In the movie “Contact,” Jodie Foster plays a nerdy researcher who listens to radio transmissions trying to find signs of alien life. She does, much drama ensues, and that’s about all I remember. Until I was reminded of ‘Contact’ on Saturday while hiking back down Bald Mountain in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. We had emerged into a clearing and suddenly came upon a house-like structure that seemed decidedly out of place amidst the trees and trails.

Welcome to the Robert Ferguson Observatory, which is staffed by volunteer docents who spend occasional days and nights watching – and listening to – the stars above. It’s been there for about a decade and is truly a community observatory. Groups can camp outside there, watch the stars at night, and learn about what’s overhead. Since it was a brilliantly sunny day on Saturday, I listened to the sun, which was actually pretty noisy when heard through the radio equipment. Dean Knight, a Sonoma Valley High School science teacher, was our guide and patiently explained what we were listening to, how it sounded across the world (about the same), and how it has changed over the years (not much). Our visit included a peek through a solar-protected telescope at the sun, which looked splotchy and large. The observatory is generally only open one day a month – the darkest day of the month – so we got lucky in stumbling across it when we did.

Back to the hike. Time was tight Saturday due to some big plans later that night with my significant other (in unison……..) but the weather was so beautiful that squeezing in a walk seemed like a smart idea. We headed up Bald Mountain, narrowly avoiding a large pack of wild turkeys (We had different instant reactions – “Oooooohhh, Thanksgiving’s coming up,”; I thought of a nice drink….), and then cut over across what is called the Vista Trail. From there, we had stupendous views of Kenwood and Santa Rosa. This hike was only about 5 miles, but the elevation was a nice climb – about 1,000 feet total – and it was a good, if quick, workout.

For much of the hike, I assumed there were some rowdy campers ahead of us, since I kept hearing people whooping and chattering. I kept waiting to run across them until I figured out the turkeys were responsible for the din. Clearly I’m not always the brightest tool in the box. With all the rain here in the last week, the ground was muddy for much of the walk, but there’s still a scarcity of water, given that the creek crossings were still far from being creeks. On a previous trek up Bald Mountain, I had done a different path that had included a side trip to a waterfall and a bit more views, but overall, a beautiful vista is a beautiful vista, and this one fit the bill.

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