Begin: Gila Forest, NM
Destination: McDonald Observatory
Stops at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Woke up in a wonderful high desert landscape replete with Pines and hummingbirds.
Left to drive up to Gila at about 7:35am. It was already bright and sunny like we had slept in too late, but days just start earlier around here. We made the 45 min drive up the 26 miles to the Park entrance and stopped in the Visitor's center for some information.
While inside the visitor's center Em found an awesome bowl that had an Indian type print on it that represented a goat. It's pretty cool looking. So we grabbed that and the requisite t-shirt and headed for the trailhead.
Once we get up to the trail area we can see the dwellings high up on the cliff. Don't be fooled the area information says it is a difficult trail, it's not. If you can climb steps you can get up there.
Anyway once we get up there we meet a ranger named Joe that tells us about the common area in cave 1 (or so it is said to be) complete with kitchen and storage. The area, some surmise, was for ceremonies and this common area was like the concession stand where peeps attending the ceremonies in the other caves could get snacks and refreshments, again or so we are told.
Picture of Joe and Em at the dwelling's beer stand
The other caves you can actually go into and see the walls that were built and kinda still see the wood beams used for the roofs. Hmm, we being a tall people could not have lived there probably hitting our heads all the time. Apart from that if it were instead a living area as opposed to a ceremonial area it had an excellent view, it was near water and fertile valley soils and plentiful hunting. It's most of what people look for in a nice home.
There was a second set of dwellings down in the valley area at a camp called lower scorpion camp that wasn't as controlled as the ones upon the cliff but still neat. By not as controlled I mean we wandered around for 15 minutes off trail, well it looked like the trail. I had flashbacks to the Geocaching days. Doh! Emily finally found them:
That was pretty cool. We can sum this up as location location location. We come down off the park area and exit the way we came in, back through the twisty steep thin road with no center line for 18 miles. We saw a landcruiser that looked like it had a riot near it at some point. It had been tipped over in a previous life as the crushed corner of the roof portrayed a slow speed roll over, probably a "oops ran a bit off the road during a snow storm" thing that brought it to it's resting place. Despite the white knuckle ride down the mountainside we leave the park peacefully thinking about our own future dwelling, but a bit taller so we don't bump our heads.
By this time it's past noon and we had a good ways to go to get to our destination way back east across the Texas border. I did love the 80mph speed limit out there, it does make a difference on long distance drives and there was hardly any traffic until we hit El Paso. Then after we made it through there we hit a border patrol checkpoint where we did our best to hide our alien and slip him into the Texas economy. But I digress.
We arrived at McDonald Observatory at 6pmish under a rainbow which we got a couple of neat pictures:
Once up to the visitor's center we got our tickets to the Twilight program and the Star party later. For now we checked out the current exhibit they had going on inside. At the moment they have a neat interactive program full of displays on how light works, why there are colors, and explanations of solar power etc. It was pretty nice as interactive displays for non-scientists go. Outside the entrance they had a large sundial built into the entry area that was pretty accurate as well.
The twilight program was entertaining and educational. We were all called out to a circular area where we had an announcer that explained our local space and things going on lately and how he was rebelling and still counting Pluto as a planet. We also learned how the planets interact with star charts and the zodiac signs (aka constellations) represented in star charts. It was good stuff. There was a call for volunteers to make a scale model of the first 4 planets of our solar system to show how they move through space and interact with the surrounding star patterns. It got the point across really well and I think the next time we use one of those star charts we will have a better understanding of what we are looking at.
We all went back inside to the auditorium where we were shown some of the software they use at the observatory. Actually it was a show off of the software you too can purchase for $XX in the gift shop. But it looked like Google Earth, but from the ground perspective like 'Google Sky' might look. It could zoom into a star cluster telling you where it was in the sky at a particular time from whatever spot, even what the stars look like from other planets. And it had information about the stars and clusters as well, and you could look and see what the sky looked like 2000 years ago etc. It was neat, a bit expensive but if you are really into astronomy then it's cheap.
We had a brief intermission before the Star Party started so Em hit the snack bar there and got us a couple of pretty decent bowling alley quality grilled sandwiches resembling pita pockets filled with ham and cheese. We were starved so at that moment they were good and hit the spot and we finished just in time as the call for the star party was beginning. I ran to the truck to get our light jackets as the wind was up and the temp was dropping.
We gathered around the middle of the sundial and listened to another astronomer that also lived and worked on the mountain describe what we were going to see. He pointed out the stars and areas of the sky we would be focusing on that evening given the fullness of the moon. Earlier there had been a good deal of clouds but thankfully they had all blown off and left us with a mostly clear sky with only a few individual puffs . As he pointed up a light green line appeared, it was a hand held laser, and a powerful one at that. I totally want one (along with every other kid there.)
Then we proceeded up to the area that had some telescopes setup. There was a kaleidoscope of mirrored contraptions. I can't tell you all the different names for them but some had exposed framing with no tube so you could see the mirror and front lens. It was a replica of an old style telescope and worked really well with a mirror size of 9 inches. There were a couple of 8 inch mirrored telescopes looking at the moon and those were very clear and detailed because the moon was almost full that night. The larger 21 inch telescopes were looking at Saturn, and M13 which is a cluster of stars and the neatest one was a small donut shape nebula called M57. That was pretty fabulous as I've never seen M13, or the donut before and only Saturn through really good binoculars. The clouds began to move back in and we had seen everything they were going to pull up so we decided to go find the accommodations and turn in.
Not too long after we left Mcdonald we were pulling into the resort we had booked for the last night. They had upgraded our room to the largest one for the same rate cuz we were honeymoonin and that was great. Very comfortable room, the best non-franchise room all week. They were trying to provide wireless access but it was too far away to get a good connection. No matter, we were tired and needed sleep and we did.
See you in the morning!
Jim of Jimliy