In the summer of 1971, I had just finished a 6 week summer geology field course in the British Isles, mostly northern Scotland and north Wales. During the 2 weeks we had to ourselves before returning to the U.S., I stayed in north Wales to do some rock climbing.
One day, I hitchhiked from Bangor where I was staying to the foot of Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa), the highest mountain in England and Wales. My goal was to get to the cliffs of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu on the side of Snowdon, one of the premier climbing locations in Britain. I reckoned I could join up with some local climbers and maybe put in a pitch or two. However, by the time I had hitchhiked to Llanberis and hiked up to the foot of “Cloggy”, it was late in the day and climbers were finishing up and heading down the trail.
There is a small glacial lake at the foot of Cloggy and so I decided to shelter down next to it behind a old wall (sheep country, you know) and spend the night under the stars. I did not realize it was during the Perseid shower and I went to sleep, comfy in my thick down bag.
Around midnight, I awoke to heed a call of nature. I got back into my bag and lay on my back, marveling at the beautiful canopy of stars above my head. Suddenly, I saw a meteor. The way I was oriented on the ground, it travelled from the direction of my head toward my feet. Then I saw another and another and another, all moving in roughly the same direction. I saw some extinguish in a puff of light, leaving dimly visible smoke trails behind them. I saw some break apart into 2 pieces. I was mesmerized. I don’t think I went back to sleep for the rest of the night.
When day broke, I got up and walked to the edge of the cwm, the cup-shaped depression left behind by a glacier and containing the small lake. The sky was brilliant blue and totally clear overhead. When I got up to the edge of the cwm where I could look back down, I saw that from about 500 feet below me, there was solid cloud cover and the clouds were moving briskly from my left to my right, occasionally rising and breaking like waves over lesser peaks that just barely stood above the cloud tops below. I could only look on in wonder and snap a few pictures, none of which came close to capturing the experience I was having.
As the clouds finally cleared and the tourists began their trips to the top of Snowdon on foot or in the cog railway, I decided to just head back to town, confident that nature had given me as much as she was going to. The thought of staying to do a couple of rock climbs seemed like gilding the lily to me.
I have never had as wonderful a night watching a meteor shower as that night, try as I might. I came close once when working on an oil rig in the Nevada desert but it was not as active as I had seen in Wales. Also, given that I have lived in central Florida (famous for light pollution and cloudy weather), for the past 29 years, my night sky viewing is considerably diminished.
When I was teaching astronomy, I always told my students about any celestial events that were happening and always felt bad that, from central Florida, their experience of any meteor shower from here would never match what I had seen all by myself, lying on my back on the side of a mountain in Wales that night.