My Heavens
In southwestern Virginia, a resort helps visitors turn their eyes to the skies.

By Joe Bargmann
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 18, 2009

I'm not an astronomy geek. Not that there's anything wrong with being one; I've met about a dozen, and at least six didn't bore me with arcane rambling about this or that new telescope, the trip they took to the Florida Keys to gaze at the winter sky with 600 other astronomy geeks, or the tragedy of urban sprawl and light pollution of the night sky.

My interest in the cosmos is more pedestrian. It started when I was 6 and sat transfixed in front of the television, watching Apollo 11 crawl into space. I also remember punching a hole in a piece of cardboard when I was a kid so I could "watch" the total eclipse of the sun without scorching my retinas. (The actual term for that, I learned from Wikipedia, is the pinhole projection method. If I were an astronomy geek, I wouldn't need Wikipedia to discover such terms.)

As I got a little older, my mother nurtured my interest in the stars. She pointed out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Orion's Belt, and she sent me scrambling to the astronomy section of the morning newspaper to find out which planet had been so bright and close to the moon the night before. I learned to love looking at the night sky. Once, when I was driving across Nova Scotia, I saw the aurora borealis and found it so profoundly beautiful I pulled over and got out of my car, teary-eyed and a little breathless as I stared at the shimmering curtain of light.

To be honest, though, none of that was on my mind when I first visited a resort named Primland, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia near the North Carolina border. The initial draw for me was earthbound: The place has a great new golf course. I will travel just about anywhere to play a great new golf course.

But when I got to Primland, in a town called Meadows of Dan, I saw something even more interesting. The resort's 26-room lodge, whose architecture is like that of a rustic Swiss chalet, has a four-story silver silo appended to one corner. On top is an observatory, 30 feet in diameter and with a door that slides open to allow for high-tech stargazing via a computer-controlled, state-of-the-art, deep-space telescope. The silo looked funny to me; its sleek design is incongruous with the rest of the building, and, well, I couldn't help thinking of scenes from an Austin Powers movie. Since the lodge was under construction when I visited, in mid-May, and the observatory not yet functioning, I vowed to return.

Now that I've gone back (twice) and seen the observatory in full operation, I may never look at the heavens the same way again.

A 12,000-acre hunting and fishing preserve, the resort is ultra-luxe, now that the lodge is up and running, complete with a cushy spa, superb restaurant, glass-walled wine vault, great room with twin fireplaces -- and above all, so to speak, the observatory.

You certainly don't have to stay at Primland to see a spectacular night sky; the views from southwestern Virginia, more than an hour from the nearest (small) city, are pristine. But thanks to Primland, four centuries to the year after Galileo invented observational astronomy with his crude wooden telescope, stargazing has officially become luxurious.

"There are precious few places where an ordinary person can get access to a really good telescope, and have a really exciting astronomical experience, while in a resort setting," says Rick Fienberg, press officer of the American Astronomical Society in Washington. Having visited many astronomy resorts in the past two decades and checked out Primland via its Web site, Fienberg is duly impressed. "It's a bigger and more elaborate spread than any other astronomy resort I've seen, and it's put together by someone for whom money was no object," he says. "Those things distinguish it from all the others."

* * *

The money behind Primland -- a fortune in the billions of dollars -- belongs to the Primat family of Switzerland. The patriarch, Didier Primat, died on July 6, 2008, survived by his estranged wife, Martine, and their eight children. He was a board member and large stockholder of Schlumberger, the largest oil-services company in the world, founded by his family in the early 1900s.

In fall 2007, stricken with the throat cancer that would claim his life, Primat called his top managers, including vice president Steve Helms, for a meeting with the architects of the lodge at Primland. According to Helms, Primat pointed at the dome of the scale model in front of him and said, "That would make a great place for an observatory."

Primat had bought the property in the 1970s. For several years, he harvested timber from the land, packaging it for sale in small bundles available in convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven. But the timbering operation was relatively small and short-lived, as Primat's environmental sensibilities evolved and he came to view Primland primarily as a nature preserve and family retreat.

"The whole thing started because my father wanted to buy a farm in the States," Harold Primat, 34, whose driving for the Aston Martin Le Mans Series racing team befits the son of a billionaire, says in a telephone interview.

The word "farm" doesn't do justice to the property Didier Primat purchased, of course. But it became a sort of second home for him.

"It reminded him of our property in Geneva, Switzerland," says Harold, referring to the family estate. "He really fell in love with the Virginia countryside. He would spend whole days enjoying the nature there, fishing and hiking."

In his final months of life, Harold says, his father expressed a simple wish while convalescing in Switzerland: "He said, 'I would like to see the stars above Primland every day.' " If the telescope had been operating, it could have made that wish come true, as it can beam live images online. "I'm sorry that didn't happen for him," his son says.

* * *

I enter the Primland observatory around midnight on a chilly, crystal-clear evening in late September. After climbing the spiral metal staircase that leads into the cavernous room beneath the aluminum dome, I watch the curved door slide open to reveal a spectacular array of stars, shining brightly despite some visual interference by a silvery half-moon. Nathan Lee Pruitt sits at a table in the middle of the room, tapping a keyboard and staring at a 42-inch computer monitor. The screen shows a map of the heavens, with constellations rendered in connect-the-dots fashion.

"I'm trying to get a good look at the Trifid Nebula," says Pruitt, 20, an astronomy geek who went from working at the local Taco Bell to commanding more than $25,000 in astronomical equipment at Primland. "It's also called M20, and it's pretty awesome." Pruitt presses a button, commanding the telescope to focus on M20, which is part of Sagittarius and located 2,000 to 9,000 light years from Earth. "Cross your fingers," Pruitt says. "Let's hope this works."

Powered by electric motors, the observatory dome rotates, creating an ominous mechanical din, like a symphony orchestra tuning up. The telescope, perched on a tripod with six-foot legs, swivels into position, craning its "head" like a giant one-eyed cousin of the eponymous star of Pixar's "Wall E."

On the computer screen, a blue-and-red cloud comes into view. I hear the whir of a small electric motor as the telescope automatically fine-tunes its focus on the object. Pruitt's fingers fly over the keyboard, enlarging the image on the screen. I feel a twinge of memory, my mind reeling back to the night I saw the northern lights above Nova Scotia. But looking at M20 is a completely different experience. It's not quite as moving, but Priutt is right: M20 is pretty awesome.

Trifid means "divided into three lobes." In M20, those lobes consist of a cluster of stars, an emission nebula (basically, a gaseous cloud, which appears red) and a reflective nebula, which is blue. "Not bad," Pruitt says, appraising his work. "Now, let's capture and refine this puppy."

Built and installed by Kris and Dean Koenig -- brothers who head up Interstellar Studios in Chico, Calif., and Starizona in Tucson, respectively -- the stargazing system at Primland features a 14-inch Celestron CGE Pro telescope, capable not only of deep-space photography but also of beaming live cosmic images into guest-room TVs and the screen in the 18-seat theater on the second floor of the lodge. "I don't know of anyplace else in the world offering this product," says Dean, 53. "The telescope itself, and the way it's controlled, is fairly common. But the application at Primland is unique."

Pruitt demonstrates. "It takes patience," he says, interlocking his fingers and turning his hands inside out in front of him, cracking his knuckles.

What he means is that creating a lasting image of a space object like M20 is far more complicated and time-consuming than merely catching the first telescopic glimpse of it. Pruitt works the keyboard. "What the system is doing now is taking separate images with seconds-long exposures and stacking the images to create a single, clear image."

The process takes a few minutes, long enough for the night air to chill me to the bone. But the finished product is beautiful, like a luminous painting glowing red and blue and dotted by starry pinpoints of light. Pruitt leans back in his chair, tilting his head to regard the image on the computer screen. "I think that's a keeper," he says, typing in commands to save the image for his growing digital library of cosmic images.

I hear footsteps on the spiral staircase. Resort guests Rick and Robin Nicholson, 50 and 48, respectively, of Charlotte, step into the observatory. Pruitt stands, shakes their hands and quickly walks them through a demonstration, re-creating the show he'd just given me. Pruitt's cheeks are red from the cold, and my teeth are chattering. But the Nicholsons want to see more. "Something maybe a little simpler," Robin Nicholson says.

"I've got just the thing," says Pruitt, and we glance at each other like two prisoners agreeing that it's time to make a break for it.

Pruitt powers off the computer and the observatory door slides shut as we make our way down the spiral stairs. A few minutes later, on a first-floor patio, Pruitt shows the Nicholsons and me the resort's other telescope, also a Celestron but just eight inches in diameter and perfect for getting a closer look at objects visible to the naked eye.

Rick Nicholson peers through the eyepiece and exclaims, "Oh, man! Who knew there were mountains like that on the moon?"

It's not M20, I must admit. But seeing the surface of the moon in such detail is impressive. And so is the view of Jupiter that this smaller telescope provides, the planet flanked in a straight line by its four prominent moons.

* * *

Later, I sit on a couch by one of the fireplaces in the great room on the first floor, warming up with a glass of red wine. I've peered into deep space, seen the moon and Jupiter as never before. But now I want only to look up at the night sky, like I did when I was a kid, sitting beside my mother on the back deck of our New Jersey home as she pointed out the Big Dipper.

I stroll outside, down a flight of stone stairs, across a gravel path and onto the golf driving range. My toes are freezing, but I don't care. The sky spreading out above me is alive with light, the moon seemingly brighter than an hour earlier, but not so much that it blots out the Big Dipper. Or Jupiter and its moons. And as I squint and train my eyes on a much fainter object, I think, maybe that's the Trifid Nebula. Is it possible to view with the naked eye? Never mind that it's nearly 2 a.m. I resolve to log on to my computer when I get back to my room to get the answer -- just as any self-respecting astronomy geek would.

Joe Bargmann is a freelance writer based in Grand View-on-Hudson, N.Y.

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