It's 8 p.m. and everybody else in New Mexico has finished the dinner dishes and is sitting down to watch Night Court. Not me. I'm at the stove in my goosedown underwear, 7,200 feet above sea level, cooking breakfast. Not some wimpy breakfast, mind you, but a guts breakfast: two strip steaks, four eggs, potatoes, coffee. A big pot of it. We are getting ready to view the celestial event of the year, Comet Austin.
Welcome to the Star Hill Inn, America's first resort designed to accommodate the nerds of the night. My husband, Don, and I have flown four hours and driven three more so that we, along with our Star Hill companions, can stay up all night on a windswept platform in the near-freezing temperatures of early spring, staring into the night sky.
We have joined the rapidly growing ranks of recreational astronomers. These are some 300,000 people who, while appearing normal by day, spend their nights spying on galaxies. They even have rallies and competitions and marathons. It's probably the only tick-free back-to-nature sport left, but it does get low marks in the suntan division.
As a sport, astronomy is almost as exciting as ice fishing, except that you can't drink. You can chase a whole bottle of Jack Daniel's with a six-pack and still know when you've nailed a pike. But one cup of the grape and you're likely to miss that occultation of Jupiter. Actually, astronomy is more like bird-watching since it also has a life list. My life list now numbers 31 of the 110 sky items—nebulas, star clusters and galaxies—that you need to have in order to be recognized by your peers as an amateur astronomer.
It wasn't always like this for me and my husband. I remember a time when we too would wander under the night sky and make amazing observations like, "Isn't that the Big Dipper?" Then one night early in 1986—you remember, the year of Halley's Almost Invisible Comet—I mentioned that with the comet coming and all, it would be nice if we had a telescope.
Home came, to live in the dining room of our apartment, a dandy telescope on a sturdy aluminum tripod. With this telescope, if you knew just where to look, you could find the little fuzzy ball that was Halley's. It was a sight, when actually beheld, that caused most people to say, "Uh-huh."
Not us; it changed our life. Into our home came telescope No. 2, a more powerful instrument. Easily assembled, moved and aligned by two sumo wrestlers and an astrophysicist, No. 2 allowed us to see Halley's as a much larger fuzzy ball. When scope No. 3 with its rolling support stand arrived, we bought a house.
So now we have come to Sapello, N.Mex., in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains northeast of Santa Fe with our fellow Star Hill guests—a turkey saleswoman from Virginia, a NASA physicist from Houston and a priest from Queens, N.Y. We are gathered because about three months ago, amateur comet hunter Rodney R.D. Austin in New Zealand discovered a never-before-seen fuzzy ball in the sky. The discovery made—in the world of amateur astronomy—headlines on a par with those of the Trump divorce.
We sure didn't want to miss this one. But we live in the nation's capital. What with the monument lights, car headlights, streetlights and SWAT-team searchlights, our sky is so cluttered that we would probably miss the Second Coming.
To the rescue of all us urban astronomers has come Star Hill. The inn is actually five cottages and is located under some of the country's clearest and darkest skies. Our cozy cottage came complete with a moon chart on the refrigerator and blackout shades for daytime sleeping.