Traveling to the 2017 solar eclipse in Jackson, Wyoming, required a herculean planning effort. Now that it is over, was it worth all the hassle? Here is an account of my four-day journey to the eclipse. You can read more details about my planning process here.
Friday, August 18, 2017
4:00 AM Why are my husband and I awake at 4:00 AM to catch a flight to watch a 2.5-minute total eclipse? Seriously, who thought this was a good idea?
10:35 AM My brother and 16-year-old nephew meet us at the rental car counter at the Salt Lake City airport, the closest airport we could afford near Wyoming. My nephew is concerned about skipping two days of school for this adventure. I patiently explain that the eclipse is way more fun than high school.
10:36 AM I realize that my brother has a bad cold. He says he will be fine for the eclipse. He is “past the fever stage.” I buy him a box of kleenex. He says he needs a bigger box of kleenex. I remember with horror that we are sharing a hotel room with him.
10:40 AM The rental car counter is overwhelmed. This is Utah, so everyone is cheerful about the chaos. Every traveler in the airport is wearing the eclipse uniform: backpacks, hiking boots and ridiculously expensive hiking pants.
2:45 PM On our road trip to Jackson, Wyoming, I make us pull off the highway to follow signs for “Historic Downtown” Pocatello, Idaho. Downtown boasts both an upscale wine bar and “Old Town Gunslingers,” which bills itself as your “2nd Amendment Supply Store.” Ah, America!
7:00 PM I ask a restaurant hostess in Driggs, Idaho, if she has a table for four. She said she will not have a table until Tuesday, four days later.
9:00 PM As we pull up to our shared, one-room cottage in Jackson Lake Lodge in Wyoming, my nephew casually mentions my brother’s horrendous snoring problem. Um, what?
Saturday, August 19, 2017
7:30 AM I walk into the lodge lobby, and the view of the Grand Teton National Park is incredible. I almost stop resenting the special eclipse room rate of $400-per-night.
7:35 AM Since money seems to have no value anymore, I book a $337 ticket to a pre-eclipse party hosted by the Wyoming Stargazing Society. An astronaut will be at the party. He will take a picture with me and then marry me. I mean, he will sign an autograph for me.
9:00 AM My group takes a hike in Grand Teton National Park. I wear a bear bell to scare away bears. My husband says he would rather be eaten by a bear than listen to my bell all day. I respond by shaking my bell extra hard at him.
12:00 PM My nephew casually remarks that my brother forgot his “coyote whacking stick” for our hike. Um, what?
6:00 PM Downtown Jackson is filled with energetic people who are in town for the eclipse. At this point, I realize that the eclipse is a giant party for people who believe that science is a real thing. I buy a Jackson Hole Eclipse t-shirt to mark the occasion.
6:15 PM We strike up conversations easily, and meet a delightful couple from Austin, Texas. The 2024 eclipse zone of totality will go straight through their front lawn. We invite ourselves to their house in Austin for the 2024 eclipse. We all laugh, but they seem worried that we might be serious. We are serious.
7:00 PM My nephew, brother and I attend the Wyoming Stargazing pre-eclipse party on Snow King Summit in Jackson. My husband refuses to buy a ticket. I warn him about my marrying-an-astronaut plan, but he is willing to take that risk to enjoy a few hours without my family.
11:00 PM Tonight has been thrilling. I meet astronaut Scott Altman and his charming wife; view the skies of Wyoming from telescopes manned by brilliant Harvard University astronomy students; and hear a riveting lecture from astrobiologist David Grinspoon. Throughout the evening, we gain a greater understanding of totality — the 2.5 minutes of total eclipse that we are about to collectively experience. In a Jackson Hole Daily newspaper article that morning, Dr. Grinspoon is quoted as saying, “It’s like the veil comes off the heavens for a minute.”
Sunday, August 20, 2017
7:30 AM The mood in Jackson is a bit grim. All week, the meteorologists have been predicting partly cloudy skies during the eclipse. People have traveled here from all over the world to see the 2.5 minutes of totality that allow you to view the eclipse with the naked eye. These are the pivotal moments in an eclipse that will be ruined by clouds. The forecasters warn Jackson visitors to consider an alternate viewing plan–perhaps driving to western Idaho or Casper, Wyoming, where clear skies are practically guaranteed?
10:30 AM My brother refuses to hear any negative news about the weather. He is in denial, and loudly tells me to stop jinxing the eclipse. We take another hike.
7:00 PM Downtown Jackson is less crowded and has less energy than Saturday night. I believe, but cannot confirm, that people have departed for other viewing locations. Due to the logistics of our flights home, we are stuck in Jackson, clouds and all.
11:30 PM I check Monday’s weather one more time, and clouds are in the forecast. This whole eclipse adventure started as a lark for me. It was a fun way to spend time with my brother, who is a serious astronomy enthusiast. Now I care deeply. I don’t sleep much, because I worry about the clouds.
Monday, August 21, 2017
4:30 AM Eclipse miracle! After a week of bad news, the forecast suddenly shows clear skies all morning. I am jubilant.
5:50 AM We are packed and ready to go. We head to our eclipse viewing site, and give ourselves three hours to drive 25 miles. This allows us to be calm when a woman creates a traffic jam taking photographs of a moose. Nonetheless, I am afraid she will be attacked by a rabid, eclipse mob.
6:30 AM The pull-outs in the national park are already filled with cars. The anticipation is palpable.
7:00 AM We arrive! Have I mentioned that our pre-designated eclipse viewing site is a party sponsored by the Four Seasons Hotel? The Four Seasons has rented out a restaurant at the top of a mountain, and the Four Seasons chefs will be serving breakfast and mimosas. We will be watching the eclipse on a patio overlooking the valley. An astrophysicist will talk us through the entire experience. No, I am not wealthy. We have just lost our minds over this eclipse.
7:30 AM We are snugly seated around a fire pit drinking hot cocoa and coffee at the Four Seasons waiting to go up the mountain. Deciding you don’t care about your budget is really fun.
9:30 AM The astronomers on top of the mountain have set up solar telescopes for us. To pass time until the eclipse begins, my husband and brother torture the polite astronomers by asking them the following questions:
“Where did you get your astrology degree?”
“Can you explain how the solar flares are causing global warming?”
“Are you for or against Pluto?”
“But, how can that be true if the world is only 5,000 years old?” Asked in a dead-pan voice after an astronomer discusses geologic activity that took place 50,000 years ago.
10:00 AM I discover these shenanigans and apologize to the astronomers. The astronomers are so thrilled about the eclipse that we are easily forgiven. They, too, could not sleep last night.
11:00 AM The eclipse, which began at 10:17 AM is getting serious. The light begins to fade, the temperature drops, and shadows become strange. Ryan Hennessy, our astrophysicist, explains what is happening. He is excited as we draw nearer to the total eclipse, and this excitement is overwhelmingly contagious.
11:25 AM We stop taking pictures. We settle in to watch the transition to totality. It is getting dark. We need our coats.
11:35 AM Totality arrives.
An eclipse that covers 80% of the sun is fascinating, but the way we fundamentally experience the world does not change with a partial eclipse. In contrast, a total eclipse is transformational. People struggle to explain the phenomenon of totality, because the right words do not exist in our human experience. For the 2.5 minutes of totality, my world stops. It simply stops.
Seeing totality is a privilege. A gift. I have never witnessed anything more spectacular. You must see it for yourself to understand. I cannot explain it to you, and none of the descriptions I have read are adequate. If you are reading this, I hope you will do whatever it takes to view a total solar eclipse.
Here is what I can tell you: In ancient times, solar eclipses caused fear, because people had no idea what was happening. Now that I have seen totality, I can imagine the stark terror of those moments. Thanks to our scientists, this fear has been replaced in the modern age by joy. At the moment of totality, you will experience euphoria and awe. You will shout in delight and possibly cry. You become part of a community of people who are forever changed by what they have seen.
So, back to the question at hand. Was this eclipse worth the hassle, the planning, and the expense?
I think you know the answer.