The rented Excursion rolled to an uneven stop hanging off the side of a secluded, dusty county road that ran through a field about 23 miles north of Lingle, Wyoming. The
county road, creatively named Road 12, was fittingly lined all up and down both sides by sunflowers. Despite the cheery demeanor of the flora, it was cold and dark and our ragtag team of eclipse-hungry nerds were tired from our 2 am departure on the road from Loveland, Colorado. We, however, were in good spirits, because we had made it.
What about this place had attracted us? More importantly why was this usually lonely stretch of road already becoming lined with cars before the sun had even come up? I have to imagine you know the answer already, because it was the title of this blog post. On August 21st, 2017 there was a total solar eclipse and this remote location was in the path of totality.
Where we parked the cars was on a corner of Road 12 (GPS coordinates 42.418526,-104.399813, if you are curious) just under 2 miles north of the central line of totality. The sun came up right after we parked and there were a few wispy clouds, but they burned off very quickly. Most of the rest of our group decided it was time for a nap, the eclipse wouldn’t begin until 10:24 mountain time, but I was too excited to sleep; this was to be my first total solar eclipse.
I had a huge, empty memory card on my camera, two spare batteries, and a bunch of hours to kill… so, while the road continued to fill with car after car, I wandered around taking pictures of bugs, sunflowers, fence posts, and rocks. By the time I had wandered back to the cars, I couldn’t believe how many people had come out to this desolate piece of dirt road. Even before the eclipse began, I was enthused and impressed by the show of interest from nerds of all sorts that had come from everywhere.
By the time first contact had rolled around, we had set up chairs, eaten, put on sunscreen… and I had already taken over 1300 pictures between my two cameras (about 1000 of those, though, were from my small PowerShot, taking the images for the time lapses in the little video of the sun rising and the clouds disappearing).
I had seen partial eclipses before and an annular. Those are very cool. That’s what it looked like as larger and larger bites began to be taken out of the sun. We partook in fun little activities, like projecting a series of crescents from the eclipse onto the ground, excitedly chattering about when totality would happen, commenting on how weirdly sharp the shadows had become, or digging out our sweaters because, though it had been cold when we first arrived, the day had grown warm very quickly, but as the sun disappeared, it grew chilly again. As the sun turned into a tiny sliver, anticipation rose to a point I thought I could no longer take, then, finally, at 11:46 and 14.9 seconds the sun was completely covered. For 2 minutes and 28.8 seconds it was dark in the middle of the day. I pulled the filter of my camera and the goggles off of my eyes and snapped picture after picture to the sounds of gasps around me. It was shortest 2 minutes and 28.8 seconds of my life.
The view was… well… indescribable. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, though, you know better than to think I won’t try to describe it anyway. You can see a few of my pictures here, and I think they turned out pretty nice, and captured what the occultation itself actually looked like, but the view of the moon covering the
sun was not the entire event. All around me, I could hear people grasping for words and finding that they were totally fine with not finding them; they were blissfully speechless. When I could rip my eyes away from the black circle surrounded by bright white tendrils of the corona, I found what looked to be sunrise/ sunset on the horizon in every direction and I could see a few stars and planets. Obviously, I can describe those individual pieces, but the part that eludes me, is a description of the combination of seeing them while feeling the light and warmth from the sun disappear. There was a feeling in my chest of awe, appreciation, excitement, and perhaps even some irrational sense of primal foreboding. It was an
incredibly natural event that humans couldn’t alter if they wanted to, which also managed to look wrong and unnatural. Somehow, at the same time it was awe-inspiring and affirming as well. Mixed into this complicated cocktail of emotions, was a strange feeling of connectedness; all across the country, I knew that at either the same time or very close to the same time, hundreds of thousands, or maybe even millions of people were staring, dumb-founded at the sun. They had put their lives on hold for a moment to
watch an astronomy-related event. They were sharing in my passion for astronomy. I think the thing that struck me most, though was just how momentous, but fleeting it was. How could something so dramatic, with such an impact, last for less than 2 minutes and 29 seconds? Was that part of why it was so important?
Regardless of how it could be over so quickly, it was. It seems that as soon as I started to absorb the event, it was over and we were all shouting “Filters on” as the sun’s photosphere began to peek out from behind the moon, bringing with it that dangerously bright light we’ve all heard so much about.
There was very little time to relax when the totality was over. As much as I would have loved to watch the other half as the sun was restored to its original size, I had already missed the first day of the semester. The clock was now ticking. I had 21 hours until I was supposed to be standing in front of a class in San Diego: the first of 3 classes in a row. We only had 222 miles to drive to get back to the Denver International Airport and I had just under 7 hours to do it which might have been enough, but Wyoming is just not designed to have that many people driving through it. For the first several hours sitting in traffic, I couldn’t open my mouth without, “man… that was so COOL!” coming out. You’d think that might get annoying, and, true, it may have been, but the car’s other occupants (my special lady friend and her parents) seemed to be in a similar state of enthusiasm.When we finally got to the airport, my special lady friend ran off to her flight, which was to leave 30 minutes after mine (and was the last flight from Denver to San Diego for the evening), I discovered that I had missed the cut-off for checking in for my flight by 2 minutes (no, I couldn’t have checked in earlier, you have to do it in person when you fly basic economy on United). I knew I should be upset, but a few hours before I stared at the sun while it was blocked out by the moon, so my spirits would not be dashed.
Let me tell you that for the next few months, I will be extra-careful when I cross the street, because I have to imagine that I used up all my luck for a little while in the next few minutes after finding out that I had missed my flight. I was helped by a woman that proved to be the nicest, most caring United ticket person I have ever seen or heard of. She was excited to show me a picture of the partial eclipse that she had taken on her phone, then immediately took me to a terminal and found another flight (the one my special lady friend was headed towards already). She had to get permission from her supervisor to get me on it, but she was able to do so, then took me and, to make sure I made it in time, escorted me past the line for security (I still feel a little bad about that part, but I wouldn’t have made it otherwise) and right up to the front, where security went fast. I then had to ride the tram from security to my gate, but when I got there, I just barely caught it. Running off of the train and through the airport I found my gate, just after they started boarding and saw that I had enough time to duck into the restroom and take the leak I’d been holding for hours, then get on the plane.
I didn’t get the ticket woman’s name; I wish I had. I feel like I owe her at least a few of my pictures of the eclipse, if not my first-born child (just kidding: I’m never having kids). If she hadn’t taken a special interest in getting me on that flight, I probably wouldn’t have made it to my classes the next day without shelling out all of the meager funds left on my credit card.
Thank you, nameless ticket lady.
Despite all the stress getting onto a flight, then running into classes to start the new semester only barely prepared, and scrambling all week to catch up, it was still worth it. Even if I had missed my flight, it still would have been worth it. That’s how amazing the total solar eclipse was.
In the next few years, my life is probably going to change quite a bit. Who knows where I’ll end up living and what I’ll be doing? There is, however, one certainty: on April 8th 2024, I’ll be somewhere on the thin path of totality which runs from Mexico through the United States into eastern Canada.