Friday, March 22, 2013

Hodges Gardens Star Party

field and barn
Observation Field of the BRAS Star Party at Hodges Gardens, tent campers spread out across the field.

My husband and I belong to the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society. John is as involved in this group as I am in our dog club, attending lectures, helping host stargazing evenings at CC’s Coffee House, Best Buy, etc., earning amateur astronomer certificates, and contributing articles to the BRAS newsletter. I attend just a few events, and especially enjoy the out of town retreats to dark sky places where I can bring my dogs. It’s one reason we got the RV.

Last weekend (Thurs – Sun, March 14-17), we were off to the Hodges Gardens in mid-west Louisiana near Leesville, not far from the Texas border.  3.5 hour drive through some pretty hill country. Gorgeous weather all the way, and well worth the drive to see this place. On the drive we talked and I discovered that John's pursuit of astronomy is similar to mine in training dogs -- personal development, feeling "fired up", and wonderment at this incredible adventure called life.

Hodges 4700 acres was private until it was donated to the State of LA in 2007.  The Hodges put in lakes, formal gardens, a grass air strip, equestrian center, hiking trails, gift shop, cabins, canoeing, and an RV camp.  The park also boasts a huge field with no light pollution (photo above), perfect for the annual star party BRAS hosts. 66 amateur astronomers showed up, many families rented cabins, others pitched tents right there in the field, a few like us had RV’s.

red barn (800x600)
The Red Barn, and grassy area where we trained our dogs.
In distance, the huge field with tent campers and canopies.
It was our first star party. Thursday afternoon we drove straight to the observation field, set up John's equipment and our dogs' x-pen under our 10' canopy, and I found the perfect level shady place to park my RV beside an old red barn, with a flat grassy lawn for dog training beside it.   I was very happy.  But after dark the dogs were not happy in the field, barking at everything, so I brought them back to the RV.  As no lights were allowed, I draped the windows, lit one candle, and listened to podcasts in the dark on my iPhone til midnight. At some point the BRAS director came over and informed me we were not allowed to park there overnight, nor run our generator, nor even drive vehicles within 1/4 mile of the field after 6 p.m. (light pollution).  I could not stay in my spot.   This made no sense to me as other people had vehicles parked in that field beside their tents for 4 days.

So at midnight curfew we drove the RV 1/4 mile back to the parking lot where a few other RV's were and went to sleep, miffed.  I learned there were no electric or water hookups anywhere.  I was more miffed!. Next morning, I located a shady spot amidst pine trees to park the rest of the weekend, and marked it with orange cones so when I drove off to tour nobody else would get my spot.  The only way I could level the unit was to sink the back wheels into a low spot.  Our new location was too long a distance to walk the dogs back and forth to the Observation Field in the pitch dark.

Thus, John did the stargazing while I spent Friday night in the RV, again, and entertained myself in the dark, again, listening to Podcasts until my iPhone battery went dead.  Then I was really miffed. John was having fun, but this weekend was not at all what I had pictured.

One of the 2 earthen dams
with a road on top.
Day times were splendid, though!  Friday Karen, her kids, John and I took a driving tour together through the park, in the RV, stopping along the way for me to take photos.  We pooled our food and enjoyed several meals in Karen’s cabin, and played a new board game - Gemlock. Saturday John, Christina and I went back and walked through the gardens.  Beautiful!

We could drive up to the field any time during the day, park in shade beside the red barn. I set up my agility equipment in what turned out to be the only level grassy area in the whole park. Christina, a teenager who trains a border collie, had come along with her mother and brother, Karen & Jacob, both active in BRAS, when she learned I was bringing my dogs and equipment. Both Friday and Saturday, we trained during the day while the astronomer geeks did their thing. I brought enough portable equipment to set up jump chutes, threadles, serpentines, weaves, and chute for Maxie, Lucky, and Shadow. Christina helped me work Pepper on short sequences. Lucky especially enjoyed chasing her Chuck-It ball through the tall dead grass in the field, Pepper racing alongside. We drew some interest from others who took a break from star talk and came to watch us train. Alas, I didn’t get pics of any of that.

About Hodges Gardens:
While the park is mostly hilly pine country and rough, with hiking and horse trails scattered about, the formal gardens are cultivated and elegant.  Similar to Bellengrath Gardens near Moblie, AL, but hillier, and without a plantation to tour. 

Built near an old quarry, with plenty of slate and granite around, the Hodges had built numerous architectural stone structures, plus 2 dams creating a beautiful lake and designed gardens with meandering paths, and a series of waterfalls cascading through camelia, azelea, rose and other gardens.  An amphitheater, and numerous lookout points on hilltops – gorgeous!

cabin (800x600)
Karen's cabin by the lake.

There are 12 cabins for rent clustered here and there around the lake (alas, no dogs allowed within), a lodge for retreats, canoes and kayaks for rent, horesback riding trails, and boat ramps.  Lots of outdoor suff to do.

One sad point about Hodges, there were no designated RV spots, no hookups, and no level ground. The sites that used to be there were torn out by the state for "not meeting code", there is no level ground, the roads have many potholes, and it seems our state budget does not have enough cash to fix things, which is why their official website doesn't do the place justice. (The Friends Of Hodges website has a great page on the history of the place, lots of before and after B & W pics, well worth the read.) Many people there were badmouthing LA Gov. Bobby Jindal for siphoning off the money.

Our campsite, just off the parking lot.  That's me with
Willow, Maxie, Pepper, Lucky

Our campsite was in piney woods on the edge of a large grass airstrip some astronomers used at night to view the Pan-Starr comet at nightfall.  I just missed seeing it myself before it disappeared below the horizon. This spot doesn't do for a star party because there are lights in the parking lot and cars with headlights coming and going, destroying night vision.

Friday night John walked the 1/4 mile to the field, and walked home at about midnight.  We learned next day that about 3 a.m. a single huge gust of wind blew down our canopy, despite it being staked down, so we took it down Saturday.  It wasn’t damaged, but some others out there were destroyed.  Some people tent camping had their tents come down on their heads, one a pregnant lady. A few telescopes blew over and were damaged, one that cost $9,000 and has to be shipped back to Japan for warranty repairs. Ouch!

Saturday night was open to the public, with a hayride shuttle, so I left the dogs locked in the RV and joined John at the field.  About 200 people showed up, lots of Asian tourists chattering away who had never looked through a telescope before.  It was a blast.  John was in his element, with people lined up to see Jupiter’s moons through his telescope.  Other scopes were trained on various sky objects, with long lines to see them and BRAS members used their lazer lights to point out the object in the sky, explaining what it was.  The weather was cool, the breeze was brisk but manageable, lazer lights criss crossing each other in the night sky made it all the more exciting. 

Light Pollution:
I caught the hayride back to the RV about 10 p.m, perched on wobbly hay bales with about 20 other folks, mesmerized by the moonlight casting eerie shadows across the road through the tall pines.  One doesn’t much notice light pollution in town, but it’s absence is important.  The Milky Way was clearly visible, as were many millions of stars. They fill your soul with wonderment.

Back at the RV Saturday night, alone in the woods again, I thought, to heck with this no electricity situation, fired up my generator, and spent two luxurious hours with lights and a microwave to heat my coffee -- for as long as it took to charge up my phone and computer!  The generator police didn't come get me.  John walked back around 3 a.m., exhausted.

4 days without electricity, and what inconvenienced me most was no way to charge my cell phone or computer.  I found a single plug in the shower building but couldn't see myself sitting in there 2 hours guarding my equipment!  We charged our phones every time we visited Karen's cabin. I also missed my microwave to heat coffee. I learned Sunday while packing up to leave that I could have run the generator the whole weekend. It was only at the Observation Field after 6 p.m. we weren’t allowed to use it! 

Moral #1 of this tale – ask the right questions, to the right people, and don't take your first answer as the only one.
Moral #2 - RV'ers don't need hookups or a generator if you bring your own water, you don't need A/C, have LP gas for stove and fridge, and you can find a plug to charge your phone and computer batteries.
Moral #3 - Light pollution in cities robs us of much of the magic of night.  We should really do something about that.

L to R:  Maxie, Willow, Pepper watch on as
Mommy hops out to take pictures.
Moral #4 - Dogs don't give a damn about flower gardens, lovely scenery or stargazing.  They only look at you.

Moral #5 - Hodges Gardens is a testament how the Hand Of Man can improve upon God's raw design. (see PS below).

Came home and upon reflection, realized that despite all the inconvenience, I had a wonderful time.

More photos of Hodges Gardens here.

Upwards and onward!

P.S.  Lacking electricity, sitting in darkness, parking in undeveloped woods on rough terrain, makes one think differently.  I celebrated the hand of man several times on this trip. More on this in my next post.


Anonymous said...

what a great flashback

Laura Efferson said...

I never really thought much about light pollution until I heard about it from John. These days, we really don't experience darkness unless the entire city's power is out due to a hurricane. How wonderful it must be to see the milky way in person!