Park Forest, Wonderland
On March 26th, 2003, between 11:52 and 11:53 pm, the quiet Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois was awakened by a sudden flash of light, a sonic boom, and a rain of rocks from space. The initial response was panic, thinking this might have been a counterstrike in the war with Iraq. The media quickly followed and warned residents of possible radioactive or biological contamination. By the time the dealers arrived, the media was on the scene again, urging the public to not sell too quickly because the value of meteorites was beyond that of gold.
The following is an account of my trip to the Park Forest, Illinois strewnfield from April 4th though 7th
Having heard of the Park Forest fall and reading emails from the dealers on the scene, I found myself unable to stand idly by any longer. I had made several calls from home to Chicago and must have sent 400 emails to unknown Chicago residents in an attempt to make contacts from home to no avail. Last minute travel is expensive and I was torn between the high cost and the thrill of the hunt. After deliberating, I decided to cowboy-up and make the trip. I contacted my buddy Dave, a non-collector but adventurous sort, and he was up for the trip so I bought him a ticket too figuring it was a small price to pay for a second set of eyes that would not want anything but the experience in return. We left Friday the 4th.
We arrived at O’Hare around 1 pm and our hotel in nearby Matteson, only 10 minutes from Park Forest, by 3 pm. I placed a call to local collector Steve Witt who was tending to a jetlagged Rob Elliot. We agreed to meet up later. After settling in and orienting ourselves we set out. I had spoken with local collector Jason Phillips about areas to search and he pointed me in the direction of Osco Drug so that's where we went. Weather was in full force, torrential rain, lightning and thunder. After only a half hour we had recovered 25.7 grams in five pieces, enough to almost cover the trip given the outrageous prices this fall come to reach. Adrenaline was at peak levels.
I need to speak for a moment, however, about the difficulty of searching an urban site, in particular the asphalt. The asphalt in Chicago is different from any I have ever seen in that it is mixed with a lighter, almost white rock of some type. It is everywhere and what your eyes see is material that looks remarkably like a chipped chondrite with the fusion crust fragmented off to expose the lighter chondritic material. These sit in street gutters and parking lots, thousands of them.
We went across the street to a vacant lot and worked a quick grid. I had distanced myself a bit from Dave and looked back to see him speaking with a man in a van for a time. Next I hear a whistle from Dave and see the van heading down the road and toward my location, he approached and stopped. He told us not to bother searching this lot because he had searched it thoroughly himself. "Find any?" I asked. "Not here, but yes"
He told me he was keen to sell the piece he had found one week ago, the day after the fall, on the sidewalk. We went back to his place and he showed me a piece the likes of which I had never seen. A fragment with fusion crust that was scaled in nature, very sharp to the touch, if you were to run it up your forearm it would draw blood. The interior was jet black, dense, minimal fresh metal visible, no chondrules to be seen, and looking similar to secondary crust. I spent much time on this and was reluctant to buy because it was so different I questioned its authenticity. We discussed a price and he accepted my first offer, which surprised me because it was well below the reports I was hearing over the last week. He also agreed to a full refund for 24 hours while I got a second opinion.
It was getting so we went back to the hotel. I knew Roman Jirasek of meteoritelabels.com was due in soon so I placed a call. About an hour and a half later he arrived with his lovely wife Lori. When it comes to Roman, what you see is what you get, a well natured straight shooter with all the bravado of a true Canadian. Lori, a true companion on the road of life, followed her husband to the ends of the Earth to search for space rocks in the cold and the wet with nary a complaint, only joy in seeing her husband's ear to ear grin.
We met up that evening with Steve Witt and his sister Maggie who lives minutes away from Park Forest, Rob Elliot of Fernlea , and Gregory Wilson, a Los Angeles collector and long time friend to Rob Elliot. I will speak more of them later but now is as good a time as any to bring up Steve Witt. Steve has more energy than squirrel on speed, a man so filled with excitement and awe that he has not surrendered to sleep for many days. What more could any meteorite enthusiast ever want, a fall literally in their back yard. He was immediately on the scene in Park Forest and recovered a great deal of material, both found and purchased. Steve has a heart of gold and was holding up quite well for someone stretched so thin this last week. He will prosper for many years to come as a result of this fall. Imagine folks, how do you get your head around something of this magnitude when everyone else goes home and the strewnfield is yours to manage?
Over dinner I was able to pass around my new finds and the piece I purchased. The finds were examined by all and confirming nods and congratulations were given by all but Steve, a clairvoyance that will come to light later on. The purchased piece was of immediate interest due to its unusual nature and I learned that there was only one other such piece found. We ate and drank for several hours before turning in.
It was up at first light for a full day of hunting and thankfully the rain had stopped, though it was bitterly cold. Dave and I went back to Osco Drug to search for a hat and see if we could bribe the manager for a crack at the roof of the building. We failed in both endeavors. While in the store the cell phone rang and it was local collector Jason Phillips who we had planned to meet up with. Still talking and exiting the store Jason says "Hey Rob, you wearin' a yellow jacket?" "Yes" "I'm right in front of you"
Sure enough Jason emerges from his car along with his brother Shawn, a sports memorabilia collector, and his wife Brandy. Brandy was the lucky finder of a 300 plus gram stone in an 8 inch crater by a park bench. Oddly enough, she explained to us that even a find of this magnitude was not enough to get her out of the cold that lucky day and Jason said they could go home a soon as she found a bigger one. We laughed a good bit to hear this and were impressed that she was here again. Shawn was a good sort as well, happy to be on the adventure and displaying a true affection for of the collector mindset. Jason has done quite well in Park Forest and is a happy genuine person.
A call came from Roman, as planned, to join us on the hunt. He arrived carrying his first acquisition, a 12 gram half stone that he purchased at a reasonable price.
We searched the local area for
while and ran into Rob Elliot and Gregory Wilson out for a bit of a hunt. Rob
Elliot had pretty much set up with meeting folks that had pieces to sell which
allowed only a short time in the field and he wanted to get his feet dirty. Not
long after, a Subaru Outback came speeding toward our location and we are met by
a local resident named Tim Janecyk. Now Tim has no real interest in meteorites
but has been a treasure hunter for some time. He has no interest in hunting
this time because he is devoting every waking minute to assembling a map of
the strewnfield. Equipped with a full load of gear and a brand new GPS, Tim drives around looking for meteorite hunters and then asks them where they have found pieces. He then drives to those locations, snaps coordinates, and plots them on a map of the area. He plots each find with a red dot then connects each red dot to every other red dot on his map, the idea being that with enough info he will end up with a solid red ellipse. Now, the strewnfield on this fall covers four towns so far. Throughout the trip we searched three of them and found ourselves in some very remote areas: lots, alleys, woods and no matter what town you were in Tim was there when you got there or when you left. He was everywhere, all the time. His goal is to find the top of the ellipse, presumably where the largest pieces hit, and grid search that area. We spent a lot of time with Tim and lost sight of Jason, Roman, Rob and Gregory so we hit the coffee shop. While there we spoke with the owner, left business cards, and talked with customers about the fall. We met a man who offered to photocopy the newspaper articles he had on the fall and we gladly accepted. He dropped them off at the coffee shop later that day, a wonderful gesture and overall picture of the PF residents
We called Jason to meet up again and they were about 2 miles away at a ball field. We arrived to find that Marvin Killgore of Southwest Meteorite Lab, Bob Haag of Robert A. Haag Meteorites, and local collector Steve Arnold (no relation to International Meteorite Brokerage) had met up with them as well. Roman's van was the place to be to talk meteorites and stand protected from the wind. While we talked, a local drove up in his car and opened the trunk. Now this was a guy at the right place at the right time, he pulled out a box and was descended upon a bit akin to a rabbit against a bird of prey. Unfortunately all his material was terrestrial but I had to laugh at the frenzy. We stayed at the van looking at some specimens while Marvin and Bob disappeared into what can only be described as a heaving pile of rubble. We all groaned and took bets as to how long it would take Bob to return from the pile with the main mass of PF, given his blessed luck in all things meteoritic. They returned empty handed and we discussed dinner plans, agreeing to meet at Red Lobster that night.
Dave and I broke off and went our own way for several hours and met many interesting people, many with meteorites, but none for less than $20 per gram. No meteorite finds.
Evening fell and we set for Red Lobster. Joining us in the insane line at the restaurant were Roman and Lori, Marvin Killgore, Tim the map maker, and local collector Terry Boudreaux with his son Christopher who, at only age 10, has a pea sized fragment of Tagish Lake! We waited for the rest to show up and a few calls later learned the other half of our group was at Applebee’s was so we set out again. Dinner was going well and Steve Witt has his Park Forest slices out for show and sell. This is one beautiful piece when sliced as you have seen. I had the chance to speak at length with Marvin Kilgore, a soft spoken well educated man, about his collecting, his career and the state of the meteorite market this year and this moment. He is a pleasure to listen to. Some of the group left and I changed seats to talk a bit with Bob Haag. Not much more to be said that hasn't been already, Bob is everything you expect. Excited at the big and the small, cordial to the kings and the pawns. At one point he looked straight at me and said "Look at you, you're here, you came man, you're not at home reading about it, THIS..IS..WHAT..IT'S..ALL..ABOUT" shaking my shoulder then throwing up his right hand "High five". Very few moments in my life have rivaled the goodness of that moment.
I had a chance to show my found pieces to the table and, again, congratulations were issued. That was soon to change. The piece I purchased was further examined and several trade offers rolled in but the most interesting offer was from Rob Elliot who had just acquired the "Garza Stones", the now famous house smasher. I agreed to meet the next day to discuss the trade further. Just when things had leveled off, another group came strolling into Applebee's consisting of New Jersey collector Geoff Notkin, Steve Arnold of International Meteorite Brokerage (IMB), John Sinclair of Meteorite USA, Al Lang and Greg Hupé of Hupé-Lang Meteorites. Neither the restaurant nor the five newcomers knew what hit 'em. They had a booth in the opposite corner and our table quickly vacated to standing room only on their side. Moments later, Mike Farmer of Mike’s Meteorite and Tektites, and Arizona father and son collectors Jack and Devin Schrader arrived as well. Mike had his magnificent oriented stone with him, the one he bought the finder a car in exchange for. Words do not describe this piece and it will without doubt be the best of the strewnfield. I sat in next to Al Lang and Bob Haag. Now Al is the one dealer that was so far out from what I had envisioned. I had imagined a stately, well spoken, dapper man. The opposite could not be truer. Al is a wonderful man with a heart of gold; full of stories and anecdotes but his speech is a mile a minute and rough as a cob. A bit disheveled and in your face, funny and off the cuff, he had the whole table in stitches. John Sinclair, never have I met a man with such enthusiasm. Much the same with Bob Haag, he made me realize that coming to Chicago was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I had a chance to speak at length with Greg Hupé, who presented us with photos of one of his African expeditions, a stunning documentary that would make anyone's jaw drop. The photos went around several times and about six margaritas in, Bob Haag began to narrate each photo. It was hard to discriminate the salt on my glass from the tears in my drink from laughing so hard. For every empty glass on the table, there were six full ones in waiting and Greg Hupé was covering the bill. For that I must thank you Greg and I look forward to returning the favor. It wasn't until we were all three sheets to the wind that the crowd turned ugly and accusations of trying to liquor-up the competition befell Greg. Steve Arnold (IMB) had with him the fruits of his efforts over the last 10 days, a tackle box containing beautiful little stones. He had been working very hard and the huge majority were finds. For some strange reason he was a bit vague when I asked just where he had been hunting. It was an amazing collection greater in number than anyone at the table but surprisingly few considering the intense time and effort expended. These meteorites are exceedingly difficult to find amidst the city debris and asphalt. John and Geoff had been with him that day and did well also. We closed the bar and stumbled home. We were tired, drunk, and had to move the clocks ahead an hour. Greg's evil plan worked.
I was early up after 3 hours of sleep and a splitting headache from Saturday night. The town of Steger had come up several times so Dave and I decided to try our luck there. It is the place where Mike Farmer acquired one of only a few car smashers. After not more than 15 minutes of hunting I spotted a yellow jacket and a mop top, it was Bob Haag. We stopped to talk and he said Mike Farmer had just found a big piece a few minutes ago. We decided that it was best to not backtrack where Bob had just been so we headed for the main road. We made a left to see Mike Farmer coming toward us on the opposite side and Devin Schrader on our side. They had each found a piece on that road, Farmer’s weighed in at ~180 grams and Devin's looked like about 25 grams. The same road we were headed for, we were moments too late. The entire day was spent in the roads, alleys, lots, and fields of Steger, often times running into each other or asking a person on the street and hearing "Yeah, another guy was just here asking the same thing.".
Roman had talked Lori into "just another hour, it's my birthday" and she kindly agreed. Well it paid off because he found a little over 25 grams in three fragments. What better present could one ask for? He found just as much as he bought! He left me with a hoard of his 2003 Meteorite Calendars to give to Steve Witt to distribute to the people of PF and set back for Canada. Roman, it was a pleasure meeting you.
As darkness fell, Dave and I went back to the hotel empty handed. I believe only five fragments and one individual were recovered in Steger between everyone but Steve Arnold (IMB) who's mystery location continued to pay off, though in decreasing number each day. It pays to be there first and Steve has earned every piece with time, devotion, and exercise.
I got a call from Rob Elliot to come over for dinner and discuss a trade for the piece I purchased with the black chondritic interior. Dave was going to meet up with a buddy of his, a theatre professor at a college in nearby Joliet.
I got to Rob's room and was met by Steve Witt and Gregory Wilson as well. We ordered some food and just took time to relax. This is a good time to bring up Rob and Gregory and I can hear Gregory groaning here in my office. The two have been friends for several years and relish in an across the pond banter that strongly resembles an old married couple. Gregory, a tall, well spoken man of great intellect has the innate ability to scan every word of a conversation waiting to strike. He has a dry wit and a monotone delivery that thwaps you on the forehead when you least expect it, and Rob Elliot is his favorite hunting ground. Not a moment's peace for Rob, plagued by his unshakable British accent. To listen to the two of them on a roll is priceless. Rob is a man of class, intellect, and generosity. Far too nice a guy to get the upper hand on Gregory, he takes his blows and struggles to fight back, occasionally delivering a winger that silences his opponent for a brief spell. It is clear these two are the best of friends, though they will deny it.
Room service arrived and Rob not only bought my dinner, he served it to me! Steve Witt left for a while on other business and Rob and I had opportunity to discuss the trade. He pulled from a box three stones, the largest of which had splinters of wood embedded in it from colliding with a ceiling joist. These were from the Garza house, along with bits of plaster, paint, sheetrock, wood, and affidavits signed by Noe Garza. What a sight to behold, in my hands, a house smasher. Rob pulled out the smallest fragment, 27.5 grams and bearing a small spot of white paint from the windowsill and scattered sheetrock streaks and offered it as a trade. To sweeten the pot, it was agreed upon to return two slices of my piece and include a piece of the ceiling, paint, and wood from the Garza house as well as one of the affidavits. He had me at "Hello". The trade was quickly resolved and on to our meal. Hours were spent eating, drinking beer, and smoking cigars, and having a good laugh at Rob's 2004 calendar. We had a chance to look at my "finds" from the other day and after seeing more material it was quickly realized we were all fooled. Not sure what they were, but they weren't Park Forest meteorites. You would think by now that we would all know what a meteorite looks like but these passed through the hands of the world's top 10% and fooled us all until better lighting and comparable specimens were available.
The evening progressed and the phone rang, it was Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold (IMB) upstairs to see if they could come down for some drinks. The door was propped open and we waited for them to arrive. In pops Geoff, arm stretched out with a bucket of ice perched atop bellowing like a vegetable vendor in some London street corner "Meatyrites, meatyrites, three pounds a pound.”. The trailing arm carried a bottle of tequila and margarita mix.
Steve was right behind, case in hand with his finds. A long discussion followed between Geoff and Steve as to who would mix the drinks and who would go back upstairs to fetch a pair of scissors to carefully cut a cigar donated by Gregory, Geoff did both if I recall. Steve Arnold (IMB), one word comes to mind, business. Steve has every aspect of the business covered from hunting methodology to detailed cost analysis down to the penny. It is this mindset that did him so well in Monahans, a determination, analysis, and work ethic that goes beyond the average man His hard work is exemplified by his recovered material and believe me he was thrashed from all the physical labor involved. Geoff Notkin, everything you suspect is true. He has a comedic brilliance and love of adventure, one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. We carried on for several hours, drained the bottles, and said our goodbyes as most of us were due to return Monday.
The thought of leaving all this behind weighed heavily and Monday came all too soon. But, perhaps to offer consolation, Gaya draped the Chicago landscape with a blanket of snow, making the hunt impossible.
A quick call to Steve Witt to deliver Roman's calendars and we met at the Holiday Inn. We were invited to breakfast with Steve, Rob Elliot, and Gregory. It came to light there that Gregory paid for last night's meal and Rob wanted to cover this one. He would not accept refusal. We had a quiet meal and said our goodbyes yet again. As Dave and I made our way to the highway, we spotted Steve's car, he was taking Rob to O’Hare so we followed them in, thankful that we didn't need to fumble with the map.
Home at last, 1800 miles away from Wonderland, I get back to the daily grind again.
What did I get out of this? Far more than I put in. I have always put off the Tucson show saying to myself that for the cost of that trip I could add a nice meteorite to the collection and that's what I did every February. I didn't know what I was missing. This community, we are all equals. We are hunting for the same answers, sharing the same passion. There are those that make money by it and those that spend money by it but we are all equals. The warm welcome we received was beyond anything I expected to encounter, open arms, genuine comradeship. The dealer side is definitely different from the collector side but when the two meet, there are no boundaries. We realize our commonality as different as we all are. We look up by night, down by day, and eye to eye in between.