The Eclipse of 2017: An Umbrafile’s Diary – Thomas Lemke
“What’s in this stuff? Can I drink it? I’ve got a heart arrhythmia.” We were speeding down highway 20, south of Greybull, Wyoming on our way to Shoshoni which lies on the centerline of the eclipse. It was 3:20 am. Joanne switched on the dome light and read the ingredient list on the little bottle of 5 Hour Energy – Extra Strength! “Lots of chemicals,” she said. “And tons of caffeine.” “Ok, I’ll drink half,” I said. I need some kind of boost that early in the morning and the reports all along the eclipse route predicted lots of people, heavy traffic and a dearth of facilities so no coffee, dammit. This was probably my one chance to see a total eclipse before I die and I didn’t want to be done in by falling asleep at the wheel or stroking out on 5 Hour Energy Drink.
We live a long way from Shoshoni, Wyoming. It is a 17 hour drive from Milwaukee. That’s a haul but because the big show was completely weather dependent, this had to be a last minute trip. A week or so before “umbrafest” we started to watch the weather. Working against us was the fact that wherever on the eclipse trail we wound up, one cloud in the wrong place at the wrong time could deny us our “once in a lifetime.” The fact that the summer of ’17 was bringing a freakish number of cloudy, low pressure troughs frayed my nerves. The fact that hotels on or near the red line (eclipse central) were booking up fast and/or raising their rates ridiculously, pushed me to make some decisions.
South and east of Milwaukee, both weather history and current forecasts predicted an uncertain “partly to mostly cloudy.” The west looked best with its propensity for dry, clear skies and a predilection that a clipper system would move clouds northeast just before the August 21st happening. I fought my superego hard five days prior. Idiomatically I’m “worse case scenario man,” a pre-planner to the max. My every fiber said, “pull the trigger on this trip. Make a decision. Plan a route. Get this thing on a spreadsheet!” But we sat tight….until Saturday morning.
We committed to Wyoming at the last moment. It would be a tight schedule. Driving west for 12 hours found us an interim bolt-hole in Wall, South Dakota. Greybull, Wyoming was our next roost so we could fly south early in the AM Monday to Shoshoni. We paid $200 for a $50 hotel in Greybull. Not bad, I saw campsites going for $250.
The great thing about Wyoming is that it is wide open country; the bad thing is there are not too many roads. Nebraska or Illinois, besides being much closer, are flat with roads everywhere. That adds up to flexibility – if clouds came we could shift to a clearer spot. It is also better for traffic on the way out. Mountainous Wyoming had but a few routes, mostly in valleys, and traffic would be heavy. The state patrol expected the population of the state to triple for the eclipse. Once in our spot traffic would fill in behind us and we’d have to stay.
The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) provides some great public access on their land around Shoshoni. As the sun rose and lit up the landscape we found fellow travelers widely dispersed. We chose a spot where our closest neighbor was 50 yards away. My feeling of being boxed in vanished in the midst of this epic western panorama. Lake Cameahwait at our feet and the mountains in the distance framed our view…perfect.
The cosmic tango started at 10:20, about the time my buzz from Five Hour Energy Drink wore off with no noticeable slippage of my mortal coil. The sight of a bite chomped out of the sun by the moon caused my mind to slip back in time as I recalled seeing partial eclipses as a kid. My guide to the universe at that time was a tiny book called, Stars — A Golden Guide. A diagram in that book showed where future total eclipses would shade parts of the planet. My eclipse is listed on page 153 — August 21, 2017. There my dream of seeing totality started. Funny it would end in the middle of Wyoming.
The eclipse began with a little fanfare. Our neighbor out on the grassland to the west was a young woman wearing a black zodiac t-shirt. Like us she was from out of state…California. Like many it appears she had slept in her car the night before. She started twirling a little drum that had a bunch of balls tied around its edge producing kind of a strumming, drumming. As she strum, drummed, she danced. She appeared totally happy. Another woman wearing a rainbow colored cape strolled by. Someone else jumped in the lake with their dog. A drone buzzed in the distance.
Worrisome clouds that threatened early in the morning dispersed as the bite out of the sun got bigger and our world got dusky. I snapped a few photos noticing the strangeness of the light; it seemed like dreamy twilight. In the lake a big fish rose up to skim the surface, its ovoid dorsal fin lolling lazily out of the water as it slid past us. Solar glasses on, we watched our star align with the moon; glasses off, we watched the earth and her creatures react. To the west a tsunami wave of dark blue sky quietly rose up as totality approached.
The only thing visible with solar glasses on is the sun and I watched as the thin crescent waned to black. Black. I still had the glasses on and the sun was in totality. Everything was black. Disoriented, I had forgotten that you take the glasses off at the moment of totality. I grabbed at my glasses and the solar filter that protected my camera lens at the same time. Hastily dropping the filter to the ground I looked up.
It was if I had opened an umbrella over my head, inside the canopy was bright indigo and at the center a black button was set off by a white gossamer sheen. The corona was breathtaking. The fringe of my vision was colored orange for 360 degrees. The entire horizon was a sunset caused by the circular shadow of the moon overhead. The ground seemed to sink beneath my feet. In the distance people were cheering. The ironic light from camera flashes dotted the horizon. The drumming woman drummed frenetically. The temperature dropped.
My photography training kicked in and I shot several images of the sun and then I turned to see how the light looked on the landscape. I got a few B-roll shots but that was dumb. I should have just absorbed every second of the corona. Before I knew it Joanne yelled, “Look, the diamond ring!” I got the shot of the sun beaming around the orb of the moon and then the corona was gone. I think I experienced solar/lunar postpartum depression for a minute. It was the quickest two minutes of my life.
Was the eclipse a life changing event? I’m reminded of the saying, “Life is 95% anticipation.” I’m not sure I have the makeup to do anything else but anticipate, prodigiously anticipate. In light of the Great Eclipse of 2017 there was an overabundance of anticipation. It was like this event was childhood Christmas and December was 50 years long. That is a lot of anticipation for a two minute rush but one thing I can say about the totality is, “That sucker went fast!” And as I get older I can definitely say that about the last few years…maybe about life in general. “This sucker is going fast!”
The cosmos whirls around and puts on its show whether or not we are paying attention and I fear all to often we are not. Carl Sagan said, “We are all star stuff.” Buddhists teach living in the moment because that’s all there really is. I think somewhere in all this lies life changing stuff. Maybe anticipate less and slow down more to experience all those little bits of the cosmos that surround us; family, friends, art and nature. In all our too few moments, maybe this is the lesson of the eclipse.