Eclipse Road Trip

Eclipse Road Trip

It was February 1979 the last time I had the chance to see a total solar eclipse. The path that one took stretched from the Pacific Northwest of Oregon and Washington, through Idaho, and finally Montana, just skimming my hometown of Billings before extending into Canada. My lame (or perhaps just naive) teacher kept us in the classroom to watch the eclipse on a black and white TV, broadcasting from some other city where it was partly cloudy, while outside the classroom the skies were blue. Fortunately, I was in trouble for some reason, with my desk removed from the rest of the class, facing a wall. It also just happened to be next to a window, facing directly toward the celestial show. I certainly sneaked a look, while my teacher and classmates seemed oblivious to the magic that was happening outside of the room. I was only 8 years old, but had that image forever burned into my memory.

38 and a half years later, now deep into my middle age, I had the chance to revisit that rare event. I live for stuff like that, so I wasted no time after New Year’s submitting a vacation request to my boss for August 21st. Only the weather could stop me. Thankfully, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky the day of.

The closest options I had to the path of totality (three plus hours minimum) went through Wyoming and Nebraska. Knowing that recreational areas, campgrounds, and affected towns would be overcrowded I spent a good deal of time doing research of public lands as well as satellite imagery. Nebraska didn’t have squat for public lands, but Wyoming was full of it. The highest concentration of such lands was in the western part of the state, but was more of a patchwork distribution out in the southeast part of the state that I was focused on. I finally settled on a section of land just east of the Glendo Reservoir area. This wasn’t too far off of I-25, with just a short span of U.S. Highway, followed by a state highway, and finally a dirt road. From this dirt road I had located a 4-wheel drive road through a gate in a cattle fence. The road, which hadn’t looked like it had been traveled on since last year winded through a flat valley, and then into some wooded hills. I was a little surprised and very fortunate to have the area all to myself, my dog notwithstanding. Moments like that are about as rare as an eclipse in this over populated age.

Traffic was a little slow getting there, with digital traffic signs in Denver warning: Heavy Eclipse Traffic. Plan Accordingly. That made me chuckle. When was the last time a celestial event affected traffic? Still, I was able to get to my campsite long before sunset. I parked just inside the start of the trees before the road started getting steep. This gave me a little privacy but also had a good, open view of the valley and of where the sun was going to rise the following morning.

The first thing I did was hike to the top of the nearest hill and try to get a cell phone signal. On the way up my rockhound senses kicked in and I was pleasantly surprised to find the hill littered with scattered pieces of jasper. These were eroding out of large seams in the exposed rock. I picked up many nice pieces on my way up.

A variety of Jasper prime for lapidary work

With flashlight in the dark showing some of the pieces being translucent

Once on top I communicated with my wife who was working at her family’s ranch on Colorado’s western slope. Her presence was the only thing missing from an otherwise perfect situation. After getting back to the truck I fed my dog dinner and we lounged around a little while. Later we walked up the road a ways and also hiked to the top of the hill on the opposite side of the road. We inadvertently scared a couple of large bucks on top and that was our signal to turn around and head back down.

Having checked the weather back home I had decided to not bring a tent and instead sleep in the back of the pickup. I had not slept under the stars since I was in the Marines sleeping in the desert of California in 1995. It was bone dry in the area, so I wasn’t overly concerned about mosquitoes. I laid out our bedding, did a little reading, then watched bats fly around as the stars started coming out. I was fairly comfortable through the night but woke up a lot. The stars were amazing when I did and remember seeing a bright meteor. When you are isolated away from a lot of our modern society’s conveniences you tend to wake and sleep by the light of the sun. After ten hours in the bed of the truck I finally got up, though I still had four hours to kill before the eclipse.

Following breakfast we hiked back up to “Jasper Hill,” did some more extensive exploring and I reached out to my wife and also friend Terry in Portland. He would be seeing the eclipse first in western Oregon. I killed another couple hours reading and then I started getting ready for the event.

My camera tripod set up and watching the clock. Off in the distance I could see the sides of the dirt road and state highway starting to load up with vehicles as people pulled over to get a front row seat.

Getting the camera ready

When the moon started its slow march across the face of the sun I would take a piece of welder’s glass and place it over the lens of the camera, snapping multiple photos every five minutes until totality. It did not work all that well as the camera seemed to have focusing issues. I tried many different settings and finally settled on one that worked best. However, photographically the end results have a lot to be desired. Oh, well. I’ve seen two other partial eclipses, and while definitely neat, they don’t compare to totality. My favorite saying of late is something I heard while listening to an interview with a scientist on National Public Radio: A partial eclipse is like your first kiss, but a total eclipse is like getting married. In some ways I’m glad not everyone understands that and didn’t prioritize the event and simply stayed home or went to work. There were more than enough people on the roads.

A montage of the partial through welder's glass.

The worst photo, but I like it because it looks like art and nothing about it looks like the sun.

When the sun was about half way covered I could start seeing and sensing a change in the environment. The sun was definitely less intense. Living in Colorado you can literally feel the extra radiation at altitude, where at sea level it just feels warm. With the sun half covered and losing more real estate every minute, the sunshine felt so much more comfortable. It started to look like it does when high, thin clouds cross in front of the sun. It was sunny out, but like a dimmer switch on a lamp the daylight was fading. It was becoming more and more bizarre as there wasn’t a cloud in the entire sky. After more than an hour of partial eclipse things seemed to start moving fast. The excitement was definitely building up as the crescent sun was getting more narrow. It looked like a green banana through the welder’s glass. Amazing how all the time it still was too bright to look directly at without eye protection. Just goes to show how blasted bright the sun is, even in small percentages. As the clock was speeding forward the cloudless, sunny, light blue sky started turning a deep bluish black. And then it happened.

The last speck of sun made a valiant effort to hold on. This is what is often called the diamond ring effect.

I could hear shouts of joy across the valley from the other spectators.

Words cannot quite describe the feeling that flowed over me when it went total. A mixture of tears, awe, excitement, joy, exhilaration. This is what I live for. Moments like these, for me, are what life is all about.

Crickets started chirping. The brightest stars and planets were visible.

Without the zoom

The sun and moon glistened in the sky like a godly gem. In this photo you can see some of the orange solar flares extending from the fringes of the moon's surface.

Two minutes and twenty something seconds later it was over. The fastest and greatest two minutes of my life.

Having spent about an hour and 45 minutes watching the eclipse from the beginning I didn’t have a desire to see it go all the way back from mind-blowing extraordinary to normal, so I packed up and we hit the road, hoping to escape past a good handful of other sightseers. We drove by hundreds of other vehicles but still couldn’t escape the traffic jam. We crawled back home in about eight and a half hours. I hear people leaving Casper didn’t even get to Cheyenne until midnight, and Denver till 2am. Insane. I would say my careful planning of location and strategy paid off.

Overpopulation is a drag, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

We don’t have to wait near as long for the next one that hits in 2024 spanning from Texas to Maine. If I can make it to 2045 another one stretches from Northern California to Florida. Can’t wait.