If I close my eyes and listen to the world around me, I hear the zipping of nylon windbreakers. I feel my own torso marshmallowed out by sweaters over sweaters. I could easily be back in the damp New England woods of my childhood Girl Scout camping trips; the same contained anticipation hangs in the air.
The main difference is I am not 11 years old nor am I in New England. Rather, I'm standing in the Santa Fe Railyard waiting to board a rickety train that will carry me and approximately 60 other people out to the middle of nowhere so we can traipse around in the dark and stare at the stars.
"Did everyone bring their flashlights?" the troop leader—er, Rici Peterson, executive director of the Santa Fe Conservation Trust—asks.
The crowd murmurs "yes" with a few unsure responses mixed in.
"Did everyone dress warmly?"
A resounding "yes" this time.
"OK, all aboard!"
The day before riding the Star Train, I sat down to lunch with Peter Lipscomb and Robert Hoyle, two self-proclaimed "astrononerds" who spend their days talking about the skies and their nights gazing into them.
Both speak about astronomy with such excitement, anyone listening is drawn into their enthusiasm. It's this enthusiasm that has led them, especially Lipscomb, to form and become involved in the Capital City Astronomy Club.
Both became interested in the subject as kids and are passionate about instilling in children a love for the stars. Six schools in Santa Fe have approached Lipscomb with an interest in developing an astronomy program, two of which—Salazar Elementary and La Mariposa Montessori schools—have scheduled star parties.
Hoyle has been stargazing since age 11. He attended the University of Texas at Austin and originally wanted to be an astrophysicist. A faculty advisor, however, told him that he'd never make money doing that, and that
he should become an aerospace engineer instead. So he did.
"I've regretted that decision all my life," he says. "If I had it to do over again, I'd have said, 'Hell no, I'm gonna be an astrophysicist.'"
I pause for a moment. "What's the difference?" I ask.
"An astrophysicist is really far-out stuff," he says with a wry smile. "It's the origins of the universe and how stars are formed and things like that. Aerospace engineering is designing rockets and missile systems." He shrugs.
While employed at NASA, Hoyle worked on the first Apollo mission, the lunar excursion module and Apollo 13, to name a few.
"But any time I got a break in my life," he says, "I went back to my astronomy, because that's really my love."
Lately Hoyle has gotten into photographing stars, though both Hoyle and Lipscomb agree that fantastical, mind-blowing images of the cosmos can almost be a detriment to kids' interest in the stars.
Put your eye up to a telescope and you won't see huge, colorful star collisions or swirling nebulas or even, perhaps, the rings of Saturn all too clearly. A telescope usually reveals a blob of light next to some other blobs of light; if you're with people who know what they're talking about, they can help you differentiate which blob is the Andromeda galaxy and which one is just a moth resting on the lens.
It was a simple (sort of) occurrence that brought Lipscomb to the skies. When he was 8, he saw a total eclipse of the sun, and that sealed the deal. From then on, he wanted to look at the sky.
"I realized that celestial mechanics was much more than wrenches in space," Lipscomb says (and Hoyle gives a chuckle). "There's always something going on out there, and knowing and understanding that interested me."
There's always something going on out there, indeed.
As we near the Galisteo Basin Preserve on the Star Train, which is organized by the Santa Fe Conservation Trust and the Commonweal Conservancy, someone announces that there will be 10 telescopes of varying sizes, all trained on different astronomical curiosities, put out amid the cholla and the chamisa. Fervent "oohs" and "aahs" rise from the crowd.
I'm afraid that Girl Scouts hasn't prepared me well enough for the cold, so I snatch an extra blanket that the train keeps stocked in its cars, wrap it around me like a poncho and head into the night. Everyone's flashlights have little condom-like red balloons rubber-banded to the bulb so the white light doesn't ruin everybody's night vision.
Hoyle tells me that, once your eyes are adjusted to the dark, even a split second of white light can undo hours' worth of chemical work inside your eyeballs. "You flash a light, and some astronomers will throw rocks at you," he says without a hint of irony.
So we march through the chamisa, led by red lanterns, toward the circle of telescopes. It's so dark you can't see anyone's face, but you may recognize a hat or the outline of a coat or the way someone walks. I carry on a half-hour conversation with a woman, tell her all about my upbringing, my career, my ex-boyfriends and my dog and, for the life of me, I couldn't point her out today in a lit room.
As I climb a ladder to peep through the eyepiece of a massive 24-inch telescope, I see the faint glow of a moustache on the scope's proprietor. "Peter, it's me!" I tell Lipscomb. "Charlotte!"
"Oh, hi!" he says cheerily. "Glad you could make it."
I peer through the scope at a cluster of stars, splattered on the black like a sneeze on a window. I descend the ladder again and find my way to the scope trained on the Pleiades.
"The Pleiades are actually not seven sisters," the man at the telescope says. "Don't say that, it offends the other 200 or so."
I look though the scope and there they are. The eyepiece is filled with sparkling stars, crystalline and still as ice. Indeed, they look nothing like the wondrous images on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website, but something about feeling hundreds of light years closer to a star—with still hundreds of light years left to go—fills me with awe.
Sooner than I'd like, it's time to head back. Lipscomb grabs a big red lantern and a group of us follows him toward the train.
As we traipse through the brush, we see the light of the train getting further and further away.
"Um, Peter…" someone says hesitantly, and Lipscomb stops.
"I can find galaxies thousands of light years away, but I can't find my way back to the train," he says as he doubles back and leads us to the light.
Star tips this winter from Peter Lipscomb:
Geminid meteor shower: Saturday-Monday, Dec. 12-14, 2009, early evening display. The parent body of the meteors is thought to be extinct comet 3200 Phaeton.
Mars opposition: Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, all night. Mars' approximate distance at opposition will be 62 million miles from Earth.
Star events this winter:
Holiday Star Party hosted by New Mexico State Parks and members of the Capital City Astronomy Club: 7 pm Friday, Dec. 18 at Hyde Park Lodge. Call 505-983-7175 for more information.
Capital City Astronomy Club
Santa Fe Conservation Trust
Galisteo Basin Preserve
Astronomy Picture of the Day
Peter Lipscomb's blog