I’m a docent at Kitt Peak Visitor Center, and I give tours of telescopes to visitors from all over the world. I’m not an astronomer, but that’s okay because I’ve asked most of the questions you’re too shy to ask, and I know why you’re asking them. I’ve learned a lot in my 16 years on the mountain. We tour guides hope that our guests learn something on their visits, and are inspired by the grandeur of the universe. But for me, it’s the people I meet from all over the world who inspire me to keep on working at Kitt Peak.
I love it when someone has an “aha!” moment as some concept suddenly becomes clear. I’m delighted to see the sparkling eyes of children asked to help with a demonstration, their parents taking advantage of the photo op. And I’m gratified when someone has been inspired by the visit. I remember one man who signed up for a tour, mentioning that his wife was staying in the car because she had no interest in telescopes. I suggested that she at least come inside where she’d be more comfortable. She did, and listened to the introduction of the first tour, actually went on the second tour, and by the third tour was urging her husband to become a docent and she would work in the gift shop! Of course they had to move to Arizona first.
Many visitors to Kitt Peak are living demonstrations of determination and courage. I’m amazed at how many people come there shortly after, or shortly before, joint replacement surgery. I sometimes wonder if Kitt Peak tours might be an official part of rehab therapy. Although we offer guests the option of driving to the telescope sites, we quite often hear a determined “I. Will. Walk!”
We once had a guest whose leg had been amputated at the hip. He explained how much more difficult it was to walk with a prosthetic leg with that sort of amputation as opposed to having some of the original limb left. (You never know what you’re going to learn at Kitt Peak!) Nevertheless, he walked all the way up to the 4 meter telescope, climbed up and down the stairs, and walked all the way back. Furthermore, when I was demonstrating the transfer of energy with our Astroblaster balls, this man was the one who tracked down and retrieved, on his hands and knees, the little red ball that had blasted to the ceiling and bounced its way under a cabinet.
One source of inspiration to me is how people on the tour, strangers to each other, bond together as a group, and look out for each other. On a tour to the McMath-Pierce solar telescope was an elderly couple. The wife had had some sort of medical issue and was not able to walk much or to talk clearly. She sat on her walker, and her husband pushed her along the road. I’d always considered the walk to the solar telescope to be relatively flat—but I’d never tried to push someone on a walker. As the husband struggled to push her up the slight incline, strangers in the group stepped up to help him. Back at the Visitor Center, the woman stopped me to ask a question. She struggled to form the words and sentences, but eventually I understood her. Then, thanking me for the tour, she dug into her tote bag and pulled out a hand knit ear warmer which she gave me as a gift. She made my day!
Probably my most heartwarming example of Kitt Peak visitors’ kindness and caring was on one tour of about a dozen guests which included a young man who’d obviously been seriously wounded in a deployment overseas. He was wearing a Wounded Warrior T-shirt and was in Arizona with his mom for treatment for his head injury. He was determined to walk to the 4-meter telescope, although it was difficult for him. Before I talked about the telescope, I asked this young man where he had served, and as soon as he had told me, the others on the tour immediately lost their reticence to talk to him. There was a palpable atmosphere of caring as the other guests moved closer to support him. They waited patiently when he carefully formed questions about the telescope. On the walk back, the entire tour group of strangers gathered around this young man and walked slowly with him to the Visitor Center. No one hurried on ahead; everyone had time. His mother walked with me and, in tears, told me their story. It was an unforgettable tour, a mountain-top experience of courage and kindness.
As a Kitt Peak Docent, I am constantly inspired by the determination and courage, the kindness and thoughtfulness of strangers from around the world who spend but a few hours together on the mountain. It is the people, as much as the astronomy, who keep me coming back.
If you would like to meet people from around the world and experience the comradery of strangers in the beautiful surroundings of Kitt Peak, you can find tour information at https://visitkittpeak.org/daytime/
Joyce Park, Kitt Peak Docent.