There are times when we all find ourselves smarting with disappointment, and I'll admit that my trip to the Newton Observatory B&B—a place that has transformed scores of ordinary adu lts into comet-chasing, gear-collecting obsessives—is not beginning on the inspirational note I'd hoped.
Specifically, I do not like the Ring Nebula.
On the Internet, the thing appears as a near-perfect doughnut, improbably iced in the full spectrum of the rainbow. Yet through Jack Newton's Meade LX200—no slouch of a telescope, with nearly 10 feet of folded optics and a mirror almost the size of a trash can lid—the Ring Nebula appears as...lint. Grime. A feathery gray smear.
I think about the six-hour flight and six-hour drive I took to reach this place. I wonder, glumly, what else there is to do in Osoyoos, British Columbia.
"Can you see it?" asks Jack.
"It looks...delicate," I tell him. "Or maybe gauzy."
"Yes!" he says, springing to his computer to capture the image on CD. "It's a star that's dying and has lost its atmosphere. It's blown out beyond where Pluto would be in ours. Four-and-a-half billion years from now, our sun will do the same thing. It'll eat its young..." Now the image of the Ring Nebula pops up on the computer screen. This time it's spellbinding, like the opening shot in Star Trek.
"Is that what I was looking at?" I ask.
"Yup," says Jack. "The CCD camera gobbles up a lot more light than your eye."
Jack next tells my boyfriend to click on the Andromeda Galaxy—"a beautiful object." The telescope, connected to the hard drive by a formidable root system of cable wires, whirs into position.
We visit Neptune, Uranus, Mars. I find it astonishing to see them all, but they still look, respectively, like a small bright golf ball, a slightly larger bright golf ball, and then a rather substantial bright golf ball.
Jack senses I am pining for something more. He directs the telescope toward a solitary pinpoint of light and asks me to have a look. Two stars, clear and plump as billiard balls, blink back at me. One is blue, the other yellow-green.
"Wow," I say, meaning it. I hadn't expected such vivid colors in the darkness.
As a finale, Jack trains his telescope on the moon. Astronomers seldom bother with it—too obvious—but to me, that's the point.
Below is a precise transcript of my response.
"Oh, my God. Wow. Jesus. Oh, my God. Oh. My. God. Wow. Are those mountain ranges inside those craters?Jesus. Wow, wow. They're so vivid. And creepy. Are those bubbles also craters?Wow. Jesus."
The other guests are trying politely to stifle their laughter.
"Another convert," says Mike Troke, an accountant from Edmonton. "Everyone just needs to find something they like."
I guess so. And for me, of all things, it's the moon. "A friend for the lonesome to talk to," as Carl Sandburg once said.
Jack Newton refers to himself as an "astronomy evangelist." While he means it in a strictly metaphorical sense, the term has become startlingly literal over the years: amateur astronomers from all over the world come to remote western Canada to meet Jack Newton. A stay at his Observatory B&B, nestled in the Okanagan mountain range, seems to have the same effect on science freaks that religious retreats do on the faithful—energizing them, deepening them, reorganizing their perspectives somehow. On occasion, it even changes lives.
"Those e-mails are scary," says Jack. "Because what they are also saying is, 'You've cost me $6,000.'"