Star Gazing as a Second Career

Even during his 18 years in manufacturing, Michael Leigh had his head in the stars.

He trained salesmen and devised work schedules, but he spent his free hours with a telescope, gazing at moons and asteroids. His intellectual passions extended light-years beyond a product showroom--to whirling galaxies, bizarre black holes and mysteries as old as the sky itself.

"Looking through the telescope, you're actually looking back through time," says Leigh, 55, showing off a photograph of the massive Sombrero Galaxy. The distant formation appears to viewers on Earth exactly as it was 30 million years ago, Leigh points out. "You're touching it . . . and it's touching you," he says. "If something didn't touch your eyes, you wouldn't see it. You're actually absorbing something into your body that was made that far away and that long ago. That's pretty fascinating."

That fascination took over Leigh's life after the manufacturing plant where he worked, Classic Baths by Jonny Industries in El Cajon, Calif., was sold in 1993. Leigh lost his well-paying job as vice president. Eager for a new and more rewarding career, he found temporary employment with a telescope manufacturer while creating his own business--a place where stargazers could gather and share his sense of wonder.

The Observer's Inn--a bed-and-breakfast that Leigh and his wife, Caroline, founded in 1995--is a relatively small place, with two guest suites, located east of San Diego in the rustic town of Julian, on the edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert. The main attraction is the private observatory out back that Leigh built by hand with the help of a friend. The garage-like structure houses three professional-grade telescopes, including a 16-inch, computer-driven Meade that can find and track 64,000 celestial objects.

Six nights a week, year-round, Leigh opens the observatory's retractable roof and conducts hour-long "Sky Tours." His theme is how vast and amazing the universe truly is, conveyed in easy-to-understand terms that make the point clear. Guests who have a hard time grasping the size of the galaxy might hear Leigh put it this way: "Our Milky Way has 400 billion stars. If you count one star every second--tick, tick, tick, tick--you'd have to count for 31½ years, nonstop, to get to one billion. You'd have to do that 400 times to count the number of stars like our sun just in our galaxy."

Sky Tours draw an eclectic mix of inn guests and outsiders. (Guests pay $10 apiece, in addition to the $160 room charge; non-guests pay a $20 admission fee.) "We have people who have never looked through a telescope and people who are very astute in astronomy," Leigh says. "We have scientists from NASA. We have witches that come here."

Serious amateurs often set up their own telescopes on viewing pads just outside the observatory. Margaret Class, 77, of Huntington Beach holds the inn's record, having stayed there 160 nights. Class began coming to the B&B with her late husband, John, a physicist at Ford Aeroneutronics in Newport Beach who reveled in his exchanges with Leigh about red giants, double stars and other celestial objects.

"I just love going there," Class says.

Tim Paine, a television editor from Burbank, proposed under the stars to his girlfriend, Lynne, on Valentine's Day of 2009. They're due to be married in October. The night he popped the question, the Leighs chilled champagne, and Paine treated his future wife to a stunning view of Saturn.

"That gave me my segue," he says. "I asked if she was satisfied with the view of Saturn's rings."

As impressive as they were, Paine had another ring to show her.

Saturn was the inspiration for Michael Leigh's own lifelong obsession with astronomy. He first dialed it into focus when he was 8 years old, peering through a cheap telescope bought at a swap meet. He maintained the hobby while majoring in business management at San Diego State University and later met Caroline, an interior designer, when he hired her for a job at Classic Baths. They were raising two sons, Trenton and Travis, when the plant was sold and eventually closed.

The Leighs searched a long time to find a site for their bed-and-breakfast far from city lights and yet accessible to patrons. The 4½ acres they bought in Julian cost about $200,000 in the mid-1990s.

As they built the business, Leigh found work for seven years at Meade Instruments, an Irvine-based telescope manufacturer, while his wife handled reservations and other tasks. Raised by an avid star-gazing father, Caroline Leigh adapted quickly. She jokes, "I don't know if I could do a Sky Tour on my own, but I could probably wing one."

The years at Meade, where he answered customer questions about astronomy, ensured Leigh an income until the inn could flourish on its own, he says. When he finally left, Meade generously gave him a parting gift--two of his prize telescopes, including the computerized 16-inch.

The inn was destroyed during the Cedar Fire, which killed 15 people in 2003. Somehow the observatory was untouched and the Leighs rebuilt their B&B with more space and elegance. Leigh says he can't imagine working again in the 9-to-5 world, even though the inn requires hard work and long hours, and he could make more money somewhere else.

Astronomy teaches him something new every day.

"There's no way you can ever master it," he says. "We're talking about the universe--billions and billions of light-years of unexplored territory. We're on the cutting edge, and it feels that way."

SecondAct contributor David Ferrell is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and the author of Screwball, a comic baseball novel.

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