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.'"
When he was 12, Jack independently discovered the rings of Saturn with his two-inch refractor telescope. When he was 22, he built his first telescope, which turned out to be the largest in Winnipeg. Today, at 61, he leads expeditions to watch all manner of eclipses, beta tests star-finding software, and sits on the board of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific as the only non-Ph.D. There are six supernovae and six astronomy books that bear his name. His astrophotography, particularly his pictures of the sun, has been published everywhere.
About four years ago, Jack decided to retire early from Marks & Spencer, in Victoria,where he'd worked as a store manager for most of his life, and open the Observatory B&B with his wife, Alice. It wasn't a particularly hard decision. More than 5,000 astronomy buffs, including several unannounced busloads of German tourists, had already traipsed through their living room and into their observatory on Vancouver Island; charging for it and serving a hot meal seemed like the logical next step. They concluded that Osoyoos, an unfussy, fifties-style lake destination just north of the Washington State border, was the ideal spot. Because it is located in Canada's only desert, Osoyoos offers ample clear evenings to stargaze. (It also offers a range of activities for indulgent spouses who can't be bothered with astronomy: swimming, waterskiing, boating, biking, golfing, and winery hopping.)
The Newton home sits at the near-peak of a 5,000-foot mountain, far above the light pollution of the town below, and the only high-hanging light fixture on the property is a solitary 40-watt bulb above the porch. ("Because the law requires it," says Jack.) Inside, it's hard not to notice certain recurring motifs: the dining room table is covered with sun place mats and starry napkins; Alice buzzes about the house in an apron covered in planets; Jack's photos of assorted galaxies hang on the living room walls; and the comfortable guest quarters—the Moon Room, the Eclipse Suite, and the Saturn Suite—are accented with star rugs and moon night-lights, planet shower curtains and sun tissue boxes.
But the real giveaway that the Newton house sits in a universe apart is the conversation. "It's wild," says Jack. "Especially when it's all techie." No one chats in strained platitudes at this B&B breakfast table; it's all strictly celestial stuff, and Jack has satchels of stories. Ask him someday about the time he captured, on his own film, the giant oxygen clouds streaming out of Apollo 14 on its way to the moon. Or about all the intelligence he has pried out of American military officials. "They're sworn to secrecy, but they leak just enough," he says. "And I know how to bait 'em." Once, he casually mentioned to a general that he'd seen three satellites flying in formation over Big Pine Key, Florida, during a winter star party. "I was on that project," the man responded, astonished. "We were looking for Soviet subs."
And then there's the vocabulary of astronomy itself. Solar prominences, the Cat's Eye Nebula, the Magellanic Clouds. The largest moons of Jupiter (Callisto, Io, Europa, Ganymede), the comets from the Oort Cloud, the asteroids of the Kuiper Belt. Astronomers live with the whole universe pulsing and swirling in their heads, making it possible for them to look through the eyepiece and see more than just grime.
"I'm very attracted to people who like astronomy," says Alice, who tells a great story herself (and makes a killer breakfast). "I appreciate the humor and the whimsy. And the passion. They're certainly not in it for the money."
Alice had tried to dissuade me from reserving for the fall weekend I did: the moon would be nearly full—light pollution. But the only other available weekend, I couldn't go.
I should have found a way. Our first morning, a thick sheet of cloud has sealed off the sky. The weather does not clear in the evening. So all of us grab a glass of wine and pile into the Newtons' home movie theater, tricked out with three tiers of club chairs and a 65-inch high-definition TV, for a presentation of Jack's photographs. It's not the same as milling about in his $100,000 observatory, but I'mmesmerized, and Jack has a lyrical flair. Comets are "dirty snowballs, as hell-bent as sperm." One cubic centimeter of a particular star "weighs as much as an aircraft carrier." A black hole "can't be photographed, though I can tell you what's going on in the neighborhood."
Jack reminds us, "There are another 200 billion galaxies in the universe, so if someone says, 'We're alone in the universe,' give your head a shake. It's mathematically impossible." I realize, with some sadness, that the last time I'd actually sat through a lecture about something I knew nothing about, I was still in college. I feel grateful. And I feel certain I'll be back.
Another couple, the Pfeiffers, clearly feel the same way. "This is the most wonderful B&B I've ever been in," declares Randi, a jeweler, as she hugs her hosts good-bye. "As soon as we get home, we're going to call, and you can tell us the best week to come next year, astrologically."
"Astrololologically. Whatever. You know what I mean."
Jack thanks her, gives me a smile, shrugs. "They're new."
Getting to Osoyoos isn't impossible, but it does mean changing planes; Continental, Air Canada, and Alaska Airlines are your best bets. The Newton Observatory B&B is open from May 1 to mid-October. The B&B makes a splendid four-day weekend. The Moon Room runs from $59; the suites from $73. For an additional $37, Jack throws in a lesson in astrophotography. For more details, call Jack and Alice Newton at 250/495-6745.
WHAT TO DO
Tinhorn Creek Vineyard (250/498-3743) offers self-guided tours. The Golden Mile Hiking Trail winds through four miles of foothills. The International Bicycling and Hiking Trail follows the Okanagan River. Hard-core bikers cantry the Kettle Valley Railway Trail. Swimmers head to Haynes Point Provincial Park, on Osoyoos Lake. Golfers like the Osoyoos Golf & Country Club; riders can contact Indian Grove Riding Stable (250/495-7555 or 250/498-4478).
For more information, call the Osoyoos Chamber of Commerce: 250/495-7142.