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Road Trip to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory

McDonald Observatory

In October 1974, I made my first trip to the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. It was 500 miles one-way from the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington (UT Arlington) to Fort Davis, Texas. I went to do the required astronomical labs for my physics class in astronomy.

The trip was a caravan from the UT Arlington campus to far west Texas. We departed about 2 PM on Friday, October 4, 1974. We headed from Arlington west on Interstate 20 (yes it was built way back then). We drove to Lake Colorado City State Park about 3 miles south of Interstate 20 just southwest of Colorado City, Texas. I pitched my tent. I shared the tent with 4 young women and one young man that were fellow cadets in the UT Arlington ROTC program. Three of them were prior service (US military veterans).

The next morning we got up early and headed west. We stopped at a Stuckey’s (remember them?) getting two scrambled eggs with toast and bacon or sausage plus coffee for under a dollar. The journey continued to Pecos, Texas. There we left Interstate 20 and headed south on Texas Highway 17. We crossed Interstate 10 at Balmorhea, Texas and head south to Fort Davis. We camped at the Davis Mountains State Park.

That weekend the park also hosted a retreat for the Odessa, Texas Jaycees. Some of them were concerned that we had males and females staying in the same tent. I got a strong morals lecture from a Baptist deacon. It mattered not we were all of legal age.

That Saturday, October 5, 1974 a very good top five ranked Texas A & M football team was upset by Kansas University loosing 28 to 10. We listened to the game on the radio as we explored the city of Alpine, Texas and toured the Fort Davis National Historic site. I’ve actually been there more times than any national park or historic site with the exception of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Why more to the Smokeys? My brother-in-law is a retired Great Smoky Mountain Park Ranger.

We drove to the McDonald’s Observatory in the early afternoon to check-in and get ready for the night’s observations. We returned that night for one of the most memorable evenings of my life.

The McDonald Observatory is an astronomical observatory located. It is located just northwest of Fort Davis, Texas, on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. It is the property of the University of Texas at Austin.

The McDonald Observatory was the first location on earth to bounce a laser off a reflector left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. I learned this on my road trip.

I also learned the high and dry peaks of the Davis Mountains make for some of the darkest and clearest night skies in the region and provide excellent conditions for astronomical research. It is one of the darkest places on earth at night. I can vouch for it being dark and more stars being visible than you could count in a lifetime.

UT McDonald Observatory

I have been back many times since that first trip in 1974. I took my two sons there on dad-son vacation when they were 13 and 10 years old. Since then they have built an excellent visitor center.

The trip back to the University of Texas at Arlington was a long one. We drove back on US 67. It was 500 miles on a two lane highway. On the return trip I stopped and visited my parents at their ranch northwest of Brownwood, Texas.

McDonald Observatory

It was on the 1974 trip I decided to ask Benita Breeding to marry me. I proposed the next week and we married on December 28, 1974.

Photo Credits: Jimmie A. Kepler took the photographs in May 2007. The photographs are available for use under the Creative Commons License listed below.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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