Chicken Little was right

Steve Arnold is driving the yellow Hummer in circles around a Kiowa County wheat field, towing an 18-foot-wide metal detector. For an hour, nothing but silence.

Finally, the detector whines and Arnold slams the brakes. "That is so good," he says.

Arnold jumps out, pinpoints the location with a smaller detector and starts digging. The world-renowned meteorite hunter is hoping for a big score. He has had three false hits today, unearthing a bit of barbed wire, a fragment of a plow, a squashed Dr. Pepper can.

"What's the definition of insanity?" Arnold asks. "Doing the same thing over and over again."

All over the world.

He has dodged police in Oman, had his truck break down in a desert in Chile, and bicycled the streets of suburban Chicago holding a broomstick with a magnet tied to its end -- searching for space rock.

But it was here in Kansas that he found the meteorite that would make him famous.

In 2005, Arnold began to systematically search the meteorite-rich prairies of western Kansas. Within two weeks, he unearthed the world's biggest intact pallasite. Weighing 1,400 pounds, the pallasite -- the rarest, most sought-after type of meteorite, composed of iron streaked with dazzling crystals -- is believed to be worth between $600,000 and $1 million. It will be featured in the first all-meteorite auction, scheduled for this Sunday in New York.

The world of space rocks attracts all sorts. Professionals like Arnold comb the tundra of Siberia and Norway and the deserts of South America. Nomads in the Sahara search for rocks to sell to avid collectors looking for the perfect piece of intergalactic debris. Some collectors are drawn to meteorites for purely aesthetic reasons -- the rocks can be startlingly colorful -- but many are also captivated by the scientific novelty of the pieces.

"It's from outer space," said Darryl Pitt, who curates a major meteorite collection. Ten pieces from that collection will also be auctioned Sunday. "There's a romantic notion of being able to have something from between Mars and Jupiter."

Unlike many meteorite mavens, Arnold is not in it for the science. "I'm a treasure hunter, not a scientist," he says repeatedly.

Arnold, 41, grew up in a small town in eastern Kansas, and knew nothing about meteorites. What he did know was that he wanted to be his own boss.

His parents operated their own businesses: his father, an accounting office; his stepmother, a bookstore. Arnold went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. -- not for religious reasons but because he liked its business program. He met and married his wife, Qynne at the school, and after graduation pressured-cleaned houses in Tulsa to make ends meet while trying to figure out what to do with his life. One day in 1992, he wandered into a Barnes & Noble and spotted a book on treasure hunting.

In a chapter on finding buried caches of coins on old homesteads, the book advised checking historical records to locate areas where epidemics or drought wiped out the population. Arnold went to the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka and began to thumb through newspapers. In the yellowing pages, he found stories about farmers digging up meteorites. "I realized, 'Oh my God, these are treasure maps,'ƒ|" Arnold said.

He began driving to rural communities in Kansas and offering to buy meteorites from farmers. Then he sold them to retailers or collectors. As the years passed, he spent less time acting as a middleman and more time hunting the rocks himself.

Meteorites are extraterrestrial debris from asteroids and comets that collide with the Earth. As the rocks fall through the atmosphere, the heat and pressure can mold them into odd shapes. Some land with a huge impact, creating enormous holes such as the Barringer crater in northern Arizona, which is nearly a mile wide and more than 500 feet deep.

Treasure hunters like Arnold are generally on the prowl for meteorites that break up as they fall through the atmosphere and scatter across what is called a "strewn field." These are simplest to find in dry, flat places where the dark rocks are preserved and easy to spot, like the Great Plains or the basins of the American Southwest.

In 1995 Arnold went to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, considered the driest place on the planet. He drove a rented truck for hours into the desert and got stuck in a sand drift. It took four hours for Arnold and his companions to free the truck by excavating limestone slabs to create a ramp.

"Nothing ever gets him down," said Geoff Notkin, a science journalist and meteorite aficionado who accompanied Arnold on the Chile trip. "In 11 years of digging holes and getting lost and getting soaked, I've hardly ever seen him annoyed."

Arnold took two other trips to Chile and also continued to hunt and trade domestically. He made enough money to buy a 19th century log cabin in northwest Arkansas, where he and Qynne home-school their two daughters.

The family has joined him on a few of his excursions, including one to Chicago in 2003, when pieces of a meteorite showered the nearby suburbs. Arnold bought a bicycle at Kmart and cruised the streets, harvesting fragments of space rock from the gutters. He later sold the rocks for about $25,000.

In 2005, Arnold and his wife traveled to Oman, a newly popular meteorite hunting ground. They scooped up 151 meteorites lying in plain sight in the desert. But when they got back to their hotel they were warned that police had been asking questions about meteorite hunters.

The Arnolds drove back into the desert and hid the rocks. The next day they retrieved them and shipped them home and then left the country. Arnold still has no idea why police were looking for meteorite hunters -- he thinks they may have been looking for another group, but he'd prefer not to know.

For years, though, Arnold's list of hunting grounds was topped by a less exotic place -- western Kansas. Ten percent of the meteorites found in the U.S. have come from that region, which was showered with debris when a huge meteor broke up in the atmosphere untold thousands of years ago.

Homesteaders were the first to recognize the unusual richness of the land. Eliza Kimberly in the 1880s was convinced the heavy rocks shattering her family's plows were meteorites, and insisted on collecting them. She was proved right when she sold them to universities to pay off her mortgage. The homestead was promptly dubbed "the meteorite farm."

Other farmers continued to occasionally dig up meteorites in the stretch of Kiowa County near the meteorite farm, between the towns of Haviland and Greensburg. Prospectors swept through the area and discovered a half-ton pallasite that Greensburg displayed next to its other municipal treasure, the world's largest hand-dug well. The town lined the highway with signs advertising its display.

Arnold browsed the journals of meteorite hunters who had explored that stretch, and determined that the land wasn't as thoroughly searched as others believed. He didn't know how to comb such a vast area for buried meteorites until 2005, when he bumped into an Argentine hunter at a meteorite show in Denver. The South American told him about an extra-wide detector he used to search for buried rocks.

Arnold drove through Greensburg on his way home from the show and decided to try his luck. He got permission from one farmer to search his land, in return for a share of any rocks found.

Then he custom-ordered the giant detector from a German company and had it shipped to Kansas. The detector is a rectangular coil of wires sheathed in PVC piping; it shrieks when its regular pulse of energy is disrupted by an iron object.

Arnold built a wooden platform, and attached wheels that he bought at Lowe's. He mounted the detector and began manually dragging the contraption through the field. Within three hours, he found a 280-pound meteorite. Two weeks later, he dug up the big pallasite.

Word of Arnold's discovery resounded throughout the meteorite world. A team from the Houston Museum of Natural Science came to accompany him on digs. A crew from the Travel Channel followed him on others. He upgraded to using a tractor to tow his metal detector rig, then an ATV, and now his Hummer.

He became a local celebrity. A few weeks after the big find, Arnold and his partner in the Kansas hunt, a San Antonio lawyer and meteorite fanatic named Phil Mani, invited farmers to a barbecue in Haviland and signed agreements with most of them to prospect their land. Haviland inaugurated an annual Meteorite Festival, holding a parade and displaying the big pallasite.

"Steve brought the meteorites back into focus," said Steve Hewitt, city manager of Greensburg. "It had become -- well, everyone around here has found a meteorite or two. Steve just had the gung-ho to go out and look for more."

Arnold has found 33 meteorites in Kansas, making farmers who share in the sales proceeds very happy. Milton and Wynona Ross' son found a meteorite in the 1980s and sold it for a decent sum, but Arnold's finds are bringing in more money than they expected.

"They've been our best crop," joked Milton, 84.

In May, a tornado flattened Greensburg and killed nine. It tore the roof off a small house Arnold had bought to use as his base of operations. Half of the town's population of 1,600 still has not returned, and most of those who have are living in government-issued trailers.

Arnold and other meteorite enthusiasts helped raise $12,000 for Greensburg in a raffle of space rocks and memorabilia at a meteorite show last month in Denver. The town is hoping to build a museum about extreme weather and meteorites.

To many Kansans, the two are intertwined.

"People are intimately connected with the sky out there," said Max McCoy, an instructor at Emporia State University who is writing a book on Kansas, Arnold and meteorites. "The landscape is so big, the idea of death coming from the sky, whether it's fireballs or tornadoes, is understandable."

The afternoon sky is Kansas-huge as Arnold begins to dig his fourth hole of the day. A freight train rolls by on the horizon. An oil pump nods up and down as the sun drifts below the line of the prairie.

He is hopeful that after the previous false hits, an actual meteorite has set off the detector. He hasn't found any trash -- cloth, papers or any other sign that people buried garbage in the area. After about 10 minutes he excavates a 2-foot-deep hole and stops.

"You know what?" Arnold says jokingly. "It's time for a breakfast break." He dashes back to his Hummer and grabs the Hostess fruit pie he bought that morning and washes it down with Coke from a 64-ounce plastic cup.

Then he resumes digging. Moments later, his normally cheery face falls. "Rust," he mutters as he uncovers an orange-tinged chunk of dirt. Then his shovel hits metal. It appears to be another plow fragment.

"OK," he says, "next."

For every meteorite he discovers, he says, he finds 30 to 40 "meteorwrongs," as hunters call the false hits.

Arnold fights the monotony by gnawing on Twizzlers and listening to REO Speedwagon or Rush Limbaugh on the Hummer's radio as he circles the fields.

About 6 p.m., the metal detector screeches yet again. "That's pretty good -- considering I've said that four times [already] today," Arnold says as he halts the Hummer.

He begins digging again. "You notice Steven Spielberg cut this boring stuff out of 'Indiana Jones,'ƒ|" he says. The sun dips lower. He stops. His shovel has hit something. "We might have one," he says.

Arnold switches to a plastic trowel. "Nothing like putting a big gash in the side of a meteorite to drop the value from $20,000 to $15,000," he says. Then he lies on his belly and scrapes away the last bit of dirt from the top of a meteorite.

"Ah, yeah," he says. "We've got ourselves a real one here." (Days later, he weighs the meteorite; it's 72 pounds and its estimated value is $30,000.)

But right now, as the meteorite lies mostly buried, size unknown, Arnold throws back his head and hollers in triumph. He says: "How much fun is this?"

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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