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Watching Perseid meteor shower from the perfect perch

A parking lot on Mt. Pinos in the Los Padres National Forest is a favorite place for amateur astronomers to stargaze.

August 14, 2010|By Colin Stutz, Los Angeles Times

The brilliant streaks of light above Mt. Pinos in the Los Padres National Forest late Thursday elicited "oohs" and "aahs" and applause from the audience of stargazers.

The prediction that the Perseid meteor shower — August's annual show of shooting stars would peak Thursday night and into early Friday lured about 200 people to Mt. Pinos, Southern California's most celebrated arena for social stargazing and amateur astronomy.

While casual viewers stretched out on reclining chairs and stared skyward, some more serious hobbyists organized a star party in the middle of a large conifer-lined parking lot, two miles east of the summit. Taking hours to set up what one onlooker described as "mortgage grade" telescopes, this group was well-prepared for the summer's most impressive celestial phenomenon.

Robert Provin, 62, of Bakersfield, has been going to Mt. Pinos for 48 years. Mike Hatcher, 59, has been going since he was 17. For nearly half a century the two have known each other as friends and former members of the Polaris Observatory Assn., "but the only time we see each other is at the Pinos parking lot," Provin said.

"I think I came to your house once, trying to sell you something," said Hatcher, an insurance salesman who lives about 30 minutes away in Pine Mountain Club.

"Oh yeah, the time I pretended not to be home," Provin said with a chuckle.

There's camaraderie among the regulars, who travel hundreds or thousands of miles to this location near Frazier Park, two hours north of Los Angeles. Keith Myers drove down seven hours from Orland in Northern California; Rob Hutchins and his wife traveled up from Rancho Palos Verdes; Tim Parke from Highland Park. Others traveled from Orange County, Walnut Creek, Arizona, Germany and France.

"I can find dark skies at home, but all my friends are here," said Myers, 55. "It's pretty close-knit because we keep bumping into each other. But the funny thing is, with dark skies you might not even know what anyone actually looks like."

The Mt. Pinos parking lot has become a favorite of amateur astronomers around the world mainly because of its proximity to Los Angeles and the ideal viewing conditions.

The trees provide shelter from the wind and help block out light pollution from the communities below. The highest point in an area where the Transverse, Tehachapi and South Coast ranges merge, Mt. Pinos — at 8,300-foot elevation — is high enough to get spectators above some of the Earth's atmosphere so they do not have to look through it. And its proximity to the ocean offers stable air conditions and the occasional marine layer to further protect the lookout from light pollution.

"It's kind of funny how people on the East Coast are just kind of drooling at how we can come out here and get such dark skies," said Ann Dittmer, 41, Provin's longtime partner and a fellow professor at Cal State Northridge. It was enough to inspire one man from New York to take his two-week vacation at Mt. Pinos; he left calling it the "astronomy Shangri-La."

The clear skies and little moon interference offered perfect star-gazing conditions, but unfortunately for most onlookers, the Perseids did not deliver as many meteors as they were rooting for. By the expected peak between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Friday, most of the spectators had left or gone to sleep.

"Some years they're great, some years they're a bust," Myers said. "But I feel like every time I hear the professionals prognosticate it's going to be good, it really isn't."

But a somewhat disappointing showing was not enough to send Myers home. Like many of his friends, he's staying all weekend, hoping the shower has yet to peak. But even if it has, he still gets to talk shop, breathe the mountain air and stare up at the stars.

colin.stutz@latimes.com

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