Dark Matter

by Mark Long

A little after nine in the morning I rode my motorcycle north out of Alpine on 118 to the observatory. In the distance and to the west were the Davis Mountains and it would take a while to reach them. After a white SUV closely followed by an oil field work truck blew past me I had the highway to myself. Even though the speed limit kicked up to seventy-five I cruised along at sixty. Somebody more poetic—Cormac McCarthy comes to mind—could have used esoteric stylings of byzantine language to describe the West Texas landscape I found myself in but I was stuck with simple words: the big blue cloudless sky above the horizon in front of me and, thanks to overabundant spring rains, lush green treeless plains to my left and right. It was the kind of world that made you feel small. It was the kind of world that made me feel exactly the right size.

I had ridden to Alpine the day before from Waco, about 450 miles. It was cool and overcast and verging on rain most of the way. I stuck to smaller state highways so there was almost no traffic, just periodic packs of buzzards feasting on roadkill—deer, snakes, armadillos, skunks, whatever—to avoid. A half an hour before reaching Iraan, the clouds had cleared off and it was finally like riding through an actual desert for the last couple of hours. There was a fifty-mile jump on I-10 before dropping down south on 67 for the home stretch. Tall afternoon thunderheads towered all around me but my luck held out and I was still dry when I turned in at the Value Lodge and where the temperature was now in the nineties in the sun.

Once I reached the Davis Mountains the highway, still empty, snaked along the bottom of red cliffs framing each side of the road. I passed a Dish TV van going at an even more leisurely pace than me. Every now and then there would be turnoff to a ranch or, more likely, to a pumpjack further out in the middle of nowhere. Other than that, I was just my own speck—a guy wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, an orange University of Texas hoodie, red riding gloves, and a black full-face helmet on a red motorcycle—moving across this road I’d never travelled before.

I was born in Alpine—county seat of Brewster County, the largest of 254 Texas counties—when my parents were students at Sul Ross State University. After they graduated, though, we had moved while I was still a baby and, other than infrequent visits (usually when seeing my grandparents on my dad’s side who lived even further west in Van Horn before moving to northern Arkansas), it’d been almost twenty years since I’d been out there. Still, the region had a hold on me my whole life … perhaps something to do with the wide open geographic isolation in conjunction with being an only child who, as my mom would tell people later, had essentially raised myself. There weren’t many people in West Texas. There were even fewer words thrown around. Out there actions defined character more than words. All that was fine by me.

Fort Davis was halfway between Alpine and the observatory. I hung a right on 17 and putted through town on the wide main street past the ubiquitous Stripes gas station, the Harvard Hotel, the old Limpia Creek Hat Company, and a clutch of diners and Mexican food restaurants. Soon enough I was on the far side of town and veered back to left on 118 and headed more directly up into the mountains.

Going to McDonald Observatory was just an excuse like heading out to West Texas had been an excuse to break out of the rut of waking up each day, going to one or more of my three part-time jobs, stopping by the ghetto grocery store on the way home to buy boxes of generic egg rolls and high-priced cat food, and later on welcoming the evening by walking three blocks over to the Alon station for a ninety-nine sack of peanuts in the shell and a couple of big beers. Each day I spent in my house with the folding table in the dining room surrounded by mismatched lawn chairs or sitting on the broken down Karlanda couch covered with a yellow Mexican blanket and assorted beach towels in the dark back room with the TV parked in front of the fireplace was one more day I was closer to death without having seen one new thing at all.

A few cars and a couple of RVs along with a battered Balmorhea school bus were in the parking lot across the road from the Frank N. Bash Visitors Center. It was a little before ten so it was a few minutes before I’d be able to buy my ticket to the solar tour. I wasn’t sure exactly what the solar tour was or entailed but it was only nine bucks and it kept me from having to braving the road at night—that is, from white-tailed deer running wild across the highway—for one of the “star parties” on the schedule at the observatory website. I wandered around what I thought was a modern art sculpture in front of the center stretching my legs until I heard a woman complaining that it wasn’t open yet and that even the sundial said it was already ten o’clock.

Sundial, I told myself. Interesting.

“We’ve got a long drive to Tucson,” she said, “and I need to get in that gift shop right away.”

On a higher peak behind the center were two domed observatories and to the left, a half a mile or so away, another taller mountain top had its own observatory capped with a geodesic dome. Scattered here and there were smaller white sheds—the size of one-car garages—shaped like miniature observatories.

“I just need five minutes,” she said, “and then we’re out of here. We’ve got a long drive to Tucson today and I want to get on the road.”

There were now several older couples standing around the main doors. As I walked up I said “good morning” to no one particular and that earned me a couple of suspicious glances and no replies.

Exactly at ten o’clock a woman inside the center unlocked the double doors.

“It’s about time,” the lady said and she pushed her way through the door and made a beeline for the gift shop. She paused for a moment to look back over her shoulder at her husband. “Go start the RV. I’ll be out in a minute. It’s a long way to Tucson.”

After buying my ticket I was directed to the theater next to the closed Star Date Café inside the center. First we watched a QuickTime video on the screen about the history of McDonald Observatory. None of it was anything I knew and most of it was interesting. When it was over we were shuffled outside to the lobby. A woman sitting a few seats down from me left her purse on the floor and so I picked it up to give it to her. She gave me a savage look and snatched it out of my hand so abruptly she dropped it and stuff spilled out onto the lobby floor. I stepped around her and sat in a chair next to wall and leaned my head back against it. Five minutes later we were directed back into the theater. Our guide Judy stood at the lectern to the side of screen and asked us questions about where we were from and just how excited were we to be there. We were all good sports and replied enthusiastically. She showed us a live feed of the sun from telescopes on site with a series of different filters to show sunspots and the corona and hydrogen bubbling on the surface and flares. That was more than I had expected, especially for nine dollars. We learned about magnetic fields and how the solar wind produces, I think, the aurora borealis.

I didn’t have an inherent interest in the stars. I had bad vision my whole life and even as a kid the night sky was as much a dark smear as anything else. This was heredity: my mom had the bad eyes and good teeth and with my dad it was the other way around. I was in the first grade when my teacher Mrs. Cox realized I couldn’t see the chalkboard from my seat at the back of the room and sent a note home to my parents. After dinner that night my dad stood me between the dining room table and my mom’s upright piano and, standing three feet away from me, held up the day’s newspaper and asked me to read the top headline. I could read it from there, barely, but once he took two steps further back it was all a familiar blur.

“C’mon,” he said. “Try harder.”

“I am trying,” I said.

“No you’re not,” he said. “Read it to me.”

There was no way that was going to happen.

He threw the paper down on the table.

My mother asked, “Why are you getting so mad?”

“My God,” he said. “I didn’t know I had a little blind boy for a son.”

Once the presentation in the theater was over, all twelve of us piled into a shuttle bus to head further up to the observatory with the 107-inch mirror. Up there the air was even clearer and the wind was cold and you could see at least fifty miles in every direction. Inside we learned that telescopes are hooked up to cameras and computers and nobody actually looks through them. Judy let us take turns pushing a green button that rotated the telescope as well as the observatory dome. Walking down the flight of stairs to leave I caught my boot heel on a step and almost fell into the guy in front of me. Outside I took pictures of a tank of liquid nitrogen and a white metal trashcan and the big horizon that later would look insignificant on my phone’s screen. Then we rode the shuttle over to another higher peak to the observatory with the geodesic dome. At 6,791 feet this was the highest point in Texas on a state-maintained road.

This telescope had mirror that, instead of being one piece, was made up of interlocking mirror plates that allowed it to be almost 100 square meters. It wasn’t being used at the moment; it was being recalibrated for the upcoming Hobby-Eberly Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). Dark matter, we were told, makes up the vast majority of the universe and yet nobody knows exactly what it is. And, while scientists had long assumed the universe was expanding at a steadily slower rate since the Big Bang, the exact opposite had turned out to be true: it’s expanding at an ever-quicker pace. Judy told us that dark matter likely had something to do with this and to check back in a year and a half or so when the preliminary HETDEX results would be available.

Walking back to the bus I told the guy walking next to me that this was the best nine dollar tour I’d been on. He gave me a look and got on the shuttle without saying anything. There was a patch of stinky flowers next to where the bus was parked that a woman looked up on her phone to inform us were fetid marigolds. I sat on the back bench seat where I’d left my helmet and gloves.

I wondered what I was doing here. Everyone else was paired up: old retired couples married for a million years on vacation, the only people besides me who’d be here on a late spring weekday morning. I had an ex-wife who maintained, while we were dating, that the best and only reason to be with someone was so when you saw something really cool you could turn to them and say, “Man, I’m glad I saw this with you.” Now I had an Instagram account where people I’d never met with usernames like warrenoatesgto and spaceman323 and calamityhormone might (or not) like and comment on the photos I’d upload later. Back at the visitors center I bought a refrigerator magnet for the married friend feeding my four cats and a black knit cap for myself to prove I’d been there.

I passed one of the old guys from the tour on my way out of the lobby.

“Ride carefully,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said. “You have a safe trip too.”

When I was a kid—middle-school age—my parents owned motorcycles: a 400 for my mom and a 750 for my dad, both Kawasakis. A couple of times we rode them from Central Texas up to northern Arkansas to see my grandparents. I’d ride behind my dad, my arms wrapped tight around him the whole way, afraid of falling off and skittering across the lanes of the interstate. Years later, in my twenties, I had a girlfriend who rode behind me the exact same way on my Honda 750 and I realized I’d never guessed how tiring it was to ride with someone gripping onto you like a vise mile after mile, hour after hour. Once I stepped off the bike my back and shoulders ached like I’d been carrying an unbearably heavy load.

Back down the mountain in Fort Davis I turned right into the parking lot of Cueva de Leon, a Mexican food restaurant I’d passed on my way through town earlier. They didn’t serve beer but my waitress told me in a sing-song voice it would be okay to go to the tiny beer store—a shack, really—across the street and buy some to bring back.

I returned with a couple of big Tecates and now two of the couples from the solar tour were sitting in booths across the restaurant. I watched them while I waited for my fajitas. Both couples just sat there in their booths looking down. No one talked to anyone. They were like strangers who just happened to be sitting across from one another. The four of them ate in silence—only speaking to the waitress to ask for more ice tea and then the check—and when done got up to leave a few minutes apart.

My best childhood friend told me years later when we happened to run into each other at a bar after a funeral I’d come home for that he’d never liked being at my parents’ house, that it was the house where nobody talked to each other. If I ever gave much thought to growing up, I mainly remembered reading a lot of books. Read, read, reading all the time. Or watching TV. Both my parents worked and in the afternoons when I came home from school if I didn’t have a book in progress I’d watch reruns of The Brady Bunch or Star Trek or The Partridge Family on the color TV in the living room. Once one or the other of them would come home I’d retreat to my bedroom to read or watch more TV on the ancient B&W set that had belonged to my grandparents. After dinner it was back to my room for more of the same.

Six months after I moved away from home and out town to go to college my dad showed up unannounced at my dorm one Friday afternoon in a new red Mustang convertible I’d never seen before. During the ride home he told me he and my mother had separated.

He asked me if I didn’t have something to say.

“I figured it would happen within a year,” I told him, “but I didn’t think it’d be six months.”

“That’s,” he said, “a pretty shitty thing to say.”

My fajitas took forever to arrive and when they did they were the worst I’d ever had, left either on a stove or under a heat lamp so long the strips of chicken were stuck to the bottom of the metal skillet and the flour tortillas were dry and stiff as jerky. Still, it was a beautiful day, I had a couple of cold beers, and I’d seen things I’d never seen before and, most likely, would never see again.

My waitress rang up my bill on the cash register and asked how my meal was. I said fine and then accidentally tipped too much on the credit card receipt.

“All I need now,” I told her, “is a nap.”

She saw my helmet and gave me a worried look. “You don’t have too far to go do you?”

“No,” I said. “I’m staying in Alpine. Today is opening night for Pecos League baseball so I’m going to see the Cowboys play the Roswell Invaders.”

“Really,” she said. “That’s tonight?

I told her yes.

“I went last year,” she said, “because my husband was working at the university and we got free tickets. It was so crowded. They introduced all the t-ball, softball, and little league teams in town before the game which took for-ever.”

“Do they,” I asked, “sell beer there?”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “But the lines at the concession stand took for-ever.”

“Beer makes everything bearable,” I said and smiled.

“Have fun,” she said. “Go Cowboys.”

I turned right out of the gravel parking lot toward the far side of Fort Davis where I’d head back south on 118 to Alpine, the opposite direction of Tucson, a place I’d never been. It was hot with my sweat jacket on but that wouldn’t last long once I was on the highway. I would open the bike up all the way. I wasn’t going too far. Now it was a road I’d been down before.

Mark Roy Long lives in Waco, Texas, with four surly cats, three sets of perpetually yet-to-be-graded student essays, troublesome memories of two ex-wives, and one smooth-running motorcycle. Maintaining mindful awareness among all this requires generous amounts of disc golf, beer, and Dallas Cowboys football. And a lot of Brian Jonestown Massacre cranked up loud, really loud.