Total Solar Eclipse (August 21, 2017)
I first learned of the total solar eclipse that would sweep across the United State on August 21, 2017 while visiting Colin and Trish Rodgers at their home in northern England during the spring of 2016.
“We are definitely going,” said Colin, who has friends in Billings, Montana.
We thought about meeting them in Wyoming. After all if they were traveling all the way from England to see this sight, surely we could drive under 2000 miles round trip from Albuquerque. It was Colin’s compelling description, however, that made up my mind, “The sky was so black that you could see the planets from Mercury to Jupiter in a line going through the sun. And there was a 360 degree “sunrise” around the horizon.” This was like no eclipse I’d previously seen. It would also be an opportunity to visit Kent’s home town of Sheridan, Wyoming, and to connect with several friends and relatives along the way.
By this time, motel rooms, if available, were going for as much as $1,000 per night in small towns along the eclipse path, and impromptu campsites were advertised on the internet for a mere $75 per night for a few square feet of parking space without water or toilets. However, musical entertainment and pit barbecue dinners were mentioned as possible perks. No thanks!
Colin and Trish were planning to drive the 220 miles from Billings the morning of the eclipse, departing at “Albuquerque balloon fiesta hours,” and to make the return trip the same day. Kent contacted his friend Dick in Sheridan, who had a cabin in the Bighorn Mountains. Yes, despite ill health in the family, we could stay in the cabin for a few nights.
My idea of a mountain cabin was a shack furnished with cast-offs, perhaps with running water and electricity, perhaps not. This was no such cabin, but a luxurious home at the end of a couple of steep, unpaved mountain roads, situated high among trees and with fabulous mountain views. Kent and I spent 2 ½ days in luxury, exploring remote tracks on foot and via Dick’s little 4-wheel-drive Rhino.
Rhino at Sunset in the Bighorns
On the drive to Sheridan, we had checked out possible eclipse-viewing sites near Shoshoni, population 641, with its one motel and one gas station. This was the area Colin had chosen as most easily accessible from Billings, and suitably unpopulated. A lovely young woman in the Shoshoni Town Hall, who knew the back roads, confirmed that the unpaved Badwater Road just north of town would be a good place to find a viewing spot. Not far beyond the end of the pavement, we found a dirt track heading up a rise to the north, and decided that would be our ideal “secret spot.” I took photos from 4 directions. No other roads and no buildings were visible.
Checking out the Viewing Spot near Shoshoni
I sent a report on our find and a proposed schedule to Colin and Trish:
Eclipse Day Plan Aug 21
(time/distances from Google Maps)
Billings to Shoshoni 3 hr 44 min 223 miles
Sheridan to Shoshoni 3 hr 29 min. 190 miles
(Thermopolis to Shoshoni 36 minutes, 32 miles)
arr. in Shoshoni by 8:30 or 9:00?
Leave Billings/Sheridan 4:30 (or 4?) am
Rendezvous Thermopolis 7:30 (or 7 ?) am
McDonalds on Shoshoni Ave, at curve toward south end of town not long after intersection of 120 (from Cody) and 789 (from Worland).
Travel in convoy to the “secret spot” off Badwater
Kent and I awoke in the mountain cabin at 3:45 a.m. on August 21. We’d made a thermos of coffee, filled two coolers with food and drinks, and placed everything but our clothes in the car the night before. It was totally dark with no moon or stars as we left the cabin just before 4 a.m. We drove down the small road to the gate, which I opened and closed. Then we crept down the steep dark gravel road toward I-70.
Fortunately, the only sign of life was a raccoon trotting along the roadside, but we looked sharply for deer. When we reached I-70, there was more traffic than usual for 4:40 a.m., but most of the traffic was headed toward Casper. At Buffalo we took the Ten Sleep highway west across the southern end of the Bighorns. At first we met a few vehicles heading northeast, then at the edge of town we were passed by one vehicle. We kept those lone headlights in view through most of the long drive along the twisting mountain road. First light was long in coming, but by 6 a.m. we were beginning to see the outlines of hills and rocks. We caught up with a line of cars, most of which thankfully pulled off at a café in Ten Sleep. Along the way we passed numerous crowded roadside campsites where people were just beginning to stir. We were ahead of the crowd, and ahead of our schedule. Traveling more freely without those cars, and now on a straighter road, we made good time, stopping briefly in Worland to top off the gas tank before continuing toward Thermopolis.
Just south of Worland we stopped to snap a picture of the red Eclipse Day sunrise. At shortly after 7 we pulled into the already crowded Thermopolis McDonald’s. Within 15 minutes Colin and Trish arrived! By 7:30 we were on our way through the spectacular Wind River Canyon with its 3 tunnels. Traffic was fairly heavy, but moving smoothly. Upon exiting the canyon we saw roadside parking areas filling up, but we continued to our “secret spot,” Colin following behind in his rented SUV. As we pulled up the rise on the dirt track off Badwater Road, we discovered 2 vehicles there ahead of us. We weren’t the only ones who knew about this place. But it was O.K. There was plenty of room for all. There would be perhaps 6 vehicles along the track by the time the eclipse began.
We quickly set up chairs and our small table, got out the picnic basket, cooler, and sparkling wine, and settled down to wait, feeling quite pleased with ourselves.
We had made it! There was a slight haze and a few light clouds, but the viewing promised to be excellent. We could see other cars perhaps a quarter mile to the east. There was a family group, perhaps friends. A silhouetted couple walked beneath an umbrella, and a child moved in and out of a stroller. We readied our viewing shields, glasses, Kent’s magnifying sextant and our binoculars, cameras and phones.
We toasted the sun as the moon took its first bite out of the upper right edge of the sun. The process was beginning! Trish and Colin’s daughter Nicky and her friend Rob roused themselves from napping in the SUV. We snacked on potato chips, a pasta casserole, potato salad, and vegetable sticks.
The invisible moon progressed very slowly, revealing itself only by its silhouette across the sun. It was only as the sun was 75% or more covered that the sky began to turn gray and the temperature began to drop. Even with just the slightest sliver showing, the sun warmed the earth. What power!
At last, even that small sliver vanished and totality was upon us!
Oh wow! Silence, awe. Where to look? There was the darkened sun with its brilliant corona shooting widely and irregularly, visible to the naked eye and with binoculars. We no longer needed our dark glasses. The nearby vehicles and watchers faded to ghostly presences in the darkness. Most amazing of all, the horizon was a deep pink beneath the blue-black sky for 360 degrees all around. A lone planet hung slightly below and to the south of the black sun.
There was so much to see, experience and feel in such a short time. Silence and oohs and ahhs. Darkness at noon. Chills. Nothing I’d ever experienced before. I’m not sure what I felt. Perhaps awe.
Then all too soon, light shot out from behind the circle of the moon. Instantaneously color began to come back to the landscape and the sky. We could breathe again. It was over. We’d accomplished what we’d set out to do – experience the total eclipse of the sun. Now our sun was coming back, brightly shining as though the eclipse had never happened, although it wouldn’t be fully free of the moon for another 60 minutes. But for us, it was over. We repacked the van, posed for farewell pictures, said good-bye, and went our separate ways.
For some reason, as the eclipse ended, I was reminded of May 25, 1986, when millions of us participated in “Hands Across America” holding hands in an unbroken chain from California to New York for 15 minutes with a goal of ending world hunger and poverty. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hands Across_America On August 21, 2017, in our fractured, contentious world, millions of people gathered across the United States to view and celebrate a rare and wondrous event of the mysterious universe we share and upon which our lives depend. I was reminded also, of my parents, who held onto childhood memories of Halley’s Comet throughout their lives, and who lived to see it once more before they died. The universe is immense, and we are but fleeting specks of life on one small planet with a single moon, revolving around one shining, life-giving dying star – a star that was temporarily totally eclipsed by our moon as millions stopped and gathered to watch.
I was also reminded of the joke we told in high school, during the early days of space exploration. An astronaut was launched into space, and as the first rocket fired and then fell off, he exclaimed, “Oh my God!” He soared faster and faster and higher and higher into space, as the second and third rockets fired. With each new thrust he exclaimed, “Oh my God!” Then, when the last rocket had fired and he had finally reached outer space, he again exclaimed, “Oh my God!” This time a voice answered, “Yes?”
Traffic jam at Muddy Gap on the way home
Linnea Hendrickson, August 30, 2017