Stargazing in downtown Dillon

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, July 7, 2021
Star of the show

Joe Witherspoon sets up a telescope on the roof of the Andrus Hotel in downtown Dillon last month for the first Rooftop Stargazing event, the next of which is set for Saturday. Gabrielle Regan photo

A tour of the renovated Andrus Hotel in downtown Dillon offers a long, close look at luxury life deep into the last century.

A night atop the century-old building during one of the Andrus’s Rooftop Stargazing events affords a guided tour deep into the night sky, thanks to its 360-degree view, plus the insights and the telescopes provided by host Joe Witherspoon.

“Every star you can see tonight with the naked eye is larger than our sun,” Witherspoon explained to the group of more than a dozen who ascended to the Andrus roof for the first Rooftop Stargazing there on June 5.

“Our sun is a pip squeak; it’s a little star—which is good. Because those big stars put out a lot of radiation and don’t last long,” said Witherspoon, who brings a lot of energy, personality and knowledge to Rooftop Stargazing, the next installment of which will take place Saturday, July 10.

During Rooftop Stargazing events, Witherspoon will also answer questions and impart knowledge about everything from the first mammal to travel to outer space—a brave, doomed Russian mutt called Barker (aka Laika)—to the brightest star in the night sky (aka “The Dog Star”).

“That star, if you were in an airplane travelling 700 miles per hour and never stopped to refuel or anything, it would take you 1800 years to get around it,” noted Witherspoon, who also offers Rooftop Stargazing participants the chance to look into the night sky through some of his telescopes, among the best in the region.

“I’ve got one that does everything but talk to you,” smiled Witherspoon, whose long, personal history as an amateur astronomer began at the age of 10, when he was living in Wheatland in rural Wyoming.

“It was summer and it looked like this guy’s barn about a mile from us was on fire. So we rushed over there to give him help. But about halfway there, we realized it wasn’t a fire—it was just the moon coming up from behind his barn,” recalled Witherspoon.

“After that, I was hooked.”

Following a couple decades serving in the military and running his own business, Witherspoon retired and moved to property he’d bought near Twin Bridges—far off the beaten track, where the night sky is dark enough for him to engage in astronomy on any clear night at his Cottontail Observatory.

He shares his enthusiasm during stargazing parties there and monthly public nights.

“I used to have them year round. But when hunting season started, no one would show up. And by the time hunting season ended, people were afraid to show up because there was so much snow,” said Witherspoon of the difficulties some encountered getting to and from his rural spread.

Witherspoon decided to afford folks easier access to his expertise and advanced equipment this summer at once-per-month Rooftop Stargazing at the Andrus Hotel, where people can sip drinks, nibble on fine food, and peer through telescopes provided by Witherspoon.

“This is a 12-inch Dobsonian,” said Witherspoon, displaying a type of reflecting telescope that employs a mirror.

“The telescope itself is called a Newtonian. It’s the simplest telescope you can get, with a lot of bang for the buck,” explained Witherspoon, who also engages people in his love of outer space through the simplest technology—the stomp rockets he sells each week at the Dillon Farmers Market.

“If I ever showed up without them, I’d get massacred,” laughed Witherspoon of the reception he’d get from all the kids who visiting at his Farmers Market booth to get more stomp rockets.

Witherspoon has also presented programs at the local library and area schools on astronomy.

His Andrus Rooftop Stargazing sessions are suitable for people of all knowledge levels about astronomy, and for all ages—at least those old enough to stay up past dusk, when the sky darkens enough for them to officially get going.

“That is probably Arcturus. That’s the main star in Boötes, the herdsman,” Witherspoon advised a nine-year-old girl who stayed up late for last month’s Rooftop Stargazing debut.

“When you look at it, it looks like an ice cream cone,” pointed out Witherspoon, who arrived in Montana from Washington just over a decade ago with his wife on a night colder than ice cream

“When we first got here, it was in December—in fact, we followed the snow plow up. It was about 20 below,” recalled Witherspoon, who even in that cold, still did a little stargazing.

“The sky was just absolutely perfect.”

The roof of the Andrus in summer can provide relief from the heat, as well as a comfortable place to set back, socialize and star gaze.

“It was Dr. Micha’s idea. He’s really creative,” revealed Andrus General Manager Michelle Cohen of the makeover of the hotel’s roof into the Donna Jones Rooftop Garden, named for Dillon’s Donna Jones—the granddaughter of Harry Andrus, who founded the hotel in 1917.

Jones, who attended the first Rooftop Stargazing event last month, also served as a key player in the building’s revival as a luxury hotel and grand opening last summer under the stewardship of its current owner, Dr. John Micha.

“He said, ‘why not?’” added Cohen, of the renovation of the roof that now host regular exercise classes, social gatherings and Rooftop Stargazing events, during which, clouds permitting, you can see numerous stars and multiple planets—and get some relief from the summer heat, plus a greater understanding of just how good we have it on earth, even during a heat wave, courtesy of Witherspoon.

“That’s Venus,” answered Witherspoon to a question of one of the guests at last month’s first Observatory Night at the Andrus.

“Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system. You don’t actually see the surface of Venus—it’s surrounded by real, real thick clouds. The average temperature of the surface is 800 degrees Farenheit. The Russians landed a probe there and it melted.”

The Andrus will host the next Rooftop Stargazing event on Saturday, July 10, starting just before dusk. Future Rooftop Stargazing sessions will happen Aug. 7, Sept. 4 and Oct. 2. For more information, call 406- 925-5024 or stop by the Andrus Hotel office at 33 S. Idaho St. in downtown Dillon.