Friday, January 15, 2010

Whirlwind Texas Tour

About 2 months ago our friends Dave and Joan from Dodgeville, Wisconsin indicated they were traveling to West Texas in January, specifically Alpine, Texas - sort of the northern edge of the Big Bend area. Well wouldn't you know, we are regulars in that part of the state, having visited our friend Elinor many times. So after checking with Elinor, we juggled Melinda's work schedule and were able to take a 3 day midweek trip to visit them all. After driving most of Tuesday, we relaxed and visited most of Wednesday and Thursday, returning Thursday night. Pictured here is Elinor, flanked by Joan and Dave at the Museum of the Big Bend, located at Sul Ross University.

While major metropolitan areas can all seem alike after a while, Alpine is like a whole other State! Elevation is nearly 5,000 feet(1500 meters), so temperatures are temperate, and a population of only 6,000 retains a rustic, rural feel. Elinor lives a few miles out of town up in the hills and her living room picture windows reveal a daily wildlife menagerie in their daily foraging. Besides the pictured javalina and deer, we've also seen numerous wild turkey, antelope and a wide variety of birds.

Dave's excuse for the trip was the dark sky and astronomical observing, so I brought my 14" Celestron and set up for a dark clear night on Tuesday. He was astounded by the dark sky quality - it was good (I'm spoiled by Arizona skies), but I wasn't used to the dew that fogged my corrector plate and hampered observing - something that doesn't bother us a few hundred miles to the west!

On Wednesday after an early dinner we had an expedition lead by Elinor's neighbor Barb over to Marfa to look for the Marfa Mystery Lights. The "Mystery Lights" are blamed on everything from campfires of Indian ghosts to lead spirits to the afterlife, electrical discharge from temperature-induced stress buildup in quartz deposits to car headlights. Barb, a former university instructor, has witnessed them and favors the piezoelectric effect of quartz deposits explanation. On Wednesday night, however, with cameras and astronomical observers we saw nothing mysterious, though that, in itself, is not unusual. The lights are not seen frequently, adding to the mystique of the phenomenon.

By lunch on Thursday, it was time to depart from our all-too-brief visit, and we left right at 1pm for the 9 hour trip back to Tucson. The van worked flawlessly for the thousand-mile round trip, and believe me, a boring trip is good! Just to prove that this area is a little odder than most, we spotted a couple "what the heck was that?!" objects. First was an art installation known as Prada Marfa, in the middle-of-nowhere between Valentine (population 200) and Van Horn, Texas. Along side this rural paved road was a Prada store, complete with handbags and fancy women's shoes visible through the windows! You don't often think of "art" like this in rural cattle country, but the first clue is the lack of a working door, and the fact that the nearest retail establishment (gas or convenience store) is 40 miles away. Supposedly the artists built it of adobe and was designed to "dissolve" into the environment, but evidently it is popular enough that they at least repair the graffiti on the walls.

The other item we saw on our trip was "Recycled Roadrunner" along I-10 on a ridge on the west side of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Made of "found" material, it was put together in the city dump and moved to it's present location when it closed 10 years ago. Clicking on the right image, you can see the belly and neck made mostly of shoes, and bike parts and metal scrap making the head feathers. Strangeness always makes a long trip interesting, and I guess roadside oddities get you to pay more attention to your surroundings. Worked for us!

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