Coming home to the cosmos

A wandering meteor-chaser puts down roots

  • Star image nasa; tree image (c) andreklopper, Bigstock Photo; photo illustration by Shaun C. Gibson

I often take my time before I leave on a journey. Is this just hesitation? Or do I linger because I love the poignancy of departure? Sometimes I walk about the room before going to the grocery store. Maybe it's just a way to avoid running an errand. Departures suggest regret. Arrivals mean a new thing is under way.

Arrivals back home in the West -- those returns -- always feel like grace to me. Over the past eight years, I had plenty of opportunities to mull over the nature of travel as I worked on a globe-trotting book about the science of meteorites and the passions they unlock. I started The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars on the Kansas prairie, still married to a woman I would soon be leaving. But most of the work occurred as I was to-ing and fro-ing from Cache Valley, Utah, the place I moved to in 2002 with my new partner, Kathe. My book "about meteorites" also became a meditation on place and home.

Greenland's remote northwest coast. A chateau in France. The outback. Antarctica. I searched for secrets of science and obsession in those places, and each time I returned to the West, I relearned the truth that your own home, wherever it is, has plenty of wonder, too. Especially when you get to know it not just as a resident, but as a kind of acolyte.

When Kathe and I first moved to Utah, "home" was a small rental house in a neighborhood sandwiched between the mouth of Logan Canyon -- from which bursts of wind would rattle our blinds, keeping me awake at night -- and the cemetery where poet May Swenson is buried -- where these words mark her grave: "I will stand, a tree, here / never to know another spot." In our backyard, I set up my telescope next to an apple tree and looked at the Apple Core Nebula.

We'd only been in Utah for a few weeks when I left for the cliffs of the Greenland coast. There, I found holes in the ground, places where explorer Robert Peary had directed his men to rip out heavy iron meteorites and take them to New York. I returned feeling pulled toward the spectacular scenery of both places, the waters of the Arctic and the waters of the Great Salt Lake, the icecap and the desert, and at the same time missing the Kansas prairie I'd left behind. I was among places, unsettled.

That winter, we traveled to France and visited meteorite sites there. At a Paris museum I saw a black meteorite full of the same chemicals and amino acids that may have helped life take hold on Earth billions of years ago. Kathe and I went to a chateau near L'Aigle, site of a massive meteorite fall in 1803. We touched the Ensisheim meteorite, the oldest meteorite in the Western Hemisphere whose fall can be dated precisely: It dropped on Nov. 7 in 1492.

After we returned to Utah, we moved into a house with four acres and a stretch of river. We realized a few things. Things like: The massive lawn surrounding the house had to go. Things like: The trees along the river, willow, box elder, birch, were in pretty good shape. Things like: Sometimes people will take advantage of you.

All those are stories unto themselves, but here's the lesson I really learned a few months after we moved into our house: I didn't want to leave. Our first spring on this property, in 2004, I finally exhaled. The subtle beauty of the prairie had receded, and I was coming to terms with the relentlessly gorgeous West. Our backyard birds included eagles and dippers. Dry air slipped across our skin, and evenings cooled sweetly. Always, there were mountains. I was getting settled. I was learning the West.

Yet I continued to leave in search of shooting star stories. I visited the Flinders Ranges in South Australia to see a crater whose formation may have sparked the first widespread diversification of life 500 million years ago. I met up with the scientists of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, and we flew from New Zealand to the ice. I pushed down fear and exhaustion (from my divorce back in Kansas, from the death of a parent and more) and lived in a tent for five weeks, finding meteorites on the polar plateau but little sustenance. I had a breakdown, had to be evacuated and came home -- to this home, in Utah -- ashamed but relieved.

In fall 2008, as I was finishing The Fallen Sky, Kathe and I planned to backpack under the Leonid meteor shower in southern Utah at Upheaval Dome. But we were too taken up with to-do lists and welcome domesticity. Leonid weekend passed, cloudy above Cache Valley. As that Sunday went on, though, the sky cleared. Kathe raked leaves. I trimmed branches. We pulled weeds.

All day dippers sang from stones in the river. All day yarrow bloomed. All day the trees were bare, and beyond those branches meteors flared hidden in the light. At day's end, we walked about the yard, tired from chores and a little stunned by the sunshine quiet. We held each other. So how to say this? That it is here we know ourselves to be home? Yes. Here, in the West, we know ourselves to be home.

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