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August 12, 2010

It’s no secret that the footprint of mankind is getting more pervasive by the day: the water table is dwindling, the roads are clogged, the population is constantly rutting and perpetuating, urban sprawl has infiltrated once vacant deserts and the continuous coal-fired glow of big, tall cities is ubiquitous. It is more and more difficult to escape the lights.

And the brighter the planet gets, the harder it is for some of us to enjoy one of nature’s most awe-inspiring phenoms: the free fireworks show known as The Perseids, the mother of all meteor showers.

The Perseid cloud is a stream of broken pieces of space gunk and detritus – made of gas and dust and other stuff (think of it as some sort of interplanetary mucus) — exiting out of its mothership, the Comet Swift-Tuttle, as it passes our orbit every 136 years…

Its lights are remnants of cosmic history fighting their way into earth’s atmosphere, creating such intense heat from the ram pressure that they burst into balls of fire.

Like boxes of Christmas lights inadvertently falling out of the back of a UPS truck, every August the Perseids light up for a couple of nights right about the time that the bars close, and then dims sometime before the dawn’s rising sun adjusts the hue, saturation and contrast of the earth’s ionosphere. For a glimpse of the meteors, the amateur astronomer can set the alarm for 2 am and walk out to the porch and look to sporadic bursts of shooting stars. Which is kind of like taking a bath with yer socks on, cosmologically speaking… Because of the nocturnal ambient glow of this great city of ours (between the street lamps, teevee sets tuned to Craig Ferguson, office lights, and the fluorescents of Taco Bells and Tommy’s Burgers) extends to Mt. Baldy, Victorville and beyond, it takes some doing to get the Perseids full effect… To really appreciate the magnitude of the meteor shower’s sizzling explosions of color, the LA-based fireball aficionado must do more than just fill up a thermos with 40 weight coffee, open up the deck chairs and get out the opera glasses, while waiting for the heavens to light up like God’s slow motion arc welder. You gotta get in the car Jake, and drive beyond the darkness on the edge of town…

Darkness is a function of distance. Once yer going through the gears, your enjoyment of the Perseids is directly proportional to your ambition and the amount of time you want to spend in the automobile. The further you drive, the more the lights of Los Angeles are in your rear view mirror, and the more flashes of the sky will light up your retinas and infiltrate your brain….

Here’s some advice: On the nights that these fireballs are really gonna sing, take the I-5 to the 14 to Pearblossom Highway to Highway 18 and exit on Sheep Ranch Road to the dry lake bed of El Mirage. The dusty glass surface of El Mirage’s playa is rather out-of-this-world and not unlike the surface of the moon, and acts like a synergistic platform to observe and digest the cosmic aberration bursting at random for your enjoyment. Elapsed time from Los Angeles: Two hours or so, depending on your relationship to posted speed limits. Take a sleeping bag. If that is too involved for your hectic schedule, quick as you can sing “Calling Sister Midnight,” you can hot lap your steed up the mountain roads of Angeles Crest Highway – out by Jet Propulsion Laboratories, off of the 210 Freeway between La Canada and Pasadena — and climb your way up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory. (Caveat motorer: After midnight, Angeles Crest is a popular off-ramp and route to watching the Perseids. Invariably, there is a traffic jam getting off of the 210 freeway… Still, from LA to Mt. Wilson is little more than half an hour in the car…)

For the more ambitious observer, take a hike up Telescope Peak near Death Valley and claim a bitchin’ vantage point for soaking in a relentless barrage of the Perseids’ orgy of light… actually, one could drive four hours, open up a lawn chair anywhere in Death Valley, break out the flask or the thermos and ooh and ahhh until the sun comes up. Your appreciation of the heavens will never be so profound – at least until you join them, anyway. –-Cole Coonce

(originally published in LA City Beat, 8/2006)

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