Originally created 04/14/02

Man hooked on visitors from outer space



COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - About 10 years ago, Larry Johnson was conducting a whale-watching tour on a small island off Baja California when he caught a glimpse of a rock that looked, well, different.

It was a different color, much darker than other rocks he'd seen. And it had odd grooves in it. He picked it up, placed it in his pocket and brought it back to his home in Monument, where he stashed it away and promptly forgot about it.

Then, last year, he came across the rock while he was doing some spring cleaning. He looked at it again. Touched it. Marveled over how unusual it was.

On the advice of a friend, he sent it off to a lab at the University of California at Los Angeles. It turns out Johnson had rock-solid instincts: He'd stumbled across a meteorite, a visitor from outer space, more commonly known as a shooting star.

Now, Johnson can't get enough of meteorites; he's hooked on them. His upstairs office at his house in Monument, Colo., is filled with them, and he carries some of them wherever he goes.

At last count, he had close to a dozen kinds.

"It's amazing," says Johnson, 63. "What you're holding in your hand there is more than 4 billion years old. It's about as old as the sun. When you just stop to think about it for a second, it's incredible."

Many of the meteorites he has amassed have come from collectors; he's picked up others at the annual Tucson Gem Show held every February in Arizona.

If he can sell some of them, he does.

If he can trade some of them, so be it.

But Johnson insists he's not in it for the money - though some meteorites can fetch as much as $1,000 a gram, depending on where they came from.

No, Johnson just likes to collect them. In fact, as you read this, he's searching for more meteorites off the coast of Baja California, sailing from island to island.

His method is relatively simple: He uses a cane with a magnet attached to the end of it. If it's a meteorite, it's going to attract the magnet, because just about all meteorites are made of either iron, stony iron or nickel-iron.

For someone who loves meteorites, there are few better places to live than Colorado. The Centennial State ranks fourth in the overall number of meteorites - 81 - found in the United States since the late 1800s, when they were first documented. Only Texas, Kansas and New Mexico have recorded more finds, according to Matt Morgan, a geologist for Colorado's Geological Survey and author of "The Handbook of Colorado Meteorites."

"Look up on any clear evening and you may be lucky enough to see a shooting star blaze across the sky," says Morgan.

Most meteorites hail from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Morgan says. The top three locations where meteorites are most likely to be found, according to Morgan, are North Africa (especially the Sahara Desert), Antarctica and Australia.

Wherever they fall, meteors have long fascinated humans and sparked creative tales about their origins. Thousands of years ago, people saw meteors fall from the sky and believed they were the work of the gods. Ancient Romans worshipped them as "stones from heaven," according to Hugh Carman, in his book, "Collecting Meteorites."

Still, as late as the 17th century, scientists generally pooh-poohed the idea of rocks falling from the sky, until April 26, 1803, when a meteor shower occurred in broad daylight in France.

Today, scientists estimate that 500 meteorites of all shapes and sizes fall to Earth each year.

Then, it's up to the Meteoritical Society, an international organization of scientists, to classify and name meteorites.

Usually, they're named after the town that's closest to where they were found.

For example, Johnson's meteorite is officially called Isla del Espiritu Santo, after the island where he found his first - but certainly not his last - meteorite.

Carol Johnson, his wife, said it's no surprise that he would immerse himself in this new hobby, because he's had a lifelong fascination with the outdoors and geology.

"He's always been a field explorer," she says. "All his life, he's been looking at the outdoors, looking at native plants and trees, studying them."

So the meteorites are just the latest fascination - with the potential for a big payoff.

"There was a guy in Tucson who found a meteorite big enough that it paid off his house, his car, his mortgage, his loans, and we wouldn't mind finding a meteorite like that, too," says Johnson, who still owns and operates New Perspectives, a business that specializes in tours of Baja California.

But until Johnson catches the big one, he'll settle for the smaller ones and continue to share his newfound passion with anyone who's interested. "I'll help them out. It's a fascinating hobby to have."