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A Meteoric Search

Article by Annie Hays

Meteorite – October 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE PIERCING SOUND of a Japanese girl band was blaring from my car speakers as I made my way to Saguache, and that strange, foreign, somewhat annoying noise somehow fit with the task at hand: searching for a meteorite.

Okay, so I wasn’t supposed to be looking for the meteorite; I was supposed to be going there to interview people who had seen it fall on the night of August 17th. But I willingly admit I harbored a secret hope of finding that precious space-stone myself.

Finding the meteor would give me a first-hand, breaking news story on the latest celestial event in the San Luis Valley. But as of now, the meteorite remains unfound, and I remain a poor college student instead of a rich and famous meteorite discoverer.

The only time I’d spent in the valley before, I had been on the Colorado College Baca campus near Crestone. As a CC student, I’d gone there three times, each time spending a week filled with too much class, very little sleep, an alarming amount of food from the Desert Sage Cafe, and no encounters whatsoever with either the famed extraterrestrial visitors to the valley or the Crestone locals.

This day in the valley was different.

A friend and I started out early from a rainy Salida, not really sure what we were doing or what we were going to find — if anything. As we drove over Poncha Pass, the clouds parted, and we each shed our sweat shirts as the sun beat through the car’s windshield — reminding me that every time I’d come to the valley the skies had been gloriously clear.

Once again, the sky was brilliant, and the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos were dazzling. I started to get a familiar sappy feeling that as a non-native Coloradan I sometimes get. I like to call it the John Denver effect, when some beautiful Colorado vista urges me to stop the car, jump out, and frolic with the deer on the side of the highway while shouting the words to “Rocky Mountain High” at the top of my lungs.

Luckily, two things stopped me: the fear of being shot by one of the nearby hunters, and the realization that I was here on business (of sorts).

In Saguache, I think I saw four people total, including the gas station attendant, and none of them had seen the meteor. They all knew someone who had, but only because they had read their quotes in a Denver Post article about the meteor. The quoted folk, Don Geddes, and Marilyn and Riff Fenton were mysteriously missing from town.

We continued on to La Garita, hoping for better luck. At the gas station in town we asked Jerry and Bonnie Nusbaum for directions to Storm King, the area where the meteorite was supposed to have hit.

“I was asleep, so I didn’t see it, but I’ve had all sorts of reporters and geologists stopping in to ask about it,” Bonnie said. Jerry hadn’t seen it either, but he told us about a big meteor he’d seen fall out of the sky during the day a few years back. Jerry and Bonnie didn’t seem too excited by the event, but they asked us to stop back in if we found anything.

THE ONLY THING I found at Storm King, however, was more of the John Denver effect and more hunters — but no hunters of the meteorite variety.

On the way back to the highway, I let go of my hopes of discovering the meteorite myself, and began to wonder if anyone ever would. Heck, I hadn’t even found anyone who’d seen the thing fall.

As my skepticism mounted, I figured it was the perfect time to head to the other side of the valley and see what the residents in Crestone had to say about the missing meteorite.

Crestone proved to be even more sleepy than Saguache had been, but I finally found someone who had witnessed the natural light show. Evan Fleischer had been at a party in town when he saw the meteor fall. He described it as a white firework, but he wasn’t all that impressed. Evan had seen a green one a few weeks before that looked like it had landed near the sand dunes. “It was just another day in Crestone,” he stated matter-of-factly.

WE CONTINUED SOUTH towards Hooper to the UFO Watchtower, run by Judy Messoline. She had slept through the event, but she didn’t seem too disappointed about it. Judy has seen plenty of other things in the Valley sky from her tower.

“Once I saw something come down, and as it approached the ground, it started to slow, which could be explained by the down-draft. But then it just started to float and wave up and down, then it took off, going up again. It couldn’t have been a meteorite because the law of gravity says it has to touch the ground, but it never hit,” she recounted.

Judy also kept some written documentation of the August 17th meteorite from some people who were camping near her tower. Rachel and Nate left a letter for Judy telling her that they had seen the meteor. “We did not see an alien nor a ship (unless it was in disguise)…. It began as the brightest, boldest shooting star we had ever seen, and then, as if it kicked into hyper-drive, it moved at ten times the speed. It seemed to split the sky, working itself into a piece of golden amber.” Rachel and Nate also described their experience as “wowerful.”

A little bit more reassured about the remarkable meteor, but still fairly unsatisfied with my findings, I drove back to Saguache to see if the three missing witnesses had reappeared.

Back where we’d started, we ran into Don Geddes’s wife, Kathy, who informed us that Don, Marilyn, and Riff were all in Villa Grove for the Upper Valley Artists Party And Picnic Association’s annual workshop and party (UVAPAPA) — so we went there.

Don was calm as he explained his sighting of the meteor. He had been soaking at Valley View hot springs when he saw a green streak of light, much bigger than most shooting stars, plummet towards the ground. “It appeared to come straight down from the sky, and about two-thirds of the way down, a piece broke off and disappeared.” Don assured me that although shooting stars are anything but rare in the valley, he’d never seen anything like this before. “It was beautiful,” he said.

MARILYN AND RIFF FENTON were near the summit of Poncha Pass, with Marilyn behind the wheel, when the meteor gave its show. “I was driving, but from what I saw, it looked like a bright fluorescent light at first, and then it started to look like a giant roman candle firework. The light looked like it burnt out before it hit the ground,” Marilyn said.

Riff agreed with Marilyn’s account, but was more enthusiastic about the once-in-a-lifetime quality of the meteor. “There was no mistake about what it was. It was incredible, astonishing — elevating. It was a dark, dark, moonless night, and we knew we were seeing a natural phenomenon that we’d never see again.”

Marilyn had also heard of others in the valley who had seen the meteor, and she passed their descriptions on to me. “A woman in Creede saw it from Steve Quiller’s gallery there and she described it as the moon falling out of the sky. A couple of other women south of Monte Vista saw it, and from where they were it looked like Saguache must have been destroyed when it hit.”

Marilyn also directed me toward James Seitz.

James hadn’t seen the meteor directly, but he had seen its light. “I was inside, and at about 10:45 p.m. I saw two bright flashes, as light as day, then a pause, then a long flash — about five seconds long. I didn’t know what it was, but when I heard that other people had seen a meteor at about that time, I knew that’s what the flashes were from.”

Finally satisfied that not only had we found a number of first-hand accounts of the meteor, but a party as well, I drove back to Salida. In the end, I didn’t discover the meteor — or the breaking news story I had hoped for. But it does seem as if the valley’s clear skies lend to many extraordinary sightings, including this one — since even a rock from outer space that’s streaking through the earth’s atmosphere is an extraterrestrial.

Annie Hays is a senior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and an intern at Colorado Central during September.