GLEN DALE, W.Va.-- After putting his skills as a certified public accountant to work as controller for a pair of Northern Panhandle companies that ended up going belly up in the 1980s and '90s, Jim Strope's career path took a meteoric turn.
The 62-year-old Glen Dale man is now the owner of Catch a Falling Star, a business that sells museum-quality meteorites to collectors and educators around the world. Strope is also one of the nation's top meteorite hunters, traveling from Oman and Morocco to Chile and Canada searching for fragments of asteroids and planets that have fallen to Earth.
Strope said he first became interested in meteorites in 1992, while taking in a rock and gem show in Pittsburgh that included a small display of meteorite specimens up for sale.
"I didn't know you could own a meteorite," Strope said. "I bought one of the specimens and brought it home and started researching it. From there, things kind of got out of hand."
Strope bought more small meteorites and meteorite cross-sections through mail order houses and began helping a dealer he'd become acquainted with at two of the nation's biggest meteorite shows.
He then started hunting for meteorites, first in the dry lakebeds of Nevada and California, and eventually broadening his searches to include locales in Africa, South America, Canada and the Middle East.
In 2001, he traveled to the Todra Gorge region of Morocco with Arizona meteorite hunters Michael and Kim Farmer, where they bought a potato-sized meteorite from a local tribesman.
Back in the United States, the 1,015-gram space rock was examined by scientists and determined to be a rare lunar meteorite, one of fewer than 100 moon rocks known to have landed on Earth's surface after being blasted off the moon by impact from meteor strikes. Since the expedition to Morocco was bankrolled in part by 11 other meteorite collectors, acquiring the large, valuable lunar meteorite "was like a group of co-workers or friends hitting the lottery," Strope wrote in an online account of the trip.
"When we first started going to Morocco, people were bringing rocks out of the desert to see if we were interested in buying," Strope said in an interview last week. "Now, everyone's on the Internet, selling directly to collectors around the world."
Strope first visited Oman on a meteorite-hunting trip in 2003. Once at a "strewn field," or a site where meteorites from a single fall are known to exist, spotting the space rocks is not always difficult, he said.
The contrast between the pebbly white desert floor and dark meteorites makes it possible to "drive around and spot a dark rock from a mile away. When you stop, you can usually pick up your meteorite."
Strope, who has hunted meteorites in Oman on several occasions, said that nation's political situation left him feeling uneasy and not anxious to revisit. His grounds for uneasiness were substantiated three years ago, when his Arizona friend Michael Farmer was arrested for doing what he had legally done during 19 previous meteor-hunting trips to Oman. Farmer and a colleague were arrested and jailed for six weeks on a charge of "illegal mining activity" before being deported and banned from returning for life.