Observing with Street Lights

Observing with Street Lights
Dark sky sites not always necessary to see the Milky Way (This image was taken ouside of a B&B in Julian, CA)

Monday, September 9, 2019

Ruby sees a ghost; Searching for dark skies, mines, glaciers, deer, bristlecones, Area 51, ghost towns, martinis and hams in rural Nevada

Greetings from Palmia Observatory

Well this week we packed our bags for a road trip in search of dark skies and the Milky Way.  But just as we were getting ready to go on the road, Astronomer Assistant Ruby discovered a ghost hidden in the road.  Hmm, I hope this is not an omen about our upcoming trip through the Nevada back country!


Astronomer Assistant Ruby spots a flattened ghost in the street (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Astronomer Assistant Ruby spots a flattened ghost in the street (Source: Palmia Observatory)

So after leaving Astronomer Assistants Ruby and Danny in charge we headed up the road toward Nevada.  We didn't bring a telescope or tracking mount, but I had my camera and tripod and hoped to get some good Milky Way photos, even though the moon was going to be somewhat in the way.  After a quick stop in southern Utah to visit with Big Sister, Ilene, we headed towards the Great Basin National Park (GBNP) and then to some of the loneliest roads in Nevada, some of which included ghost towns as well.  Good to see you and thanks for your hospitality, Ilene!

For all of its natural beauty, GBNP is not crowded and offers many hiking and camping sites with views of glaciers, high altitude lakes and bristlecone pines.
Glaciers in Great Basin National Park (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Glaciers in Great Basin National Park (Source: Palmia Observatory)


We tried to fit a four mile roundtrip hike into our schedule. but found we were tired out and out of time to complete the hike up to the glaciers.  We were not used to hiking, little alone hiking at 10,000+ elevations.  Also the weather included thunder and lightning and we did not want to venture out into the open space below the glaciers.  I also tried out our satellite phone to make sure we could send and receive text messages just in case of emergency.  We made it about half way up the mountain trail and saw the beautiful Teresa Lake as seen below, before we had to turn back for our scheduled tour of the Lehman Cave.  Hiking at high altitude took more time than we allowed for.
This lake at 10,000+ feet is about half way on the hike to the glaciers (Source: Palmia Observatory)
This lake at 10,000+ feet is about half way on the hike to the glaciers (Source: Palmia Observatory)

We spotted mother and young doe on the trail and they didn't seem afraid of us, but they did just keep making their way through the forest.
Deer on the trail up the mountain at GBNP (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Deer on the trail up the mountain at GBNP (Source: Palmia Observatory)


So, we didn't make it all the way up to the Bristlecone Pine grove, but did manage to spy one tree on the way back to the Lehman Cave.  The Bristlecone are such majestic trees and some are over 5000 years old.
One of the old Bristlecone Pines on the road to the GBNP trailhead (Source: Palmia Observatory)
One of the old Bristlecone Pines on the road to the GBNP trailhead (Source: Palmia Observatory)


The entrance to the Lehman Cave is right at the GBNP visitor center so you can just park your car and walk to the entrance.  We got to walk through some narrow passages and up and down stairs to see the beautiful rock formations.  Brrr, it is a little chilly inside so make sure you have a light jacket or at least long sleeves.
On the one hour tour of the Lehman Cave at GBNP (Source: Palmia Observatory)
On the one hour tour of the Lehman Cave at GBNP (Source: Palmia Observatory)


AFter our Lehman Cave tour we had planned to get a spot of dinner in nearby Baker, NV, and stay around for a ranger led star tour of the night sky.  Hmm, we were going to have to wait a couple of hours more and the sky was already very cloudy and the forecast was for poor observing conditions.  So, we elected to skip the sky tour and head on to our next stop in Ely, NV.  Looking back toward GBNP we could see lots of sunbeams trying to break through the incoming clouds.  That was a beautiful view but for us the clouds were going to win so we just kept driving and didn't look back!
Light beams through the clouds on the way out of the GBNP (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Light beams through the clouds on the way out of the GBNP (Source: Palmia Observatory)


We spent the night in Ely, NV, and one of the main attractions there is he Railway Museum, or more officially called the Nevada Northern Railway National Historic Landmark.  The only trains on the tracks nowadays are just the old steam and diesel trains maintained and operated by the dedicated volunteers.  The depot and rails and some of the rolling stock were just abandoned and left in place after the silver mines shut down, so we could walk through some of the depot offices and see what if must have been like to work there years ago.
Enjoying the old trains at the Railway Museum in Ely, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Enjoying the old trains at the Railway Museum in Ely, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)


After our railyard tour we hoped to do some nighttime observing, but the clouds just were not going away.  As you can see we were treated to a double rainbow and mostly on the tail end of the storm, but again the nighttime clouds did not go away.  Darn!

Not much hope of clear dark skies, even after this rainbow in Ely, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Not much hope of clear dark skies, even after this rainbow in Ely, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)


So, after a couple of cloudy nights in Ely, NV, we drove a couple of hours further in the Nevada desert in search of dark and yet cloudless nights.  Along the road to the old mining community of Tonopah,  NV, we took an hour detour to visit Rachel, NV and its close by neighbor Area 51.  It is not clear what the official title of the Air Force Installation is, but in modern folklore this is UFO conspiracy central.  Now we are not into participating in the "Storm Area 51" event planned for September 21, but we had to visit Rachel, nonetheless.  You can grab a cold brew here but don't expect to get any gas for your vehicle so plan ahead!
The only tow truck in Rachel, NV is kept busy rescuing UFOs (Source: Palmia Observatory)
The only tow truck in Rachel, NV is kept busy rescuing UFOs (Source: Palmia Observatory)

Inside the bar and restaurant of the Little AleInn, you can at least get some food and drink and buy a few UFO oriented gifts and souvenirs.  We also discovered that they have a tradition of collecting money for a local charity and you can donate a dollar bill and tack it to the ceiling.  When the ceiling gets full up, they take all the money down and head to the bank!
No gas in Rachel, NV, but at least you can get a cold brew at the Little Aleinn Restaurant (Source: Palmia Observatory)
No gas in Rachel, NV, but at least you can get a cold brew at the Little Aleinn Restaurant (Source: Palmia Observatory)


On the way back to the main highway to Tonopah, we passed the Cedar Gate exit, but chose not to drive out on the road that is known as the entry to Area 51.  First of all, we had to watch our gas level and did not know how far we could go on the road until we would be forced to turn around.  But you can find plenty of photos of the entry gate on the internet.  Hmm, by the looks of this sign, maybe it is best not to pose for a selfie here because taking photos in the area is illegal!

Chose not to take a selfie at this sign off of the Cedar Gate into Area 51 (Source: Wikipedia)
Chose not to take a selfie at this sign off of the Cedar Gate into Area 51 (Source: Wikipedia)


So, after visiting Rachel and bypassing the Area 51 detour, our search for dark skies continued into Tonopah where we didn't find any cloudless skies but did find the interesting Mining Museum.  This whole area was a hotbed of silver mining around the turn of the 19th century and almost all the mining is now abandoned.  If you like hiking around and looking into old abandoned mine shafts and buildings and equipment, then this place is for you!
Old abandoned mine headframe at the Mining Museum in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Old abandoned mine headframe at the Mining Museum in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)



Here is some more old abandoned mining equipment including an old stamp mill.  There were also many very large old electric motors, which was especially interesting to this old electric propulsion engineer, now turned into a physicist wannabe.
More abandoned mine equipment at the Mining Museum in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)
More abandoned mine equipment at the Mining Museum in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)




So, we looked forward to the night sky, but our initial forecast of clear skies soon turned out to be in serious error as the clouds moved back in to spoil our view of the night sky.  Darn, another reminder that maybe we should have been "meteorologist wannabes."

More cloudy nights as even the Moon struggles to get through the clouds in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)
More cloudy nights as even the Moon struggles to get through the clouds in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)



Anyway, the cloudy skies couldn't hold Resident Astronomer Peggy back from hamming it up a bit with any character in the local Tonopah Station Hotel and Casino.  Every time we find a large bear or animal of some kind in any hotel or place, I know to get the camera ready because Peggy is going to be there!
Resident Astronomer Peggy can't help but ham it up with new friend at Tonopah Station (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Resident Astronomer Peggy can't help but ham it up with new friend at Tonopah Station (Source: Palmia Observatory)


As for me, I sought consolation for all the missed nights of cloudy dark skies, with a great martini at the Mizpah Hotel.  The hotel staff even took us on a guided tour of the 5th floor of the old hotel where the rather unfortunate "Lady in Red" was murdered and is said to still haunt the guests in room 502 and elsewhere.  Hmm, I guess a little ghost story is good for business!

Finally, found a consolation lemon drop martini at Mizpah Hotel in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Finally, found a consolation lemon drop martini at Mizpah Hotel in Tonapah, NV (Source: Palmia Observatory)


Yep, we needed some consolation for all the missed observing opportunities.  Hey, maybe its us that brings the clouds?  Our last chance to see the dark skies, after a very beautiful sunset, was spoiled by clouds, lightning and thunder.
Darn! Last chance to see some dark skies and Milky Way, spoiled by clouds (Source: Palmia Observatory)
Darn! Last chance to see some dark skies and Milky Way, spoiled by clouds (Source: Palmia Observatory)

So, that is about it for this spoiled adventure.  Even though we didn't have clear observing, it was a lot of fun traveling the back roads of Nevada, where you can drive for over 100 miles everyday and not see a gas station and maybe only pass a dozen or less cars over that distance.

As discussed in the previous blog post of August 20, 2019, we knew that cellphone service was going to be spotting on some of the loneliest roads in the state, so we brought a long a (Garmin) satellite phone, just in case.  Well you need to make sure to keep the satellite phone charged up, which I mostly did when we landed back at our hotel.  Luckily we never had to use the phone, but on one leg of the journey I forgot to charge up the phone and when I checked, it was down to just 5%.  Ok, so just plug it into the car auxiliary socket and charge it up you might say.  Well, One lesson learned on this 1600+ mile journey was to always check that you had the right kind of charging interface.  It turns out the satellite phone charging cable has a USB connector on one end and none of my auto auxiliary socket connector cables had a USB interface.  Darn!  So, at one of the few convenience stores, probably in Shoshone, CA, we passed on the way, I found a USB output device that just plugs into the automobile cigarette lighter socket.  Somehow, after just trying to charge the satellite phone, the adapter quit working and a replacement unit did not work either.  It turns out, somehow, the automobile fuse for the socket blew and no power was available at all now for charging phones or running the dashcam.  Hmm, something else now that has to be fixed, just in case it is needed in an emergency.



Until next time,

Resident Astronomer George



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