This photograph is of an 8000-year-old area petroglyph. Some have said this is a water sign but to me it tells of an ancient comet.
By Bill Gann
Hale-Bopp streaked the purple sky, and startled me on first glimpse. I didn't know the comet was coming, the sight was like the arrival of a mysterious and unexpected visitor. The cosmic tear in the sky appeared prominently in the north one late afternoon in 1997. I looked up from my garden and experienced a primal unexplainable fear. I knew in that moment what the ancients must have felt at such celestial events. Was there meaning in this foreboding sign? Shortly after that, word came that The Star Gazer had died.
It was because of Alika K. Herring, the famous telescope maker, astronomer, archeologist, and scientist that I first came to know Walt Bickel. Herring, like many professors, scholars, and scientists, used Bickel's place as a base camp for fieldwork in the
Even as a young boy, I knew Herring was an unusual and exceptionally intelligent person. Jack and I grew up in a blue-collar
My father, for example, went to work with black lunch bucket and came home dirty. He worked in the oil fields as a welder. On weekends he would build boat trailers or repair wrecked automobiles in our front yard. Ironically, no one ever commented on twisted wrecks and welding projects in our front yard, but everyone talked about the giant telescope and observatory in the Herring front yard. As young children we thought the scientist was some sort of spy.
Herring was born in
He went to the university in
He was an archeologist, and became noted for his discoveries and writings about ancient cog stones he found along
He became an expert at flaking arrowheads, tools, and spear points. Alika enjoyed tricking fellow archeologists by slyly tossing a flawless point on their shaker screen. Herring was an expert archer and sparked my early interest in the sport. Recently, Jack gave me his bows and arrows. Among this equipment is a wonderful set of hunting arrows tipped with Herrings faultless obsidian arrowheads. It looked as if he clearly intended to hunt with these, and one wonders if he ever did.
Herring would lock his front yard scope to the Earth's rotation and spend the night observing star movement, making complex calculations, and drawing elaborate star charts or moon formations. These can still be found and referenced on the Internet. He became an expert and early pioneer in space photography. He was a long distance bicycle enthusiast and, until he was seriously injured in an accident, would routinely travel cross-country for hundreds of miles.
When Jack and I became young men, we began taking the senior Herring on desert outings just as he had taken us as young boys. We thought we were doing an old man a favor, but found that to him the desert was a vast playground. He could hike for hours in summer heat, and show no signs of tiring. He would lead jack and me up mountains and through valleys, naming every plant, geological structure, and ancient artifact along the way. We would drag into camp in the evening, exhausted, and bone tired from having covered as much as 20 miles of wilderness.
These trips usually finished with a visit to Bickel, and I was impressed by the respect Herring paid the old miner. To me, Herring was the smartest man I knew, and yet he seemed to value Walt's opinions highly. Once I even asked Alika if old Bickel really knew what he was talking about. "Every time I talk to Bickel," Alika said, "I learn something new." I began to see the old gold miner in a new light.
Alika was a licensed Ham radio operator, and enjoyed talking to his friends all over the world. He did his best to teach us Morse code. He especially enjoyed talking to fellow astronomers working telescopes on lonely mountain peaks. Sometimes he accepted invitations to join scientists in exotic locations. Jack tells of picking him up at the airport one hot summer day. His father, wearing full Artic gear, was easy to pick out of the crowd when he stepped off the plane in
Bickel had his own nickname for Alika, always calling him "Leakey" after the famous Dr. Louis Leakey from
Well into his eighties, Herring was constantly pursuing new hobbies. When he decided to become a painter, he painted with such precision it was hard to tell his paintings from photographs. An oil painting of an apple on my wall is often mistaken as a photograph. He made model railroad displays that were geological and architectural wonders. He moved aside his precious mirror making equipment, and created an environment for his trains to travel through.
I remember one railroad scene was a Western town sitting in the desert. The buildings reminded me of Knott's Berry Farm where Alika had indeed worked for a number of years running the gold mining display. The landscape had such detail that one could find mineral deposits, earthquake faults, springs, and streambeds. All that he had shown Jack and me in the desert was there for us to find again in miniature. There were even ancient house rings and fire spots where Native People had lived prior to the town being established.
Alika never pursued fame or fortune, and indeed never found either. He lived a quiet joyful life; always doing only those things that sparked his endless curiosity. He didn't care for patents for scholarly papers, yet his cog stone work is still remembered, and telescopes with his garage-made mirrors become more valuable each year. It seemed he would rather spend his life playing chess by mail or over the Ham radio with some friend in the outback, than seeking recognition and wealth.
So when the great Hale-Bopp passed in the heavens, a man who Ham radio talkers knew as Star Gazer made an suitable exit. At his funeral we spoke of wondrous things he left us to ponder. We remembered his life in the sky, and the stardust trail he blazed for us to follow.
Alika is shown here hiking in Last Chance Canyon. When he hiked he always carried a special
Herring is shown here hiking in the Mesa Springs area of Last Chance. The valley shown
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