Saturday, September 18, 2004

Hey Diddle Diddle, A Short Night at Fiddle(town...)

I had a great weekend.

As anyone that watches the sky knows, Saturday looked fairly dismal for amateur astronomy purposes. So, after seeing the Clear Sky Clocks predicted a short window of "Yes" between blocks of solid white, a friend and I decided to combine a few other activities with an attempt to do some astronomy. We had actually looked at places like Point Reyes - all the campgrounds were full inside the park and nearby - or up to Calavares Big Trees State Park up highway 4 outside of Angels Camp - but it was full too. So, it was decided that the best option would be to hit the road for Fiddletown, just outside Plymouth (Pokerville), on highway 49 just north of better know Sutter Creek and Jackson.

The drive was easy, a real surprise - almost no traffic - and soon we were heading up into the wild country rising east of the central valley. It is a beautiful area - and made even more spectacular by the reading out loud of "Rush To Riches" - an excellent read of California's history from the mythical times of native Queen Califia up through the end of the "Free For All" of California's incredible Gold Rush. If you are unfamiliar with this history, it is fascinating, surprising, and a great way to feel more connected with the various places we all go throughout the state as amateur astronomers.

After a short visit to the Pokerville Market to fill my thermos with coffee, we drove toward Fiddletown, but turned toward the valley just north - the Shenandoah Valley - home to dozens of Amador County's great wineries. I prefer the friendly and casual nature, beautiful setting, friendly and free tastings offered there, compared to the commercial feeling I get visiting the Napa Valley. Our stops included Spinetta and Vino Noceto. Spinetta had a great Black Muscat and Frost Wine - but we purchased a Heritage Red and a Barbera. Noceto was fun for the Doggie Diner "head" outside - those of you have been in the San Francisco area for a long time remember these fun canines.

After the tasting, we headed over a backroad toward Fiddletown, just a few miles away as the crow flies. This day happened to be the Fiddletown "Fiddle Jam" - just a lucky quirk that we were there on the right day. We caught the last hour of the event - with what I take to be mostly local talent on a stage set up in the middle of Fiddletown Road - causing a detour around the "downtown" area of this little hamlet. There were all sorts of crafts, food, colorful locals to people-watch at, and of course music. It was a fun diversion.

Following that was a 10 minute ride toward Volcano, and our observing site.

As expected, we were alone there. The sky was clouded over, and nobody was within earshot other than neighbor Paula's Great Dane and Rottweiler. The Dane always greets us - barking and growling - but too afraid of anyone to come near. The only other signs of life were the ants, which seemed to be totally unaware of the "ant stakes" sitting atop their ant-holes.

I set up the 18" Obsession and 10" CPT - crawled into the truck to stay warm, and read more Gold Rush while waiting for sunset. A quick taco dinner cooked on a camp stove and bottle of wine took out the day, and under still cloudy skies it was back into the truck to stay warm and read.

Around 9 o'clock or so, I stuck my head out a door and saw a clear sky. Out we went, to the telescopes. Seeing was okay, but did not hold up well at high power - this was a night for low and medium power eyepieces. A lot of eye candy was devoured - tasty stuff - then I opened up the Night Sky Observers Guide to Delphinus. I had left my computer packed and decided to play with Sky Atlas 2000 and the Uranometria - a paper night. I tore through several objects in Del, the one that eluded me (or so I think) was Abell 72 (PK59-18.1) - I thought I saw a glow around the brighter of two stars - but no - the image shows it off the star. Negative sighting. :-( I did have fun though tracking down several small dim galaxies well off the main body of the Dolphin.

After a few hours bands of clouds began drifting through - and driving us back into the truck for more local wine and Gold Rush history.

By midnight we were beat, and it wasn't until about 2:30 a.m. that I awoke to find the sky perfectly clear again. When I woke next, the sky was laden with heavy clouds that forced me quickly out of the truck to start packing the telescopes.

We soon hit the road, with no destination in mind, which is a fun way to be. At the intersection of 49 and Fiddletown Road, I decided on south, through Amador City, Drytown, then Sutter Creek and into Jackson. The clouds had cut loose and we were in the midst of the first good rain squall of the season. It was nice, and my truck certainly looked better after the free wash. We ducked into a local coffee shop - the double latte and hot chocolate were great as we read more from the book and chatted with a large bald guy in a Harley Davidson shirt and his woman friend. Nice town, relaxed. We sat on the couch for some time, sipping, enjoying. Off then to a local bookstore - hundreds of thousands of used books (or so they'd have you believe). Then headed out again... for points further south on 49.

In San Andreas I saw a sign I knew to expect - California Cavern at Cave City - a geologically fascinating place discovered by 49ers during the gold rush. Nine miles later we were passing the "Corndog Turnpike" (there's a sign for it, really), and down the road to the attraction. It was 50 degrees F outside, as we entered the cavern's warmer constant temperature of 53 degrees. Hard hats on, we witnessed other people crawling into and out of small holes in the formations leading to hidden rooms. The flowstone, soda-straws, stalagmites, stalagtites, curtains and cave bacon were great. If you want to find real dark, go into one of these places sometime and turn out the lights - but don't lose your candle of flashlight. This is where "black" is black!

An hour later, we emerged into the clouded skies again, drizzle falling on us as we headed to the truck for the ride back home. Gold Country is a true beauty spot in this amazing state. The history, the golden yellow late season grasses with the first rains upon them, the rusty colored earth in the hills and old buildings along the curving highway. I couldn't think of a better place to spend a day or so - away from the crowds and noise of the bay area.

Observing is fun, and this was a good trip. Observing combined with other memorable activities is even better. I look forward to more such adventures...

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