Starry, starry night
I am nervous about meeting Philip Mahon and his wife, Rae Ann Kumelos-Mahon, as I drive down the long gravel road that leads to their Star Hill Inn near Las Vegas, N.M. Phil is a master astronomer whereas I do well if I can identify the Big Dipper in the night sky. What in heaven (Pardon the pun!) are these folks going to think of a dunce like me? Not to worry! From the moment I arrive, the genuinely hospitable couple makes my brief cosmic encounter effortless and just plain fun. Mahon, who has been interested in astronomy since he was twelve years old, is a patient and relaxed instructor. In no time, I am tossing terms like “nebulas,” “galaxies” and “novas” into our conversation, and actually knowing the difference between them.The Mahons’ astronomy retreat, billed as “a vacation enveloped betwixt earth and sky” and located less than a dozen miles from historic Las Vegas (more about the town later) offers one of the best night sky viewing areas in the world and attracts novice and expert astronomers alike. “We are fortunate to have optimal star-watching conditions here – a dark sky and almost no light pollution for miles around,” Mahon says. He also attributes the clearness of the skies to the 7,200-foot elevation (2,195 meters) and the area’s temperate, dry climate.The 53-year-old native of Dallas got the idea for the country’s first private retreat of its kind while teaching astronomy at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center in nearby Abiquiu. In 1987, Mahon purchased 200 secluded woodland and pine-filled acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then opened the Inn the following year. The Inn is presently open year-round. Mahon calls his operation a “work in progress.” In addition to constantly upgrading the sophisticated optical and photographic equipment, he and his wife oversee accommodation updates. Eight upscale guest cottages now offer a range of rental price options. Each unit has a fully equipped kitchen, a fireplace, and a private balcony or porch. The newest and spiffiest of the cabins, called “Sunrise House,” provides plenty of space for a host of happy star-gazers. On the Inn’s 2,400 square-foot wooden observation deck at dusk, I meet a few of them. Joe DeNapoli, a mail carrier from Staten Island, adjusts the lenses on a telescope that is taller and broader than he is. For $500, UPS has shipped 20 containers of associated equipment to Star Hill – some $1,700 worth, including a state-of the art 35-mm camera – so that DeNapoli can hone his skills as an amateur astro-photographer. Sometimes he stays awake all night to get his desired photo. DeNapoli will spend eight days at Star Hill and this is his fifth visit to the Inn. He has brought three friends this time. As the night sky lights up, so do the stars in their eyes.Not everyone chooses to bring his or her own telescope to New Mexico. The use of one of the Inn’s ten is included in the rental rate for each cottage. Current instruments range from a 7-inch refractor to a 22-inch Dobsonian. Only one telescope requires additional payment, and justifiably so. Under a silver dome across the road is a 24-inch Ritchey-Cretien, an impressive professional instrument that was moved to the site from Colorado’s Mount Evans observatory site. Transporting the 10,000-pound assembly to its present location was a Herculean feat that deserves a more detailed description than this brief mention of it. For experienced star-gazers or those who want to be, a view of the night sky through the Richey-Cretien is worth the extra hundred bucks a night it commands.
According to Mahon, at least half of the retreat’s visitors are not hobbyists; rather, they are newcomers like me with a desire to learn. Mahon, an enthusiastic teacher, gives us a one-hour “star tour,” in which he shows us the basics of chart-reading and setting up lens angles. Besides sky-watching, there are other appealing activities at Star Hill. “Astronomy is the usual draw, but lots of folks come here just to relax,” Mahon says. Daytime choices include hiking, hunting for fossils or artifacts, meditating in a garden designed especially for the purpose, or photographing wildflowers and wildlife. (it is said that more than 280 bird species have been identified in the area.)But as night falls at Star Hill, it’s a sure bet that everyone will return to the observation deck. No one can resist the chance to peer through the eyepiece of a state-of-the-art telescope.And what a stellar panorama lies just beyond!And just down the road …After my head-in-the-cloud experience at Star Hill, I am not ready for a brutal re-entry to “real life.” So I linger for a couple of days in nearby Las Vegas. Not to be confused with a certain town in Nevada by the same name, this town (actually, the first Las Vegas,) has practically no glitz or glamour, which is precisely the reason I want to be there. A small town of about 18,000 folks, with a large Hispanic population, Las Vegas (“The Meadows” in Spanish) reflects much of what is grand about New Mexico: the history, the outdoors, the poly-cultural population, the arts, and the kick-back pace. To me, the town is a refreshing contrast to the crowds and “chi-chi-ness” that characterize some of the New Mexico’s other towns.
In my wanderings I found Las Vegas to be a town of honest hardworking people, of broad-limbed trees, hilly streets, antique shops, galleries, farmer’s markets and a rich collection of architectural treasures – from Spanish-style casitas to elegant Victorians. Half of the state’s registered historic buildings, more than 900, are said to be located here. A stopover on the Santa Fe Trail in the mid-1800s, Las Vegas became a “boom town” in 1879 with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. By the end of the 19th century, it was the largest city in the New Mexico Territory. That being the case, the town has some outrageously rowdy history. Outlaws, “Rough Riders,” and silent screen stars – Kit Carson, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Teddy Roosevelt, and Tom Mixall strolled Las Vegas streets. The city’s “Rough Rider” Museum, named to commemorate Teddy Roosevelt’s famous cavalry, tells that story best. Perhaps my favorite place to chill out was the town’s central plaza, so integral to Hispanic culture, where time so pleasantly “takes a breather.” On market day, I sample fresh produce and succulent red and green peppers that sizzle on an open grill. Across the street in a weaver’s co-op, I watch an artisan creating a lovely blanket made from local sheeps’ wool. I saunter through a used book store that has thousands of titles and the requisite squeaky wooden floor. And when I feel like doing nothing, I sit and sip coffee under a venerable old shade-bearing tree, watch kids throw Frisbees to high-leaping dogs, tap my foot to the rhythm of a mariachi band, and even try to sing-along.A nicer way to experience the “real” New Mexico would be hard to find.If you go … – A trip to Star Hill Inn typically begins with a flight to Albuquerque and a rental car (or an 8-hour drive from Denver) From the airport, take Highway 25 northeast to Las Vegas (about a two-hour drive). The Inn is a few miles north near Sapello. Exact directions mailed with reservation.- No meal service is provided at Star Hill, but each guest house has its own kitchen. Las Vegas restaurants offer a range of cuisines to please every palate and prices to please every pocketbook.
– Best Bets: Landmark Grill, sumptuous fare served from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week in the historic downtown Plaza Hotel; Black Jack’s, award-winning eclectic cuisine in an intimate atmosphere, located at 1133 Grand Avenue next to The Inn on the Santa Fe Trail; La Trattoria, affordable and delicious Italian cuisine in a bistro atmosphere, at 500 Douglas Avenue in another historic hotel-the El Fidel; and Charlie’s Spic and Span Café, home-style cooking that has kept Las Vegas locals smiling since 1960.- Area Attractions You Won’t Want To Miss: Fort Union, once the largest military garrison and arsenal along the Santa Fe Trail; Pecos National Historical Park, a living history lesson that includes the ancient pueblo of Pecos, two Spanish Colonial Missions and several Santa Fe Trail sites; Victory Ranch, a pleasant road-stop where you can hand-feed one of the farm’s velvety-soft alpacas and take home a sweater that might be woven from the fur of the same animal; and Salmon Ranch, a post-card-pretty farm where the raspberries picked (in season) never stand a chance of getting as far as your car.- For more information about Star Hill Inn, contact Phil Mahon or Rae Ann Kumelos-Mahon at (505) 425-5605, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Rates from $170 to $380, includes use of telescopes. Min. stay: two nights.- For more information about Las Vegas, N.M. or the surrounding area, contact the Las Vegas/San Miguel Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-832-5947 or e-mail email@example.com. Website is http://www.lasvegasnm.org.
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