When is a Star Party Not a Star Party? Redux…

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When is a Star Party Not a Star Party? Redux…


 

The answer is still the same as it was many a year ago, muchachos: “Never!” I almost always
have a great time at an astronomy event, even when I don’t see much—or
anything at all. It’s nice to hang out with friends, look at other folks’ astro-gear,
yadda-yadda-yadda. But for all that, there is, as I have also said before,
one big reason I go to a star party that trumps all:  To see the deep sky. Alas, that is the
one thing that was in short supply at the just completed 41st annual
Deep South Star Gaze (née, Deep South Regional Star Gaze).

The extended forecasts for the event’s location near
Sandy Hook, Mississippi hadn’t been looking good for weeks. They indicated the
time Miss Dorothy and I would be on site, Thursday – Sunday, would be resolutely
cloudy, and most likely rainy—game over, end of story zip up your fly. The “safe”
thing to have done would have been not to even register. Or, to have saved some
gas and not hit the road for the Mississippi backwoods when November 9th
came around.

Nope. No way. I was finally back in the mood for a
star party, and, in particular, for this star party after a lay-off of
six years. After not the best star party experience in 2017, mostly thanks to
deteriorating conditions at the event’s previous location, the Feliciana Retreat
Center in Louisiana, and the change of venue in ’18 to the current White Horse
Christian Retreat Center, we took a couple of years off. Then came covid. And
we hadn’t been back since the end of the plague. Once you get out of the habit
of going to a star party, it’s sometimes hard to get with it again, but this
year, I’d decided, would be different.  

In dipping-toe-into-shallow-end-of-pool fashion, Miss D. and
I began slowly, ever so slowly, planning for the 2023 Deep South Star Gaze. At
first it seemed strange to be rounding up the sleeping bags and the tent canopy
again (I sprayed plenty of waterproofing on the latter in view of the forecast).
But mostly, it just seemed right and natural. After all, Deep South was
something we’d been doing together since we were married in 1994. What was
feeling strange now was those six autumns without a Deep South.

In addition to gathering up the ancillary gear, I naturally
had to decide “Which telescope?” The weather forecasts didn’t quite look
horrible, not yet, but they did not look good. It was not a year for fancy
mounts and SCTs and computers. Also, something simpler would be more in line
with the “dipping-a-toe-back-in” theme for the year. So, what I decided on (at
first) was my 10-inch GSO Dobsonian, Zelda. Object
finding assistance? Her 50mm finder, her Rigel Quickfinder, and Sky &
Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition
backed by my treasured deck of George
Kepple’s legendary Astro Cards.

Wednesday evening before our departure, I loaded up the
4Runner, Miss Van Pelt. What I did not load up, after all, was Zelda. Why lug
a 10-inch when there was little—if any—doubt it would be clouds and rain for our
entire stay at White Horse? The forecasts had just got worse, not better. I wouldn’t
be without a scope, though. I packed a smallish one just in case we saw something.
Frankly, for reasonable people (obviously that does not include your
strange, old Uncle) this would have been the time to say, “Let’s stay home
and watch it rain in comfort.”

Nope, nosir-buddy. Not only were we interested in
giving the new star party site a look-see, we wanted to show we still support
the event, and, maybe more than anything else, we wanted to see friends we hadn’t
seen in years and whom I’d begun to wonder if we we’d ever seen again. I
finished loading the truck, just like the good, old days and called it a night
reasonably early…after indulging our resident black cat, Thomas Aquinas, by watching WWII
videos on YouTube (he favors “Midway” and “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”).

Interior of the rustic lodge…

Thursday morning dawned to heavy clouds—which have been the
rule rather than the exception down here for weeks and weeks.  There was no need to get on the road early.
The drive is a reasonably short one, about two-and-a-half hours, and the event’s
only meal, supper, would not be served until 4pm daily. With that situation in
mind, I’d loaded up on snacks and Hormel’s “Compleats” stabilized microwave dinners
(like I used to keep in my desk at work long ago).

The drive was, yeah, a short one, and there wouldn’t have
been much to say about it if not for the nostalgia factor. Like our long-ago
visits to Percy Quin State Park, original home of the star party, the journey
to White Horse is up Highway 98 to Hattiesburg (and then on to Sandy Hook). Miss
D. and I sure did a lot of reminiscin’ about our trip on this very road through
the Mississippi piney woods in 1994 when we were newlyweds.

A big difference this time? No AAA trip-ticks or Rand McNally
Road Atlas. It was GPS all the way, and she did get us to White Horse, albeit not without one bit of minor unpleasantness. As we neared our destination, the GPS, Samantha,
told us to turn onto THE ROAD. Yep, no name, just “the road.” A dirt
road that quickly devolved into a rutted two-lane track, and then into mudholes
just short of a swamp. Miss Van Pelt loved it, since she rarely gets to be a
real off-road 4Runner. Dorothy and I sure were bemused…to put it mildly…wondering
what would have happened if we’d turned down THE ROAD in her Camry!  I am still washing the mud off Miss Van P.

Soon, we were on another nondescript (but at least paved)
road.  The excellent directions Barry provided
for the area near the site reassured us we were indeed in the right place. Soon, there was, as mentioned in said directions, a column with, yep, a white horse sculpture
atop it. And…in just a moment we were at the facility.

White Horse Observing Field…

What was it like? See the pictures…but what it reminded me of
was the hunting camps the daddies of my pals used to belong to back in the
sixties (my own Daddy was not exactly an outdoors type), and which I’d visited
occasionally. That is, a complex of structures that involved tin sheeting and
which the owners appeared to have expanded as they’d gone along.

Driving toward the building we noticed a paddock-like area on
the right festooned with a few tent canopies and even a few telescopes. We figgered
that must be the place, parked there, grabbed our suitcases, and headed back to
the main building. Inside, we were informed by the friendly star-partiers there
that DSSG Director Barry Simon had left the site for lunch and would be back
shortly. We spent half an hour or so looking around and getting a feel for the
place. The interior of the lodge continued the hunting camp theme but was
really purty darned nice. Oh, and there was Wi-Fi. At poor, old Feliciana that
had often been missing.

Upon Barry’s return, he pointed us at our room—the facility
has several small motel-like rooms in addition to bunkhouses. It was even tinier
than what we had become accustomed to at Feliciana, but was clean and really
just perfect for us. The window air conditioner was noisy but cooled remarkably
well.

The storied pumpkin…

Thence to the field for a prize drawing. Despite Dorothy
drawing the tickets from the legendary orange DSRSG plastic pumpkin (the same one
from back in the vaunted Percy Quin days), I didn’t win a dadgum thing—and they
were giving away a real nice widefield eyepiece and some other cool stuff
besides. That ain’t exactly a surprise. I rarely win anything in a raffle—other
than a raffle for ham radio gear. That, I win again and again—strange.

Afterwards, there not being much to do before supper, it was
back to the main building, “the lodge,” for web surfing and getting reacquainted
with old friends. If I don’t list your name here, I’m not slighting you. It’s
just that I’d have to list 40 or more. All of you, old friends and
new ones alike, are important to us.

That hour or two in the lodge was the high point of the star
party. What else did I do other then get caught up with buddies?  I took frequent trips outside for looks at
the sky—all in vain. And I kept my eye on an app recommended to me by Sky
& Telescope’s
Sean Walker some time back, Astropheric. It
took a while for me to get used to it, but, yeah, it really is better
than Clear Sky Charts. In fact, it’s like CSC on steroids. If you don’t
have it on your phone already, you should (it’s free).

Then came supper. Miss Dorothy and I were signed up for the
meal plan, but were informed that had been cancelled (because the weather kept
attendance down so much, I guess). Instead, there were hamburger and hotdog plates
available for a reasonable price. Dorothy and I ordered hamburgers…and were a
little surprised at their definitely different taste. The ebullient lady
who owns White Horse informed us that was because they were made from not just
beef, but pork, and deer meat, too! Well, when in Rome do as the Romans
do, I reckon.

My usual mascot promoting “Dark Nights.”

And so, we hung out in the lodge till the Sun was long gone.
Outside, Len Philpot pointed out the only light dome visible around the horizon
was miniscule. Far smaller than what we’d had at Feliciana and certainly minor
compared to what Percy Quin’s sky must be like today (it’s near what is now verging
on a small city, McComb, Mississippi). I suspected the sky would have been
great if it had been clear. Which it wasn’t. Since it was obvious there
wouldn’t even be sucker holes, I said my goodnights and headed back to the room
where Dorothy was already relaxing.

The good thing? While the Wi-Fi was not exactly strong
outside the lodge, it was strong enough in our room for my Macintosh Airbook M2
to pull in YouTube with ease. I spent the evening looking at whatever whack-a-doodle
videos my heart desired until it was nigh-on ten o’clock.

In the morning, another cloudy morning, Dorothy and I
showered, dressed, and said our farewells. There were to be talks Friday, but we’d decided it would be best to get back down Highway 98
before the weather worsened. Barry was already planning on finishing up with
all the talks and the prize drawings as well that afternoon. Which was wise—the field was
already practically empty, and it was clear few folks would hang on till Saturday, much less the
official end of DSSG Sunday morning.

As we pulled away from White Horse, was I sad to be leaving?
Well, sort of. I was happy to have seen my old buddies again. But…leaving
a clouded-out star party just doesn’t have the same feel—that wistful regret—you
get when departing one that’s had nights and nights of deep space voyaging. Well,
maybe next fall.  Maybe even this coming spring (Deep South still does its smaller Spring
Scrimmage edition).

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