The woman next to me, probably in her early twenties, was jumping up and down like a contestant on the The Price is Right. It was T-minus three minutes, and the moon was poised to eat up the last sliver of the sun.
She and I and a hundred other totality chasers had converged on the same state park campground near Shoshoni, Wyo. There were tent campers like me from Arizona, two touring motorcyclists on Gold Wings who road in from Chicago, a bagpiper from Billings, Mont., and a 25-member Friends of Astronomy group from Greece who had somehow crammed themselves into four rented motorhomes.
It was an electric atmosphere, with enough money invested in high-end cameras and telescopes to fly everyone to the next U.S. eclipse in 2024. An astronomy class from Occidental College hosted nightly star talks, and because I was the only person without a tripod, they invited me to hang out with them and suck up some celestial wisdom.
The first time I looked through one of their telescopes, I was surprised that the sun wasn’t yellow. I figured it had to do with the dark solar filter, but Chuck, the professor from the college, told me, “It’s pure white. It has always been pure white.” Not in my coloring books, it isn’t.
With horror stories of sunny crescents burned onto retinas and the risk of permanent blindness, everyone came prepared with eye protection. Most brought eclipse glasses, but a welder from Los Angeles used the darkened glass from his welding helmet. A woman traveling with her family from Alamos, N.M., fashioned a rectangular “eclipse bonnet” from a Wyoming road map and camera filter that we took turns wearing.
A week before I made my thousand-mile trek to Wyoming, I planned to watch the eclipse from a comfortable perch in Arizona. The moon was scheduled to block two-thirds of the sun, and with the dire predictions of interstate gridlock, food, water, shelter and gasoline shortages, plus other pre-eclipse mayhem, staying home as a “66 percenter” didn’t sound so bad. The ambient light would probably dim a little, and maybe I’d see a nocturnal skunk peak out of a culvert or hear some disoriented crickets.
I began to doubt my decision when I read that even with 99 percent of the sun covered, the remaining sliver of sunlight would be 10,000 times brighter than a full moon. At 99.9 percent, it would still be 1,000 times brighter and not dark enough to see the sun’s corona or the stars.
Could I live with the irony that the Arizona eclipse would likely be bright enough to burn my bare butt? This had now become an all-or-nothing proposition. The only path to totality was the path of totality. I had the means, and to allow the Great American Eclipse — the first total eclipse in the U.S. since 1979 — to fly by just a few states away would be a regret I was no longer willing to carry.
With “Totality or Bust” tattooed in my brain, I flew to Denver to begin the 400-mile drive to Shoshoni, Wyo. My rental car was three times more expensive than normal, the cost jacked-up to punish people like me who were struck with late-onset eclipse fever. It would, however, get me there two days before the magic date of Aug. 21.
Mom and pop entrepreneurs spotted people like me coming months ago and turned their empty lots and open pastures into cash cows. Newly minted campgrounds with names like Mel and Abby’s Camporama offered a spot for an RV or tent, access to a Porta John, and all you can drink from the host’s outstretched garden house. All this for $100 – $150 per night with a three-night minimum.
With less than two minutes to go to totality, the moon had covered over 95 percent of the sun, and the ambient light was noticeably dimmer and warmer in color. Our shadows were different, too, with much crisper outlines. Someone with a digital thermometer called out the temperature as it started to fall. We were all on our feet, wearing our funky eclipse glasses like the nerdy audience in a 3D movie waiting for the show to start.
At exactly 10:38 a.m., the moon’s shadow swept over us and the lights went out. The entire campground erupted with whistles, whoops and hollers usually reserved for the home team as it runs onto the field. Eclipse glasses came off, and we were able to look at the sun for the first time with our naked eyes.
It didn’t get as dark as I expected, more like what I would call dusk. A dull orange glow hugged the horizon, and the sky was more blue than black. It was too dark to read, and too light to knock over anything expensive.
My adopted group of astronomers was locked into the scene, and they wasted no time calling out what they saw.
“There’s the corona! Did you see Baily’s Beads? That’s Venus off to the right. I see a star! I see Regulus! Regulus is right there! Is that Jupiter on the left, low in the sky? Mercury should be here, but I’m not picking it out. Wow, wow, wow. Oh my lord. Unbelievable.”
For a brief instant, a concentrated sparkle of light popped out of the sun’s corona. “The diamond ring!” everyone shouted at once. This was on the list of highly anticipated phenomena, I learned, and occurs just before or after totality.
The appearance of the diamond ring also meant that the moon was on the move again, and we heard Professor Chuck yell, “Glasses back on!”
He had warned us earlier that two minutes and 20 seconds of totality would pass in what seemed like eight seconds. We tried to prove him wrong, but that’s exactly the way it felt.
Daylight returned almost immediately, and after 10 minutes, life was back to normal. The temperature had dropped from 72 to 59 degrees, then quickly rebounded. The eclipse was still greater than 90 percent, but no one was paying much attention. The build-up had been exhausting, and now that the crescendo had passed, people were folding up tents and tripods, clearing picnic tables, and packing up for the long trip home. Even the students’ interest waned, and they turned their attention to asking “what’s for lunch?”
Was it all worth it? I didn’t do any exit interviews, but I’d feel pity for anyone who said it wasn’t. I overheard a woman in her 70s say, just at the tail end of totality, “Okay, now I’ve lived.”
It’s likely that most of us drove away with a similar glow of cosmic satisfaction.