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.

The Last Time I Hitchhiked


Spring break 1974 was the last time I hitchhiked. By then it was going out of vogue. Drivers viewed picking up a stranger as a risk. It was in the mid 1970’s that we learned some people picked up hitchhikers to do harm to them. They would rape and kill them. Had I know that I would have never stuck my thumb up and hitched a ride, but I did. Here is that story.

The story of the last ride I hitched is straightforward. It was spring break 1974. The effects of the Arab Oil Embargo that was put in place during the Yom Kippur War of late 1973 were taking effect. Due to shortages, cars and their drivers lined up at service stations to get gasoline. The traditional full service station became extend during this period. Sometimes you had to wait days to fill up your car’s tank.

March of 1974 found me completing my junior year at The University of Texas at Arlington. Fortunately, I lived adjacent to the campus. This meant I could walk or ride my ten-speed bicycle to class. More and more frequently, I opted for my ten-speed as my preferred method of transportation.

During this same time, Interstate 20 (I-20) was under construction across south Arlington, Texas. Lake Joe Poole was a future development dream.

I was dating my future wife. She was a senior in high school. She lived in DeSoto, Texas 25 mile away. The Tuesday of her spring break, I decided to ride my bike to her house. I left the campus of UT Arlington and head south until I ran into the construction on the future I-20. There I go on the new concrete roadway and headed east several miles until I got to Belt Line Road in Dallas County. There I again headed south. Belt Line Road in just a few short years would be under Lake Joe Poole’s water. There was a huge mountain to go up. My ten-speed zipped up with great ease. As I continued riding past all the television broadcast towers in Cedar Hill, Texas, I quickly crossed the then two lane US Highway 67. Belt Line Road intersected just east of US 67 with Texas Farm Road 1382.

The ride on my ten-speed from Cedar Hill to DeSoto was only five miles. Unfortunately, about hallway between the two towns the rear axle on the bicycle broke. A broken rear axle is bad. It meant I could not ride a bike because the rear wheel would no longer turn.

I had to car the ten-speed the last two plus miles. It was a hot March day with temperatures in the middle 80 degrees. I was not very smart in my travels as I had only one one-quart canteen of water with me. It soon was gone.

I arrived at Miss Benita’s house. She was happy to see me. Her eleventh grade sister was not happy I had invaded their space. They could not believe I had ridden my bike 25 miles. They were even more concerned, well at least Miss Benita was, about how I would get back to college. I remember making a fist with my right hand and extending my thumb.

The girls were afraid of hitchhiking. I seemed very scary to them. From 1967 to 1972, I thumbed many rides. It was still an accepted method of travel.

Well, I chained my bike to their chain-linked fence. I walked down to the Fina gasoline station. Joe Castle owned the business. He asked where my car was. I told my sad tale. He carried me to Cedar Hill and wished me luck. He made sure I had a cold Dr. Pepper.

At Cedar Hill I no more than got out of the Castles old American Rambler station wagon and took my place at the side of Farm Road 1382 (FM 1382), thumb extends this time trying to go north than a Jeep stopped and gave me a ride.

It was a machinist headed for his swing shift at Ling Tempco Vought (LTV) Aeronautics in Grand Prairie, Texas. He let me out where FM 1382 crossed the Pioneer Parkway that was also called Spur 303. He used to be in the US Air Force. That is where he learned his trade of building airplanes. He tossed me a Coca Cola as they left me at the side of the road.

I was not waiting even two minutes when a Chevrolet Camaro stopped. As they rolled down the window, two girls about my age greeted me. “Hey, aren’t you in our English class?” were the first words they said. They followed with “You’re one of those ROTC guys, aren’t you?” The both had an open can of Old Milwaukee beer. The hollered for me to get. The girl who was riding shotgun got out, had me get in and them just sat in my lap. They replaced my Coca-Cola with a beer. We zoomed down Pioneer Parkway until we got to Cooper Street in Arlington. We turned north and head to the campus. They took me to my apartment. They didn’t drop me off. They came in where we listened to the stereo and did what college kids did.

The return trip to my apartment took me about 20 minutes less time than riding the ten-speed t my girlfriend’s house had taken. I still am amazed.

I haven’t hitched a ride since that March day in 1974.