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Faint Halley's Brightens the Picture

June 11, 1986|ROBERT SCHMIDT | Schmidt is a member of The Times library staff. and

I stepped out into the chilly April night air at 9,200 feet and admired the star-spangled vault above me. All my problems and worries lay far behind. I scanned the southern skies for my cosmic friend. Only cold points of light winked at me; nothing resembling a comet was visible. Where was Halley's comet?

This moment had been a long time in coming--a very long time. When I was a child, I had gone outside every night, just before bedtime, to gaze at the dark and inscrutable sky. I dutifully wrote down in my notebook all the constellations I could recognize--the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, Scorpio and Orion--as if they were full of portentous meaning.

I thought at the time that the return of Edmund Halley's famous offspring would be the astronomical highlight of my life. I'd be a young adult when the comet blazed across the sky, just beginning a lifetime of careers and relationships, and I imagined it would form a striking omen in the heavens, pointing the way to a glorious future.

Thus, I was waiting with eager anticipation as 1986 finally arrived and the tide of information and hype began to rise. I knew the comet would not be truly spectacular this time around, but I still had to see it. I began planning a trip, my first real vacation, to coincide with the comet's brightest approach. And I decided that Hawaii, and especially the peak of Mauna Kea with its crown of observatories, would give me an ideal vantage point. I spent several days on Oahu first, seeing the sights and visiting my brother and my old college roommate. Then it was off to the Big Island and Halley's comet. I was concerned about the weather, since the area where I was staying was suffering from heavy storms and flash-flood warnings.

I also learned that my rental car agency prohibited driving on the Saddle Road to Mauna Kea. Was the road impassable, or dangerous? I tried it out the first day and, though it was admittedly narrow and winding, it was no more unmanageable than any of the backwoods lanes I had traveled. So I gingerly decided to disobey the restriction.

What About the Weather?

But still the weather continued to threaten, so I called one of the observatories for help. The respondent assured me that, though the lower altitudes were blanketed with clouds, the upper reaches of Mauna Kea would probably be clear.

With that in mind, I awoke at 2 a.m. and set forth on a roller-coaster ride across the black interior of the island. After missing the turnoff the first time, I found the correct route and headed up the mountainside.

And here I was, miles from home. I had kept my part of the rendezvous, but Halley's comet was nowhere to be found. Had I made a terrible mistake?

There was an old man there peering through a telescope, and he shared with me a remarkable view of Saturn, rings and all. I asked him if he knew where Halley's comet was, and he pointed to a nondescript star lying below the Scorpion--just where I had been looking before. That was it? I peered through my binoculars, and saw only what looked like a dim headlight in a fog, with a slight luminescence on one side in place of a tail. That was it.

I stayed to watch the moon rise over the eastern horizon, and then the sun, and reflected on my mission. Though Halley's had turned out to be perfectly ordinary, I was surprised to find I wasn't disappointed.

Though the comet itself was nothing, the trip had provided me with great adventure. I had strolled along famed Waikiki and hiked around steaming volcanoes. I had driven through raw jungles and past endless fields of sugar cane. I had seen hula dancers sway, had gone snorkeling in clear waters. And now I was enjoying the panorama from what seemed an unparalleled height.

Hawaii was spectacular, and that was enough.

The thought I brought back with me is that the world is full of beauty and mystery and things that can stir the imagination, and we don't need a visitor from beyond to point them out.

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