My true love affair with the Perseids Meteor Shower was born in a meadow, just below the North Sister, along the Pacific Crest Trail. As some of my Parkrose friends remember, my Dad used to do “Summer Science” camps that ranged from basic trips to the coast, to extended 2-week hikes along the Pacific Coast Trail, starting in the Three Sisters Wilderness area, and hiking South over a 50-mile range.
The most memorable of these was in the summer after my freshman year in high school, which as most of you will confess, is one of the most self-centered times of a young person’s life. Several of my best friends joined more than 25 kids, along with Dad’s co-teacher, Ken Grunwald, on what was likely one of their first real experiences of “roughing it” in the wilderness, carrying everything we needed for two weeks of sustenance.
My memories of the first night of this trip changed me forever.
Anyone who knows my Dad, knows that I was a lucky kid to have him in my life. He was the perfect example of “stern” when he needed to be, while being a font of unconditional love and empathy, who spent his life lifting up those around him, while shying away from recognition. A very rare breed indeed.
But, that didn’t stop me from being a “punk,” in my teen years. By the summer after my Freshman year, I had grown from a short, stout, insecure kid of barely 4’8” into a “stretched out” version of just under 5’ 9” and brimming with testosterone and confidence in my athletic and “social stimulus” abilities. I was a handful.
At a time when I could/should have appreciated my Dad for the amazing, consistently patient man he was, I did the “teenager thing” and pushed him to the limits by basically beginning my “rebellion against authority” with any task he asked me to do. I was short on drive…while being long on attitude.
When we started up the first leg of our first day of hiking, there were loads of complaints about the weight of the packs (close to 70lbs each) and the pace of the lead hiker (my Dad). My Dad was in amazing shape, with the calves of a Tibetan Sherpa, and the attitude and stamina of a cartoon mountain sheep. He whistled while he hiked, head forward, at a pace that likely seemed leisurely to him, but left his teacher aid partner, huffing at the back of the line, as he “helped the stragglers” (which was usually him alone).
My friends, many of whom were fellow football and baseball teammates, made note of his pace…repeatedly. “God, Miller. What’s the deal? What’s he trying to prove??” I just shrugged…admittedly too gassed after the first hour of a 25% incline to talk much.
By the time we got to the first camp site, a mere 5 miles into the 45 ahead of us, we were overjoyed to set up camp, and begin exploring the environs around “Little Bear Lake.” Several of us, wanting to “get some separation from the masses” set up our sleeping bags in an open spot, away from the lake, but within earshot of the rest, in case of an “emergency.” Bears and other wildlife are plentiful in the area.
As day gave way to night, and we were instructed to “get some sleep, we are hitting it early, and we have a longer day of hiking ahead of us!” (cue the teenage groans), the general discussion moved from girls, to sports, to…”Holy SHIT! Did you SEE THAT???”
Even before the night sky had burst forth with the gazillion stars that make up the Milky Way, a huge ball of fire shot across the sky, actually illuminating our faces with its light.
Having never seen a “shooting star” of such magnitude, especially in the “light pollution of the city,” we all looked to see if there had been an explosion of fire in the woods to the south where it seemed to have landed, a contrail of smoke marking its trail.
I bolted toward the main camp, only to realize that Mr. Grunwald was already giving a “mini-symposium” on meteorites, and the annual Perseids in particular. This gave me the opportunity to saunter back to “my clan,” with a smirk of information that “this kind of thing wasn’t unusual, and that we should…OH MY GOD!!!! THAT ONE WAS HUGE!!!!!” as another streak lit up the sky.
And so it was…for hours and hours…on a moonless night…a billion stars streaking the night sky above us, without a bit of “manmade light” to ruin it, we counted hundreds…yes…hundreds of meteorites of varying intensity, to the point that we became jaundiced if the remnant didn’t sport a tail of fire and smoke.
I remember all of us dropping slowly off to sleep, the exertions of the day overwhelming the excitement of the ongoing spectacle.
But, I remember laying there thinking…perhaps for the first time in my teenage life, just how insignificant the day-to-day events on this speck of dust in the vastness of space, really were. And most of all, I counted my blessings, to be part of a family that put up with the attitude of a young man, struggling to find himself in a world that was trying to tear itself apart war, assassinations, and civil conflicts.
The next morning, before he had a chance to become, “Mr. Miller” to the group, I slid up next to my Dad and said, “Man…that was the most amazing night of my life…thanks for bringing us up here.”
I admit to writing this with a lump in my throat, and tear in my eye, as I remember the look of surprise on his face at my comment. It was as if he understood that “being a teenager” was my part to play, and “being Mr. Miller” was his part to play. But, he broke character long enough to give me that “isn’t life amazing?” look, and simply say, “It was amazing! I’m glad we could share it!”
Tonight between the hours of midnight and 3 AM is the peak of this year’s Persieds Meteor Shower. It is supposed to be the largest (as in most frequent per hour) since 2009. I have a feeling they are right, because last night, standing out on my deck, surrounded by the polluted city lights of Eugene, I counted three substantial meteors in just 6 minutes.
For those who are Sticklers for terms…
Meteoroid – A small particle from an asteroid or comet orbiting the Sun. Meteor – A meteoroid that is observed as it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere – a shooting star. Meteorite – A meteoroid that survives its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and impacts the Earth’s surface.
They are NOT “shooting stars.”
Do yourself a favor. Take a nap if you need to. But, stay up…and if you can, drive to a place away from the city lights for best viewing.
But most important…as you look up, try to forget about politics, or sports, or selfies, or facebook, and take stock in your part of this amazing, seemingly endless universe around us. And have hope…because if a meteor can change a selfish teenager’s heart…there is indeed hope for the world.
Dad…taking a break from the mayhem of 25 teenagers… amazing man…infinite patience.