The largest optical telescope in North America belongs to McDonald Observatory, which sits atop a mountain in West Texas. Astronomers have come here to peer into black holes millions of light-years away, massive enough to contain 17 billion of our suns. To arrive at the observatory, they've most likely made a three-hour drive east from El Paso, through an alien desert terrain of spiny yucca trees and severe, distant mesas. When McDonald was built in the late 1930s, the most famous observatory in the United States was still Mount Wilson in Pasadena, California, at the time possessor of the largest telescope in the world. But even back then, light pollution from Los Angeles was beginning to wash out the night sky. So when a wealthy bachelor from Paris, Texas, named William J. McDonald left his banking fortune to the University of Texas in 1926, saying he wanted the school to build a telescope big enough to peer into the very gates of heaven and see if anyone was there – in the paraphrasing of longtime McDonald Observatory employee Bill Wren – an initial site on the outskirts of Austin was wisely rejected.
Instead, the trustees turned to West Texas, which to this day remains one of the most isolated, indigenously eccentric parts of the United States. 'No Country for Old Men' was filmed out here, and local wildlife includes the javelina, a furry, piglike creature that can be spotted scurrying into the tall grass off Dark Sky Drive, the road wending its way up to McDonald. Wren greets me in the parking lot. He's been working at the observatory for more than 20 years. A bearded, white-haired 58-year-old, he walks with a wooden cane thanks to a teenage motorcycle accident. The hair and cane make him look older, though he has a lean, handsome face.
We make our way up to the metal catwalk circling one of the white observatory domes, which affords a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape. Two thousand feet below, there's Fort Davis, an old garrison town where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed just after the Civil War. Closer to the mountain, a rustic development of approximately 100 houses stretches over the foothills. A good number of the residents, Wren tells me, are amateur astronomers, drawn to the area for its pristine night skies. Sure enough, a closer look reveals that many of the homes boast miniature observatory domes at the edges of their driveways, or else flat-topped sheds with sliding roofs.
At the moment, though, I can't make out any of these particulars, because night has fallen, and the development, Limpia Crossing, is almost entirely unlit. There are no streetlights on the winding roads, just curbside reflectors that flash headlights back at drivers, warning them of turns. And none of the houses seem to have illuminated porches or driveway lights. The only dim glow leaks from the odd living room window. Otherwise, a development ranging over hundreds of acres remains almost completely camouflaged by the darkness. If Wren hadn't pointed the place out, I would have never even noticed it.