Oct. 21-22 is the height of the Orionid meteor shower — an opportunity for an educational trip for the whole family.
It’s nearly impossible to know what the school scene will look like through this month because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some school campuses might be open for in-person lessons, at least part of the time, and others not. They might open and then close quickly if cases of COVID-19 crop up. In any case, it’s very unlikely that many students will attend school on-campus full-time. Remote learning is likely to remain a big part of the picture — a prospect practically guaranteed to give parents some new gray hairs.
But families can still think about this creatively and even take advantage of it. There’s no reason all of the schoolwork needs to be done from your kitchen table. The great thing about remote lessons is that they can be carried out from anywhere with Wi-Fi and a computer device. This could just be the perfect month to think about an educational getaway for the family.
Oct. 21-22 is the height of the Orionid meteor shower, the shower from Halley’s Comet, though it will be going on for two weeks before and after. The best way to see meteors streak across the sky is up in the mountains, where the air is crisp and less likely to have cloud cover, in an area with very little light pollution.
If it’s OK with the teacher to miss a couple of days for an educational outing or if you reserve a site for a weekend so that schoolwork isn’t an issue, a camping trip might be the perfect memorable way to experience this. But if school is in session, or camping isn’t within your comfort zone, you might want to consider a short-term, well-sanitized rental with Wi-Fi in a town like Julian, in the mountains of eastern San Diego County. That way, the kids can do their lessons from the kitchen table in the mountains — the change of scenery alone will put them in a better mood for school — and enjoy the offerings of the town later in the day as well as the stars at night.
October historically is the time of Apple Days in Julian, when picking apples or helping to make cider was a common tradition. But apple picking has fallen off in the area. It’s still a time for catching glorious autumn color among the leaves and going on a nature walk — there are a couple of interesting hikes in the area.
Most of the businesses in town have been open for visitors, but make sure to call and check before you go. Because of the need for social distancing, you’re more likely to need advance reservations. You might want to ask about masks and distancing, and whether restaurants are offering distanced outdoor dining.
The attractions include the Eagle Mining Co., where families can tour a real gold mine and learn how it was done. The size of tour groups is limited for safety, and masks are required inside the mines. Call 760-765-0036 for advance details.
The pie shops are still in operation and I have never had apple pie better than at Julian Pie Company. And despite its name, the Julian Beer Co. is better known for its barbecue. It’s a very casual, family-friendly place with plenty of outdoor seating.
The meteor shower tends to be most visible in the hours before dawn, according to the website earthsky.org. It might make sense for the kids to go to bed at their usual time, with an alarm set for the very-early-morning show. Make sure you have some warm jackets and blankets to wrap around you and lie on — it can get cold up in the mountains at night. Bring a flashlight for tiptoeing out in darkness.
The Orionids are a medium-activity meteor shower but you still should be able to spot at least a couple of meteors streaking across the sky every minute or so. If you want a more brilliant meteor shower, the Geminids are coming up in December, but the fall color will be gone, rainy season might interfere with stargazing, and mountainous areas like Julian tend to get very cold.
Still, the Geminid is worth the chill for many star-watchers and it offers a more convenient show time than most meteor showers — in the late evening instead of early morning.
“This is the one major shower that provides good activity prior to midnight as the constellation of Gemini is well placed from 22:00 onward,” says the website of the American Meteor Society. “The Geminids are often bright and intensely colored.”
No matter when you go, if you want a spectacularly memorable sky experience in Julian, you might want to check out the Observer’s Inn. In addition to running a bed and breakfast, which isn’t accepting guests right now, the owner, who is extremely knowledgeable about astronomy, has installed a small observatory with research-grade telescopes through which you can see sights that will stay with you and the kids for years. The observatory roof is open, which makes this a safer, outdoor experience. The tours take 10 people these days instead of the usual 20 to allow more distancing; masks are required and hand sanitizer is provided. Advance reservations are needed; with the more limited numbers, spots fill weeks ahead.
Have the kids bone up on comets and meteor showers beforehand. But mainly, enjoy the getaway. Just being able to see the Milky Way — which is often easy to do in Julian — can be an awe-inspiring sight that makes us feel just how small a part of the universe we are.
By Karin Klein