One week ago today I woke up to activity all around my tent. Abby was ready to get out and investigate. Outside the sky was clear. The 36th annual Okie-Tex Star Party had officially started and people were rolling into camp Billy Joe. My one hope that morning was for decent weather throughout the coming week.
You maybe wondering how it is I woke up Saturday morning already at the camp. Like last year I came early to help setup. I arrived Thursday evening and late that night storms rolled through waking me up as it battered my tent. Abby wanted to retreat to the truck that moment. Friday I was on the field with the crew laying out power lines. Quite a change from how things started long ago.
Twenty years ago I made my first trip out to this star party. While an experienced camper I was still rather new to the star party thing. Looking back its funny to think I packed all my gear in a little 93 Geo Tracker. I was in awe of the pristine night sky once darkness fell. That first year in western Oklahoma began what has become my most anticipated time of the year: a chance to spend night after night with the star filled sky. My yearly trip is more than just a vacation from work and city life. Its become my time to fully embrace the night sky, to shift my daily rhythm from day to night. A place and time where I eagerly wait for the sun to set and the night sky to appear. A week under the stars.
The stars are the one thing that haven’t changed in my twenty years of attending Okie-Tex. In the beginning I saw more tents than RVs. That was the first year Okie-Tex was held at Camp Billy Joe (1999). It was also my first experience of significant rain there, my tent was floating one night. In the early years of the 2000s the only public communication was a pay telephone half a mile down the road in Kenton. There was often a line to use it. Kenton had a operating store, the ‘Merc’. Yes it was small but you could get a burger or ice cream sandwich.
Cell coverage was non existent the first ten years. I actually miss that isolation. No internet, no phone, no TV. Cutoff from the usual distractions of the everyday world. This is how it is if one wants to experience truly dark skies. Over the years the observing fields have grown in size. My cell phone has worked there for many years now. Telescopes and equipment have become much more sophisticated. More RVs are there and they are bigger than ever it seems. Still the night sky is as good as ever.
The number of people that attend has slowly risen to over 500 registered this year. I’ve met and friended many fellow stargazers over the years. From all over the country. A good number of those still attend every year. Others I haven’t seen in years.
The always unpredictable weather is the one thing that can make a good or bad star party. I’ve seen just about everything happen over the past twenty years. From hurricane level winds (2006) to lows in the 20s. Rain and thunderstorms more times than I like. Now I never fail to bring cold weather clothes and rain gear regardless what the forecast is. Last year it was cloudy/rainy every single night, complete wash out of the star party. First time in twenty years for that. Over the years I’ve been blown around, pelted with hail, covered in frost and baked in the sun. I’ve watched nervously as lightning pounded the mesas around the camp. Then there are the hot and dry years with cool, crystal clear night skies. One never knows for sure what the weather will be in the panhandle of Oklahoma this time of year.
This year was a pretty good week. The moon rise was an issue at first, unfortunate timing but that’s how it goes. My notes on conditions throughout the 2019 Okie-Tex star party:
|21:17 – 00:39||Mostly clear but sky full of moisture. This more apparant after moonrise where one could see the contrails and cloud wisps in the night sky.|
|21:15 – 01:35||Clear sky with good transparency. Just too short with moonrise.|
|21:14 – 02:37||Good clear night to start. Sky got mushy and then cloudy after moonrise.|
|21:12 – 03:46||Clear but bit soft to start night. Front from north pushed through around midnight clearing sky beautifully. Great night overall.|
|21:10 – 04:58||Started clear but about midnight area was quickly covered in low clouds. Happened very suddenly.|
|21:09 – 06:12||First full night of darkness and I was up until almost dawn. Sky was superb, excellent transparency. Maybe best night all week.|
|21:07 – 06:18||Decent night but not as clear as Thursday. Around midnight some spotty clouds rolled over area and later clouded over.|
|21:06 – 06:18||I left camp around noon to return home. Satelite images suggest it was mostly clear with few passing clouds.|
Overall a very good year for the star party. How one defines a good/great/fantastic week would depend on what they do. Whether one takes pictures or visually observes the sky carry different criteria. As a astrophotographer my desire is for a clear and transparent sky, I can adjust to poor seeing. Winds throughout the week were a bit annoying at times yet that is not unexpected for the area. Its why I, like many others, have a shelter around my scope. High winds do affect visual observers with big telescope much worse. Seeing is rarely the best in the Oklahoma panhandle and this year was its typical ok to poor conditions.
I spent a week preparing this post. Thinking about how this trip felt and what I wanted to say. Adjusting to the slower pace of night life at the star party was way easier than shifting gears back to busy daytime life in town. I miss the pace and tranquility of the week under the stars. I’m glad I ventured out this way twenty years ago, it changed my life.
Looking forward to next years star party!