READER'S VIEW: Memories of the eclipse
Anyone who knows me knows that if I step outside on a clear night I'll probably fall or walk into something. It's not because I'm clumsy — I have great balance and steady feet. But when the night sky is unobstructed by clouds, the only thing I am aware of is the twinkling stars. Yes, even practical people such as myself become dazzled by glitter and sparkle, if only in the cold and clear Minnesota skies. I admit I find the shimmer of stars captivating.
But there is one star in particular that is much too close for me to actually look at and observe. The sun doesn't twinkle, or appear as a sparkle so much as a blinding glare, but it's a star nonetheless. The sun's light is faithful and steady. Unless, of course, something gets in the way of that bright brilliance. Which is what happens during a solar eclipse.
During the recent Great American Eclipse, people throughout the United States watched as the sun's light, reliable as it is, disappeared behind the moon. In the middle of an otherwise typical August day, the new moon cast a complete shadow that descended diagonally, with a slight arch, across the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina.
It was December 2016 when I read about the celestial event and immediately became giddy. Being the practical person that I am, "giddy" is not a customary behavior for me, but planning is. So I channeled my excitement and started researching places near Minnesota that would coincide with the path of totality. I looked at weather records to find out where clear skies would be almost guaranteed. I booked lodging and mapped out my route. I had a plan. My friends thought I was strangely over-excited, but my spouse understood that being as obsessed with the sky as I am, it was obvious I would regret missing the opportunity.
The viewing site I picked was a 13-hour drive from Cloquet to eastern Wyoming, a dry area known for its clear skies. Wanting to avoid crowds and traffic, I chose somewhere off the beaten path but not too difficult to get to. Lodging was a few hours away, because many places in Wyoming were either too far to drive to in one day, already fully booked, or priced outside my budget. I didn't mind though, I was willing to get up early to drive a couple of hours to the viewing site.
When I arrived at 8 a.m. on eclipse day, it was apparent that I wasn't the only one who decided Orin, Wyoming would be a good spot. The small town — with a population under 50 in 2010 — became a hub that hundreds of totality chasers flocked to. The only store (read public bathroom) in town, a small truck stop, already had a line of cars at each pump and a line of people nearly out the door and that frenzy lasted for hours. It was a kind of rhythmic chaos.
The weather was perfect as spectators were situated on a south facing hillside with warm sunshine, a slight breeze blowing toward the valley below, and nearly no clouds above. Photographers had their tripods and cameras set up on hillsides surrounding the truck stop as cars, trucks, and campers filled the parking lot meant for big rigs and semis. Soon, even more vehicles were parked along both sides of the rural highway for nearly a half mile. There was a viewing lot set up in the small town that filled up quickly.
The eclipse began at 10:22 a.m. as people scurried about, looking for that perfect viewing spot. Even after the sun looked as though it had a run-in with cookie monster, more cars and people were arriving. I noticed license plates from surrounding states and parts of Canada, and chatted with people from Colorado and Australia. I spotted a couple of drones taking aerial videos, and even two hot air balloons in the distance.
Excitement bubbled. As totality drew near, people were getting settled, climbing on top of their cars, or getting chairs from their trunk to sit on the side of the road or on the hillside.
The light had been changing like a dying flashlight slowly going out. It was a gradual and strange dimness that was hard to notice at first. Realization set in that it was a bit cooler and although the sun was still fairly bright, it wasn't warm on my skin anymore. With eclipse glasses on, spectators watched as the silhouette of the moon crept closer to complete coverage of the sun and the sky above us became darker yet. It was enough to cause an expectant hush over the crowd. The last small crescent of sun became only a sliver of brightness.
Then it happened somehow slowly and suddenly. It was safe to remove our glasses to see what we traveled so far and wide to see. When I looked up, I was so stunned by what I saw that I lost my breath and had to sit down! (I don't know why I was standing in the first place.) The crowd oohed and aahed at the sky. Onlookers in the distance lit off fireworks. Some people laughed, some even cried, but many were silently looking up in awe. It was spectacular!
I looked up at the sky and saw a black orb with a thin band of dazzling light dancing around the edge. The dark disk looked like a wheel that rolled in a tiny bit of fine red glitter with brilliant golden light bursting from the sides. And the blueish corona flaring out beyond the light was astonishing in the dusky deep blue sky. A few stars were shimmering a bit dimmer than they do at night. Then I noticed four planets on their way around the sun. First I saw Venus, the brightest, then Jupiter. And because I knew where to look I also saw, faintly shining, Mars and Mercury. I tried to take it all in while sitting there on that hillside near the truckstop, eclipse glasses in hand. It was spellbinding. I took note of the dark sky above and the strange glow of light on the horizon, outside of the shadow. The sparkle from the light of our sun eclipsed by the moon was the closest I'll ever get to observing it with the naked eye and I wanted to savor every second. But time was up and just as slowly and suddenly as it disappeared, the light returned, first as a sliver then gradually a crescent. There was so much light from that tiny bit of sunshine. Shortly after totality, beneath the penumbra of the new moon, we headed back.
We didn't get stuck in traffic for hours like many others leaving Wyoming but there was a noticeable increase in the amount of vehicles on the road after the event. When I got home after driving a total of 26 hours roundtrip, family and friends asked if it was worth it. I answered with a resounding YES! While totality was less than three minutes, it was absolutely amazing! The only negative aspect of this experience is that I think I might have to work "Totality Chasing" into my budget for future eclipses. The dazzle of daytime star gazing will forever call my name.
Writer/blogger Danielle Lundeen shared this column about her eclipse experience with the Pine Journal.