Friday, October 6, 2017

89. The Great American Eclipse of 2017

On August 21, 2017, my wife and I found ourselves in a remote desert in Wyoming where were watched our first total eclipse of the sun. 

Our location was about half a mile east of Route 104 and three miles south of Arminto, WY, which is about 50 miles northwest of Casper. The maps shown at right mark the exact location. We arrived a couple of days in advance and pitched our tent at a remote campsite that required an hour of driving over extremely rough roads.  It was tough, but the scenery and the photos below show that it was well worth the extra effort.

The first video was from a camera set up looking to the north as it had a clear horizon and a good view of the distant mountains.  The second video was set up facing east as it too had a clear view of the valley below and our views  to the south and west were blocked by hills.
video

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After reviewing my videos, I discovered that I had indeed captured the moon's shadow, perhaps not rushing across the landscape as I had hoped, but moving across miles of high clouds as it raced from west to east.  Below are segments from my video showing the shadow of the moon crossing the sky.  When the sun emerges where we were standing, I noticed that the distant clouds to our east did not immediately reappear as they were still in the moon's shadow.


I had been planning this trip for a couple of years and had long ago decided that the best place to see the eclipse without clouds would be in the desert of Wyoming.  Diane and I had been near this location years before, and using Google Maps, I scouted out the best place to view this spectacle.  Many of my plans, unfortunately, did not pan out.  I knew all motels would be booked, and what few campground there were would be full.  While the Bureau of Land Management did have campgrounds and overflow sites, I noticed one of their very remote campgrounds where we could pitch a tent for free (having only a tent would give us more options, especially if we simply had to camp in the desert).  Grave Springs Campground, however, was located back in rough hills and mountains and could only be reached by an extremely rough drive for an hour through a colorful desert on gravel and stone roads.  The view was worth the effort, in my opinion. We arrived on Saturday afternoon before the eclipse on Monday.

On our trip to Wyoming, we listened to radio accounts of communities along the path of totality making preparations to accommodate the crowds of onlookers.  Many of those plans were ruined as we learned on our return trip through the same areas when rain and thunderstorms covered the skies. We saw clever highway signs referring to the eclipse, heard car dealership ads about new prices eclipsing the old ones, and many puns too.  Signs warned people all along the totality path for people to NOT stop their cars on the side of the road during the eclipse, and to be aware of people who may do just that.

In Casper, the only large town near us that weekend, local business owners complained that despite the hype and the profits by hotel operators (we saw Motel 6 rooms advertised for $600 a night!), many of the other businesses, especially restaurants, had not noticed an uptick in business.  In fact, it appeared that hoards of people had traveled from wide and far in campers and brought their own food, anticipating to be gouged like the hotel businesses were doing.

We scouted out a location to view the eclipse.  Hell's Half Acre, on highway 26, is a state or county park where scenes in the movie, Starship Troopers, were filmed.  Inexplicably, the fence at its entrance was closed, chained and locked, and had been locked up for some time judging from the rust.  A lot of other people had the same idea as we saw many others in this otherwise desolate area show up and leave disappointed.  My next plan was to observe from a state rest area on Highway 26 near the turnoff to our campground, but I suspected it would be crowded too.

We then noticed nice locations on the high ground just south of the "town" of Arminto, and decided on Sunday that we would pull off the road to one of these sites the next morning.

We broke camp early on Monday and headed to the site we selected.  Along the way, we saw many people just camping off of dirt roads in what had been deserted areas all weekend.  Seeing a column of smoke behind a hillside, we stopped to talk to a man walking with his dog along the dirt road. We learned that he too had stopped to camp in a remote area. He was cooking breakfast on the back of his pickup truck when someone drove by and shot at his dog with a rifle.  The dog was startled and knocked over the cooking burner, setting the truck on fire and destroying all of this man's belongings. The shooter took off and while we offered our assistance, he declined and had already contacted the sheriff who were on their way (we later passed the sheriff's car a short while later). I guess he'll have other reasons to remember this day than the eclipse.

When we got to our chosen site, someone else was already parked there, so we decided to keep traveling down a gravel road that serviced multiple gas well in the vicinity.  We even passed additional campers and then, around a curve, I saw the ideal site and a large gas well pad to park our car away from the road and away from the gas tanks and structures.  We started to set up our cameras and a gentleman in a pickup stopped by who served these well.  Explaining what we were doing, he granted us permission to stay and watch the eclipse as long as we liked, and then drove off to attend to his duties.  Not another living person could be heard or seen anywhere for miles into the distance --we were completely alone.

The day was not too hot and a gentle breeze blew from the west.  As the moon started to cover up the sun, it began to slowly get a little darker.  Just before totality, I kept reaching to remove my sunglasses that weren't there as the scenery looked as dark as regular daylight looks when I am wearing dark sunglasses.  The video cameras, of course, adjusted their exposure, but just before totality it was a little darker than it appears on the videos.

Up until then, the wind had slowed down, the air was a little cooler, and we noticed the crickets were getting louder as if it was near nightfall.  Looking through our sun filters, the last of the sun disappeared and very quickly, it grew dark.  The air was still and the desert became completely quiet.

We had a clear view of the horizon, especially to the north and east, and were were quickly surrounded by sunset colors in the distance in all directions. A light on one of the distant gas well pads came on automatically. The ground was dark, but more like at twilight than at midnight.  It was light enough to see everything around us, but still dark enough to stumble of the rocks in a way I had not done before totality.  Neither one of us could sit and watch but had to stand and see all that was happening all around us.

The sky was not quite as dark as night as some had predicted.  The sky was a dark blue and in one of my wide-angle photos, you can see very light cirrus clouds that had not been noticed before.  We never did see any other stars and of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter that were supposed to be visible, only Venus stood out (Clearly, other eclipses had been darker. I wonder if has to do with the moon's distance from the Earth and the size of the umbra - the darkest part of the moon's shadow? A larger umbra would have pushed the sunlit horizons further away, allowing less stray light to turn the sky blue and resulting in a darker sky!).  The light that surrounded the moon was a pure pearly white color without a hint of yellow or any other color (I heard someone on the radio later describe it as being like a pure LED light, which was a good description).  It also seemed that the edge between the moon and the circle of light was soft and not hard, a blurring which I now attribute to the cirrus clouds which we could not see before totality began.

Well into the totality, I took in the whole scene and the dark valley before me and marveled at the surreal nature of this entire event, as it must have been similarly perceived numerous times throughout human history. I could easily imagine not only the awe but the fear this could, and would, have induced. And then, just as I was really beginning to enjoy the experience, the edge of the circle of light started to brighten, and suddenly, it was all over.  The sun came out and while the sun's disk was still 98% covered, it was amazing how the remaining 2 percent could make the eye think it was almost as bright as the noonday sun. We were so excited, we almost did not know what to do with ourselves. One thing we knew without a doubt --we have to do this again!

A handful of experiences in my life have left me full of awe and wonder.  The birth of each of my children is one of them; the first time I gazed upon the Grand Canyon; descending down the immense natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns; and riding up to the foot of Niagra Falls are some of the others.  I'd have to add the Great American Eclipse of 2017 to that list as well.

I can hardly wait until 2024!