A Night Train to the Stars.

 

green bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory

One of the best things about West Virginia is the amount of wilderness, meaning fewer people and less civilization. Making West Virginia a perfect place to do star-gazing, and Radio Astronomy. Hard to believe that hidden in the woods of West Virginia at Green Bank is The National Radio Astronomy Observatory. These are the type of telescopes that inspired the movie ” Contact” with Jodie Foster. Where the Astronomers are listening to the world of outer space. At Green Bank they also encourage visitors to enjoy their reflective telescopes to see all wonders of our galaxy. So when my son said he wanted to plan his 6th birthday around trains, camp fires and the stars how could I say no.

Cheat Mountain Salamander train ride to the stars

Cheat Mountain Salamander train ride to the stars

One of the offerings that Astronomers from Green Bank give to visitors is the option to do a Star Gazing event once every year on their property that is only accessible by train. No high way, no logging road, no hiking trails on the 13,000 square miles of US Government land. Access is just a historic railroad track built about 2 century’s ago to transport coal from the high lands of Pocahontas County to the lower flat land of the Ohio Valley. The idea for a short ride on a local  tourist train was a perfect way to transport visitors to the remote location to take photos, learn more about Astronomy and ride into the past on a restored diesel train and cars.  Add in the fact that they allow you to have a camp fire and roast marsh mellows you have a great time planed for everyone who takes the night train to the stars.

As this was Christopher’s birthday adventure we made an afternoon and evening out of the trip. We started our train themed fun in Elkins, West Virginia at The Depot Restaurant that uses train themed photos and paintings as the decor. All while being able to walk the grounds of a fully functional and restored 1800’s Depot. This is also the main office for the Cheat Mountain Salamander, the New Tygart Flyer, Mountain Explorer trains. For more information about the trains and their trips Contact www.Mtn-Rail.com. The grounds around the Depot showcase a traditional turn table and tussle style bridge that leads to loading dock of the Depot.

Christopher 6th birthday dinner at the depot restaurant  balcony

Christopher 6th birthday dinner at the depot restaurant balcony

view of train bridge from The Depot Restaurant.

view of train bridge from The Depot Restaurant.

 

train bridge over the Tygart River, Elkins West Virginia

train bridge over the Tygart River, Elkins West Virginia

After a nice walk to the bridge and the river we shopped some at  Delmonte Market across the street from the depot.We found a large selection of hand-made and country themed gifts and toys. This was one of the hand-made items in the beautiful store. Recycled bottles with Decoupage flowers and lights what a nice way to use dried flowers.

flower bottle lamps at Delmonte Marker

flower bottle lamps at Delmonte Market

After the shopping we headed south on Rout 250 to Huntonsville then through two very small towns to the Monongahela National Forest to the  Cheat River Bridge where we found our loading area and started the evening ride up to Linen WV.

restrooms and depot at cheat mountain

restrooms and depot at Cheat Mountain

Christopher looking out the window of our train car

Christopher looking out the window of our train car

We then rode the train for about 45 minutes to a small dirt landing. We disembarked the train and walked up into a field that surrounded us on 3 sides with nothing but trees. A fire was lit, roasting sticks for marsh mellows gathered and the sun began to set as the Astronomers set up their equipment. While we waited for the sun to set I got this last photo of our train before it disappeared into total darkness.

night train parked at Linen landing WV. Darkest location in the state of WV

night train parked at Linen landing WV. Darkest location in the state of WV

by 8:30 pm we were in total darkness and this is what the train looked like.

 

the night train at linen WV in total darkness

the night train at Linen WV in total darkness

What happened next was astonishing, I have always loved the night sky, moon and the many planets, but I was not prepared for what I was about to see. The limited light from a moonless sky was enough to move around comfortably with out walking into anyone and the telescopes had small red lights to help us locate them in the field. I was just amazed that in total darkness the stars  were soooo bright!

I do not have the words to really describe what it was that we were able to see. From tree-lined horizon to horizon there was nothing to block our view, no lights were visible in our valley meadow. The only light was from the stars themselves because we had arrived here on the New Moon making it easy to see the most distant stars with out aide. As Tom and I found a spot for our folding chairs with our backs to the restored train landing we both looked up to the Northern sky to see the slowly dotted sky  fill with a cloudy dust of the Milky Way. Each individual star suspended in space, slowly became two than ten than twelve hundred. The numbers and colors slowly expanded into the ribbon of the Milky Way from one horizon to another. This  river of clustered stars outshone almost every star in the sky. With Millions if not billions of tiny lights glimmering it is impossible to not feel alone and part of a larger whole all at once.  The big planets shown with the red-orange of Mars and the cold blue of Vega. The constellations blinked in perfect form, each one leading the eye from one white pin point to another until you discovered that you were looking at the opposite horizon watching Scorpio slowly descend below a wall of trees. We sat in total darkness for 2 hours barely speaking and those that did speak whispered as if to use an adult tone would somehow effect the reverence for the  stars. We took turns looking into the telescopes and watching the Astronomers point out constellations with a laser pointer. Yet, every time we returned to our seats to enjoy the smell of a smoldering camp fire and the billions of bright white stars in the sky, we felt nothing but Peace. It was the most enjoyable two hours I have had in years.

milky Way Crop

Milky Way Crop

This time in the woods reminded me of the years that Tom and I would set up a camp site in the back yard to our older son Cody.We let him camp in our pasture behind the house on a hill. It was fun for me to lie on my back and look at the stars with him when he was 8 or 9. We shared a moment of happiness at its most simple. This trip expanded this feeling of happiness to something deeper and larger. It was very moving and fueled my interest in astronomy again.

As families and scientists prepared to re-board the train the temperature had dropped to 45 degrees. The air was cold and we could all see our breath but no one complained. We filed to our seats for the short 45 minutes back down the mountain and no one raised their voices. We spent the time laughing with strangers and reminiscing as if we are all long-lost friends… We were all happy, including the sleepy birthday boy.

 

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Categories: Appalachian Mountains, Birthday, Cheat Mountain Salamander, Christopher, Green Bank NRAO, Monongahela National Forest, trains, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “A Night Train to the Stars.

  1. I was hoping this trip would get written up here. It’s sounds like such a wonderful experience, especially going there by train. Thanks for sharing a little slice of WV with us.

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  2. sandy

    What a wonderful gift to Christopher. It is something he will never forget. We would like to take the train ride in the near future.

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  3. eric

    my experience of the ride was well below expectations and not worth the money.i recommend the 2 hr Durbin train ride it was nice in the open passenger car.Now the night time observatory train ride was so unorganized after we got to the destination,we did not even get to look through the one telescope the some Expert brought,my wife and I sat in a dark damp field,there was a very small log fire and some where on the other side of the clearing was a portable telescope or something with a bunch of people all around it ,no equal opportunity access to it ,it was pitch black also,easy to trip over others,had to be extremely careful ,sept 2014

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    • I am sorry that you did not enjoy the trip as much as my family did. We all including my 6 year old looked through the telescopes and we all spent time with the female astronomer who was showing the constellations with a lazer pointer. I guess if you had take time to get away from the fire you would have been able to see well enough to walk with out tripping and would have seen more of the stars and constellation. My only dislike was Christopher got cold just before the packing up of the train back down the mountain (the temps were in the lower 40’s). I am sure that in the future we will ride more trains in WV and the Durbin Rocket is on our list.

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  4. I just stumbled across your collection of beautiful pictures … I had heard of Green Bank – but did not know very much about it … did not know that there was such a train event going on in our state. I will share with my friends and let them know that there is more rail adventure possible than the coal mine park ride in Beckley. Thanks for sharing. Rowan http://stars2012.com

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