Fremont Peak - Same As It Ever Was

by Mark Wagner

Imagine going back to where you went to school, and finding that not only is everything the same, but you get to experience all those "special moments" during your return visit.

Well, that was my trip to Fremont Peak July 19, 2003.

This will be a combination travelogue, retrospective, and (to make the title correct) observing report...

I left home around 1 p.m., figuring the drive from Los Gatos would put me at the Peak around 2, about when my observing partner Richard Navarrete should arrive. I'd been warned about the dreaded Gilroy Garlic Festival traffic, which I shrugged off as a morning phenomenon - surely everyone would be sweating garlic by noon this hot summer day at the festival, and the freeway would be clear. No such luck. Just about Coyote Golf Course, the "Gilroy Speedway" (highway 101) took on all the flavor of the Ventura Freeway in LA at 5 p.m. It was a creepathon. An hour passed before I was at the Masten Avenue exit, where cars lined up like lemmings to exit and the freeway returned to normal breakneck speed.

Soon I was flying down the road in my 1980 Mercedes diesel. What a fun drive, I'm so used to the big Suburban. I thought to myself "why the heck did the Fremont Peak Observatory Association (FPOA) and Astronomical Association of Northern California (AANC) schedule their big annual event, the FPOA Star-B-Q the same day as the Garlic Festival". I think it has happened before, but shoot, can't a better day, one with less southbound traffic be selected?

Still, it was fun to drive that road, it is so familiar. I took the 156 east exit and entered the pastoral gateway to Fremont Peak. Right turn on San Juan Canyon Road and I was back "home" - a road I'd driven hundreds of times over the years.

I could almost read a newspaper on the drive, it was that familiar. I had been to the Peak a few times over the past four or five years, but it was still intuitive, and fun. Big granite boulders lined the farmer's fields, where locals and itinerants were tilling the soil, the small stream bubbled along the west side of the road, forested hills rose in front of me. Soon I was passing the horse ranch, all the homes tucked back off the road, then under the canopy of old oaks forming a canopy over the road - with Spanish Moss hanging dry from them, swaying in the breeze.

It was heaven. I can see why my daughter loves it so much. It is truly the most beautiful drive to any observing site, including along Skyline Drive from highway 9 heading to Montebello. If only the "prize" at the end of the drive were as delectable as the scene getting up there!

So, soon I was entering the park. My oh my! Lots of folks on Coulter Row! Up at the overlook where I planned to set up I saw Rashad and Bartolini, and pulled in next to them. I immediately staked out spots for Navarrete, Kevin "EB" Roberts and Bob Jardine.

It was hot. Mid to high 90's - so reminiscent of the "glory days" back on Coulter Row and the southwest lot. In fact, this trip was a "back home" trip for some of us who had been there, down at the end of Coulter Row, when TAC began. About a half-dozen of us, give or take, that would gather regularly at the same spot - forming friendships, doing relaxed observing, sharing views, having a few drinks, staying up all night only to barrel down the hill the next morning for chorizo and eggs with a cold beer at Dona Ester's in San Juan Bautista. Like I said... it was heaven.

I opened the trunk of my car to unload and start setting up my telescope when a voice from the past said "hey.... is that you Mark?".... "Do you know what's been going on up here at the Peak"....

I could feel the hairs on my neck start to move. Oh boy, I wonder what this is all about. I'd heard rumors that things were dicey these days up there. Well, I grabbed a cold one and went to my friend's campsite, sat down and began listening. I probably hadn't been to the Peak in two and a half years or so, at least not when the troops were out. The Star-B-Q brings out everyone. So, I sat and listened to this fella, who I hadn't seen in quite some time.

What I learned is that the Peak has not changed for the better. It seems to be a very weird combination of contradictions, groups with no really common vision, and legal gobbledygook heaped on top. Seems the state, via the Department of Parks and Rec (DPR) handed the FPOA a 40 page contract. As it turned out, the FPOA was the only interested respondent to the DPR call for applicants to be the "concessionaire" for astronomy, at the Peak. No big surprise. So, what did the FPOA get for their interest, for being volunteers? A 40 page contract. The long and the short of it is that the contract apparently calls for some things that just ain't in the scope of what the FPOA is capable of, or has the desire to, do. And if I heard correctly, the state is saying "take it or leave it" by the end of some time very soon, or they will look at closing down the ranger's side of the park entirely to astronomy. Whoa!

I left my friend to finish unpacking, after hearing all the news that's fit to print... shaking my head. Soon sunset was on us, and a bunch of folks gathered to watch it, hoping for a green flash. Ah... it sure felt like the old days! I was standing next to another fella who has been going to the Peak since the inception of the FPOA, and asked him about the "Mexican standoff" between the FPOA and DPR. He essentially said "yes.... and it would be very easy to take the telescope and leave"... well, I'd heard the same thing 3 years ago at Chabot, talking to the same person. It hasn't changed, except times sound more desperate now.

Funny part, ironic part of all this is, when I left the Peak years ago I was telling the FPOA they need to work more for the benefit of the entire astro community, beyond the sacred walls of their meeting room and observatory. It didn't happen. Now, the FPOA seems to me almost powerless in dealing with the state, and may even be afraid to whistle in the wrong direction, for fear of the hammer dropping. But those of us (like me) who are not FPOA members can surely speak up. Someone suggested that our assemblymen may be helpful in giving the DPR a different perspective. Never know.

Anyway.... as you can see, even without looking for it, the politics of Fremont Peak were as plain and palpable as ever. Dang.... all I wanted was to get that "old days" feeling again up at the Peak.... and did I ever get hammered with it! Politics!

I never did go over to the ranger's side of the park, where the Star-B-Q festivities were taking place. A few of my buddies went, then returned saying they didn't know anyone over there. So we ate and hung out as the sky darkened.

Before it was dark, when the first stars began showing, I spotted Vega. Bob Jardine and I both had our 10" CPT's set up, and I found Epsilon Lyrae in my finder. In went the 12 Nagler. What a split! In went the 7 Nagler. Holy cow... it was so clean I couldn't believe it. Bob pointed his CPT there. The 7.5 and 5.0 Takahashi eyepieces went in. Awesome! I don't know what else Bob threw in there, but soon he was up over 500x and getting rock solid views. Nice tight concentric diffraction rings around each component of the Double Double (mmmm.... makes me think of In-And-Out!).

Over to Nu Scorpii... again, over 500x and look at that split! Bob said it was the best split he's ever had on that object. I was looking at globulars now, and big dense open clusters. We were having a ball.

Then Mars came up.

All scopes pointed east.

Once the planet was up reasonably, the steadiness provided some amazing views. I stayed on Mars for hours. I think everyone was doing the same thing... it was quiet... even with dozens of scopes set up in the area.

Newbies would show up, cars with headlights would drive through, shoot.... it was Star-B-Q.... so.... so what! I'd show the interested newcomers some views, as would others in our group... but no doubt, the show was the Red Planet.

Just to our north, in the campsite next to the overlook where we were set up, was a camper. Sat there with a small fire going, not very bothersome, quiet, okay. So he gets in his car and leaves, but his camp is still set up. Dog is there, tent still there. So, he'll be back. Normal at the Peak.

We continue observing.

A couple hours later, maybe, the camper drives back in, and his headlights are on. Gets out of his car and somewhat crudely apologizes for the headlights. I figure "okay... no big deal.... its Fremont Peak on Star-B-Q night...."

Well... what happened next was so unexpected, yet not really unexpected at all. It was like other nights past at Fremont Peak

Some moron amateur astronomer (I hope you're reading this, whoever you were) made some remark about the camper's headlights. The camper had been walking over to his campsite when the words were spoken. He stopped, turned, and said "come say that to my face".... to which the amateur astronomer said....


It was like the Fourth Of July. The camper lit off like the fireworks finale in DC. Unbelievable.

Yelling at the top of his lungs "Come here and say that you @#$@#$@#$@#!!!!! I'll kill you, you @#$@$#@#$@!!!!!"

He began heading back over to the "Geeks" and their telescopes, yelling, freaking out. The guy no doubt had "a couple nightcaps" down in SJB.

Several of us stood in front of the irate camper, trying to calm him down. Suddenly someone, I assume the guy who provoked the camper, came flying into view from my right and whaled into the camper knocking him on his better end. Oh... you have to understand too, this was no small feat. The camper was probably around the same size as the late Chris Farley, from Saturday Night Live. But the guy knocked him off his pins, and then, like swatting a hornet's nest, a wild camper got to his feet, flushed, rabid, frothing, looking for anyone he could to punch out, and started saying "someone took my knife.... gimme my knife!"

Sure. Here... or maybe you'd like a 45 while you're so angry!

I don't think anyone took his knife. He'd been drinking and I don't think he was thinking straight.

A few of us reassured him that nobody wanted anything to do with a knife while tempers were so hot, and that if we found it, we'd put it on the picnic table at his campsite.

He walked off, grumbling, and went to bed.

This was so reminiscent of past events at the Peak, I could hardly believe it.

I went back to my scope, shook my head, and muttered to my friends "he knew better than to try taking on 20 angry nerds".... :-)

20 minutes passed and a sheriff's car pulled in. Then another. Two officers got out, asked a few questions of those of us who were involved, or witnesses, then went over to "interview" the camper.

Another sheriff car pulled in. The a sheriff in an SUV.

They had their spotlights on, so really, the only thing we could look at reasonably with all that light was Mars.

Boy.... was this a fun observing session!

Then a ranger, Alex, pulled in. It is her jurisdiction, so she took over and several of the sheriff's left.

After a while Alex let the now calmer camper get into his tent.

I think everything would have been fine, if only that one amateur astronomer kept his mouth shut. If you're out there, get it?

Alex was about to leave when I suggested that the camper may be in his tent drinking and stewing over what happened. So Alex, who is one of the cuter female rangers I've met, agreed to stay a while.

Alex and I enjoyed some nice views though my scope. We sat and talked about how the Peak used to be, why I (we) left, etc. She asked if I was "back" now (heaven forbid!), I thought briefly then said "no"....

We talked about our lab puppies, all sort of things. Alex is a keeper for the Peak... all business when dealing with "work situations".... but a very nice and engaging person when not acting in her official capacity. I hear good things about C.L. Price.... the supervising ranger.... too.

Maybe around 3 or 4 a.m. Mars went behind the trees to our south, and I decided to turn in.

It had been so warm at the Peak during the night I wore only a tank-top and shorts, which is how I slept too.

I awoke in the morning, packed up and hit the road.

The drive was again gorgeous.

On the way back I thought to myself "just like the old days.... traffic, politics, dumb astronomers, headlights, drunks, threats, great seeing.... a gorgeous place to observe from...."

Some things never change.

I just hope the Peak remains astro friendly. It is my old "school".... where I learned astronomy. And, it was everything "Peak" in a single night, that night.

Amazing. It was, indeed, the same as it ever was.