LAST AUGUST, when my husband's friend Dale was visiting from New York, I read in the paper that the Perseid meteor shower was about to happen. Dale claimed to have never seen a shooting star, so we dragged him out to a hiking trail a few miles east of our Bay Area home to perform this summertime ritual. We kept him up until 2 a.m. We made him lie down in the dirt. After half an hour and a few wan streaks, Dale looked over at us. "You said it was a shower."
In the meteor shower of one's imagination, there is no downtime. You expect them to come in by the dozens, a catapult siege against the king's ramparts. You expect to go home stunned and awed and talking like Rutger Hauer on the rooftop in Blade Runner: "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion ..."
Instead you say, "Guess we should have gone out later." Meteor showers often peak during the hour or two just before sunrise. Since few of us are willing to stay up until 4 a.m., we blame ourselves when the spectacle disappoints. As it always seems to. Very few people, when they read "as many as 110 meteors per hour," bother to do the math. That is just under two shooting stars per minute. For 58 out of 60 seconds, nothing save the slow seizing of muscles in your neck and shoulders is going on.
I took this up with Jack "the Star Gazer" Horkheimer, PBS's astronomer for the people. He sounded a little squirrelly, as if on some level he knew it is his kind who are responsible for perpetuating the hype. "I've said for over 30 years that the phrase 'meteor shower' is wrong," he told me. "It should be 'meteor sprinkle.'" He made a noise into the phone. "Sorry, I'm eatin' grapes and crackers here."
I decided to give the meteor shower one last chance. The Geminids, a winter shower, is said to be the most dependably impressive of the four major meteor events that happen each year when the earth passes through the trail of debris left by this or that comet as it orbits the sun. It is the only meteor shower that peaks at a semi-reasonable hour: from 1 to 3 a.m. Scientists think Geminid meteors are denser than average, so they burn more slowly, leaving long, lazy trails that last for countable seconds.
And this shower has a preponderance of bright meteors, or fireballs. Fireballs makes them sound bigger than they are, though. Most meteors are the size of a speck of pepper. One showy enough to be classed as a fireball is perhaps as big as a golf ball. In all cases, what you're seeing is not the object itself but the gases of the atmosphere illuminated by the friction of the object ripping through at 80,000-plus miles per hour.
For once, the conditions would be perfect: The night of December 13–14, the peak of the 2007 Geminids, would coincide with a nearly new moon. I found a spot in the Sierra Nevada, a four-hour drive from our house, that appears on a list of notably dark California skies posted on a Web site called Skykeepers.org. Specifically, Skykeepers cites the sky above the Alpine County airstrip, just outside Markleeville. So that's where I'd go.
IT IS A SPECIAL KIND OF DORK who travels 200 miles from a warm bed to set up a lawn chair on a snowy airstrip in the frigid dark. I am that kind of dork, and so is my friend Jeff. Jeff owns a telescope and regularly freezes on remote hilltops for the chance to view spectacular astral bodies. He is coming with me, as is my husband, Ed, and Jeff's girlfriend, Krista.
Skykeepers lists the sky over the airstrip as a "Class 3 Bortle." Bortle refers to the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale and to John E. Bortle, the astronomer who created the scale. A Class 1 Bortle is a place with virtually no light pollution. It is so dark you can't see the outlines of your fellow dorks. At present, thanks to the ubiquitous orangey glare of sodium vapor lights, no sky in the continental U.S. is classified Bortle 1. Only one spot rates a 2: Utah's Natural Bridges National Monument, the world's first official Dark Sky Park, as certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. We'd planned to go there, but the forecast had called for snow.
Astronomers say the Geminids shower is good for producing bolides, which are especially bright fireballs that can explode as they crash through the earth's atmosphere. Kim Youmans, who tallies sightings data for the American Meteor Society, told me he once saw a fireball that was "as wide as the full moon, and all along the wake, you could see colors popping, every color you could imagine." We pull into town anticipating apocalypse.
The first half-hour at the airstrip is the dependable letdown, only colder. "There went one," I say, pointing to a feeble trail near Mars. It does not blaze or astonish in any way; it just appears, silently and without drama, like a line drawn on an Etch a Sketch.
Even Jeff starts losing interest. Inside his sleeping bag, he drops one of his chemical hand warmers down his pants. "Whoa," he says. "Hey, Ed, try this."
Abruptly, around 12:30, the pace picks up. They're coming in clusters now, three or four in close succession. A few are fireballs. One seems to swerve in midcourse, something none of us has ever seen.
Youmans told me that while you see the most meteors during the peak night of the Geminids, you often see more fireballs the following night. We aren't keen on a second night of ten-degree cold, so the next day we hatch a plan to bribe the staff of nearby Grover Hot Springs State Park into letting us stay on after closing.
As we find out, the hot springs are open after dark anyway. There's a family Christmas event going on. A bedsheet is tacked to a shed beside the pool, and the rangers are screening all 100 minutes of The Polar Express, parboiling the children and loosening their skin. The projector is set up on a narrow table inches from the pool's edge. "If you sit in there, you can be the fireball," says Jeff.
We decide to pack it in. Out in the parking lot we see three fireballs in a row. One burns brightly for several seconds. On the drive back to our hotel, I open my window. Through the sliver of sky between the spine of the mountains and the lowering clouds, I see a fireball that makes me yell so loud that Ed nearly goes into a skid. For five seconds, it parallels the mountaintops, skipping twice like a stone on water and throwing sparking projectiles in its wake. It's so spectacular that, for a moment, I worry that I'm seeing the Space Station fall from orbit and explode.
Now that I've seen things you people wouldn't believe, some advice: Wait for the Geminids and screw the Bortle ratings. Go out for half an hour anywhere reasonably dark, anytime on the night after the shower's peak. Take a sleeping bag, and heed the advice of Jack Horkheimer: "Bring lots of hot cocoa. Put a shot of rum in the hot cocoa. Little antifreeze. Keep your blood circulating. Ha!"