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Just rocks, or visitors from space?

When I was walking Waldo and Harpo the other night so the pooches could do their jobs of watering the bushes, a shooting star streaked across the diamond-studded winter sky.

The intergalactic traveler sped silently over the Applegate Valley, flying northwest toward Grants Pass.

Chances are it burned up in our atmosphere, lacking the intergalactic gravitas to splash into the Rogue River or KO the caveman statue in my native River City.

The dogs, who take their work very seriously, solemnly went about their watering business, leaving little clouds of steam rising in the frosty air.

Incidentally, the trick to dog watering at night is to keep moving to avoid being mistaken for a bush.

In less time than the mutts could leave their mark, the meteor flashed past. It was visible for maybe a second. Tops.

Save for the light of a rising moon on the east, the sky immediately returned to its twinkling old self.

Yet, like the thousands I've seen in my six decades on the planet, the meteor left me contemplating our past and future.

Where did it come from? How long had it been been traveling through space? What had it witnessed in its travels from the beginning of time?

As the MT's story today about the Sams Valley meteorite indicates, we humanoids have long been fascinated by our visitations from outer space. After all, they carry the secrets of our origins.

Meteorite expert Dick Pugh, a brilliant scientist at Portland State University's Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, tells us these heavenly bodies have been flying through space since the birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago. The possibility the Sams Valley rock came from the birth of time boggles the mind.

In comparison, an average human lifespan of some 70 years would be but a second tacked on to the end of an Earth year.

As a youngster, I recall endless camping trips in Southern Oregon in which the highlight was waiting for the campfire light to die away so we could watch the night sky. Our dream was to see a meteor streak in low overhead and smash into a nearby mountainside, where we could track it down the next day.

Feeding that childhood hope was a small, black rock believed to be a meteorite found years earlier by our father, who died in 1961. The family story was that he saw a meteor streak in the Rough and Ready area of the Illinois Valley one summer night, and carefully noted its path and likely landing area.

Early the next day he began walking a straight line under the flight path of the shooting star. He followed that line of sight for miles until he found what he believed was the space rock.

If memory serves, the oblong rock kept in an old shoebox was about 2 inches long and just shy of an inch in diameter. It was largely black, very heavy for its size and could be picked up with a strong magnet, indicating it contained a substantial amount of iron.

But when George, my twin brother, was going to college after a tour of Vietnam, he showed the rock to an Earth sciences professor who concluded it was terrestrial in origin. George tossed the rock away.

Now I'm wondering if he was a bit hasty.

It is true that very few of the space rocks drawn in by the Earth's gravity survive the rocky ride through our atmosphere. As Pugh is quick to observe, finding a real meteorite in Oregon is an exceedingly long shot.

And there are certainly a lot of rocks containing iron-nickel in the Rough and Ready Creek drainage.

Yet our father was a good friend of the late Ben Bones, whose meteor collection is on display in the Josephine County Surveyor's Office in the county courthouse in Grants Pass. Both were active members of the Rogue Gem & Geology Club, which is still thriving. As a youngster, I recall seeing the Bones meteorite collection displayed at a club meeting.

No doubt our father showed Bones, no stranger to meteorites, what he had found. The fact our father kept the rock leads me to wonder whether it may well have been a visitor from outer space.

At least that's what I like to think on a winter's night when a shooting star streaks across the sky and steam is rising from the bushes.