The summer of 2001 was a magical time – and not just because it was the last period of my life living in a pre-9/11 world. It kicked off with my eighth grade trip to Israel; the Mariners did not lose a single game the entire time I was out of the country (true story). Starbucks CEO, local hero, and Sonics owner Howard Schultz delivered the commencement speech at my eighth grade graduation. My dad sent regular box score dispatches to me at camp in New York as the Mariners completed the Greatest Regular season Of All Time (GROAT) – and for once, I had something to say to those incorrigible Yankee fans.
But the final month of the summer of 2001 – the August I spent traveling the American West with Camp Lech Lecha – was the most memorable experience of them all. Lecha Lecha was a roughly three-week bus tour that traveled from Seattle to the Olympic Peninsula, swung through Idaho and Montana, down to Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and ended with a train ride to Los Angeles, a visit to Disneyland, and a flight home — sorry, Oregon — just in time for the start of high school.
A lot has changed in the dozen years since. As you know, we now live in a post-9/11 world. Once baseball resumed, the Mariners lost to the Yankees in the playoffs (the one time I do not begrudge that team its success) and haven’t seen the postseason since. Howie sold the Sonics to Oklahoma Shitty, so yeah, I don’t think he’ll be invited back to SHA graduation. And the financial model for Lech Lecha turned out to be sadly unsustainable – after a couple more summers in operation, the camp ceased to exist.
But even with all that’s changed for the worse, those memories of that magical summer can never be taken away from me. Or from the internet. And that’s what this post is all about.
Camp Lech Lecha 2001 spent its second weekend (out of three) camped in some Colorado State Park near Ouray on the banks of – I’m gonna say – the Green River. I remember the events of that weekend fondly: we forded the river, hiked to the edge of an Air Force Base (or maybe just a regular barbed-wire fence), and watched the camp director extract cactus needles from the rear end of one unfortunate friend.
Friday night was warm, and nobody wanted to sleep inflaps. So we ditched the tents, lined up our sleeping bags, and lay on our backs watching for stars shooting across the backlit canopy with holes punched in it. Then suddenly, the sky exploded – or more precisely, about half of it.* From nowhere, a brilliant white orb streaked down, growing in size and brightness until it had (figuratively) eclipsed the moon. For a moment, it bright as half-day. And just as soon as it appeared, the light was gone – the sky was midnight black, as if nothing had happened.
*I can’t say whether it was the male or female half.
When I saw the Russian dashboard footage of last month’s meteor, I knew immediately what I was looking at. And when the East Coast got in on the night-time action late last week – and eyewitness accounts were widely reported in the news – I couldn’t help but be reminded of what I’d seen in Colorado:
As the Associated Press reports, experts believe the flash was bright enough to be classified as a fireball. “Judging from the brightness, we’re dealing with something as bright as the full moon,” Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office said. “We basically have (had) a boulder enter the atmosphere over the northeast.” Robert Lunsford, a fireball coordinator at the American Meteor Society, told USA Today that the event “looked like a super bright shooting star,” and that his organization received reports describing “every color of the rainbow.”
And the next thought that popped into my head was: the internet was around back in 2001, too. Sure, a lot more people are in position to spot one burning up over the East Coast, but it’s not like Southwest Colorado is District 13 (no spoiler alert!) – and it’s not like the internet hadn’t been invented yet – so maybe someone posted something about it.
In the few moments between when I resolved to investigate and when I googled “meteor august 2001 colorado”, I figured my chances of success were low: for one thing, there wasn’t a lot of internet back then. And for another, it would have been posted twelve years ago.
So I was more than pleasantly surprised when the first search result went like this [no need to read it in detail, but I figured as long as I’m sharing it anyway, I might as well create a backup copy — you never know what can happen to twelve year-old internet — so I included a lot more than necessary to get my point across]:
(meteorobs) Fireball-Like Object Observed Over Wyoming
To: “meteorobs” <email@example.com>
Subject: (meteorobs) Fireball-Like Object Observed Over Wyoming
From: “Ed Majden” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Fri, 24 Aug 2001 10:41:27 -0700
—– Original Message —–
From: Peter Brown <email@example.com>
Cc: Multiple recipients of list <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Sent: Friday, August 24, 2001 10:04 AM
Subject: Re: [MIAC-L] Fw: [meteorite-list] Fireball-Like Object Observed
> This is the fireball which occurred in Southern Colorado
> at 10:44 PM on August 17 (last friday night). We detected it from multiple
> infrasound stations. Below is the Denver museum news release on the
> Information Release
> August 21, 2001
> From: Jack A. Murphy, Curator of Geology
> Department of Earth and Space Sciences
> Denver Museum of Nature and Science
> Phone 303-370-6445
> EXTREMELY BIGHT METEOR WIDELY SEEN OVER SOUTH CENTRAL COLORADO BEFORE
> ON AUGUST 17, 2001
> FALL AREA DETERMINED TO BE OVER RUGGED MOUNTAINS IN SOUTHERN SAN JUAN
MOUNTAINS, CONEJOS COUNTY, COLORADO.
> A very bright, white meteor lit up the skies over a large portion of central and
> eastern Colorado August 17, 2001, at 10:44 PM/MST. Many people called television
> stations or law enforcement agencies thinking a plane had crashed and started a
> forest fire.
> Calls to the meteorite research team at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
> overloaded phone lines and e-mails. More than 400 calls were taken over the
> past 3 days from locations in all corners of Colorado including Grand Junction,
> Alamosa, Ft Collins, and Colorado Springs, thus giving us information about the
> point in the sky where the fall terminated. The Museum’s main motivation is to
> answer media requests, be an educational resource, and hopefully to eventually
> locate meteorites on the ground.
> The museum is in contact with Forest Service officials in the area to emphasis
> that meteorites, if found, are the property of the land owner. Meteorites found
> on private property belong to the land owner and if found on government property
> the Smithsonian Institution is the custodian of those specimens.
> For the Colorado fireball Friday night, most people were particularly impressed
> with two aspects; the steep downward angle of descent, and the dazzling
> brilliance accompanied by sparks. Museum investigators are amazed that loud
> sonic booms or explosive sounds were not readily heard by observers. It appears
> that this phenomenon is related to the steep descent.
> The meteor was seen as far away as New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Nebraska and
> Kansas. It mainly was spotted by late night travelers facing southwestern
> Colorado. As far as is known no one captured the event on video but people with
> security videos or banks with ATM cameras should check back if they have tapes
> from last Friday night.
> The Museum now has sufficient information to preliminarily locate the general
> area of the fireball over south central Colorado, most likely in the southern
> Rio Grande National Forest area in Conejos County, a rugged, forested region in
> the southeastern part of the San Juan Mountains.
> Because the meteor was so bright, people automatically thought it was closer to
> them than it actually was. Those who saw the meteor from Denver and along the
> Front Range looked to the southwest; it appeared to go directly down into the
> mountains on the other side of the Dakota Hogback near Morrison, while people in
> Colorado Springs saw it plummet behind the Pikes Peak region.
> Many people in the Evergreen area thought it had landed on the east side of the
> mountains. People in Grand Junction and Durango, on the other hand, were looking
> to the east or southeast when they saw the bright event. Travelers going along
> I-70 near Dillon Reservoir saw it to the south of them, some thought they were
> flares or fireworks.
> In addition to the witness accounts, the Museum now has data from a
> sophisticated sound detection system at Los Alamos, New Mexico that has located
> the atmospheric position of the fireball over the eastern San Juan Mountains.
> This acoustic network at Los Alamos detects sound waves originating from the
> atmosphere. They have successfully recorded other similar fireballs this year,
> most notably the July 2001 event over the East Coast.
> The data from Los Alamos National Laboratories, from Dr. Peter Brown(1) “.is
> around 50 Tonnes TNT equivalent yield which for a nominal 18 km/sec entry
> velocity suggests an entry mass of order a metric tonne. ” This velocity is the
> same as 11.25 miles per second.
> Depending on initial mass and velocity, most meteors arrive into the earth’s
> orbit at a velocity as high as 26 miles per second, then their speeds drop off
> during entry between 10 miles per second and 26 miles per second (Norton, 1998,
> p. 46). They begin giving off light in the upper atmosphere and flare very
> bright as friction increases during decent. Dr. Brown estimates the peak
> magnitude for the Friday, August 17th event to be around -17 to -18 on the
> astronomical magnitude scale. As a comparison, the full moon is approximately
> -13 magnitude brightness so the fireball works out to be about 40 times
> The process the research team uses to locate the position of fireballs is more
> efficient now with the Internet. Many people in Colorado are interested and
> knowledgeable about fireballs and meteorites as evidenced by the high quality of
> data received at the Museum. We attribute this to experience in the last few
> years investigating other similar meteors. In addition, a program of networked
> camera’s is in the works that will view and record the day and night sky in an
> effort to more easily triangulate a meteor’s trajectory. This All Sky Camera
> Network is a collaboration between the Museum and a team of Colorado teachers
> which will then be used statewide by students(3).
> The museum research team, consisting largely of volunteers, will still have to
> do exacting fieldwork to locate meteorites if they fell, unless someone
> coincidentally finds a meteorite or locates a fresh hole thorough the roof of a
> building. Specific compass bearings and measurements of the altitude of the
> breakup point above the horizon from different locations are essential to map a
> meteorite fall. The Museum team has investigated other Colorado fireballs and
> informed communities of the chances of locating meteorites. Classes are
> presented at schools and in communities to explain about meteorites and their
> scientific value-that they are free samples from space that provide evidence of
> the age and composition of the Solar System.
> At this time there is no evidence of meteorites on the ground in south central
> Colorado or in the Conejos area and no ground search is being conducted.
> However, Museum field research staff will likely travel to the Monte Vista area
> and interview witnesses.
> > —– Original Message —–
> > From: Ron Baalke <email@example.com>
> > To: Meteorite Mailing List <firstname.lastname@example.org>
> > Sent: Friday, August 24, 2001 9:38 AM
> > Subject: [meteorite-list] Fireball-Like Object Observed Over Wyoming
> > >
> > >
> > > http://www.trib.com/HOMENEWS/WYO/23StrangeLight.html
> > >
> > > Strange light reported near Rock River
> > > August 23, 2001
> > >
> > > ROCK RIVER, Wyo. (AP) – A Cheyenne man and an astronomy group reported
> > > seeing a very bright light in the night sky.
> > >
> > > Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle,
> > > Wash., said he is seeking others who saw the light around 10:30 p.m. Friday.
> > >
> > > Paul Ayers, 38, and Ayers’ son, 19, said a fireball-like object rose
> > > straight from the ground in the Rock River area. The light was so bright it
> > > washed out the headlights of their vehicle, according to Davenport.
> > >
> > > Davenport declined to provide other details because he wants other witnesses
> > > to provide independent reports.
> > >
> > > Ayers said he and his son were on a fishing trip.
> > >
> > > “It illuminated the whole neighborhood,” he said. “It was just a weird
> > > occurrence that needed to be reported.”
> > >
> > > University of Wyoming astronomer Allyn Smith said at least 60 people at a
> > > Wyoming Under the Stars gathering saw the light from the UW observatory at
> > > Jelm Mountain.
> > >
> > > Smith said he saw a flash on the dome wall of the observatory about 25 miles
> > > southeast of Laramie.
> > >
> > > “The people who were outside described a large meteor, or bolide, a bright
> > > meteor,” he said.
> > >
> > > Such meteors usually explode high in the air, he said, and theorized that an
> > > icy meteor, a stony or iron meteor, or a piece of space junk caused the
> > > light.
> > >
> > > “I would estimate it was almost as bright as the full moon,” he said.
> > >
> > > _______________________________________________
> > > Meteorite-list mailing list
> > > Meteoriteemail@example.com
> > > http://www.pairlist.net/mailman/listinfo/meteorite-list
And that is why the internet is amazing and wonderful and why I love it.
Special thanks to RO for his help as I confirmed the dates lined up twelve years after it all happened.