Hello again, friends.
I just got back from Casper, WY. Yes, I drove 370 miles each way to watch a dark object totally obscure a bright one for 143 seconds. And I howled like a terrified hominid when it happened.
Let’s rewind about a year. I typically vacation in Casper, WY for a week every August. I stay with Tate Museum staff member Russell Hawley, scientific illustrator par excellence and a good friend for over 30 years. I’d kind of known for several years about the upcoming eclipse and that its path of totality would go directly over Casper. I’m not sure who thought of it first but before I finished my vacation last year we’d put together nebulous plans for me to shift my typical vacation schedule a few weeks later, and curtail it somewhat in order to include my school-age daughter, Mary. I typically go to Casper myself and I made sure that Russell was alright having a rambunctious kid underfoot for a few days.
Now bear in mind Russell has a LOT of friends from all around the world; he’s a paleontological illustrator. They’re a close-knit bunch. Add in hundreds of ex-students from the classes he teaches at Casper College, friends from school (like me), family members, etc. and there were plenty of people who wanted to crash on the floor of his modest two-bedroom, two-bath apartment . . .let me say that I was privileged and honored to ‘make the cut’.
As The Day approached and hotel reservations dried up in the small city of Casper (it duels with Cheyenne for the distinction of being the largest ‘city’ in Wyoming) and the city fathers looked forwards to an onslaught of visitors (likened to ‘Hurricane Katrina without the hurricane’) I, a logistically-minded fellow from my days in the U. S. Army realized that the situation in Casper could lead to an impossibility of finding restaurant seating or even basic groceries and supplies in the city of 55,000 souls. I put together, along with the usual clothes and bedding for an adult and a girl-child, what I felt would be sufficient rations to feed my daughter and I and maybe a few others for a few additional meals over the five days I anticipated staying. I filled a cooler with some perishables, a little beer and a lot of ice and gathered two large bags of dry goods and non-perishables.
On the morning of D-Day Minus Four I loaded the clothes, bedding and dry goods into the trunk of my car and went to work. My loving wife Heather, who would not be joining us due to the exigencies of her schedule, graciously picked my daughter up from her first day at school, iced down my cooler, and met me with child and cooler after I got off work so I wouldn’t have to back-track 40 km down Interstate 25 to pick them up. Once we’d traded hugs and kisses Mary and I were off to Casper!
Now I really had no idea of what to expect traffic-wise. I put the usual road traffic analysis and reporting apps on my smartphone and tried to keep an ear on the radio news. Pundits had predicted a mass influx of up to 600,000 people heading towards the Wyoming path of totality, which explains my decision to get out there several days early. Traffic north of Denver indeed proved more hellish than usual, if only because it was somewhat later than I would have usually passed through that choked corridor and it was also the Student Drop-Off Day for USC in Fort Collins (something I hadn’t planned for!) but it only delayed me at most an hour over my usual five-hour drive to Casper. Mary and I saw one of the most stunning sunsets of my life while driving north through Wyoming on a blessedly uncrowded Interstate north of Cheyenne, WY and we arrived at Russell’s apartment in Casper at 2130.
Over the next few days several other guests arrived at ‘Casa Rouselle’. It was my daughter’s first visit to Casper and the Tate Museum where my friend works as the Education Director. I spent my time as usual at the Museum perusing Russell’s fantastic professional book collection while Mary utilized art supplies and successfully charmed the Museum Staff and visitors alike. If you’ve never been to the Tate Geological Museum (http://www.caspercollege.edu/tate-geological-museum) I highly suggest you go. I’ve plugged it in this blog before and I’m doing it again now. Ask for Russell Hawley, and tell him Waterman sent you.
Casper itself did receive quite an influx of visitors but nothing at the scale of the near-Apocalypse that had been predicted. Gas stations, liquor stores and supermarkets were not emptied of stocks, and though some local restaurants did mark up prices rather gougingly (the guilty shall go unidentified; they know who they are, the cads!) by the time Der Tag arrived things remained rather more civilized than I had expected.
It turns out that several of Russell’s other guests had brought provisions more appropriate for a full continental military campaign than just a few day’s food for less than a dozen people. I sheepishly returned the rather simple provisions I had brought (less the perishables) to the trunk of my car . . .except for the beer, of course. We all ate like kings despite the rather cramped facilities and limited equipment available in an apartment’s small kitchen. Many thanks to those who brought and prepared the most excellent and delicious fare we enjoyed.
Eclipse Day at last! We arrived at the campus of Casper College at 0800 to stake out a place on a wide, tree-shaded grassy slope facing the east. The day held a hint of smoky haze from the fires burning in Montana but no clouds though the evening before hadn’t looked too promising. We found easy parking and although the Tate Museum area on the south end of the campus had been reserved for the sole use of Astrocon 2017 our chosen spot only 400 meters north was not at all crowded. Eclipse glasses got handed out all around, with cautions and older folks keeping close eyes on the younger. Alcohol had been forbidden and food vendors restricted those who brought no refreshments did not lack for water and soft drinks provided at very low prices by roaming volunteers from the College. I counted around five hundred people in our section, which was 200 meters long and nearly that wide, including the parking lot. Many brought telescopes and other viewing devices, and a few dozen people actually tailgated. The crowd was happy but not excitable and restroom facilities in all of the campus buildings remained open.
The Moon began obscuring the Sun right on schedule, the exact moment announced by the simultaneous chirping of the eclipse apps running on a hundred smartphones–which drew laughs from a lot of people. We shared the camaraderie of people coming together to witness a very spectacular but sedately-progressing event the outcome and progression of which everyone knew. Towards totality the light took on the curious quality that can only be understood properly by those who have witnessed a full solar eclipse before. The temperature dropped off gently though noticeably as the limb of the Sun slowly vanished. I fumbled around with my smart-phone and my eclipse glasses to try to take a few pictures of the disappearing Sun but was unsuccessful; my days as an amateur astronomer were long ago and far away. I didn’t destroy my phone camera, at least . . .
A hush came over the crowd as the last sliver of the Sun crept around the limb of the Moon towards extinction. The only sound came from the ubiquitous eclipse apps counting down the last seconds to full totality. Then the Sun was gone. Five hundred people tore the eclipse glasses from their faces, gazed upon the eerie silvery corona of the Sun and then purely howled in primal joy, fear and excitement. My daughter even looked up from the game she was playing on my tablet, gasped, and went ‘Oooh!’ I let out an Artillery battle cry (Oooh-shah!) and literally jumped up and down like a hominid.
I tore my eyes from the gleaming apparition to look for the stars. I saw Venus but couldn’t locate any of the more dim true stars among the haze and sky-glow. . .but I saw the ‘ring sunset’ around the entire horizon in pink and gold and the darkening of the land at mid-day . . . absolutely stunning.
And then, the moment the Sun began to appear from around the limb of the Moon and the unearthly corona disppeared, people began to pack up their things and drive away. That very moment. It seemed as if someone had said ‘Show’s over, folks’ and everyone figured they could bail . . .hurry, beat the crowd out of Wyoming.
I stuck around with my friends, except for a few who really had to be back to work in Colorado the next day. They left not right after the end of totality, like many, but only only once we’d had lunch and the Moon had long left the Sun behind. They unfortunately paid the price because of tens of thousands of other people who had day-tripped up or just figured they’d watch the matinee showing on TV . . . and bailed early because they were bored, or didn’t plan for the Exodus, or just plain didn’t consider that the multitudes, easily bored, couldn’t be troubled to take an extra day from their busy lives.
The traffic coming in had been nowhere near as bad as the traffic leaving. I had planned to leave early (0400) the next morning if the traffic situation allowed; but I had an additional day I could stay just to avoid the Exodus if necessary and not add the loading of my car to any growing traffic situation. My friends who had carefully planned beforehand and absolutely needed to leave the day of the Eclipse got trapped in a 15-hour long traffic jam in Wyoming, of all places, through no fault of their own. Some folks just needed a ‘selfie’ at the ‘You Are Now Leaving Wyoming’ sign after their Eclipse Experience, and it jammed traffic back for 150 miles on Interstate 25. In the words of Dan Simmons; ‘Human beings, go figure’.
Anyway, that was my experience during The Great American Eclipse of 2017. I saw something sublime and ethereal and timeless, and learned lessons about humanity.
Keep striving, folks.