LINDEN, Wis. – Billions of years before April 14, two asteroids collided somewhere in space, sending a rock on a path that ultimately led to Kevin Wasley’s farm field.

It took much less time to nudge the orbits of meteorite hunters careening to southwestern Wisconsin, where their zeal for tiny black rocks from space has created quite a sensation and boosted business in nearby communities.

It started with a fireball seen and heard by residents across a wide swath of southern Wisconsin and captured on numerous video cameras. Wasley, a beef farmer, heard a rumble and bang and wondered what the heck the noise was. He found out after tuning in the news the next day.

The next sound associated with the meteorite was a knock on Wasley’s farmhouse door Sunday morning from a man and his young son asking permission to search his property.

Since then, it’s pretty much been nonstop.

“Me and the neighbors, we’re half-laughing — like what are all these people doing here? It’s like the gold rush,” Wasley said Tuesday morning as he stopped to talk to meteorite hunters parked on the rural road next to his property.

He has seen license plates from Colorado, New Mexico, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

Ruben Garcia hopped in his van and drove here as soon as heard about the fireball. Garcia, a professional meteorite hunter who calls himself “Mr. Meteorite,” lives in Arizona. Garcia was joined by other members of his crew who flew in from Oregon and Washington state, booking flights into La Crosse within 24 hours after the fireball lighted up the social networks of meteorite fanatics.

So far, the group hasn’t found many meteorites.

Rob Wesel of Portland, Ore., picked up the largest piece discovered as of Tuesday afternoon — 219 grams.

“I almost tripped over it. It was in my path,” said Wesel, who admits he first felt a “heart palpitation. Then some of this,” wiping his eyes to make sure he was seeing a half-pound meteorite.

To get to this spot took more than just guesswork. Mike Bandli of Puyallup, Wash., knew within five minutes about the fireball turning the southern Wisconsin sky into daylight. Bandli checked Twitter feeds, and within an hour thousands of Tweets had blasted the blogosphere — highly unusual for what’s known as a “witness fireball.”

“This one had major potential. It’s not your traditional fireball — it was shallow, which means its debris could be spread out 20 to 80 miles,” said Bandli, who checked Doppler radar to find the meteorite’s path and plotted it on maps.

Most meteorites burn up before landing on Earth. Those that don’t mostly fall where they’re not seen, such as into oceans. So when a flaming meteorite makes such a big splash, so to speak, and is seen by so many people, it attracts most of the hard-core meteorite hunters and collectors.

If the Wisconsin meteorite had come in at a sharper angle, however, the pieces would be more concentrated. This search is more like a needle in a haystack because the pebble-size pieces are spread out over such a large area. Garcia knows of about 15 pieces found so far by residents and meteorite hunters. He expected to have filled sacks with meteorite pieces by now and admitted Tuesday that unless his crew hits a mother lode in the next few days, his trip will not be lucrative.

Still, that hasn’t stopped meteorite hunters from wandering the rolling farm fields here searching for small blackened rocks among the dandelions and cow pies. Some carry magnets on sticks or golf clubs, because the metallic content of meteorites clings to magnets. Garcia and his crew are spending 10 to 12 hours a day walking as much as 20 miles.

Jim Schwade of Kankakee, Ill., has amassed a large meteorite collection during two decades of searching and collecting. He has exchanged meteorites over the years with the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution and Arizona State University.

“I’ve always been interested in space and I built rockets when I was young, but to own a piece of an asteroid is tremendously exciting,” said Schwade, who drove up from Illinois a few days ago and brought along a bicycle to help him get around.

Paul Sipiera, a curator at the Field Museum’s Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies, said Wisconsin’s meteorite has received worldwide attention and would normally draw international collectors. But the volcano in Iceland has thwarted some meteorite enthusiasts from traveling from Europe.

So what’s the big deal? Well, meteorites are cool and they’re in demand. They’re a piece of space. They’re older than Earth by 100 million years or so.

“Think about it: This rock yesterday was more than 100,000 miles farther out in space than our moon, and today you’re holding it in your hand,” said Sipiera, who spent time in Wisconsin searching over the weekend and plans to return later this week. “I guess you can call it romantic.”

Their rarity also makes them valuable. Sipiera said the going price for meteorites like those being found now in southwestern Wisconsin is $5 to $10 per gram.


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