The Starry Night, 103

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12/02/2013. I bought a dark-sky observatory on 340 million acres (more or less). Also an efficiency apartment in Taos and one in Albuquerque. A cabin above Quemado Lake and another on the edge of Chaco Canyon.

[October 2019: After several adventures and misadventures, the RV is parked in New Mexico under lovely dark skies at an astronomically friendly park. It's stored there, ready to be used whenever possible, loaded with the G11 mount, the 10-inch Newtonian, a 6-inch achromat, and assorted wires and cables needed t make it all work. Details to come!]

I spent two years (two years!) trying out different floorplans in my head, reading about options and accessories, reviews and reports. I dreamed myself Out West with telescopes and cameras on board: where would I store this, that? How did I see myself using that gear? Could I carry it in and out? Would it fit through the door? Where would I sit, how protect instruments from rain without tearing down every time the sky clouded over, where would the computer go, the wiring? Could Amy sleep through stargazing if the floorplan were arranged this way or that? On solo ventures, how could various spaces be used? How could I get astronomical gear from here to there and back again if I didn't want to leave all of it out yonder? Where would I park it between adventures? Eventually, I worked out plausible answers for all that.

At various times, I settled on Toyota-based Dolphins and Sunraders and Warriors, Thor-built Majestic 23P's and A's. In the end, I decided I wanted a big honkin' motor for western mountains and to stay more or less out of the way on the road; I wanted a rear corner bedroom, a dinette that didn't need to be rebuilt at least twice a day (once for sleeping, again for sitting); something small enough for National Forest Service campgrounds and some Bureau of Land Management byways; something I could imagine driving to Orlando's in Taos or parking at 9,500 feet off a gravel road for a week of stargazing. I tested notions against the Alaskan foray in Mom's Class B in the summer of 1989. MPG mattered less than one might think because in an ideal world I saw reasonably frequent short trips from a home base rather than summer-long, continent-spanning marathons. Finally, I canned a search on and bookmarked several likely candidates. I watched eBay. In a month or so, two real contenders emerged: a Majestic 23A in Indiana on RVTrader and, later, a Jayco 231RB in Florida on eBay. The model numbers offer a clue: both were small class C's. 23-24 feet from end to end.


Jayco 231RB

eBay Motors: 1996 Jayco 231RB, Oldsmar, Florida.
Photo by Larry Miller

I came close to making myself sick going back and forth over the Jayco (a 1996 RV on a Ford E350 chassis). I went from being ill at the thought of all the time and work required to actually buy it, get it, register it, pay for it, to being ill at the idea that someone might buy it out from under me. Hesitation -- is this a mistake? How will I know unless...? Look, it was priced $9,700 under the next most tempting RV. That difference is real money! That price doesn't wreck the IRA or next year's taxes. The seller was happy to take Paypal for the full amount, which opened up a world of financial options. It had all the feaures I wanted, and some options I didn't know I wanted. It wasn't that far away (Tampa, 650 miles). It had just over half the miles of the Majestic at well under half the price. It was a few years older than I would've preferred, but not so old as to be badly dated. (I'd love to do an ambitious remod inside, but it's by no means necessary.) The CarFax report was clean as could be. The Ford 460 sucks gas, but so does the V10 Triton. I liked what I read and what I inferred about it and its owner. I asked about the generator; got the right answer. If not now, when? I literally slept on it. Then I got up and hit "buy it now" over my first cup of coffee.


12/11/2013. The former owner and I picked a day: Wednesday, December 11. I bought a one-way economy seat on Delta and arranged to shuttle to Charlotte-Douglas airport on the Hickory Hop.



On the Hickory Hop, a van ride from HKY to CLT. 6:00 - 7:00 AM.
A trip to Tampa to pick up a 1996 Ford E350 with 44,000 miles
begins in this 2008 Ford van with 785,000 miles.



There will be a brief delay while Delta knocks the ice off the wings. 8:30 AM.



Change in Atlanta (of course) and off to Tampa for a 12:30 arrival.
(That's Clearwater Beach down below, site of a family vacation back in the mid-60's.)




Larry picked me up at our prearranged spot under the Delta sign at Tampa International. We hit a Chinese buffet for lunch and compared notes about RV's, motorcycles, a bit of life history, our enthusiasms, and then drove to the storage lot where my RV and Larry's new-to-him class A waited. We spent two hours going over features, bringing the tires up to pressure (70 psi, all six), and reviewing valves, switches, and accessories. Some of it I remember, some of it I don't; I think the most important bits stuck.


bill of sale

Larry signing the Bill of Sale. 2:30 PM


At the last moment, I remembered to ask how the awning worked. And then, at the very last moment, I stopped to find the headlight switch. I got out on Tampa surface streets at the beginning of the afternoon commute then up on the Florida Expressway (too hectic, too many toll stops, not enough change in my pockets). I bailed in favor of an eastward shuffle over to I-75 a few miles sooner than intended, and turned north toward Ocala. At the first rest stop, I pulled over to arrange my maps, take a deep breath, and to call ahead for a campground reservation.


rest area

Rest area on I-75. 5:20 PM


No one answered at Ocala Sun RV Resort, but Larry had assured me that most places could find room for a small, self-contained RV. If all you wanted was a place to sleep (and didn't insist on 30 or 50 amp AC, cable, and sewer), then you could travel pretty casually. Let's find out.

An hour later, in bright twilight, I found Ocala Sun RV Resort exactly where the maps said it would be (who knew?). The gate was open, so I pulled in and stopped at the (empty) registration kiosk. I walked to the office and found it locked. The gate had closed behind me. Maybe it would open as I approached, maybe not, but I was dead tired and didn't want to go anywhere else anyway. I walked around some. In deep twilight, I pulled the RV into an empty swath of grass beside the propane tank. I was prepared to spend the night right there, but figured someone would make contact sooner or later. I slept for an hour, hour and a half, checked the weather forecast, put on some music. And finally a golf cart began to nose around. I pulled on my shoes and hurried outside. "Hi," I said, "I got here late and wasn't sure what the protocol was, so I just pulled in out of the way and waited. Figured at worst I could settle up in the morning." I said, "I don't need any hookups, just a place to sleep." That's fine, said the golf cart pilot, "I'll put you in 11A." How do I find that? "Follow me!"

It may be Florida, but it's central Florida and the month is December. The night was brisk enough to wake me shivering. I hadn't turned on the propane, so I couldn't use the furnace. I didn't want to bang around at 1 AM trying to remember which bay held the tank and which valve opened it up. While rummaging in my clothes bag for extra layers, I found a great comforter on the overcab bed and moved it to the master suite in the rear corner. And then I slept, comatose, till after 9:00 AM.


12/12/2013. Happy people in the office. I recited the shortest possible version of the RV story. "Where you heading today?" Just up around Savannah. "Oh, geez, going up north then..."

I was rolling by 9:30. Up I-75 for a little while and then over to US 301. I filled up while translating over to the US highway. Did you know that when you use a self-serve pump, it will often automatically limit you to a certain dollar amount? Neither did I. You have to begin a new transaction to complete the fill-up. I got a shock even though I was prepared for atrocious mileage. I pumped 46 gallons. I had driven 118 miles from Tampa but saw when I reset the trip meter that it read 275 miles. Presumably that was when Larry last filled the tank. The arithmetic still scared me: 6.0 miles per gallon. Had Larry run the generator that much? The Onan 4K burns about half a gallon an hour, he said. Did I need to slow down to, oh, 40? I was all over the map yesterday, from 45 to 70, on and off the Interstate, with some city driving. Well, nothing for it, it be's what it be's, and this RV was going to North Carolina no matter how many gallons it took to get there. Nevertheless, I was very curious about the next fill-up. It would be almost all limted-access 4-lane, a no-excuses kind of drive, and I was determined to see what fate the gods of Exxon had in mind for me.

In Hawthorne, I passed a mom and pop restaurant with lots of parking. I was beyond it before I made up my mind to stop. Make a note: think farther ahead in this thing. I stopped instead at a Hardee's in Waldo (now I know where Waldo is, but I can't imagine how many times people have made that joke). While stopped, I looked over the RV carefully: the TV antenna was not properly stowed. It was down but not aligned correctly and hung out over the edge just a bit. Must do better. And I opened up the propane valve while I had plenty of room and light to look for it. (Larry had asked if I wanted it left open after his demo, so I knew it was OK to travel with it open.) I re-re-secured a few window blinds. They do rattle like mad over the least bump.

I used 301 as an outer beltway around Jacksonville. No regrets. I followed a logging truck much of the way, thinking, "No matter what we encounter, remember that if he fits, I fit." I-95 was the surprise of the trip: easy traffic and absolutely gorgeous scenary. I expected swarms of impatient vehicles and nothing to see. More fool, I.

Brass-colored marsh grasses were threaded with black streams that clearly showed the influence of the tide as far inland as the interstate. Wading birds, white as stars in the hard light, completed the palette. Every bridge revealed a new low-country panorama. A wrecked fishing boat begged for a portrait. Denied. Once, sharp as could be though many miles in the distance, a Figg Bridge appeared (see here, the Syndey Lanier Bridge south of Brunswick was only 5.3 miles away). I was too busy to shoot out the window and reluctant to pull over because I could see the detritus that had been blown off the highway and collected on the shoulder. I had also seen the receipt for the six almost new tires on my RV ($1,450). Pictures weren't worth that to me. I saw the exits for Jekyll and Edisto Islands. Put 'em on the list, kept moving.

When I called ahead from a rest area near Savannah, Georgia, ("up north") the New Green Acres RV Park near Walterboro, South Carolina, assured me that there would be room when I got there. That made the drive into the late afternoon much more relaxing. I got a good look at the shadow I cast ahead and was genuinely confused, even startled by it: good Lord, I have become one of those. How many times have I looked with disdain at these lumbering piles of aluminum and fiberglass, graceful as ticks, wallowing along ahead of my Firebird, my motorcycle, my Honda? And now? Just look what has happened! "One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin."



My Franz Kafka Moment on I-95.


And yet: it's my ticket to the West, if I have one at all. So start getting used to it. Here's some of the stuff to get used to, not all bad:

  • RV Parks are full of happy people. They would be, wouldn't they? RV People are uniquely equipped to go somewhere else if they're not happy where they are.

  • If you took all the RV Parks in America and melted them in a refiner's fire, you would not extract one ounce of irony. Whatever felicities and infelicities you may find, snark is not in residence. They are what they are 100%.

  • It does not appear to matter whether you roll in in a tiny class B van, in my mini-C, or in a 45 foot class A with this year's Lexus hooked behind. Until proven otherwise, your mode of arrival signals that you belong.

  • If you drive along a divided highway at 60mph, you will be passed about a thousand times more often than you pass (I passed two vehicles all the way home, once every 328 miles, once every six and three quarter hours). Even so, you will not feel as if you are going to be run over. Adjust your speed and lane choice to suit your needs. You can be considerate, but you don't need to be pathological about it. In fact, it's better if you're not. Surprise is never good. Hit the gas, hit the brakes, change lanes to prevent collisions and egregious inconvenience, but beyond that, whoever is back there will work it out. You did.

  • That said, learn to drive in the slow lane. Signal truckers when they can get back over. Do nothing quickly (as if you could). Trundle predictably, and all will be well.

Like Ocala Sun RV Resort, the New Green Acres RV park was exactly where the Good Sam trip planner and online map said it would be. The former is an upscale facility that lives up to its name; the latter is better than its name suggests, but it's a generally less spiffy operation. That's not a bad thing, just a different style, a different ambiance. One disappointment: I couldn't get wifi to work while out in the campground. I was within walking distance of a restaurant (Cracker Barrel -- which seemed right down the middle of the idiom, god help me), and afterwards I came back to my cozy cabin in the December pines, coffee-to-go in hand.



in the pines


It was 28°F outside, 62°F in. I'm sure I could've kept it much warmer if I had known for sure how much propane was in my tank. The thermostat worked perfectly, and so did the digital TV and antenna. I watched the News Hour and cooking shows on PBS until I stopped vibrating. Interesting that in two nights in two parks, I saw 150-200 "rigs" and only 3-4 people. Maybe it was the cold or the comparatively late hour (is the sun down? then it's late), or maybe people just seldom emerge from their motorized cocoons.


Doesn't Pat Conroy make much of Orion striding over this part of the world
in Prince of Tides? Either he did or he should have.


12/13/2013. On Friday morning, I woke from the dead. Once out from under the trees, a heavy frost looked like snow. I filled up while steeling myself for bad news. 32 gallons, 284 miles. 8.9 MPG, significantly better than the 8.2 MPG promised in the eBay listing and vastly better than I feared yesterday. Today, I resolved to try the cruise control.

Up I-95 to I-26 to I-77. 60 mph, +/-0.5 according to the GPS, achieved by setting the speedometer on 62 and engaging the autopilot. I stopped in a rest area to look at the map and consider Charlotte. I knew that the outer beltway would not be a problem in the middle of the day. And I-85 back to US 321 wouldn't be bad, either. But the latter, especially, is never fun, even for only 15 miles. I was sideswiped on I-85 in my Honda when almost home once before. It worried me. I'd run enough two-lanes to know it was not hard, so my eye kept gravitating to SC 5 through Rock Hill and York and on over to US 321 south of Gastonia. That looked much more inviting. If I saw a sign for SC 5, I'd take it, I thought.



Outside a rest area in South Carolina: Tractor trailer, Home II, and a Ford Explorer.
Anytime you worry that it's too big for any given road, just remember that it's not that much longer
than a Ford Explorer and it's one hell of lot smaller than any tractor and trailer.


I did see the sign, and I took SC 5. It held my attention, and it took me where I wanted to go. I used to drive through here when flying sailplanes in Chester in the late 1970's, but I recognized nothing. I found US 321 and drove north. When I passed under I-85 at Gastonia, I felt as if I had come to my own 50 mile long driveway. From 321, I took I-40, I-40 to Connelly Springs Road, to my last fill up on this trip (at the same stop n' shop where I'd picked up an RV Shopper magazine years ago and thought, hm, if you can't afford to build a place Out West, this might be a good idea). The tank took 26.4 gallons after 245.8 miles = 9.3 MPG. That's an overall average of 9.07 (beware of excess precision, says the spirit of Ruth McPherson, but there you go) on the two fill ups that were all on me (all but 118 miles of the trip). I chatted in the parking lot shown above with the driver of a very similar RV from model year 2000 with the same engine. He came over to ask me something about the air hoses out front; I said I was really the wrong guy to ask. He claimed 10 MPG to and from Florida from Pennsylvania which gave me hope. Our neighbor Jerry gets 6 in a 31 footer with the same engine along pretty much the same route. Nine and change will be fine.


driveway moment

A driveway moment. Temporarily stashed beside the driveway while I take
care of legal details and find it a more appropriate parking spot.

Let's review. Three days and 647 miles down. Driving is easier than I dared hope. The backup cameras work only intermittently, according to a pattern I have yet to discern. Replacements aren't expensive, if it comes to that [Larry sent a spare screen which plugged in in five minutes flat; connections are behind the vertical trim panel on the driver's side of the windshield; beware of summer heat, says the former owner]. The TV works beautifully, but the DVD player is noisy (loud buzz at all times through the TV speakers) so work that out [fixed! Larry explained what I'd done sideways]. I'm not yet sure if this vehicle supports OBDII for a ScanGauge (only some gasoline-powered 1996 Ford E350's do, "depending on engine choice" and it appears that the 460 was not the choice for this; but check this out from an entrepreneurial fellow in Estonia). Those peculiar fresnel lenses I've seen so often in the back windows of RV's flat work! Change the circular convex mirrors for rectangular ones, or paint a crescent of flat black on the top of these round ones -- they can catch the Sun like mad. I am still suffering a bit of a headache from that. The outside access door to the big storage bin under the bed is smaller than hoped for; you won't get a goodly size telescope in there, but I believe any available mount will fit, which is probably wiser anyway.

So, the plan is on pace. Use the camper and get comfortable with all its ways for the next 18 months or so. Do some rennovations, some mods, make sure it's solid and that we enjoy using it. Get some seat time on the Parkway, the Outer Banks, the Low Country. In October 2015 (or some date to be determined), take it west and park it near ABQ so that we're only a cheapish flight away from our cabin / apartment / observatory in the mountains and high deserts of New Mexico. That's the plan, and if it's a little vague in places, that's OK. You don't need to see all the way to the end before it's time to kick it off and see what we can make happen.


12/17/2013. I didn't do my homework well enough! NC requires a notarized signature on the transfer of title section when applying for a new title as well as a "damage disclosure" form. I sent Larry's license plate back to him along with the title (yikes!) and the other form. Also an SASE and a check to cover notary fees and another Chinese buffet.

And of course I'm drawing up a list of must-have and nice-to-have items for the RV. A small pure sine wave inverter to power computers etc off the batteries without having to use the generator is on the must have list. Nice to have items include a GPS, scissors jacks for stability and a little levelling, a few cosmetic touches (in no discernable order: waterline trim, front fender flares, bug deflector, caps of some sort for the rear wheels, throw rugs for now and Allure flooring eventually). Also mundane items (coffee maker, pots, pans, dishes, mugs, flatware, wine glasses, racks, ceramic heater for campground use). I'm still thinking about what gear to stash inside, where, and how; what astronomical gear gets stored in the RV, duplicated in the RV, carried to the RV for any given "mission." I'm making a list and checking it fifty-nine times. Remain calm: there's plenty of time to think about all this and to try out all kinds of arrangements.


12/21/2013. Notarized paperwork is in hand along with a spare backup camera screen. [Thanks!] The screen installed in 5 minutes, and it took that long only because I was being paranoid. The wiring is behind the driver's side trim panel beside the windshield. It snaps off from the top, snaps back on and is retained by three spring widgets along the centerline. I haven't figured out how or whether to glue the screen to the windshield as the old one was.

On the perennial remod and upgrade front, you know that there'll be a modest solar system onboard eventually. With that in mind, don't lose these links:

Jack & Danielle Mayer on full-time boondocking using solar, batteries, and inverters exclusively and long-term.

Scott Law on installing a small solar system. It's just one guy, a box, many shirts, and a cordless drill.

Don't forget that small TripLite inverter/charger you scored on eBay ages ago when you were thinking about outfitting the Honda to use campgrounds for observing. See about incorporating that ("having that incorporated") into the electrics.

And measure the actual current draw of the things I use; add them to the spreadsheet of amps Larry provided, the better to plan ahead and to behave sanely.


12/27/2013. The Slowblog has moved on a couple of pages, but I'm back to note that as of today the NC paperwork is satisfied with a trip to the plate office in Morganton -- title is applied for, the plate is on the back, fees and taxes are paid. What to do about inspections when the thing is stored in New Mexico? Not a problem yet.

You know, it's worth remembering that the RV is for travel, storage and living. Keep that in mind and regard it as carrying an observing setup rather than being an observatory. Reserve its systems for quotidia, and carry a seperate battery (or two) for observing. You can still charge off the generator, the alternator, shore power, other batteries, or solar cells. All in good time, aaaallll in good time.





01/02/2014. Winter arrives tonight! Low of 15°F - 20°F, with more cold weather to follow. I rushed around to gather up all the toys and materials needed to winterize the RV. I had to ask Larry how to drain the water heater -- it looks like nothing I saw on the net. His reply was clear and perfectly correct. Turns out he showed me the valves I was looking for while I was in Florida, but I didn't appreciate what they were.

The house battery was very low (10.8v) when I checked on it this morning. I've been running the furnace on propane to keep the interior at 42°F. The monitor and ignition circuitry is energized, a small exhaust fan runs to keep gas from accumulating, and I somehow left the patio light on night before last (must have hit the switch on the way in or out and didn't notice that the light was on). I thought there was some chance that the water pump wouldn't run on such a weak battery, so I drove the RV into extension cord range and put a battery tender on the house battery. It'll take a few days to recharge.

I drained the water heater, fitted the bypass kit onto the water pump, and replaced the toilet with a simple valve until I get its inlet water leak 100% (rather than 99%) solved. UPS delivered a compressor just in time. I blew out the waterlines and then pumped RV antifreeze into all the lines and valves, finishing with a dollop in each drain trap. It only took 90 minutes or so, and I was checking everything three times. If you're lucky, I won't stash detailed notes and instructions for that process here. The forecast is for 20°F tonight (three degrees warmer than yesterday's forecast had it) and for more cold weather behind that. The Thing should be good to any temperature NC can possibly throw at it.

The compressor is great! But it's much larger than I expected. Either use a smaller one in the RV or add a utility box out back.


01/07/2014. Low of 5°F! At noon the temperature was 15°F. I wanted to go out to see if the water lines had survived, but how would I know? The water would still be frozen, no? No. This thing captures solar heat like nobody's business. The temperature inside was 40°F [keep reading]. Can it be that if I were to park so that the big side windows admit the Sun and cover the north windows and overhead vents with proper insulation that things can be kept tolerable without power or propane? What sort of heat collectors could I put behind the south windows to intensify this effect?

Later that same day: No, the big digits on the Honeywell thermostat simply don't go below 40°F. Online, I found remarks that Honeywell's thermostats won't even cycle if the temperature is below 32°F. Well. It's 20°F in there according to the thermometer inside the (turned off) refridgerator, and the cleaning stuff left out on the countertop is frozen solid. A garden thermometer I hauled into the RV says 28°F. Anyway, I set the thermostat to 45°F and waited a few seconds and it came on just fine. Within 90 seconds, I had 80+°F air flowing through the ducts. Live and learn.

And yes, there are lots of schemes for building solar collectors and feeding heat through an open window. Something similar but no doubt less effective can surely be rigged up inside. Look up "Thermax and Mother Jones," and you'll find plenty of old advice, some of which can be used and little of which has been updated.

1/31/2014. Another cold-weather experiment. The air temperature was 15°F and the thermometer inside on the counter read 22°F. I flipped on the RV power and set the thermostat to 62°F. The furnace came on without drama. When I checked back half an hour later, the interior had warmed to 44°F. Not bad, and it's astonishing how warm it felt to step inside from the teens. I need to do a longer run and include cool-down observations, then put in some insulation and see whether and how much it helps. Why, yes -- as a matter of fact, I am thinking about stargazing for several nights in a row out near the continental divide.

Lessons from the neighborhood:

Doughton Park, July 2014. Needs bigger / better batteries for primitive camping, added. Be aware of limited freshwater and grey-water capacities.

Pisgah Campground, October 2014. The long, steep descent on the Blue Ridge Parkway after the solar eclipse smoked the brakes. Be aware of the mass in motion and limited brake capacity.

Doughton Park, August 2015. Macerator pump jammed or failed, Porta-jon vendor in Lenoir pumped black tank; I replaced macerator pump with gravity fittings.



Except where noted, deep-sky photos are made with an SBIG ST2000XM CCD behind a 10-inch Astro-Tech Ritchey-Chretien carried on an Astro-Physics Mach1GTO. The CCD is equipped with Baader LRGB and 7nm H-a filters. The internal guide chip of the CCD most often keeps the OTA pointed in the right direction (I'll let you know when a Meade DSI and a separate OAG or guidescope takes its place). Camera control and guiding are handled by Maxim DL 5.12. The stock focuser on the AT10RC has been augmented with Robofocus 3.0.9 using adapters turned on the lathe downstairs. Maxim performs image calibration, alignment, and stacking; Photoshop CS4 and FocusMagic 3.0.2 take it from there. Gradient Xterminator by Russell Croman and Astronomy Tools by Noel Carboni see their share of work, too. Beginning in May 2013, PixInsight has taken over some of the heavy lifting for transfer function modification and deconvolution.


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                   © 2013, David Cortner