Leonid viewing experience

From: hal@finney.org
Date: Sun Nov 18 2001 - 12:56:42 MST

I live in Santa Barbara, a coastal community where we often have foggy
nights. Friday night was clear and Saturday started that way, but when I
went out at 11 the sky was overcast and it got worse as the night went on.
The predicted peak here was at 2 AM, so finally at about 1:30 my wife
and daughter and I got in the car and drove up into the local hills.
It's only about 20 minutes to the top and the news had suggested that
it would remain clear up there.

It was a good idea, but the problem was that it seemed that half the
city had the same thought. I've never seen it so crowded up there.
Every turnoff was packed full of cars. There was bumper to bumper traffic
heading into the hills. I was going to turn off on the ridge road to
the west, but I saw as many cars heading out as going in and I figured
that it must be full in there. So we turned off on the east ridge road,
which didn't seem quite as crowded.

Again it was the same story, every turnout packed full with a dozen or
more cars. We drove on for about 15 minutes, getting more and more
discouraged. Not only was it frustrating but I felt bad for all the
people parked there getting light-blasted by my headlights along with
all the other cars heading into the hills.

Finally the traffic in front of us just ground to a halt. The cars
just stopped. I guess somewhere up ahead people had parked in such a way
that you couldn't get through any more. The guy in front of us turned
around, and I managed to maneuver our clumsy minivan through a 180.
At this point I was ready to head for home. I hate crowds and it was
a madhouse up there.

Then we came around a bend and found a turnout with an overgrown weedy
patch to the side where no one was parked. It hadn't been visible on
the way up but coming down it was right there in front of us, so I was
able to slip right in. We were able to walk a ways farther in across the
weeds and lay a thick blanket down so it was reasonably comfortable and
we were protected from some of the headlights by the shadow of our car.

The sky was beautiful and the meteors were impressive. I wouldn't
call it a "storm" but I'm sure we saw several hundred meteors in the
ninety minutes that we were up there. Often we'd see two or three at
almost the same time, sometimems clusters of 5 or more in a few seconds.
Then there would be a lull of 30 seconds or so and then another set.
The meteors were bright and most left a glowing trail behind visible for
several seconds. We saw one super-bright one that seemed to vanish with
a flash that was bright enough to light up the ground.

The only problem was when things wound down a bit after three, everyone
else tried to leave at the same time. We got caught in a jam-up where
people going up were blocked by cars backing into the road, and people
going down were blocked by cars coming up through narrow spots beside
other parked cars. It was a mess and I had to get out of my car and
direct traffic for a minute to get it un-jammed so we could get out.

It was a crazy night; I would never have dreamed that you would see
that kind of traffic on those twisty mountain roads at 2 in the morning.
I'm glad we got to see the Leonids, but I don't think I would do it again.
Still I know that we are lucky that we were able to drive to where it
was clear; many people were clouded out all night with no hope of seeing
the meteors.


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