A Hillsboro collector adds a tale of a meteorite-hunting hound to his stock Collector of stories and specimens adds tale of meteorite-hunting hound to his stock.

By Margie Boule

Saturday, March 28, 2009

On Feb. 15 in Austin , Texas , runners struggled through the streets, midmarathon. A news cameraman covering the race happened to catch a fireball streaking through the sky.

The first news reports said a plane had crashed. A helicopter was dispatched to the site.

But there was no plane.

In Hillsboro, Rob Wesel thought he knew exactly what had happened: A meteoroid had streaked to Earth, scattering fragments --or meteorites --over Texas farmland.

After a college professor found a meteorite on the ground, Rob knew he was right. "If there's one on the ground, there's more on the ground," Rob says. He packed his bags and headed for Texas .

Fifteen years ago, when Rob was 23, he spotted a meteorite for sale in the gift shop at OMSI. "I thought, wow. I had no idea people could own this --a piece of an asteroid in your house."

He couldn't afford it, but he put it on his Christmas wish list. His parents came through, "and there it sat, prominently displayed, for several years," until Rob was bored one day and decided to check out a local gem and mineral show.

"I met a man from Lake Oswego who was selling more meteorites," Rob says. "I spent quite a bit of money and got in trouble with my wife."

Rob took a catalog home and slowly added to his collection. "Then I got savvy to the Internet. There were sources everywhere."

In 2003 a meteoroid hit a suburb of Chicago . For the first time, Rob left Portland to search for pieces. "I didn't find any, but I found the local postmaster," who agreed to ask his mail carriers to look for pieces of black rock. "When he got back to me three weeks later, he had $30,000 worth of material."

Rob sold the rocks, split the proceeds and used his take to travel to look for other meteorites.

The first time he found one himself, in a field in Kansas , "it was emotional," he says.

Using a metal detector, Rob found a likely spot, dug deep into the earth and found a fragment from space. It was "an iron meteorite that fell before recorded history," he says. "I let the sun shine on it for the first time in perhaps a thousand years. Being the first person to take off your work glove and lay hands on it --that was very cool."

Today Rob, who works as a registered nurse, buys and sells meteorites on his Web site, nakhladogmeteorites.com. It's named for a dog called Nakhla, purported to be the only dog struck and killed by a meteorite, in 1911 in Egypt .

The whimsical name suits Rob's avocation in meteorites. "Some collect for science; others for history or investment," he says. "I collect stories." Meteorite falls are "fleeting moments perceived as blessings, omens, mischievous gremlins. They meant something to the people who witnessed them, and that means something to me."

Rob liked the story he heard when he got to the small town of West , Texas , on Feb. 20. "It was the end of the day. Instead of checking into the hotel, I decided to go out to the fall area to get my bearings.

"A friend and I started to just walk the roads. The first thing we run into, greeting us, is a dog."

The dog stuck with them. "Next thing we know, a truck pulls up and the guy says, 'Have you found any?' " All the locals knew they'd been invaded by meteorite hunters. "We said we'd just arrived. He said, 'You know what that dog did?' "

The dog had found a meteorite and brought it home, the man said. "I asked if the dog was for sale, as a joke. He said it wasn't his dog."

Later that night Rob met up with two friends, Sonny Clary from California and Ruben Garcia from Arizona --both meteorite hunters.

They knew a lot about the dog story. It was true, they said.

The dog, a stray border collie named Hopper, had shown up a few months before at the home of Pauline Alligood and Mitch Bynum. Hopper was a troublemaker, stealing things from neighbors, destroying property, leaving her leavings on porches. Some farmers had shot at Hopper. Others sped up in their trucks when they saw her on the road.

In fact, Mitch had planned to have Hopper euthanized the day before the meteoroid fell but hadn't had time to get to the vet. "Things weren't looking good for Hopper," Rob says.

Soon after the meteoroid hit, Sonny and Ruben had traveled to Texas and gone house to house, asking permission to search fields. When they got to Pauline and Mitch's house, Ruben saw a meteorite just sitting on the front porch. He got Pauline's work number from a neighbor and called her.

"Ruben said, 'Hey, did you know there's a meteorite sitting on your porch?' and her reply was, 'You mean that black rock Hopper found?' "

Rob knew he wanted this meteorite. How could he not? He collects stories as well as meteorites, and this was a great story. And he runs a meteorite Web site named for a dog.

So Ruben acted as broker; Rob bought the rock.

And Hopper was a celebrity. "There were about 70 people who came from all over the world to hunt meteorites in Texas , and Hopper met every one of them. She's a very friendly dog. She became a mascot."

Rob spent a few days searching for more meteorites with Hopper at his side. He'd have Hopper sniff a meteorite and then pretend to throw it in hopes she'd find another one. "But she was a one-trick dog on the meteor hunt."

For the time being, Pauline and Mitch have decided to keep Hopper. "But I imagine Hopper is quite capable of wearing out her celebrity," Rob says. "If that occurs, there are several meteorite hunters who have expressed interest in purchasing her."

Today the meteorite Hopper found sits in a display room in Rob's home, with other chunks from outer space that look remarkably similar. "To the untrained eye it's black rock, black rock, black rock," Rob says. "But they're labeled and cataloged."

Hopper's "rock" could be the most special in Rob's collection. Not because it's the biggest or the most valuable, but because it comes with such a great story.

When Rob talks about hunters of meteorites, he sounds like he's spouting poetry. "We collect shooting stars," he says. "We collect wishes and dreams.

"We look up by night and down by day to satiate the same desire: to simply view paradise and share that paradise with others."

Which makes Hopper the dog who found paradise.

Margie Boule: 503-221-8450; marboule@aol.com

Copyright (c) 2009 Oregonian Publishing Co.




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