By Geoffrey Notkin

If a young Steve Schoner—say, circa 1970—had compiled a checklist of things he would experience while hunting for the Glorieta Mountain pallasite, it might have run something like this:

Meetings with Dr. H.H. Nininger (numerous); field tests of experimental detectors (several); near fatal falls from cliff face (one); encounters with black bears (one); encounters with drug dealers (one); encounters with rattlesnakes (too numerous to count); years spent searching (fifteen); expeditions to the strewn field (seventy).

The story of Glorieta Mountain begins in 1884, on a ranch in wild and hilly Santa Fe County, New Mexico. Three meteorites weighing 67, 52, and 24 kg, were discovered on rock ledge a mile or so from the Glorieta post office, by one Charles Sponsler. Dr. G.F. Kunz—a New York mineralogist and gem consultant to Tiffany & Co.—described them in the September 1885 American Journal of Science. Kunz identified the meteorites as siderites, but was particularly interested in a small gem quality pallasitic inclusion within the largest mass, “about 10 cm. square . . . the color in some instances was brownish-golden, or rich yellow, and as plentiful as the Pallas iron.”

Harvey Nininger was interested in Glorieta too, publishing a paper on it in the same journal, fifty-five years later. “Ever since 1926,” he wrote, “I have been urging the residents of the Glorieta neighborhood to watch for meteorites.” Nininger conducted his own field work there in 1937 and 1938, and according to Out of the Sky acquired “several more masses [which] showed positive evidence of aerial fragmentation.” He theorized that—much like Brenham—the Glorieta meteorite was part iron and part pallasite, and that “the portions rich in brittle olivine gave way and one of the larger metallic nodules . . . was the source of the masses collected by Kunz.” This is a key point. Nearly every Glorieta that had been found was iron. If Kunz’s three meteorites comprised the main iron mass, where was the main pallasitic mass?

Among his field notes Nininger recorded that the search effort was “kept alive by yearly visits . . . and other pieces were recovered, nine in all.” They were purchased from residents, Nininger failing to find any himself. Half a lifetime later, Nininger still believed that a pallasitic mass remained buried at Glorieta, and said as much to a teenager named Steve Schoner, who attended one of his lectures at La Verne College, California around 1965.

Schoner—a young man amid an audience of older academics—bombarded Nininger with complex questions about the origin of chondrules, and Nininger, impressed by the young man’s grasp of meteoritics initiated a correspondence which grew into friendship, often referring to his enthusiastic protege as “Dr. Schoner.” Through college, and during employment at Lowell Observatory and as a Park Ranger, Schoner’s meteorite collection grew, both through purchases from Nininger and Glenn Huss, and hunting.

“I often spoke with Nininger about Glorieta, and he gave me the information that led to my finds when I did go and look,” says Schoner who believed that the masses examined by Kunz had been placed at the find spot by Indians or prospectors, and had not fragmented on impact. V.F. Buchwald supported an aerial breakup theory, and in his Handbook of Iron Meteorites stated that the “three largest blocks are oriented individuals with fusion crust and regmaglypts,” and that their surface features were “in harmony with a late breakup in the atmosphere, so late that these masses fell close together.”
If they had broken up in flight, and landed within a relatively small strewn field, were there others waiting in the desert?

It is 439 miles from Schoner’s home in Arizona to the strewn field. His first trip began ninety-seven years after Charles Sponsler’s discovery, but Schoner found nothing on that expedition, or his second, or any other for four years. Searching alone from sunup to sundown through the hot, still air sometimes three weeks at a time, crossing rough and dangerous terrain, Steve made the trip to Glorieta seventy times.

The first find—when it finally came—was a 39-gram specimen located with a Garret ADS3 detector, “a relic by today’s standards,” Schoner says. “But I still have it. I liked its ability to disregard hot rocks. There is a caldera at Los Alamos, and it threw out some very bizarre rocks that make the area interesting geologically, but a nightmare for a meteorite hunter.”

A few finds didn’t even require a detector: “I saw a 1,592-gram individual sticking four or five inches out of the dirt, shaped like a cow’s jawbone. Though by no means the largest it remains the most beautifully preserved iron from that site that I found.” He found a few small pallasites, too—spicules that appeared to have spiralled off a larger mass. It was the belief in that larger mass which kept him going back, year after year.

The summer heat around Glorieta makes the ground, which is rife with ticks and rattlesnakes, stifling and oppressive. In his backpack Schoner carried two gallons of water, which he describes as being like gasoline for a car—“if you don’t have it you’re not going to go”—but he’d still return to camp empty after a day’s hunting. “There’s no room for error. I go out far, and it’s pretty dangerous. If you get hurt, you better be good at crawling back.” And he was. After losing his footing on a hillside, Schoner suffered a near-fatal fall, wrecked a detector, and saved himself only by clutching a pinon tree at the edge of a seventy foot drop. His leg was twisted so badly that he had to splint it with a tree branch and bootlace and hobble painfully back to camp. Recovery took a whole year, but that trip produced a 1,035-gram iron with a trace of olivine.

Night visitors to Glorieta were usually limited to deer and mountain lions, but the solitude of the strewn field was once disturbed by lights and engines in a nearby creek bed. Knowing that discovery might mean death, Schoner watched, silent and unseen, as the occupants of two 4WD vehicles transferred a drug shipment.

Daytime could be even more hazardous: “I always wear a gun when I’m out there. Always. One time I saw a black bear. It was a big one too. I was on a ridge and this bear was watching me, and it ran toward me up the slope, and I thought ‘Oh boy that thing can run.’ ”

Worried that he might have to open fire, Schoner stood still as the bear moved to within a hundred feet, where it stopped and shuffled back and forth, waiting. With a cocked pistol, and the certainty that only a head shot would stop the animal, Schoner gently put down his detector, picked up two rocks and slammed them together repeatedly, frightening the bear enough that it ran off.

More often, Schoner’s days were spent in silence, concentrating on the hunt, feeling sometimes that if he was clear enough and focused enough some hidden sense might guide him towards what he sought. “I get a visual image of what I’m looking for, and that image in my mind propels me through the day. A metal detector is a tool just like a hammer or a divining rod. In the hands of someone who’s competent it will give the confirmation that you’re over a target. But in making a find there’s more to it than that. With meteorites or anything really, the excellent hunters have told me that they use an inner sense—a hunch that it’s over on this slope not on that slope.”

And so it was, one morning, fifteen years into the search. Schoner had just arrived at the field and was looking forward to testing a prototype Wilson detector. He spent fifteen minutes walking around near his car, in an area where he’d found nothing, casually interested in what the detector could do. He was drawn to a faint depression in the ground—perhaps five feet in diameter—the sort of cavity or sink sometimes left behind by the root system of a long-vanished tree. As he approached the depression, his detector registered a target, and it was a big one. The reading came from an object several feet away, and perhaps three feet down. Schoner was amazed at the strength of the signal, and began digging cautiously, expecting to unearth an axle or hubcap. The soil was very soft, and devoid of large rocks and pebbles. He easily made a shallow hole which revealed a jagged and irregular object, with a projection sticking up—just like the “elongated, prismatic fragments” described by Buchwald.

With his heart racing, Schoner cleared more soil away, trying to estimate the object’s size, and started to worry. How big is it? How will I get it out of the ground? What if I can’t get it back to the car? Even after fifteen years invested at Glorieta, he was willing to show a little more patience. “I’m very careful about my digs. I don’t go at it too aggressively. If it takes me all day just to keep it from being unmarred, I’ll do it. So I was there for quite a while. Once I got a sense of it moving a little, I knew it was over twenty ponds. I pulled it straight out of the ground, walked about ten steps and dropped it. Then I looked at the hole, and said, ‘This is an impact pit. This is a crater. This is right where it fell.’”

Schoner hefted the mass onto his shoulder and, still not really knowing what it looked like, carried it to a stream. It was definitely a meteorite, and a pallasite; flecks of green olivine sparkled as the cold water washed away the remaining dust and dirt.

The find of a lifetime. But for a long while the discovery remained unpublicized. “I’ve learned that when you find an area you keep it secret, because otherwise everyone and their relatives will be out there digging.” A discrete and thorough search of the surrounding area was conducted, but no other notable finds were made.

Schoner had already sold many of his smaller Glorietas—probably more than a hundred—to finance expeditions. At 20.2 kilos, this mass was by far the largest Schoner had found, and was surpassed in size only by Sponsler’s irons from 1884. Once its existence became known, prospective buyers were numerous and persistent. But Schoner’s sales carried an unusual rider: with the largest purchase came first refusal for new finds. Darryl Pitt, Curator of the Macovich Collection in New York had bought the largest previous pallasitic find—a 395-gram individual and it was to him that Schoner’s great find was offered. “It speaks volumes about the man,” says Pitt, “that he was true to his word in spite of all the other offers he received.” Incredibly enough, Pitt later discovered that his 395-gram piece fit perfectly into the main mass, “Like a key into a lock.”

A lengthy correspondence ensued. Pitt was interested, but required proof that the meteorite was not, for instance, a transported Brenham or only partially pallasitic. Schoner proposed a clever solution: a specific gravity test would determine the olivine/metal ratio. Lacking a suitable measuring container and the necessary eighty gallons of distilled water, Schoner borrowed a medical scale, drove to the local pond, rolled up his pant legs, waded into the freezing water with his forty-five pound meteorite, and quickly carried out the required measurements in front of bemused locals. The results were promising: a specific gravity of 5.6 placed the mass squarely between olivine (3.5) and iron (7.8) suggesting a 50-50 ratio of crystals to iron. It was still conceivable, however, that the exterior was a pallasitic rind surrounding an iron core. So, a cut was made, proving beyond any doubt that Glorieta was a magnificent pallasite—and the deal was done.

After a photographic shoot in New York, Schoner’s Glorieta was cut into large slices by Marlin Cilz at the Montana Meteorite Laboratory; the meticulous finishing work executed by Bill Kroth, Derek Yoost, and Anthony Tomaselli in New Jersey. A severe cut loss left only 11.4 kg remaining. Dr. John Wasson at UCLA noted abnormally high troilite inclusions, and his analysis showed a “good agreement” with older documented specimens. The target registered by Schoner’s detector in a lonely desert depression was the missing pallasitic main mass which Nininger and Schoner had believed in for decades.

Schoner’s “find of a lifetime” is no longer a single entity. It has been cut, polished (and in some cases, etched), labored over, weighed, photographed, studied, and now written about. The vibrant, color-filled slices will find new homes in museums and collections around the world. How does Schoner feel about the outcome of his fifteen year labor?

“I will never forget the moment that I dug it up. The tremendous thrill, the astonishment of it.
What a beautiful thing it was, and what a beautiful thing it is. As for me, the hills and mountains of Glorieta still beckon to me . . . I intend to find more meteorites.”

And you know he will.

This article originally appeared in the February, 2001 issue of Meteorite magazine. © 2001 by Meteorite magazine. Reprinted by kind permission of the publisher.