Of the many good reasons for heading into the countryside to stare at the sky during the dog days of summer, perhaps none captures the imagination as much as a chance to see the annual mid-August Perseid meteor shower-one of the most visible displays of its kind.
From a strictly scientific stance, Space.com describes the Perseids as "the dross" of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, making its 130-year orbit around the sun. When Earth passes in proximity of the comet's orbit, that debris ("mostly the size of sand grains with a few peas and marbles tossed in") blasts high-speed into the planet's atmosphere-creating the phenomenon of multiple shooting stars.
But the meteors, sightings of which have been recorded for almost 2,000 years, are also fancifully referred to as "The Tears of St. Lawrence" in honor of the Aug. 10 feast day of Laurentius. That third-century Christian, history tells us, took the meaning of martyrdom to new heights by helpfully suggesting to his executioners-as he was literally being grilled-how he should be properly cooked.
Pre-excursion research on watching the 2004 Perseids in San Diego County also uncovered the data of renowned astronomers-one of them Tom Van Flandern of Washington, D.C., who predicted this year's shower might be "unusually strong, albeit brief." The optimum local viewing time would reportedly span the hours between midnight, Aug. 11, and dawn, Aug. 12.
Moreover, seeking advice on vantage points as sheltered as possible from city-light pollution, I learned the shower would attract spectators who, like me, were far less well-versed in the complexities of the night skies.
"I am going out there, even if I go alone," Jack, an online meteor-watching contact from the Clairemont area, who has observed the Perseids numerous times, wrote me. He divulged his plan to head east on I-8 to the Sunrise Highway exit, then north toward Julian on the peak 2004 Perseid night. His description of the location included approximately five pullouts beside the road where, at each, anywhere from 25 to 200 people might station themselves through the hours of the event.
Taking Jack's advice, late on Aug. 11, I drove up through Route S-1's parched but colorful chaparral, and quickly arrived at an ear-popping 6,000-foot elevation at the summit of isolated Mount Laguna. Just past midnight, the surrounding woods seemed devoid of virtually any illumination. Entering a narrow lane leading to the Desert View Picnic Area, the sight of a lone male hiker was at first startling, then comforting-indicating other observers had indeed gathered there.
In a tree-studded grove commanding an unobstructed view of the distant Anza-Borrego, I stretched out supine on a blanket spread across a sandy embankment, stared straight up at an immense, clear and ink-black sky carpeted by countless, sparkling stars-and waited. Nearby, but invisible in the pitch blackness, were perhaps several dozen other people-families with children, couples, groups of teens-identifiable only by voices and laughter that rang abnormally loud in the night air as they watched from lawn chairs, sleeping bags or picnic tables. Thin flashlight beams pierced the darkness as newcomers gingerly navigated to vacant spots.
Suddenly, a bright point of light-a twirling, smoke-like trail streaking in its wake-etched across the sky, followed by fainter, smaller darts flashing at diverse angles. Every sighting-no matter the shooting star's size-was greeted from the shadows by awed gasps and exclamations ("Did you see that one?!"). A child's voice announced that 65 meteors had passed within the hour.
As the night progressed, and the frequency of meteor-sightings intensified, a noise vaguely similar to heavy traffic unexpectedly and somewhat unnervingly roared up from the desert floor. For several long minutes, powerful gusts shook trees and swept not-ideal-for-stargazing amounts of sand into bystanders' eyes.
By 4:30 a.m., a thin crescent moon had risen above the badlands, and the sky became gradually more vibrant, but less star- and meteor-filled, as dawn approached. While some spectators drifted into sleep, voices throughout the overlook hushed down to scattered whispers ("That had to be a UFO!").
A few days later, anxious to compare my meteor-viewing experience with those of others, I e-mailed astronomer Van Flandern for an update on his 2004 Perseid predictions and received a somewhat cryptic-to-a-layperson response: "The results in a word: "Bingo!' This, of course, lends additional credence to the... "exploded-planet hypothesis,' which has these meteors escaping from orbits in a "debris cloud' around a comet nucleus instead of ejected into space via jets on the comet nucleus."
But, sadly, Jack's report was perhaps more typical of thousands of San Diegans for whom Aug. 12 was a regular workday: "I started out there about midnight, and it was overcast as long as I was driving east. So I only got to about Alpine and turned around. I saw nothing, really."That is," Jack lamented, "what is unfortunate about living in Clairemont. You cannot tell what the sky will be like 50 miles away."