towns with names such as Hooker, and finally passed Boise City and left most of civilization behind as we drove through flat scrub land.  We observed a fire well off in the distance, probably somewhere in Texas or New Mexico, as we counted down the miles until we reached Camp Billy Joe.  The camp is only a few miles from New Mexico and Colorado, in the extreme northwest corner of the panhandle of Oklahoma.


Finally, the topography began to change.  Mesas began to appear on the horizon, and cacti were visible.  The land was transforming from that of the arid plains to that of higher lands worn down by time and the elements.  At last the arid, flat landscape had some structure and points of interest.  The road went up and down a few hills.

mesas mesas
mesas mesas

Finally, across the plain we saw a great gathering of vehicles and RVs, and there it was, a good sized star party under clear blue skies.  What more could you ask for?  It was nearly dinner time, so after 975 miles and an overnight drive, we parked the vehicle and headed up for our first meal at the camp.  After some good food, we set up camp and our 30" F/3.8 telescope.  Here's a photo of Mike and Bob in our camp area.

set up camp

Setting up the scope was not without an unsettling event.  As we dragged the mirror box toward the back of the trailer as we had done countless times before, the trailer hitch popped off of the ball!  We quickly grabbed the trailer, secured it again and set up the scope, but this event highlighted a problem we figured out the next day - the trailer Mike had bought (from Farm and Fleet in Urbana, IL) was equipped with the wrong parts installed in the hitch!  With the scope set up, and I decided to take a shower.

After I was clean, we settled in to await the darkess.  We chatted with Bob Kirschenmann and I handed him a box, which contained a 12.5" F/4.9 mirror that I had just finished refiguring for him.  We met the people camped near us, and watched the setting sun cast shadows on the ridge to the east, and in the atmosphere above us.  The sky was quite clear, but a very slight haze was present in the atmosphere.  However, at nearly 4500 feet, the location was far clearer than the vast majority of dry winter nights in central Illinois.

As darkness finally fell, we noted the changes in the sky, comparing the appearance of it to various observing locations.  First, we noted when the sky was as dark as viewed from my driveway, in urban Champaign, IL, where bright stars are visible.  Soon afterward it was as dark as our viewing site southwest of town (on a good night).  Not too much later it was as good as our darkest nearby observing site, and then as dark as the sky at the Illinois Dark Skies Star Party (2006 page), (my IDSSP06 page is here), an excellent site about two hours west of Champaign.  Of course, it continued to get darker after this.

When it was truly dark, the sky was as close to what I remember seeing in my childhood as any place I have been since.  I grew up in the woods in northern Michigan, where light pollution was nearly zero and the air was wonderfully clean and transparent.....  but I didn't have access to a 30" telescope then!  The Milky Way was brilliant overhead, truly radiating with the glory that was meant to reach our eyes before the skies began to be taken from us by "developers" and other greedy purveyors of subdivisions who tell us our yards must be eternally lit...... end rant.  As a teenager, I distinctly remember the Cassiopeia-Perseus region rising over the trees in northern Michigan.  It was just ablaze with countless stars, and I got nearly the same impression at Okie-Tex.

We eagerly gobbled up photons with our big scope, catching all of the highlights in Sagittarius before it set over the canyon wall to the southwest.  The weather was delightful - a bit cool, but not at all cold until later on.  There were no mosquitoes and few bugs at all.  Crickets chirped on the ridge.  The sky was not black, but showed a bit of a grayish-brown tint, due to skyglow and dust/haze in the atmosphere.  However, let me assure you that it was an exceptionally dark sky.  On this very dark background lay a multitude of faint stars that made star hopping a breeze.  We were all tired, but we managed to stay up until 2am when Orion rose, and Bob and I got a nice look at M42 and the Horsehead before we crawled into our sleeping bags.  The temperature had dropped a bit, so as soon as I got warm I quickly fell asleep.  I had slept very little the night before, but I didn't care.  We had already gotten our money's worth.

Tuesday dawned bright and sunny, and I slept well past breakfast (which I really wish was served later).  I had a snack, and I convinced Bob and Mike to climb the ridge to the east.  We wound our way up the slope, and found a route onto the top of the massive rocks that lined the top of the ridge.  The pink flamingos greeted us as we surveyed the camp from above.  The flamingos appeared to be wearing cell phone cases, and this was a good hint that this was a good place to have hope of getting reception.

View from east ridge

As we were enjoying the view, the lunch bell rang a bit early, and being quite hungry we descended back to camp and had lunch.  I think this afternoon Mike and Bob made an expedition in search of the correct trailer parts.  We borrowed tools from Bob K. and disassembled the hitch, and they headed off in search of parts and to check out other sights in northwest New Mexico.

After lunch Bob K., his friend Tom, and I went just north of the camp to see the dinosaur tracks that were near the trailhead for the Black Mesa trail.  This is part of Black Mesa State Park, I believe.  Here are Bob and Tom with the tracks after Bob did his best to clean them out with an ice scraper.

Dinosaur tracks and Bob and Tom

After we all returned to the field, Mike and Bob were back with trailer hitch parts.  We again looked at the hitch situation.  I went around the field, explaining our situation, and asking to look at properly assembled trailer hitches to make sure all the parts were there and installed in the proper order.

Venturing over to one nearby trailer, I looked underneath, and I noticed that the hitch was locked, but it was sitting on TOP of the ball, rather than being locked to it.  Assuming this was intentional, I asked the owner if we could unlock the hitch and latch it around the ball.  He said "It is latched to the ball."  I responded "No it isn't."  He said, "Yes, it is."  I said "I'm sure it isn't, you better take a look".  He promptly kneeled down to inspect it.  A look of profound surprise (with just a touch of horror) appeared on his face, as he realized how lucky he was to have made it to the star party without having the trailer become separated from his vehicle.  I like to think that our trailer problems were not so much meant to teach us a lesson about trusting high-schoolers to assemble a trailer hitch properly, but were meant mainly to cause us to discover the even bigger problem that this guy had, and maybe to save him from a serious accident and equipment damage on the way home.

After more encouraging trailer stories (like Bob K. telling us about the time he was sold a trailer that, unbeknownst to him, had car tires on it rather than the proper type of trailer tire, which resulted in a serious accident), Mike Conron found a way, using some of the parts from the new hitch, to secure the trailer to the ball so that we were sure it would not come off.  The locking mechanism looked like it was unlocked, but the mechanism was actually secured with a locknut, and it couldn't be released without a ratchet and socket!  That hack got us safely home.

Anyway, Tuesday night came, also clear, and we settled in for another night of observing.  I believe it was on this night that I got out my camera and mounted it piggyback on our 30" telescope while it was not being used.  I took images of the Milky Way in the southwest, later in the northwest, and rising in the east.  A couple of the better ones are shown below.  The first is the southern Milky Way, the second star trails around the pole, and the third is Auriga and Taurus rising over the ridge in the east.  This was my first real attempt at taking any astrophotos.  It was fun, and let me record some of the quality of the sky for others to see.  However, I suspect I'll always be a visual observer at heart.

Sagittarius region Polar star trails
winter Milky Way

On this second night I used the telescope I had brought along - my 8" F/3.9 (also the first mirror I made) - much more seriously.  Large objects, such as the California, North American, and Rosette nebulas, were picked off quite easily.  Some IC objects near Cassiopeia also were easily visible.  An OIII and H-Beta filter were used.  The entire Veil fit (just barely) in a 31mm Nagler, and the middle portions were there too.  The Crescent (NGC 6888) showed up quite well.  M27 was beautifully defined on a black background.  The star clouds in Scutum and Sagittarius were beautiful beyond belief, and scanning the Milky Way anywhere was a ridiculous amount of fun.  M33 and M31 were amazing - they just kept on going out of the field.  The winter Milky Way was beautiful, and I looked at the brighter nebulous areas in Orion (M78, M42, the Flame) by just scanning around.  My only regret is that I didn't look for some dark nebulae on the Barnard list.

I didn't think it could get much better, but then it did.

Late this night I noticed a mysterious brightening of the sky to the south and east of the square of Pegasus.  Others, when asked to describe what they saw without me telling them what I saw, described the same brightening.  It was fainter than the Milky Way, but bright enough to easily be seen with averted vision.  I realized that this could only be the gegenschein, a bright area of sky opposite the sun.  It was late, after 3am, but I nearly ran to my tent, grabbed my camera, and affixed it once again to the 30", opening the shutter for a 3-minute and 5-minute exposure.

Below is a processed image, with the brightness stretched to approximate what I recall seeing with my eye.  The bright area is exactly where I remember it, and it is not symmetric, so it is not due to vignetting in the camera.  I believe that I really did record an image of the gegenschien.  Part of the great square of Pegasus lies in the upper right of the image, and the glow is centered on two stars in Pisces (epsilon and delta), almost exactly centered on the ecliptic, where it is expected to be.  A plane or tumbling satellite is visible at the bottom.  I do not recall noticing the reddish glow at lower right visually (which may or may not be visible on your monitor - is on mine), and I don't know what it is.


Wednesday dawned with fog around, and the sun mercilessly beat it back into the nearby mesas.  We relaxed in the morning, and then decided to head to the Capulin volcano after lunch.  As we approached it we could see some showers in the distance (first photo below), and we drove up the road to the crater.  Up there at nearly 8200 feet it was breezy and cool.  Rain showers were around us (other photos below), but miles off.  Bob and I hiked the trail around the rim of the crater with some haste to make sure we got around it before any showers and lightening reached us.  It was a good workout, and a spendid view.

Capulin volcano View from Capulin
Capulin view Capulin view

As we drove back to the star party, the showers followed us.  We drove through some rain while still in New Mexico, and it looked like the showers would make it back to the camp.  However, when we got back, just in time for dinner, it got cloudy, but then it cleared.  After dinner we watched the storms drift to the east.  Lightening flashes were visible as it got dark, and once again I grabbed my camera and captured some of the action.  For several hours afterward lightning flashed in the distance and caused the whole sky to strobe.  Below is a fairly striking image taken as the storm was going behind the ridge to the east.  (I also have a sequence of images of lightening flashing in the distance and stars rising behind the storm that I intend to make into an animation and post here later on.)

Thunderstorm at night

Wednesday night was another beautiful night.  They all sort of blurred together after a while.  As I recall some high clouds came in and we turned in not too long after midnight.

Thursday was beautiful again.  I chatted with Rick Singmaster and Bob in the morning, and after lunch Tom and I hiked up the ridge behind the camp and onto the ridge to the west of camp.  We crossed to the other side and were treated with a nice view of the small town of Kenton.  Below is a view of the camp from the ridge to the southwest.  Note the slight haze visible on the horizon.

View of camp from the southwest ridge

After we returned it was time for my talk about Bob Holmes' 32" F/4 fork-mounted, home-built research telescope, which I made the optic for.  After this I relaxed and chatted with friends.  Thursday night was our last night of observing, and when fog came in around 2am we went to sleep.

Each night I also took a number of readings with a sky quality meter, borrowed from John Stone.  On Monday night, these were typically around 21.7-21.8.  On Tuesday, they were nearer to 21.9.  Wednesday night averaged around 21.8.  Thursday night was the best, with readings between 21.9 and 22.0.  Folks, if you don't know what that means, just rest assured that I confirmed that it is DARK there.

We slept in Friday because we planned to drive non-stop back to Illinois, leaving after our talk about our 30" F/3.8 telescope, which we gave on Friday afternoon.  At 4pm we were on the road.  We took route 56 this time, instead of 54, and it was a much smoother road.  After one missed turn and one detour due to road construction, we rolled into Dodge City and fueled up our vehicle and our stomachs.  Our conclusion about Dodge City was this - dodge it!  It smelled funny and there wasn't much else to enjoy about it.  We reached Kansas City, again in the rain, and cruised through Missouri overnight.  We saw the aftermath of a what had been a very nasty accident on I-70 after crossing the Mississippi into Illinois, and we had breakfast about an hour later just south of Mattoon, IL.  By 10am were back in Champaign, and by 11am we had unloaded our personal items and had parted company.

All in all, this was an awesome trip.  We plan to return next year with an improved telescope.  One night while we were there we rotated the primary mirror, and sure enough the astigmatism in the image rotated with the mirror.  So, this winter I plan to refigure the mirror, this time on a machine with a flat turntable that can handle the stresses of polishing a 30" mirror.  Here is a final image, our 30" telescope silhouetted against the dark skies of Okie-Tex.  (I have a bunch of panoramas to stitch up that I may add later on, too.)

30" against the sky

It was so nice to be under real dark skies again, for the first time since I left Michigan at the age of 15.  It had been too long.  I will be back.

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