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Mojave Astronomy Adventure

Part I

My wife, Kimberly, and I were in Las Vegas in June of 2001 for a family vacation that included her parents and her brothers and their families. I was thrilled at the prospect of the trip, because I knew Vegas would be fun for all of us-there are two 4-year-olds in the crowd-and I also knew I would be able to break away for some great stargazing in the desert. I contacted the Las Vegas astronomy club, and they gave me directions to a site about 75 miles south of town, off of Route 15 towards Los Angeles. They did not, however, recommend that I go alone, and even offered to announce to the club when I would be out there to see if anyone else would be interested in going. I assumed we would be fine, so didn't let them know when specifically I would be out there.

After lunch at the Luxor Hotel on our second day there, I packed my Megrez 80mm semi-apochromatic telescope, my Fujinon 7x50 binoculars, and charts, flashlights, and other accessories into the rented minivan and we set off. (Kimberly, who was six month pregnant, was enthusiastic about the trip as well, and was eager to come with me.) We drove down I-15 south, past two enormous gambling outposts (Jeans and Prim) and up into the mountains. We rose to about 4,000 feet from the 2,000 at Vegas. It took us about an hour to make it down I-15 to the Cima exit, as was indicated on the directions I got from the president of the Las Vegas Astronomy Club. There were no buildings at the exit except for a closed garage at which was parked a large tow truck, obviously waiting for some rigs to break down up in the hills. There were no other buildings, and no sign of any towns, homes, or anything anywhere near the place, all of which bode well for some good observing. We drove down the road, and right were the directions said it would be, about 7 miles from the freeway, was a dirt road midway through a left curve. We got on and headed in.

We passed several areas that could have been the observing sites, but I wanted to make sure there wasn't a more obvious area farther in. We drove about half a mile and decided to turn around. I backed up about 20 y rds, and saw the road diverge in my rear-view mirror. Both sides looked the same, so I picked the one that I thought was the one we came in on. About 10 yards into it, the truck bottomed out. I put it in forward and pressed on the gas. The wheel spun and kicked dirt up ten feet in the air. I looked at Kimberly, who just looked back at me as we both realized our predicament.

I got out of the car to inspect. The back end of the truck was clear up to about two feet behind the front axle, which was resting on a bed of dirt. I went around to the front and looked at the wheels. The right one seemed okay, but the left was buried pretty deep. The sand was very loose and pebbly, like tiny marbles. On my hands and knees, I carved out some of the sand with my hands, both in front of and behind the tire. Then I got back in and tried it again. The car dug further in. I let off the gas and realized a few seconds later that the wheel was still spinning. I pressed the brake to stop it. Kimberly broke up the lid of the styrofoam cooler we had and shoved pieces under the front right wheel, for traction. She also assessed our water situation, which fortunately was good. I cleared more dirt, and Kim gathered more twigs and rocks for traction. We shoved them under the front left wheel, and tried again. No dice. The wheel just carved out another clean round path for itself. I tried leaning on the front and back to see if it could be rocked out. It didn't budge a hair.

Of course, I was feeling quite miserable, getting my pregnant wife stranded in the desert, but Kim was doing okay. She worked the problem like a champ. We had the phone book with us-great maps!-and began trying to call the emergency numbers. Unfortunately, we were just barely outside the range of the cell phones, and none of our calls went through. I got through to 911, but was cut off as soon as I started talking. We turned off the phone and resumed working on the tires. I took the panel that was covering the jack, and used it to help us dig out. The crank for the jack helped as well, particularly with the sand underneath the axle. But I realized when I got under the front end just how badly it was buried. The axle was resting on the dirt, which went up higher than the axle, and clearing it out was a very slow process. I stayed at it for 20 minutes or so, as Kim continued to gather rocks and twigs. We took water breaks, and began worrying about the sun setting soon. It was within 20 degrees of the horizon, so we had about another hour or so left. We had been stuck there for about an hour. We discussed strategies for walking back to the main road and then to the gas station, 7 or 8 miles away, if no cars came down the road.

I got back under the front end of the truck and resumed digging out. A few minutes later, Kimberly said, "Eric, look." I got up and saw-to my indescribable relief-a dark Chevy Blazer heading toward us, coming out from the hills toward the main road. I dropped the jack handle to the ground and looked up to the sky, saying Thank You! Kimberly smiled broadly. We walked over to the truck as it came over. They stopped. The woman rolled down the window and said Hi cheerily. Her name was Michi, his Russ. We exchanged pleasantries and they of course offered to help us out. He said he didn't have anything to pull us out with, but he could push us. He drove down and got in behind me. He nudged up behind me and made contact with the van, which caused a sharp bump. He accelerated, and started digging in himself. Finally, the van jumped forward a foot or so. I hit the gas and it promptly dug back in. I realized at that moment that there was no way we could possibly have gotten the van out ourselves, with any amount of digging. Russ came up again and touched the van. He ground away at it and finally the van lurched forward and I got some traction, enough to get it out to the main road. I backed down to where Kimberly was waiting with Michi. Russ got out, and we shook hands.

They're a sweet couple, for certain. They were up in the hills exploring old abandoned mines for the day. They live in Vegas, having retired there last year. She's from Okinawa. He's in his upper 60s, and is a former pilot. He was thrilled to hear that I was an editor at Air & Space. We chatted out there for about 20 minutes. Michi loved the fact that we were going to have a baby. We eventually said our goodbyes, and I got their address so we could send him a subscription to the magazine. They promised to stay with us until we got to the main road. We drove out and headed back to the freeway.

We pulled over at the closed-up gas station to assess our situation, clean up a bit, and eat something. It was then that we started talking about how bad it could have been had they not come along. We could have had to spend the night and walk back in the morning-or I walk back while Kim waited in the truck (not a good proposition, either.) We both agreed that we were too freaked out for any stargazing, and that it would be best to just return to the warm bosom of the Luxor. We drove back at a stately pace. On the way, we passed an accident. A car had gone off the road and ended up upside-down on the opposite side of a small valley. Emergency crews were working on the car. We got to the Luxor at about 10:00, took showers, and went straight to bed.

Part II

Two days later, on a Wednesday evening, we took another crack at stargazing. I was pleased that Kimberly had enough faith in me to come out again. This time, we told people where we were and how to get there, and promised her parents that we would leave a message for them when we got back to the hotel.

We headed out to California much later this time, around 7:45. We got to the Cima site after dark, and drove only a quarter-mile off the highway, to a large round unpaved-but hard-packed-area to the right that wasn't nearly as soft and sandy as the spot 7 miles farther down. I put the van in about 50 feet off the road, and we got out. I was blown away. The number of stars visible was enormous, simply mind-blowing. The whole sky seemed to sparkle. The Milky Way was clearly visible, and the southern horizon was simply alive with stars and other objects. I started with the Fujinon 7x50 binoculars. I sat down in a folding chair I picked up for $7.50 at Sports Authority when we arrived in Vegas, and started scanning. It seemed that everywhere I panned there were things to see. I stumbled on globular clusters, spotted nebulas clearly, and recognized various stars. That was actually harder than I expected. The problem with dark skies is that the constellations can be hard to identify-the volume of stars that are suddenly visible tends to hide them. It took me a while to get oriented.

I brought out the Megrez and began hunting things down. First was M13. It looked spectacular with the 18mm University Optics orthoscopic eyepiece. Very clearly defined. The 9mm ortho broke it up into individual stars, but only with the help of averted vision. M51, near the Big Dipper, was very obvious, and the best I've ever seen it, even in my 9.25-inch Celestron Schmidt Cassegrain back home. Both galaxies in the pair were clear, and I suspect I could detect the spiral structure with some concentrated averted vision. I showed this one to Kimberly-who between her trips to the eyepiece was reading in the car with a red flashlight light-and she enjoyed it. The Megrez was acquitting itself quite well. I have it mounted on a small Bogen/Manfrotto 3205 tripod with a very scope-friendly Bogen/Manfrotto 3028 head. This lightweight combo is remarkably stable. The head has a long slit in which you can slide the mounting screw, so you can attach one of the Megrez's rings to it and the second with one of the screws that came supplied with the scope. No mounting plate is necessary, and the rings are spaced closely enough that you can slide the tube up and down to achieve a good balance. I use a 1.25-inch TeleVue diagonal and I tend to go with smaller, lighter eyepieces. A 2-inch diagonal and a big Panoptic-though great in this scope-can cause some minor balance shake problems on this setup. They aren't extreme, but I prefer to do without. I have a bigger tripod and Telepod head at home that is quite happy with the Megrez and the big EP's.

The southern Milky Way around Sagittarius was the most spectacular-the number of nebulas and open clusters in that little area is incredibly high. It's a very dense area of the sky. I scanned it more-or-less randomly with the scope, using mostly my 30mm Celestron Ultima, stopping to enjoy the nebulas and clusters. I got good looks at the Lagoon Nebula (M8), the Butterfly Cluster (M6), Ptolemy's Cluster (M7), the Eagle Nebula (M16), and M23, a sensational open cluster. I also tried Mars, which was somewhat disappointing, as it boiled quite a bit and was practically featureless. I scrolled around the rest of the sky, too, spending lots of time with objects I just stumbled on and didn't try to identify. I then spent more time with the binoculars, showing Kim the clusters in Sagittarius. At about 11:45 it was getting chilly, and I decided to pack it in. It was easy in the minivan-just slide open the door and pack everything up on the seat. I felt very good about the session. It was, without a doubt, one of the more satisfying observing experiences of my life, if for no other reason than the pure clarity and brilliance of the sky, and Kimberly was really happy that I finally got to do it. I was, too.


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