My American Eclipse
I guess everyone has their own eclipse story; this is mine.
Everyone I know in this hobby has seen a total eclipse. A friend witnessed one of the longest totalities from a cruise ship, in the company of Sir Patrick no less. Another under perfect desert skies in Egypt. A third has seen seven totalities. But not me. Plenty of partials though.
My first partial eclipse was Feb 25th 1971 and I was seven. I was at junior school in a leafy Hertfordshire suburb. All I recall now are fragments: a sunny winter day, Donny Osmond (who the girls adored and I despised) on TV and this thing called an eclipse everyone seemed excited about. We stood and watched it from the little playground behind my school’s low-rise classroom block and in front of the grassy playing field and gnarled oak tree.
One of the teachers must have brought in dark glasses and we were all wowed by the site of a progressively larger bite out of the face of the sun. There was no totality, of course, but by ten in the morning – conveniently timed for first break – the Sun had become a crescent, its light dim and cold. That first partial eclipse made a big impression on me.
When the 1999 British eclipse came around I remembered that winter day twenty-eight years before and hoped to see a totality at last. It wasn’t to be. I couldn’t get the time off work (no surprise there, they’d recently told me I couldn’t even take time off to get married).
I ended up watching the 1999 eclipse unfold too far north for a totality – from my home a few blocks from that childhood school. I’d skived off work in the Midlands and driven back for it. At least the sky was clear.
My wife and I projected the crescent Sun onto a painter’s easel and card with an old pair of Tasco binoculars; we watched the shadows of maple leaves on a garden bench go all crescent-shaped, the light go way dim, the birds start to tweet an unnatural evening chorus.
It was still an amazing experience - no totality, but no disappointment either. In any case, the poor folks who made it down to Cornwall (the only part of Britain with a view to totality) saw nothing – the British weather ruined it, of course it did.
When the Great American Eclipse of 2017 loomed, I was determined to see a totality at last. Bucket list and all that. I’m not a fan of organised tours or cruises, so here too was an opportunity to travel to an eclipse on my own terms.
I checked out a map of the track and tried to figure out where best to view. Given that rained-off 1999 eclipse, I decided somewhere out west would be a good compromise between stable weather and accessibility, even though totality would be shorter. Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming looked attractive – states I knew well. In the end I decided on Jackson Hole or maybe Yellowstone (one of my favourite places, despite the crowds). My choice looks pretty naïve in retrospect.
I tried to get a hotel room as early as 2015, but booking only opened 12 months in advance, so I set a reminder in my calendar for August 21st 2016. Given the time zone difference, I missed the opening of bookings by a just few hours, but by then everything within a hundred miles of the track was booked solid. Jackson Hole, Yellowstone? Forget it. I eventually tracked down a hotel in a little place called Lava Hot Springs north of Salt Lake City, over a hundred miles south of the centreline, but it would have to do.
Then there were the flights: they proved almost as hard. LA was the best I could manage for any reasonable price, with the bonus that I could hop off early in Las Vegas. But even so there was a catch – deliberately missing my onward connection meant I had to travel with hand luggage.
I guessed the roads would be pretty busy on Eclipse Day, so I set about choosing my viewing place in advance using Google Maps. I’ve always liked the state of Idaho for some reason, a state with ‘elbow room’ as a local would put it to me on eclipse day.
After much searching, I found a dead-end off a minor road between Idaho Falls and Rexburg, just off the interstate. It had the advantages of parking and a view over the Snake River; it was almost bang on the eclipse centreline too, giving maximum possible totality for that longitude.
I decided to travel with just a camera and a GoPro, no scope in the end. For one thing, I couldn’t carry a telescope and mount in my hand luggage, but anyway people had told me there wouldn’t be enough totality time to be messing with scopes; they were to be proved right.
By the time I arrived in the States, excitement was at fever pitch. I had just a few days to get all the way from Las Vegas up to Idaho and the press was talking about the largest movement of humanity ever as people travelled from all over the US to that thin line of totality.
I tried to rent a convertible, so that if I ended up stuck in some traffic Armageddon, I could just lower the top and see the eclipse. But the only convertible they had left was a Camaro muscle car – very cool, but beyond my budget. They did me a deal on Jeep, so at least I could head off on to a dirt road if things got gridlocked.
Up the interstate from Vegas, via the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, I overnighted below red sunset cliffs in friendly St George. Next morning, the interstate looked busy and the motels ahead were mostly booked, so I headed off west for a night in remote Ely, Nevada, where a train takes visitors into the desert for a dark skies experience. The folks I met along the way were all really excited about the eclipse too, but at a gas station in Enterprise an old-timer warned me it might rain; maybe it was my accent.
Next day, I wound my way back to the interstate from Ely via Great Basin National Park. I crested a pass on Highway 6 east of Eureka to see the interstate north to Provo packed and crawling. I was lucky not to sleep in the car that night.
The following day, the day before the eclipse, I took another back route to avoid Salt Lake City. Even so, the interstate through Ogden was agonisingly slow, bursting with RVs and SUVs packed with kids and camping gear. Slowly I edged further and further north. I started calculating the minimum speed that would allow me to get to Idaho Falls, the edge of totality, before next morning. At the speed I-15 was going, I’d make it … just. Forget sleep.
Then, magically, past the suburbs of Brigham City, the traffic eased enough to start flowing again. I took a break at a rest stop where they were handing out free eclipse glasses. Then suddenly I was at my hotel in Lava Hot Springs for mid afternoon, much earlier than I’d expected.
The little town was absolutely crammed with eclipse chasers and my room wasn’t ready. So I got talking to the lady on reception who was headed west into central Idaho for the eclipse. She seemed to think I’d get to my viewing spot on time if I got up in the early hours and drove a dirt road she showed me on a local map, but I wasn’t so sure my soft-roader Jeep would make it. Finally, I figured it was better to sleep in the Jeep than miss the eclipse. I bought a cheap WalMart sleeping bag and drove on north.
Waiting for eclipse day to dawn.
The Jeep parked at my viewing spot – a bridge in Madison County (!) – not perfect, but good enough.
Eclipse chasing: coffee, burger, cameras.
My chosen spot by the Snake River was even better than I’d hoped. I parked easily at the dead end I’d spotted on Google and spent the afternoon in the sun watching boats on the river next an old trestle railroad bridge. I explored a long sand bank downstream and figured out direction and altitude to make sure I’d be able to see the eclipse next morning. Then I settled in for a long evening to wait, with just a cold burger to eat bought from a McD’s back in Pocatello, worried I’d lose my place.
By sunset, a few cars had come and gone, checking the place out. But it was clear that no-one else was going to park overnight. I was already uncomfortable, too old for sleeping in cars. So, eventually, I gave in and drove the hundred miles back to my hotel at Lava Hot Springs, got some proper food, had a soak in the spa, parked the Jeep for a clean getaway and went to sleep in a bed. But not for long.
I had set my alarm for three, but I needn’t have bothered. By two – still nine hours before the show – car doors slammed and engines roared as eclipse chasers competed for the earliest start. I dragged myself out under starry skies, woke the reception lady up, grabbed a coffee and hit the road too. I had to leave by the back of town to miss the queues already forming. I contemplated trying to find that dirt road, but decided to risk going back on the interstate. It was a good decision.
I-15 north was busy, even at just after three, but moving steadily. I could still see stars above the tail-lights and then somewhere around Pocatello, a brilliant meteor with a lingering, sparkling tail streaked overhead northwards, as if pointing the way.
I counted the miles again, doing the maths to figure out how slow it could get before I’d miss the eclipse. I planned on dumping the Jeep and hiking if I had to, but in the event, I got back to my spot by the murmuring Snake River before dawn.
I set my camera on the roof of the Jeep and took some test shots, then stood alone in the dark, listening to the Snake rustle. I waited and waited. The sun rose over the trestle bridge and turned the river a steely blue at last. Cars and people and motorhomes started to arrive, a few at first, then crowds. It’s a cliché, but everyone was so friendly and we had a great time. The anticipation was intense.
There was a guy from So Cal who’d taken his son out of his first day at big school, against the wishes of his ex’. A couple from the Bay Area reversed down next to me by the river in a big off-road truck. A family with nine kids arrived in a huge RV. They had driven up on impulse, they said. The teenagers clambered over the bridge onto an island in the river, whilst the younger kids played in the pebbles and I had a long and philosophical chat with their dad about the sheer improbability of eclipses in general and of our being lucky enough to be right here right now under clear skies to see it.
And what clear skies they were – no haze and not so much as a cloud on the horizon. By nine it was hot and getting hotter, sunlight glimmering off the river. I kept checking the Sun. We compared eclipse glasses as we waited and I worried for the people who had come with just welding goggles. People clambered out onto the trestle, others down onto the shingle beach.
Everyone’s heads turned to the sky and at 10:15 a murmur rose and the crowd went silent. The cars stopped manoeuvring and the interstate behind emptied.
Strange sepia tints and saturated colours in the fading light.
Streetlamps come on at 11:33.
I recorded first contact at 10:16, as the heat was building for what seemed like just any melting-hot mid-August day. By 10:20, though, I could make a chunk out of the top right corner of the Sun; it should have been getting rapidly brighter and hotter, but that wasn’t happening. Much stranger was the colour of the light: now everything had a brownish tint, like a sepia photo. The guy who’d taken his son out of school even reckoned he could see purple in it. Meanwhile, shadows were taking on that weird crescent shape I remembered from ’99.
At 10:24 a lone truck roared by on the highway, beeping frantically.
By 10:33 there was a big chunk out of the Sun and it was getting cooler. Past 11:00 it was quite chill, like Autumn. The light was a bizarre sickly yellow-sepia. With ten minutes to go, everything grew quiet. The big crickets that had been crackling and flying, stilled. I noticed evening birdsong.
At 11:26 the Sun narrowed to a thin sliver. Streetlamps up on the highway winked on. This was further than I‘d ever been towards totality. And from then on things got very strange really fast.
Moments before totality, it was still sunny, just that the sunlight was dim and cold. I was astonished how even the thinnest sliver of photosphere could illuminate the World. But this dimming of the light was nothing like sunset, and just when I thought it couldn’t get dimmer, it went to the next level. In the end it was dusk but still sunny – bizarre and unnerving.
When it came, darkness closed over very suddenly, much more so than I was expecting. It felt to me as if a lid had been drawn over – the coming of darkness was almost a physical sensation. We all looked up, stripping away our eye gear to see dazzling Baily’s Beads and then a simply gorgeous diamond ring. It was instantly dark, the zenith black, but all around the horizon was sunset orange. There was a collective intake of breath. People screamed, pointed, cried out; wept.
The New Moon embedded in the corona was nothing like I had imagined: a dark jewel set in blinding silver fire. A truly awesome thing. I am not a particularly emotional person, but totality was an intense experience, visceral and inexplicable. Hard to find words.
Somehow, I blundered back to the Jeep and took some snaps. I am not really religious, but on the video I can hear myself embarrassingly repeating, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God’, because it felt like that – like seeing God’s work.
I remembered the binos hanging around my neck. They showed me streams of light arcing in the Corona, patches of rosy-orange chromosphere winking out of the Lunar canyons like burning jewels. I caught just a few stars round about, perhaps Mars.
Much too soon and again with astonishing suddenness, totality ended. There was another brief but spectacular diamond ring, then it was back to almost full sunlight, albeit with that sickly brownish hue. My two and a half minutes of totality had felt, honestly, like about twenty seconds.
If I’d felt elated beyond reason during the darkness and icy Sunfire of totality, now the emotion was loss – inexplicably, I just wanted it back. This, of course, is how people get addicted. And it wasn’t just me. The people I spoke to were immediately talking about, ‘the next one’. The boy who had been taken out of school by his dad, just kept saying, ‘I’ve never seen such an incredible thing in all my life!’ Job well done then, Dad.
I waited it out, there in October sunshine in August by the Snake River, watched the Moon leave the Sun, the bite grow smaller. By then, everybody else had started to leave; just a few lingered until the end. Forty-five minutes later, the light was returning to normal. The midday Sun was softly pleasant and autumnal, the air cool – I wished it would stay that way.
By 12:30, it was a standard summer day again, insects whirred and buzzed and the sunlight had lost its sepia tint. I recorded last contact at 12:57. As I drove away at 1300, the car temperature gauge was showing just 75 degrees, still much lower than normal even though the eclipse was over.
Getting to the eclipse had been ridiculously easy, the weather perfect, everything just as good as it could be. There had to be a sting in the tail and there was.
I thought it would be a clever move to drive north and east towards the Grand Teton mountains before heading back south to Lava Hot Springs. All went well, for a while. Then, the moment I turned south, the traffic slowed, stopped and stayed stopped. I sat and enjoyed the view of the Teton peaks for a while, then I gave up and drove back the way I had come, back over the Snake River where I had watched the eclipse hours before. Almost immediately, the traffic stopped again. Here was that promised gridlock.
The drive back to Lava Hot Springs wasn’t fun. I lost count of the dusty farm roads I had to navigate on the fly, the urban backstreets I got lost in. I suddenly came on a gas station by the interstate, after miles of back roads. It was like a festival with hundreds of people lying on the grass in the Sun, going nowhere.
It took nine hours to go the hundred miles back to my hotel. Seeing a train of speeding SUVs pounding up a dirt track in clouds of dust right by the interstate was kind of funny, though.
Next morning, twenty-four hours after the eclipse, I finally slipped into the glimmering, steaming waters of the pool at Lava Hot Springs. I glanced at the sun through the leaves and wished it would do it again.
The hot pool at last.