The telescope and the 'curse'

As a kid, I was a huge fan of guys like Jim Zorn, Steve Largent, “Downtown” Freddie Brown and Alvin Davis.

My other childhood heroes were recognizable in a much smaller circle of “geeks;” people like Leif Robinson, David Eicher, Stephen Walther – writers and publishers of magazines like Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Deep Sky –  people that made astronomy accessible to kids like me.

brent mug_2013My fourth and fifth grade teachers stoked that flame of interest and by the time I was 10 I was the proud owner of a 3-inch refractor, sitting out under the night sky gazing at the moon, the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, the Orion Nebula and the Andromeda Galaxy.

Before long I graduated to my gaudy orange Celestron 8 – in the late 70s quite the holy grail of telescopes – and I had already been baptized into the most frustrating aspect of telescope ownership: the weather. My family still talks about watching me out the window one night, sitting forlornly in the backyard with my scope and star maps, praying in vain for the thick layer of clouds to clear before a long-awaited eclipse of the moon ended.

The telescope earned its reputation as a curse that even my wife Kim recognizes to this day. Taking it to the deserts of Arizona on vacation brought on a week of unseasonable monsoons. A vacation to the high desert of eastern Oregon? Endless days of thick, gray clouds. The total solar eclipse that traversed Washington in 1979? Rain and snow. A trip to Hawaii with my dad in 1986 to see Halley’s Comet, a once-in-a-lifetime experience? A week of nightly rains, even at the rim of a 10,000 foot volcano.

The upgrade to an Obsession 18-inch reflector about 10 years ago meant two weeks of Michigan thunderstorms before it spent its first night under the stars.

As young marrieds in 1989 Kim and I often hauled the C-8 along on camping trips into the Cascades, routinely causing slush storms that left our sleeping bags sopping and our weekends cut short.

But one such trip, we discovered Table Mountain near Ellensburg, a telescope-owner’s mecca for one who lived in the constant sky glow of Seattle. Soon after we relocated to Michigan I found out that the location hosted an annual star party event. Decades later the Table Mountain Star Party is one of the foremost such events among amateur astronomers. But living in the Midwest while raising our family meant that pilgrimage had to be put off.

So it was very sad last fall to see the Table Mountain site aflame, seemingly crushed under a mushroom cloud of smoke as 40,000 acres burned. “Founding Father” Thom Jenkins and his team of volunteers didn’t give up on it, and for this year at least the star party relocated to the Eden Valley Guest Ranch, just up the hill from Oroville.

Ranch owners Robin and Patrick Stice raved about the 300 or so guests that brought their tents, RVs and scopes to their idyllic valley; TMSP organizers were equally thrilled with the Stices’ hospitality and the dark skies.

It had its rain lightning and soaked sleeping bags, as is the astronomer’s curse. To add to my own frustrated astronomical yearnings, my son’s wedding was early last week, meaning I missed all but a few hours of the last day of the star party that had landed on my doorstep.

Why do I subject myself to it all? Partly the thrill of discovery, of seeing things that relatively few human eyes ever see. Partly because it is always a humbling experience, capturing a sliver of light that has been traveling at over 186,000 miles a second from a city of stars for millions of years, dimmed by time and distance that only God can comprehend.

And, frankly, that’s just pretty darned cool.