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Heaven help me: Meteorite hunter Kent Hups.
John Johnston

Kent Hups has a saying he likes to spring now and again, one that captures the essence of his talents, the depth of his obsessions and his reasons for getting out of bed each day: "You can find some really interesting things while peeing."

Hups is a Renaissance man. A geologist. A paleontologist. A high school earth-sciences teacher. A husband. A father. A tae kwon do expert. But what he does best, perhaps, is look for things. Walk around. Stare at the ground. Look for things. On occasion, he even finds them: Dinosaur egg fragments. Arrowheads. Native American pottery. A $50 bill.

"And a quarry full of mutilated cats," he adds. "In 1988. Near Grand Junction. It was really weird."

This gift blossomed decades ago at the North Park silver mine of Hups's prospecting granddaddy, who taught him that the greatest treasures are often overlooked. It continued through his sixth-grade science expedition to Green Mountain, where he found his first rock-encrusted dinosaur bone. It continued through his days as a BLM surveyor in South Dakota, where he found the vertebrae of a very big reptile. And it continued through his days as a geology student in college, when he uncovered the "world-class" remnants of a fourteen-foot-long, never-before-seen, plant-eating, Jurassic Period dinosaur near Grand Junction.

"I have an eye for bone," he says, reclining on a comfy chair in his temporary living room in Thornton, where he and his wife are building a house. "If it's one thing I can do, I can find bone. I'll just go out and look for stuff. I'll stop at a road cut, pull over, see what I can find. I'm always out there with my head down, looking. My daughters, too. They'll come home with pockets full of rocks. I've run my head into lots of stuff that way, like trees, but I've found some great things, too."

Which is why the intense, chatty 45-year-old was somewhat shocked and amused to find himself looking up, not down, when he spied an object that would forever alter his quest for discovery.

It was Friday, August 17, 2001, at 10:44 p.m.

Hups and a dozen buddies were sitting around a campfire at a guest ranch some fifty miles from Gunnison and some fifty from Saguache, enjoying the first night of a tae kwan do camp. Clear night. Light breeze. Soft and warm as bathwater. There were no lights for miles, just the flicker of the kerosene cabin lamps. Hups sat back and marveled at an array of stars.

Then it happened: Light -- bright light, like someone flicked an overhead switch.

"The sky lit up like it was noon."

Almost directly overhead, Hups saw a bead of white streaking earthward like a spark from an acetylene torch. He tried to shield his eyes, but he couldn't turn away, so he watched the meteorite descend with a bottle-rocket hiss, casting dancing shadows on the trees and outhouses before breaking into three pieces, then dozens of pieces, then sputtering out completely within ten seconds.

A minute later, the ground rumbled.

BOOM!

Then the cabin windows rattled.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

Then dozens of explosions followed.

Then a wave of echoes.

"It sounded like artillery, like big guns," recalls Hups, a Navy veteran. "It was loud, and it scared us. We didn't know if it was going to hit us or if the forest was going to catch fire. We didn't know what was going on."

The following Monday, Hups and his wife heard news reports about a one-ton meteorite, shining forty times brighter than the moon, hitting the atmosphere at a near-vertical angle, exploding fourteen miles above the La Garita Mountains with the acoustic equivalent of fifty tons of TNT. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science put out a call for eyewitnesses. Because of the trajectory, geology curator Jack Murphy suspected it might be a rare iron meteorite, one of which hadn't been found in Colorado since the 1960s. (Most meteorites -- meteoroids that have passed through the Earth's atmosphere -- are classified as stony rather than the extraordinarily heavy solid crystalline alloys of nickel and iron; in Colorado, only fourteen of the 75 known meteorites are iron.)

So when Hups heard, he called up, drove down and wound up on videotape.

"Since I heard fizzing and the volley of explosions, I was really close," Hups recalls.Then came CNN, NPR and the New York Times and their stories of the brightest meteorite to pass through Colorado in thirty years being seen as far away as Wyoming and New Mexico, where acoustic-monitoring stations at Los Alamos National Laboratory clocked the space rock at 25,000 mph.

Hups bought meteor books and accompanied Murphy on a tour of the campfire site. He sat in on Murphy's interviews with eyewitnesses. He scribbled note after note after note. Upon returning to Thornton, he bought a few topographical maps and began noodling around with angles and formulas to determine the impact site. He was close: only a mile from the computer-produced ground-zero estimate of Murphy and his team.

But by then, the Twin Towers had been destroyed and hunting season had arrived, and Hups didn't want to be mistaken for a deer. It would be May 2002 before he finally hiked to his possible impact zone, which, for security reasons, he describes as "an isolated little mountain in the middle of nowhere." And when he gazed up at the miles and miles of national wilderness, he admitted, "Wow. This is overwhelming."

The ground was covered with volcanic rocks, which appear to the casual eye to be very similar to meteorites, so Hups decided he would have to climb above the treeline to spot it; he and his team called it a day after finding a rutted old road leading up the peak.

It would be another month before he ascended the mountain again. This time, he was prepared. He had studied meteor samples to train his eyes. He drafted a dozen friends. He brought metal detectors, a magnet and even a GPS unit. He distributed pink and orange flags to his team and told them to "mark anything that looks different or weird." And even though meteorite fragments can be as small as a dime or as large as a football, Hups was confident, even cocky. He was, after all, the man who once tracked a trail of pea-sized dinosaur bone fragments to a mother-lode deposit in a hill.

"I was optimistic," he says.

Hups did get a hit on his metal detector, but it turned out to be the lid from a Vienna sausage can. His magnet dredged up only more debris. And his team, facing stiff winds, rugged terrain and thick haze from distant forest fires, ran out of steam after five hours, two slopes and about half a square mile of search area.

"We only found leverite," Hups says. "That means 'leave it right where you found it.' Looking for the meteorite makes looking for a needle in a haystack easy."

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is also awed by the prospect. After the impact, the museum led several educational trips to Saguache, teaching people what to look for, fielded 800 tips and even pinpointed the meteorite's origins to an asteroid belt beyond Mars. But they have yet to comb the federal land for the fragments. The reason: "Too big." Murphy hopes a hiker or rancher or farmer someday finds a fragment and hauls it to authorities. Otherwise, he says, the chances of finding fragments are slim.

Even so, as the second anniversary approaches, Hups is as determined as ever. A ligament-snapping tae kwon do injury has kept him sidelined for most of the past year, but his knee has healed and his eyes are rested. Instead of flagging more weird rocks on the slopes, he plans to poke around drainage areas and snowmelt washes, where he hopes to find debris in the sediment. He might even examine the site where Murphy and his team placed their bets.

"I'll never forget what I saw that night," Hups says. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. If I can find one fragment, just that first magic one, then I can get an eye-set. Then I'll know what to look for. Then I'll know it's just a matter of time. Deep down, I know that if I don't find it while I'm alive, I'll die wondering if it's sitting out there in the one place I did not look. So I'm going to keep looking for it as long as my body holds up. If I have to walk over it all day by myself, I'll do it. It's out there. I know it is."


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