It is a hot, cloudless Monday morning in the high country of central Wyoming. I have been awake since dawn reading in our tent. My wife, startled by some movement of mine, opens her eyes. “Did we sleep through the eclipse?” she jokes. Some joke. We’re making a 1,300-mile roundtrip drive, from Tijeras to the the Medicine Bow National Forest, to view Monday’s total solar eclipse.
Fortunately, it is only 7 a.m. and we have 3 1/2 hours before the eclipse. We breakfast on granola and applesauce and coffee and huge Colorado peaches we bought from another camper. We pack up our camp cloistered at a free site beneath the pines on a quiet dirt road off a dirt road off a dirt road. We drive up to the main dirt road and clamber onto a giant boulder with a fine open view.
Then we wait.
At 10:27 a.m. a man faraway screams, “It’s started.” Indeed it has. A tiny shadow of the moon crops a corner of the sun, not at the top where we had expected but at the 1 o’clock direction. The dark spot grows. “It’s eating the sun,” my wife exclaims.
As the moon’s shadow creeps diagonally across the sun over the next hour and a quarter, the hot day gradually cools, and the brilliant sky slowly darkens.
Just before noon all the dogs begin to bark and howl and yowl. They know something is wrong. A lone woodpecker sounds off. No more cars or trucks pass on the dirt road beneath our boulder. It is as if the world is holding its breath.
The light goes out of the world. The temperature plummets. The Earth is a different place. Men, women and children, gathered in tiny groups, watch in fascination, perhaps with a touch of the awe of old.
For the couple of minutes of totality, we take off our special dark glasses and view the sun as a narrow corona surrounding the moon. Then the moon begins its long diagonal slide toward the bottom left corner of the sun. Night slowly intensifies. It never becomes totally dark and stars never appear. It is like night during a full moon. The day warms again.
In little more than two hours we pass through an entire 24-hour cycle of day and night and day again.
Before the eclipse is over, cars and trucks and motorcycles are already heading toward the giant parking lot that Interstate 25, 40 miles away, has become and will remain for many an hour.
When Mark Twain wanted his time-traveling Connecticut Yankee to put the medieval magician Mervin in his place, he had his hero predict the onset of a total solar eclipse. Once it disappeared on schedule, he became their honored leader. The Yankee describes his experience:
“Then I lifted up my hands—stood just so for a moment—then I said, with the most awful solemnity: ‘Let the enchantment dissolve and pass harmlessly away!’…When the silver rim of the sun pushed itself out a moment or two later the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me with blessings and gratitude.”
Perhaps if we had as much sense as our ancestors in the Middle Ages, we would smother our own scientists who predict celestial events with blessings and gratitude, making them our royalty instead of the businessmen and generals who concern themselves with more mundane matters like recessions and wars.
The eclipse me struck me as proof, if any were needed, that we are dwarfed by forces beyond our control. Nothing less than a “nuclear winter” could do to the United States what this coast-to-coast eclipse did. It spanned the continent, from Oregon to South Carolina, in a belt 70 miles wide. More than 12 million people live in the path of total eclipse, and 200 million more within a day’s drive. Collectively, they created traffic jams almost as momentous as the eclipse itself.
Four days before the eclipse, communities in places as far flung as Oregon and South Carolina were already beginning to run out of water, food and gasoline. In small towns in Wyoming, parking in normally free lots was going for $65. Cabins in the countryside rented for $1,000. RV spaces commanded $250 and tent spaces in people’s backyards $100 a night, with a three-night minimum.
Forecasts (which turned out to be accurate) were for traffic jams hundreds of miles long on the interstate freeways after the eclipse. In an hour on I-25 we went two miles and then came to a stop. We made a u-turn and detoured on crowded roads through villages and ranches to the east. A sign in Fort Laramie in southeastern Wyoming declared, “Welcome eclipse travelers.” A roadside rest stop on a byway was jammed with cars. Traffic on Wyoming 23, a road that begins nowhere and ends at a similar place, was bumper to bumper. But at least it was moving—slowly.
The eclipse was billed as the experience of a lifetime. I hope all these highway-bound millions mired in their misery feel the same way. At least, my wife and I do.