Mystery and Science

I believe there are McDonald Observatory people and Marfa Lights people. My sons’ favorite sports radio show from Dallas took their broadcast on the road to Alpine and Marfa a few years ago. “They agreed with our opinions about pretty much everything,” one son texted me. Marfa’s nice, but not much to see there especially on a Monday, and Alpine was buzzing with life and commerce. These citified radio personalities didn’t make it to McDonald Observatory, but they did try to observe the Marfa Lights. They often referred to the Observatory, but they were talking about the viewing site for the Marfa Lights not UT’s McDonald Observatory where science happens. Uncool.

I lived in the area until I was six and thereafter traveled every holiday of my life between Alpine and Marfa, and the Marfa Lights were never discussed. After I got to college,  a professor, upon finding out where my family lived, asked what I thought about  Marfa’s lights. Not believing something that well-known was unknown to me, I pretended to know what he was talking about. I immediately asked my parents who had chauffeured me by the lights hundreds of times only to have my dad say: “Just car lights on the road to Presidio.” Then I asked my uncle who lived in Marfa and who had been flying planes over the area since 1936, and he, with eyes twinkling, said, “What do you think?”

I guess I adopted his point of view because I have faithfully delivered all my curious visitors to the side of the road, now a real viewing structure, to see what they think.

whirlpool galaxy

Not the Marfa Lights, but the real Whirlpool Galaxy by McDonald Images.

Last July when I took a friend to see the Marfa Lights, I didn’t even get out of the car. I sat with car windows down and listened to the gravel crunching under tourists’ feet. I thought about how I might recreate the yummy date dessert we’d just had at Marfa’s Cochineal when I heard my friend talking.

“This is nice, but what’s really amazing around here are the Star Parties at McDonald Observatory.” I could tell she wasn’t preaching to any choir as she went on with her sales pitch about how to get to Mt. Locke–where the Observatory is located–and what to do up there. “The Observatory is where real space mysteries are explained by astronomers,” she went on. “It’s fabulous!”

She climbed back in the car, and we took off for Alpine. I asked if she convinced anyone to go up to the real Observatory. “Maybe,” she said, hope in her voice. I had my doubts.

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