A Lot of Mars... A Little Figaro. To OSP and Back

by Mark Wagner

I drove to Mars last week, and returned from my trip last night.


Not at all... especially when you consider that where I went, after thirteen hours driving, was at a place only 2.1 light years from M31.

I left home on the 26th of August for Davis California, to meet Jim Ster at Jane Smith's house. I had been invited to join them on a trip to the Oregon Star Party, and having never been to a "big" star party other than the Riverside Telescope Maker's Conference, which is still trying to be something other than an ATM event, I could not resist. I did bargain with Jim and Jane to bring the 30" StarMaster in order that I would bring only my 10" Compact Precision Telescope. The deal was struck.

Jim arrived in Davis and we looked at the daunting job of packing the 30", and 18" StarMaster, my 10", four canopies, three tents, chairs, tarps, books, eyepiece cases, food, cooking gear and assorted other necessities into the back of Jim's 2003 Ford F-250 XLT Lariat King Ranch Crew Cab and four by six trailer. The extent of our advance planning was "sure.... it'll fit".... and sure enough, by the time we were done everything was in. However, I doubt there was room left to fit in a tennis ball. What a sight!

We arrived in Shingletown at nine and found Brad Franzella waiting outside the airport gate. It was going to be a short night there, so the only scopes were Brad's 10 and mine. The skies were soft and cloudy, and we stayed until 12:30 before heading out to the Temple's where we spent the night. After a nice breakfast at the Shingle Shack we were on the way to the mythical OSP.

The drive past Mount Shasta is just gorgeous, if only the rest of the trip were that interesting. After crossing out of California through the metropolis of Dorris, we spent hour after hour on highway 97 enjoying views of rather stunted and sick pine trees. There must be 10,000 pine trees per person in Oregon. We'd pass through a few small communities, but it was pine pine pine pine pine. Until we got to Bend. Then is was pine pine pine pine building. After Bend we went through Redmond, then headed east into the wild unknown country. Scrub forest lead to the town of Prineville, then into large open rangeland with hundred of cattle and deer. It was a side of America I had never seen, absolutely beautiful while amazingly desolate. What a place.

Soon we were tuning off the main two-lane road and onto a side spur - then another, then finally after about 30 miles we left the pavement. The last few miles passed and with sunset approaching we drove under a banner welcoming us to the Oregon Star Party.

What a sight! The road in was gravelled... an enormous shower truck and numerous RV's lined the entry. The gravel runs east-west with a T to the north at mid-point. The T ends in a turn-around out in the midst of a huge desolate field. People had arrived days earlier, and the place was packed all along the roads and in the tree lines to the north and west. We left the road and emptied our vehicles in the center of the large field to the northeast, then drove the truck off to park it near the road - you are not allowed to leave vehicles in the fields.

What ensued was a rush set up of tents, canopies and telescopes. By dusk I was done, and enjoying dinner and a cold Fosters, and taking in the view of over 930 other folks camping in the middle of the Ochoco (pronounced O-cha-cO, emphasis on first and last O's) of Oregon. This place is as far from civilization as I've been in a very, very long time. It was hard to believe so many other folks came to a place like this.

Clouds made the first night was a bust for observing, but it was great for socializing and meeting people. To our southwest we could see occasional lightning, and we all thought about what it would be like to be in a thunderstorm on a surface that, well, it resembled the Pathfinder photos of Mars. We were camped on roundish lava rocks that ranged in size from two to four inches. They were everywhere, literally. These babies took their toll on your feet after a couple of days. By the second day I felt like someone had ball-peen'd my toes. There was also lots of protected sagebrush, without question it was going to be under your tent and make you watch where you walked in the daytime and an ever-present hazard for both foot and telescope at night. You get an idea of what it was like. Oh... and yes, Albert Highe was correct about the bedrock under a few inches of dusty soil. I bent several big steel stakes trying to anchor my tent and canopy. Anyone attending should bring large pails to put rocks into to tie down tents and canopies.

People were saying the OSP site is better than the Texas Star Party's. Listen, gang, you don't know what you have at Shingletown. We have a piece of paradise by comparison.

Friday was day two, and began promising with good skies. I went over to Michelle Stone's encampment on vendor row and saw all the traffic. Michelle suggested I bring my scope over, and I agreed. What a trek! OSP's site is huge.

Michelle and I had lots of interest. From a vendor standpoint it was an excellent trip. Others southerner vendors who were there included Joe and Karen Sunseri, Tom Osypowski, Tony Hallas, and the ever-present party boy and sun god of star parites - Bill Dean from Coronado. Rounding out the California brigade were Alvin and Julie Huey, John Bunyon, Dennis Beckley, Ed Smith (newbie), Bruce Sayre, and several guys from the Eureka area who were thrilled to learn about SSP. There were other CalAstros there as well, and they'd swing by to gawk at the 30", but we weren't there to take names.

As night was approaching, I took out my precooked dinner, while others ate questionable ham from the chuck-wagon. Soon, all you saw was the sky overhead, thousands of stars and a glistening Milky Way, which seemed to be held up by a dark band at the horizon with hundred of red fireflies gently moving about. It was really a magical scene.

That night the 30" showed me things I'd never seen before. Jim was showing the NGC 6543 - the Catseye Nebula - to some touristas. I climbed latter and began enjoying some excellent ring structure when I suddenly saw a bight knot out to the west. This is IC 4677, the brightest part of the Catseye's faint outer halo. It was like a beacon in the 30. After I mentioned it everyone else climbed back up to take a look. We also were holding M57's central star with direct vision, and picking out a fainter star near the inside edge of the ring with consistency using averted vision. I played a bit with the Goto System, which is unquestionably contrary to my style of astronomy, and put in NGC 1275 - the brightest member of the Perseus Supercluster. In Jim's Terminagler I counted 25 galaxies in the field without breaking a sweat. It was fun to pump up the mag and see others popping out as we traversed the fields of faint fuzzies. Alvin Huey brought over a chart showing the members of this Abell cluster, but it did not go deep enough for what we were seeing. Object after object found its way onto the 30" mirror - the Crescent showed internal structure that Steve Gottlieb would have given his left, er, thumb for. The Waterfall in the Veil yielded filaments that snaked subtly though the brighter strands. Pickering's Wisp was flanked by other dimmer areas of nebulosity.

We continued on and on until about 4:30 a.m., when the rocks, sagebrush and fatigue just became too much. Dawn was arriving and we finished by viewing so many little pinpoint stars embedded in the nebulosity surrounding the Trapezium, it was simply astonishing. It was a shame the night had to end.

I spent the next day getting a major farmer tan on vendor row. I'm sure the rest of the gang was under the canopy, back at the homestead, sipping cool drinks and talking to the invariable platoon of folks attracted to Mr. Dob - the 30" big gun of the show. It seemed there were a great number of 8" and 10" Dobs at OSP.

I used the shower truck, which was marvelous. This was the most refreshing activity available at our location, there on the surface of Mars. We'll be looking into the feasibility of bringing a shower truck to Shingletown next year. The truck is clean, sparkling inside and out - hot water - private stalls. Nuttin betta.

Late afternoon the OSP committee held their astro-raffle. Everyone got a ticket to this activity upon arrival at OSP.

The tent the raffle was held under had enough room for less than half the crowd. The raffle went on for an hour and forty minutes. The emcee was taking his time and joking. Those in the sun were frying. It was during this monologue that it was stated the Andromeda Galaxy (the prize was an image of M31 by Tony Hallas) was 2.1 light years away. Yes.... Oregon is an amazing place. Mars underfoot, while bumping your head on M31!

Julie Huey won a prize. But several of our group had enough heat and finally left. Jane Smith tuned to leave, handed me her ticket and said "if the ticket wins anything, give it to Mimi" (my astro-loving daughter). I was standing next to Marsha Robinson (Mars) while the raffle continued. I was holding my ticket and Mimi's. A number was called - the last number was one off from mine. Bummer.

Now, all the prized were gone other than the two grand prizes - 10" Dobs. The emcee began calling numbers - 5..... 3...... "okay.... how many of you out there have those first two numbers - stand up - those of you standing outside, raise your hands".....

I raised my hand.

Then he said "7" and Marsha began jumping around. Mimi had a one-in-ten chance.... I looked a Marsha and shook my head "no"..... no way could this...

The voice said "2"...

Marsha screamed. I was temporarily deaf. People were motioning her to go up the to podium.

But it was the ticket I held. Mimi's ticket.

I was stunned. Not until half-way up to the barker did the rush of winning hit me. What a BUZZ. Hey.... let's do this again!!!!!!!

I handed over the ticket and "Gene" the emcee asked my name....

"Mark.... Mark Wagner....."

"And Mark, where are you from...."

Oh boy. I've heard that Oregono's don't particularly appreciate Califoreigners.

And, I am an organizer of SSP.

And I make 10" Dobs and am a vendor.

And my daughter has an 18" Dob....

So, quietly, I uttered "Los Gatos.... ..... ............ Cal-if-or-nia"

It sure was quiet under that tent.

But there, right up front sat John Bunyon - my tie back to the SJAA and home. John was beaming - showing me his thumb held high as in "way to go buddy"....

But it sure was quiet. The look on Gene's face was something you'd want a picture of. Disbelief.

What a moment.

Then I thought - how are we going to get this thing home?

I began hauling the scope out and a very surprised Jane Smith showed up. I told here "Jane - your ticket - your scope" .... she wouldn't hear of it. She made a counter-offer than was very nice and generous.

Anyone want to buy a new 10" Dob by Hardin Optical? :-)

That night the smoke moved back in. We were hosed. It was just darn depressing. Still, we had fun with the locals, and our own out-of-state contingent. By 12:30 though we had formulated a plan for the morning. We would pack up, bail out, and try to hook up with James Edwards at his family's 600 acre ranch east of Klamath Falls, in the Po Valley.

And that's just what we did. I was a long drive, but we were there by dinner time.

What a reception. Family members arriving, the Dobs being set up. Jim, Marsha, Mags, Jane and I being invited to join the family for a tri-tip BBQ dinner with all sorts of other great fixins. We sat at a big table outside eating while the sun was setting, looking down the 1/4 mile driveway to the main road down the hill, cows, trees, hoses, emerald colored mountains. What a scene. After a bit of good wine, Lanny, who is a friend of James stood up and serenaded us. Turns out he sings with the Sacramento opera. So, with the beauty of southern Oregon decorating our dinners, we sat, drinking wine, listening to the Marriage of Figaro. I looked at Anna, our host, and told her this was one of those moments like the scene of Shoeless Joe Jackson in Field of Dreams asking "Is this Heaven".... but that night the reply was "No... its the Po Valley".

The observing was not great that night, but the company, and the hospitality shown by shown by James Edwards and his relatives will never be forgotten. One of the best astronomy nights I've ever had. Thank you, thank you, thank you.... James!

We had a big drive the next day, so with the smoke of Oregon's fires overhead I turned in early. I slept in my sleeping bag outside, in back of the house. In the morning I woke to my face being washed by the farm's nice female Rottweiller. I scrambled to get the wet tongue off me, succeeded, and then enjoyed seeing the dog head over to Jane Smith. Jane buried her head in her sleeping bag after the first lick.

We packed up and headed south. Past some gorgeous wildlife refuges in extreme northern California, then down to Mount Shasta. It is a beautiful drive.

Before we knew it we were turning off I-5 into Davis, and the end of the trip.

We had sure had a great time. Friends sharing great experiences is really the spice that adds flavor to astronomy and makes it fun.

Next year, we'll return, better prepared. I hope more TACos will join us, at OSP, and at Table Mountain. We'll set up our own enclave with the big scope. It is worth the time, sky or no sky, it is worth the time.