By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
John Denver described it as “raining fire in the sky.” It perfectly describes a good meteor shower.
This past weekend the Perseid meteor shower peaked and while it wasn’t the best one I’ve ever seen it was pretty good because the moon was new and the skies dark. Experts were saying you should have been able to see 30-60 meteors (shooting stars) per hour. I saw about half that many from my back yard on the outskirts of Portales.
I’ve always been pretty fascinated by night skies and I was lucky to have folks in my life patient enough to show me how to find some of the main constellations: The Big Dipper, The Little Dipper, Polaris (North Star).
Granddad Ruby always pointed those things out any time I was camping with him on a fishing trip.
I remember one fall we had all been reading and hearing about Comet Kohoutek I think it was. My Grandmother Ereth decided we needed to see the historic event in person so she had us sleep over and then got us up at 3:30 a.m. to look for the comet. It was pretty unimpressive, but shivering in the pre-dawn chill with my grandmother as we scanned the bejeweled heavens is something I’ve always remembered. Finally, we spotted it and could even see the tail. In a way it was like discovering it ourselves.
I remember another night on a deer hunt in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico getting my best view of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) ever. I was on a trip with my brother-in-law and young nephew. The nephew had finally gone to sleep and we were warming our backsides at the campfire when we spotted what we first thought was the glow of the lights of Roswell.
Soon the lights of Roswell began doing really strange things. The light cloud changed colors and began to undulate. First we speculated it was an alien ship but soon it was unmistakably the famous Northern Lights.
I’ve always been amazed when camping, especially in the fall and winter, just how bright starlight can be by itself. You can hit the bedroll with a bright yellow moon in the western sky and wake up at 3 a.m. with pupils fully dilated and swear it’s bright enough to read a book.
My wife and I have always enjoyed stargazing. I’ve been known to drag her out of bed in the middle of the night just so she can watch a moonrise. We’ve watched lots of lunar eclipses and even a comet or two. But meteor showers have always been a good excuse to leave the house for the dark countryside in the middle of the night or lay out in the back yard. One night when we lived in Tucumcari we had a fireball buzz our patio that we both swore just barely cleared our pecan tree. We knew it was miles away but it was bright enough to cast a shadow.
One August night while trying to view the Perseid through the thick south Texas atmosphere we had a stray dog wander up miles away from any houses. We couldn’t find his owner and ended up adopting the canine we called Comet.
Far and away the best night of meteor showers we’ve ever had was a few years back in Colorado. We had heard the Perseid would be very visible that year so we made plans to drive up to a saddleback area above town called the Crown. We arrived on top a little after midnight to a scene akin to a drive-in movie lot. There were cars parked everywhere and everyone was out on blankets, mattresses or chaise loungers.
Once we got situated and Mother Nature’s show got under way, it was more like a slightly hushed fireworks display. We could hear oooos and ahhhs all over the mesa but it was peaceful despite the crowds.
From where we sat that night you can actually see the ridge line where Denver said he was camping as he came up with the idea for “Rocky Mountain High.”
His inspiration for the song was never more clear to me than that night.
Karl Terry is the managing editor of the Portales News Tribune. Contact him at 356-4481, ext. 33, or by e-mail: