November 19th, 2001

rat on computer - 2


We went to see the Leonids Saturday night. It was foggy along the coast, and the only place we could think to go that would be sure to be nice and dark was the mountains, near where we camp. It was a long drive for a non-overnight trip (usually takes close to an hour) but since we were unable to think of anything better we finally decided to do it. Since the peak was supposed to be around 2am, we decided to leave around 12:30, so we wouldn't have to be there too long ahead of time and wouldn't get too cold/bored.

We packed the Thermarest and a blanket and pillows so we could lay on the roadside, and got in the car around 12:45. The fog was so thick the stoplights were visible beams and you couldn't see the end of the block. As we drove down the freeway, we got out of the fog a little, but it was still hazy and cloudy. The mountain forecast was for high clouds decreasing overnight, so we were hopeful that when we got out of the city things would improve.

I kept peering out the car window at the sky, and it did indeed seem to improve as we drove east. Less than halfway there, though, traffic suddenly clogged up. A seemingly endless string of brake lights stretched into the distance. We crept half a mile in 15 minutes, I swear. What could be causing this kind of traffic jam at 1:30 on a Sunday morning? We crawled and crawled along, expecting a construction zone or big accident after which things would clear up. Nothing came.

It wasn't till we were almost at the camp turnoff that we finally had to conclude that all these people were driving out into the mountains for the meteor shower. It was hard to believe at first, but there's really nothing else out in that area. We saw a sign for a rest stop ten miles ahead, and because Ken wasn't feeling well we decided to continue on to it; the line of cars crawling down toward the park/campsite was just as bad as that on the freeway anyway.

The rest stop was packed with people, cars parked everywhere. It was an awful place to stargaze, blazingly lit up with the most light-polluting equipment available, but there they were. Parents with little kids in the back of pickups, older people, younger people, people everywhere. Ken saw a meteor as we walked from the car, and since I thought he was going to be a while I moved off into the shadow of a tree to do my own watching. The sky wasn't clear; there was a big ring of clouds around the horizon and halfway up, but there was a dome of clear sky overhead, enough for the entire winter circle/hexagon to show. Even that bit of sky was hazy, though. I hung out somewhat close to the men's room, and I expected Ken to call for me if he didn't see me immediately upon getting out, so I got a bit distracted. Was that four meteors or five, now? They seemed to be coming pretty fast. After perhaps ten minutes I decided to go looking for Ken, just to be sure, and found him in another part of the rest stop waiting for me. Oops.

It was already 2:15 or 2:20, past the predicted peak, and we were in this awful rest stop. We decided to go to a nearby highway (three more meteors while Ken looked at the map) and look for somewhere to pull over, just to get away from the lights. At least I was fairly sure that there was no meteor *storm* going on for us to miss -- five meteors in ten minutes is good, given the conditions, but not stunning.

We drove down this other highway, which was just as heavily-trafficked as the one we were leaving, and shortly thereafter saw a spot to pull over -- a scenic overlook or something. It was, of course, packed. We managed to find a spot to park, and grabbed our blanket but left the other equipment in the trunk. Only the winter hexagon was clear, but it was very clear now, no longer so hazy. The clouds seemed kept at bay somehow, leaving this hole overhead. We lay down near the cars, letting them block the oncoming highway headlights, and watched.

It didn't take long. Usually, even in nice dark cloudless star-party conditions, even reliable showers like the Perseids take some patience. You'll see a meteor, maybe even two a minute or so apart, and then there's a five or ten-minute gap. There were no such gaps here. Many of the meteors were just quick bright streaks instantly gone, but they were near-constant. I'd lost count of them a long time ago, but decided to spend a little while counting the seconds between them; I usually only reached three or four before we saw another. Once I reached sixteen, but that was an unusually long wait. There were three or four extremely bright meteors that left trails visible for minutes afterward. One seemed to explode at the end.

They were everywhere; sometimes we'd see two in almost the same spot, one right after the other. Sometimes we'd see one on one side, then one on our other side, and we'd laugh at our inability to keep up with asking each other if we'd both seen that one. We saw some through the clouds at the periphery of the clear area. As Leo rose, we saw some short ones in the constellation itself, and some below it heading for the horizon. The radiant was more obvious than I'm used to, with so many meteors pointing it out. We did see one sporadic, a bright slow dot rather than a quicksilver streak. The contrast was striking.

Rather than 'just one more' near the end, I decided to wait for 'just another dozen.' It took a minute or two. Actually, my private count reached about two dozen before I actually said "Just one more" aloud, and there were a few more after that before I reluctantly conceded. They were slowing down by then. It was about 3:30, so we'd been at that spot less than an hour, but surely had seen over 100. I think that's a conservative estimate. Given the clouds and the small area open to us, the true rate must have been several hundred per hour. I've seen estimates of 720/hour; that's twelve a minute, or one every five seconds. Certainly I was seeing them that often for much of that hour, and as I said we could only see perhaps a third of the potential sky.

The drive home, unfortunately, was as hellacious as the drive out. We crawled down the freeway in a parade of brake lights, nothing but red lights snaking ahead of us to the horizon. It took an hour and a half. By then it was 5:00 in the morning, and I had work at 9:00. I decided not to sleep at all, because it's harder to get up after two hours of sleep than it is to just keep moving. Intertia and all.

I would have made it, too, but... I was fretting about the cats, and it was taking forever to kill time. I took my shower at 7:00 rather than 8:00, so I was ready an hour early. I'd had a couple of minor bouts of nausea while stargazing and on the drive home, and it was returning. I decided to nap a bit, setting an alarm for just before I had to leave. It was my fatal mistake. I dozed for perhaps ten minutes, and when I resurfaced to check the time I was a mess. I was shaking all over and felt horrible. I thought I was going to throw up. I finally called in and left a message on my boss's voicemail and crawled into bed.

I don't know if I would've still pressured Ken to go if I'd known about the traffic. He probably didn't quite consider the show worth the pain in the ass, and since I wasn't driving I can't argue with it. His willingness to stay up until dawn and drive two hours, even expecting no traffic, was beyond what I'd have felt entitled to, though for myself I would have done it alone. The meteors really were quite amazing, and I'm glad I saw them. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No normal shower will ever be all that impressive after that. (Though someone pointed out that the Geminids are slower, brighter meteors, rather than all those little tiny streaks, and I started thinking.... er, never mind.)

I suppose the fact that it was a Saturday night contributed to all those people being willing to drive out, and it was pretty hyped on the news (I gather -- I didn't see it myself), and San Diego weather can't hurt, but I really could not have imagined the crowd if I hadn't seen it myself. It was astonishing. Ken and I hadn't thought that anything could possibly get that many 'laypeople' to care enough to go to that kind of trouble. It's nice to think that they do care, though, and I'm glad we (all) saw the show.