By Sarah Pridgeon
Though Monday’s total eclipse was the first to cross continental America in almost four decades, it’s only been half that long for me. I have experienced the darkness once before in my life, back across the pond on a soggy morning in the south of England.
I wouldn’t have remembered much of the last American eclipse – I hadn’t made it through my first month of life the last time the sun stopped shining over Wyoming. On the other hand, I don’t have fond memories of my British eclipse, which was a roaring disappointment.
Firstly because I wasn’t stationed anywhere near the path of totality (and, as a broke student earning some spending money over the summer, had no real chance of getting to it) and secondly because it happened in England, which meant it was raining, which meant the sky was grey and covered in clouds.
There wasn’t much point wearing fancy eye protection. We all stared upwards, but you’d have been hard pressed to work out where the sun was meant to be, let alone see it through the cloud cover.
Everything went infinitesimally darker for about a minute, then the world went back to normal. That was the sum total of my eclipse-watching experience until this week.
This time around, I booked vacation several months before the big day and marked it in bright red pen on the office calendar. I did my due diligence, figuring out where would be the best place to stand along the path of totality and how the event would unfold.
I even ordered our solar glasses with months to go before we’d need them, knowing they’d cost an arm and a leg if I left it too late. Once again, I did everything properly, checking ISO ratings and other particulars before selecting my choice.
Unfortunately, one week before our adventure, I found out about the epidemic of fake specs. I smugly checked my order to make sure we were on the safe list, only to find they’d been taken down from sale.
I sent a message to the husband in a panic, demanding he stare at a light bulb and tell me whether he could see it. Bemused but accommodating, he did as instructed and reported back that it was shining very brightly and what a lovely clear view we were going to have of the sun. My hopes were dashed.
I was right in thinking that a new set was going to cost me a kidney, if not both. Most vendors had given up selling single pairs and were unloading them by the box – a stack of 100 now seemed to be the norm.
We were not to be dissuaded, however, and an hour or two of searching turned up what appeared to be the last pack of glasses unaccounted for on the entire continent. There was a significant chance they wouldn’t get here on time, but we took the risk regardless and resigned ourselves to spending the rest of the week hitting the refresh button on the order screen.
Meanwhile, I appointed myself the unofficial eyewear monitor and took it upon myself to inspect the glasses of every person I encountered. The eyesight gods approved of my efforts and allowed us to set off on Monday morning with specs in hand (and a cooler full of random food items I’d grabbed from the pantry, just in case of traffic. My husband for some reason found the tinned peaches amusing, probably because I didn’t include a spoon).
Despite the dire warnings from WYDOT, the roads were almost empty all the way to Newcastle. We bumbled along at a perfectly ordinary speed, occasionally being overtaken by panicked tourists from Texas and the Dakotas while the husband muttered about “outlanders” abusing “his” roads.
All went well until we came up against a trail of vehicles that stretched all the way to the horizon, 30 miles outside Lusk. Once again we were fortunate; the standstill lasted just moments before the most cars I’ve ever seen in Wyoming made their merry way into the path of totality.
Most of them, anyway. I can only assume that the families I saw parked at the side of the road a mile or two outside the path were bad at reading maps.
Most were relaxing in lawn chairs with picnics set up nearby, waving and smiling at the passing cars, so they must have been there for quite a while. It tugged my heart to know they’d travelled right across the continent only to miss out by a matter of yards, especially when there was plenty of time left to get closer. I’d have stopped to shriek at them, but the line of cars was moving relentlessly onwards.
Because we are locals, we didn’t head for the jam-packed fairgrounds to stand elbow to elbow with the crowds. Instead, once we’d made it past the harassed-looking cops directing traffic through town, we pulled off on a county road and parked outside a farmhouse.
It was a great spot, despite being within spitting distance of the sort of dilapidated building Hollywood likes to feature in horror movies. On the plus side, we had clear views in every direction and not a soul to interrupt them.
The only sign of civilization, in fact, was the roaring cheer that could be heard for miles around when the moon popped into place and the sky turned dark. The crickets went silent, the temperature plummeted and we stood in a night that shouldn’t have existed, surrounded by sunset as the moon transformed our star into a black hole in the sky. It was truly awe-inspiring
I should note that Lusk itself was taking excellent advantage of the general good mood, with vendors lining the roads selling everything from bottles of water to jewelry. It amused me to see that, much like the Brits, the locals in these parts don’t like to get too wound up things, not even celestial wonders.
A few were stood on their porches, looking up, but none seemed to be frothing with the excitement infecting the visitors. Perhaps my favorite moment of the whole day was on the drive back into town.
There, in his back yard, as the light gradually returned to the world, was a gentleman mowing his lawn. He had neither glasses nor welding mask and was halfway through his task, so he clearly hadn’t stopped to witness the most impressive solar spectacle in his lifetime.
And then it was all over, minutes after it began. It was a long way to go for a split second of awe, but I got my once-in-a-lifetime experience after all. Plus, I brought home two non-fake pairs of glasses to store safely away for the next one.