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Me and Annie Dillard and the Total Eclipse of 2017

September 2, 2017

Once upon a time, I read an essay about a total solar eclipse.

That piece of writing not only changed my life, but also the two generations that follow me, because it emboldened me to plan a road trip of astronomical importance a few weeks ago . . . and drag along my daughter and her family (which includes two of my grandkids, hence the “two generations” brag/apology).

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Blake and YaYa whiling away the miles on the way to the ECLIPSE, courtesy of YouDoodle.

The life-changing essay? “Total Eclipse” by Annie Dillard (who for purposes of brevity and aesthetic distance will hereafter referred to as AD), first published in 1982 . . . an essay (ostensibly) about a Feb. 26, 1979 eclipse that AD witnessed in Washington State.

(See http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/05/books/bk-ulin5 for a not-so-news-flash recounting of how AD massaged key “cat facts” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to suit her artistic intent. Here’s another one, complete with post-blog comments: http://coyot.es/crossing/2004/01/12/dillards-cat/)

(Thus am I skeptical if she did indeed witness any sort of eclipse on 2/26/79, because, according to Weather Underground, “The path of this rare wintertime total eclipse coursed across Washington State, northern Idaho, and Montana before entering Canada from extreme northwest North Dakota. A large Pacific storm was affecting the region, and the sun was never clearly visible along the route.”)

Harrumph. Having got all that writerly envy/angst out of my system, I continue with my long-winded (but breathing only through its nose, as Scott Jurek would recommend) introduction to my 2017 eclipse adventure.

I’ve re-printed below (in red) major sections of AD’s iconic eclipse essay (say that fast three times), recently re-published online by The Atlantic as part of the media feeding frenzy leading up to Aug. 21, 2017. 

So we’re workin’ with two threads here, folks:

#1: An undetermined number of years ago, I read AD’s essay (remember: those are the words in RED below) and was stunned by her vividly stunning prose about how she was vividly stunned by the stunningly visceral (and vivid!) experience.

Which leads to #2: Almost two years ago, after a Grand Canyon hiking companion mentioned an upcoming total eclipse in North America, I jumped into research mode and began making plans to witness the sky show no matter what (with the unstated/underlying expectation I would then compose my own stunning prose about the experience, AD-style).

Hmm. How was I to know the opening day of my university’s fall semester would fall on the same Monday as the eclipse? Like any sane person, I quit my 20-year career as an English professor teaching creative writing and made darn sure I would be far to the north in the path of totality on 8/21/17. Preferably with grandkids.

Hmmmmmm. Now I have no steady job; nothing stands between me & the challenge of attempting to out-Dillard AD at the eclipse essay game.

So what follows below is some quick word-blurting created eight days after I returned home from a 12-day eclipse road trip with my husband and our daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons in our custom-camper-fancy1972 Dodge van (the last two days especially memorable due to the van’s kaputt A/C system).

In the interest of timeliness & laziness (as mentioned previously, I am now retired/unemployed, and there are SO MANY trails that need running around here!), and to get this piece of writing out of the realm of “I really should write something” into the annals of “Yay. I just wrote something,” I’ve used AD’s extremely deep thoughts (in red) to kickstart my own shallow reactions.

Here we go:

“To put ourselves in the path of the total eclipse, that day we had driven five hours inland from the Washington coast, where we lived. ”

(Remember: all this stuff in RED is COPIED from AD’s 1982 essay. End of plagiarism disclosures.)

Unlike AD’s mere five-hour trek, my own eclipse journey found me & the fam driving for ten days, starting  way down south in Orange, CA. North we trundled along Interstate 15, visiting hot springs/geysers/museums/rivers/friends along the way. After pausing several fun-filled days in Bozeman, MT, on Eclipse Eve Day at 11 am we finally headed east on Interstate 90, then south on Highway 310 along two-lane Wyoming roads through the Sunday-afternoon-empty main streets of Lovell, Greybull, Worland, Thermopolis, Shoshone . . . 

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What Mapquest had optimistically labeled a 6.75-hour drive took us a full ten hours in our overloaded rig, a bloated tub-of-a-van stuffed with six people and two weeks worth of camping gear/food/clothes/ukulele AND guitar  . . .  so much STUFF piled in and strapped onto our rumbling, lumbering wanna-be RV.

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August 20, 9 pm. Eclipse Eve, hurtling through the inky Wyoming night, very close to the belly button of nowhere on Hwy. 20, daunted by the miles of blinking signs: “NO ECLIPSE PARKING ALONG HIGHWAY.” Our BLM website directions said 6.5 miles east of Natrona. But Natrona is not even a town, and our van’s tires were not original-sized, making the van’s odometer a bit removed from reality (no metaphors here; keep moving, folks).

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East of Shoshone: Wyoming sunset magic.

Finally: in the dark off to the left: a string of lights crawling perpendicular to the highway, the only way we would ever have noticed the Goldeneye Reservoir turnoff, since the sign was tiny, unlit, and set far enough off the highway to make sure no-one from California who’d been driving for ten days would notice it.

A “picnic area” for day use only, Goldeneye Reservoir appeared on Mapquest as Burlington Lake. So that’s not confusing. Which made me suspicious if this REALLY was the place that the BLM had designated for free eclipse-only overnight parking (kind of hard to call this camping after a glorious three days in the Gallatin National Forest along the Madison River near West Yellowstone).

9 pm in Wyoming in late August = very very very darkness of nightness. A fine situation to pitch a tent in a ground-hugging prickly pear cactus patch. But it got done. (Just not by me.) Thus endeth Eclipse Eve.

Early the next morning we checked out. It was February 26, 1979, a Monday morning.

That’s weirdly cool! Our 2017 eclipse happened on a Monday morning as well! What are the odds?! (But see April 8, 2024, as the Freaky Eclipse Monday Sequence continues.) 

We would drive out of town, find a hilltop, watch the eclipse, and then drive back over the mountains and home to the coast.

Good for you and your five-hour drive, AD. We had a much more ambitious itinerary; all the pre-eclipse sightseeing (including two days touring some of Yellowstone Park’s wonders) followed by a visit to the Durham Ranch in east central Wyoming where my brother had worked in the 1990s-2000s–and where we’d taken our kids (and finally just ourselves when our kids all grew past family road trips) for summer vacations many of those years.

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We spent one chilly morning enjoying the thermal wonders of Yellowstone National Park. My daughter and her oldest sun are both fine photographers.

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The falls of Yellowstone! Yikes!

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Everywhere we went: signs of the coming Eclipse-pocalypse!

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The Madison River is warmed by nearby thermal activity and therefore amazing to play in.

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I had never heard of Bozeman Beach before. Apparently not too many other folks have, either. (If this fun & free place were in Orange County, it would be wall-to-wall recreationists.)

(And now back to your regularly scheduled eclipse tale.)

It was dawn when we found a highway out of town and drove into the unfamiliar countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of cirrostratus clouds in the sky.

Later the rising sun would clear these clouds before the eclipse began. We drove at random until we came to a range of unfenced hills.

Unfamiliar countryside: check.

Cirrostratus clouds: check. (All morning long these created a lovely gauzy complement to the solar shenanigans.)

Driving at random: nope. We were a bit limited by virtue of cattle grazing rights/fences and our heavy van’s lack of off-road suitability. The best we could do was wobble down off the edge of the raised gravel road a few yards into the grass/cactus scrub pasture.

(Did somebody say, “Cirro-stratus”?!)

We pulled off the highway, bundled up, and climbed one of these hills.

No need to bundle up. Mid-August in Wyoming = quite pleasant morning temps, TYVM (Thank You Very Much).

The hill was 500 feet high.

I’d wished for–hoped for–longed for–a 500-foot high hill like AD had found. Dreamed of it, so that we could witness the moonshadow racing across the landscape, a shadow whose description (thanks AD) had got me stirred up all those many years ago and eager to someday witness it myself. Dang. No such luck at Goldeneye.

Long winter-killed grass covered it, as high as our knees.

No hill, but we did have tawny late-summer grass (with its itchy seed heads) to contend with in our summer shorts, along with the previously mentioned low-growing prickly pear, which caused me not a little consternation since I hated to spoil a good eclipse by having to wear shoes.

We passed clumps of bundled people on the hillside who were setting up telescopes and fiddling with cameras.

Oh yes . . . the clumps of people. We weren’t the only thrifty travelers who thought that $150 to park for the day in the parking lot of the Casper, WY, Events Center was a little ridic.

As the moon (apparently a slow eater) continued to nibble on the sun for brunch, I took a meander around the sudden campground; plenty of folks were clumped around big ol’ telescopes pointed up at the soon-to-be-devoured sun. Ah, space nerds, I salute you. (Along with Stephen Colbert, who said this: “NASA scientists have discovered a new form of life. Unfortunately, it won’t date them either.”) 

Directly behind us was more sky, and empty lowlands blued by distance, and Mount Adams. Mount Adams was an enormous, snow-covered volcanic cone rising flat, like so much scenery.

We had no Mount Adams, just the endless rolling Wyoming high prairie and even-more-endless Wyoming sky. A different kind of beauty, appreciated more by connoisseurs of steppe than fans of crags.

Now the sun was up.

Yes, it was. With our eclipse scheduled (how do they KNOW THIS STUFF?!) for just before noon, we had plenty of time for the kids to sleep in (a byproduct of some other genetic material, not mine; I’d been up since before daylight) as well as time to make a big ol’ eclipse breakfast: scrambled eggs, Costco nitrate-free Canadian bacon, TJs gluten free (i.e. mostly sugar) pancake mix, along with fresh (hopefully local) peaches from the Bozeman grocery store.

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The last one up (always) 8-year-old Blake, acted a little skittish right out of the gate; he is not much for out-of-the ordinary (i.e. scary) movies and/or natural phenomena, and the whole eclipse buildup (The sun’s gonna disappear! Yay!) had been freaking him out more and more as the day had approached.

More people were parking near the highway and climbing the hills. It was the West. All of us rugged individualists were wearing knit caps and blue nylon parkas. People were climbing the nearby hills and setting up shop in clumps among the dead grasses. It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day.

Oh yeah. All us rugged individualists. Or not. This scene seemed more alongs the lines of . . . an AARP concert without a main stage? A family reunion without name-tags, so everyone was just kind of wandering around?

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It looked as though we had all crawled out of spaceships and were preparing to assault the valley below.

I beg to differ, AD. It’s Aug. 21, 2017, in the hills west of Casper, WY, where a bunch of people have crawled out of their RVs and SUVs and Subarus, not spaceships. (Disclaimer: I am no AD when it comes to crazy simile. But I can rhyme at unfortunate times.)

It looked as though we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone stelae in a ring.

Again: I got nothin’ like this.

I did, however, try to take pictures to show how many people there were, but everyone was spread out over the mile of entrance road leading to the circular parking lot that bordered the reservoir and that the web site said held 130 vehicles . . . all lined with docile revelers.

There was no place out of the wind.

A natural wonder almost equal to a total eclipse: even though we were a mile high out on the wide-open/treeless plains, no relentless Wyoming wind tugged at all the tents and awnings decorating the prairie . . . . just a lovely breeze to carry away the dust from late-arriving folks.

The straw grasses banged our legs.

Hindsight (and the Urban Dictionary) make this seem like an unfortunate verb choice in 2017. To keep the horny pasture plants at bay, we spread out a 12×12 blue tarp under the Easy Up and then retreated to the sky (or at least the sturdy van roof viewing platform).

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Approaching totality . . . the light was weird!

It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker.

Talk about well advertised! The media circus had been grinding along for weeks, so much so that at times, toward the end, I almost lost my eclipse mojo and considered staying home out of the doomsday crowds/traffic jams/gasoline-and-food shortages predicted by our media compadres.

I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welders’ goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky.

Huh. Welder’s goggles would have made perfect sense (being married to a welder for 41 years and all that), but our daughter had seen fit to order six pairs of Eclipse Glasses on Amazon about a month before the shortages hit amidst news hysteria about “fake glasses” that would not protect anyone’s sun-lovin’ eyes.

The previous day, our Bozeman friends had mentioned the difficulty in obtaining any (fake OR real) dark glasses at such a late date, so we left them a couple of pairs: one for the adorable Poppy to watch the eclipse, and the other to try to sell for $50 on Craigslist. You never know how desperate those wealthy Bozemaniacs might get.

The hill was 500 feet high.

Our van perch . . . not so much. Maybe 8 feet above the prairie. Just enough to widen our perspective, but . . . dang . . . I sure would have liked a bleepin’ HILL.

Up in the sky where we stood the air was lusterless yellow. To the west the sky was blue. Now the sun cleared the clouds. We cast rough shadows on the blowing grass; freezing, we waved our arms. Near the sun, the sky was bright and colorless. There was nothing to see.

I don’t know, AD . . . there’s always SOMETHING to see: the people, for one thing. From our van perch we could see all the different rituals playing out: arm selfies and stick selfies and group portraits and telescope peering and the nearby family of five looking cool in their dark glasses kicked back next to their rented RV in camping chairs just. Staring. At the sun.

Sheesh. No matter how much I trusted my Verified Amazon Purchase Eclipse Glasses, I just could not bring myself to take more than quick glimpses up at the dark bite being nibbled into a thing we’ve been told all our lives NOT TO STARE AT.

A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky.

How cool was this?! Now the grandkids were getting into it, although the eight-year-old had an initial bit of coordination difficulty and would take off his glasses while his head was still in tilt-back position. And of course my subsequent threats of impending blindness probably did not enhance his eclipse comfort level. The ten-year-old, however, was really diggin’ it, almost bragging: “Oops! I forgot to tilt my head down again! Now I see a bright spot even when I’m not looking at the sun. I’m not going to go blind, am I?” Cue maniacal ten-year-old chuckle . . .

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I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970.

I was 10 years old on March 7, 1970 and on the West Coast, so I don’t really remember this event. It seems that totality stretched from central Mexico up through Florida. Woulda lasted for over three minutes, but apparently it was TOO CLOUDY TO SEE IT in the United States. 

Yay for cloudless Wyo in 2017!

(But . . . I wonder, again, if AD “really” saw a partial eclipse in 1970. That’s the thing about the “creative” aspect of creative nonfiction: once the truth-pact with the reader is broken, a giant wall of skepticism looms from thence forth, calling into question pretty much . . . everything a writer (e.g. AD) claims to be “witness” to. 

It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. During a partial eclipse the sky does not darken—not even when 94 percent of the sun is hidden.

You go, AD! This is what I’d spent the last how many months trying to explain to anyone who would listen back home in Southern California. Didn’t help. But maybe it was a good thing that pretty much everyone local stayed home. Old Goldeneye Reservoir couldn’t have handled my three million Orange County neighbors (not to mention the twelve million just to the north in LaLa Land).

Nor does the sun, seen colorless through protective devices, seem terribly strange. We have all seen a sliver of light in the sky; we have all seen the crescent moon by day. However, during a partial eclipse the air does indeed get cold, precisely as if someone were standing between you and the fire.

Love the simile, AD! We sure did put on our fleecy jackets as the temps plunged and the light grew just . . . plain . . . weird.

Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

Here is the moment I remember in AD’s essay (from my years-ago reading). Then and now, my skeptical self sez a big “Puh-leeze.” And then AD goes on and on in artful (perhaps even a bit over-the-top, to some of us negative Nancy’s) fashion about all the color changes. And So Forth:

I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way galaxies recede to the rim of space. We had all started down a chute of time. God save our life.

(I left out big chunks, but you get her drift. SOMETHING HUUUUGE was happening, dontcha know?)

From all the hills came screams.

Now this was one of the best moments of the eclipse sequence. Because we were in a gathering of hundreds of people clever enough to find a free and unfettered viewing place, because we were all from far away (with license plates from Alaska to Massachusetts) and had made great effort to be exactly here at this exact moment for this exact reason, because all the media hype was wrong about banana shortages in Idaho but exactly right that this was a Big Deal, when totality hit and the light went away and we were all nothing but colorless silhouettes, we all began whooping and hollering like ??? (If I were AD I’d insert the coolest simile ever here, but just imagine a winning three-pointer in the last seconds of the tournament championship, and you’ll hear something similar. But slightly more fun, ’cause nobody had to lose for all of us to have so much to cheer about.)

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Almost totality . . .

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. . . vs. TOTALITY!

We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.

Astronomic histrionics, anyone?

But, yeah, it was pretty cool. So freakin’ cool I wanted to do nothing more than capture it in photos, somehow, some way, even though every amazing situation in my life that I have attempted to digitize has NEVER done the actual event justice.

I still had to try.

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The best my little pocket camera could do. Sigh.

It is a sickness: technological optimism mixed with premature nostalgia (the act of feeling regret about the event’s passing while still in the middle of experiencing it) tainted with self-sabotage . . . for the minute one turns one’s attention from actually experiencing something (all five senses engaged, present in the moment, zen-tastic), when you turn away from the real and toward the digitized/digital/technology-mediated devilish DEVICE. . . you lose everything.

The resulting diminished memory then results in . . . post-eclipse angst that you were fiddling with not one, but two pieces of techno-crap, and neither was properly designed and/or set up to take in an occasion of such (literally, yo!) magnitude.

What now entertains me, though, is replaying my iPad’s inadvertent movie that I made when I somehow hit the “record” button and proceeded to spin in my little circle of interacting with my family up on the van and setting off the timer on my tiny tripod-ed pocket camera. The movie is dizzying only because I am swinging the iPad around with me as I turn to witness the grandkids’ reaction and then swivel back to look at the sun. Which is gone, by the way, and in its place is a thin ring of light that has feather-flares coming off it (The corona. Oddly the same brand name as my high-quality garden shears). In all the flurry, I managed to remember that I could look at it without glasses during totality, so I did, and finally shut my mouth and quit my fidgeting and stared. At the (non)sun.

You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse.

Yes indeedy. And they were nothin’ like my pathetic blurry/grainy images.

All of those photographs were taken through telescopes.

Now she tells me.

(And then follows another of AD’s melodramatic side wanders into the territory of the “mindless dead.” Then her description of going to a restaurant for breakfast after, where everyone was abuzz with “Did you see?”)

My story continues with awe as well: BAM! The minute after totality passed, after the glorious “diamond ring” effect glittered for its few astonishing seconds, after the crowds stopped cheering and the dogs stopped barking and the air started to warm again . . . pretty much immediately the RVs and SUVs and Subarus lined up on the exit road, headed for who knows where, maybe back where their license plates said they belonged (Nebraska to New Mexico), or their next Good Sam Club road trip adventure destination.

It being lunchtime at the Goldeneye Reservoir west of Casper, Wyoming, we fixed us up some chicken sandwiches, and began to wonder: what to do with our barely used eclipse glasses?

AD ends her essay with more facts about the shadow that precedes the eclipse–a shadow we were unfortunate to not observe due to our hill-less vantage point.

This bummed me more than a little, since AD’s powerful description of the shadow racing over the earth’s surface had lodged in my imagination all these many years, and made me hope I would be awed by such a sight as well.

So here’s to another opportunity to see the shadow of the moon race across the Texas plains at lotsa miles per hour (disclaimer: speed varies depending on location: 1502 mph to 2410 mph during the 8/21/17 US eclipse) on April 8, 2024–ANOTHER MONDAY eclipse, with the path of totality stretching from Texas to Maine . . . and up to 4 minutes of darkness on the schedule. (How do they KNOW this stuff?!)

All the red words were excerpted from Dillard’s book The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. Copyright © 2016 by Annie Dillard.

Here’s a PS of photos that didn’t fit into the story above. Happy (Sunny!) Trails!

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Eclipse selfie.

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My daughter and oldest grandson posing for YaYa (that’s me). (Daughter later pointed out the lens cap kind of ruined the newsworthiness of the photo).

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Trail running on one of the many options in Bozeman, MT. Lovely forests, threatened by development. Sound familiar?

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Meanwhile, back at the Durham Ranch: it’s a little dicier to run on the red gravel (“scoria,” a sort of baked clay) that covers many roads in east/central Wyoming . . .

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. . . so I dragged out my Sockwas and cruised for a few amazing miles through the high prairie, startling pronghorn as I loped along at my own YaYa speed.

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Our Bozeman hosts had (among many other fun toys) . . . a SLACKLINE! Another bucket list item, checked. (Photo credit: Tina Davidson . . . thanks!)

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This is one of my favorite images from the entire trip: thousands of folks from all over God’s Green Earth waiting in the hot sun for Old Faithful geyser to erupt. We sauntered up at the last minute and saw the same thing that these folks had waited 90 minutes for . . .

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If you are ever near Wright, WY . . . make sure to stop by the Durham Ranch and take the tour of the bison herd in this nifty little tour bus. Such nice folks! We really appreciated all the hospitality!

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This is how close you can safely get to these historic (and delicious) creatures . . . as long as you stay within arm’s length of the tour bus. (Note the oil rig in the background; energy extraction is a Big Thing in Wyoming, where the tap water is ignitable. Yes, I’ve done that.)

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These monstrous bison patties were an important source of fuel for cooking/heating by the prairie’s earlier inhabitants. They also work for Frisbee/Disc Golf. JK. LOL. 🙂

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Singing “On the Road Again” . . .  with beautifully sunsetted miles to go before we sleep (this night would be in Rock Springs, WY, at the KOA where the manager was AMAZING and kind and helped us out even though it was past 9 pm and the office was closed but she unlocked for us anyway and the bathrooms were spotless and we were gone before dawn the next morning . . . )

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Saying “buh-bye” to Goldeneye. Thanks, BLM, for making a (temporary) place for so many of us to enjoy a truly astronomical spectacle!


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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob G. permalink
    September 13, 2017 6:20 am

    Wow Thea…….some adventure! A little of everything! Personally, bison at close range would have grabbed me more than the eclipse. I’m headed up to Ulster county NY next week to fly fish…just alone with my ghosts. Bean’s rubber mocs and Xero Z-treks will be in the car (hopefully not left on the roof of the car…it’s happened…) other than that, I’ll be the Barefoot Wildman of Route 28…at least for a week or so…(Retirement) peace be with you….Bob G.

    • September 13, 2017 9:49 am

      Thanks for the note . . . I hope you have a wonderful Barefoot Wildman time (before the cold sets in . . . brrr . . . my bare feet aren’t too happy when the temperatures drop). 🙂

  2. September 2, 2017 10:34 pm

    prioritzed

  3. September 2, 2017 10:33 pm

    Great photos! I also priortized getting to totality due to having read Annie Dillard’s essay, and I also watched near Casper Wyoming. Thanks for writing this!

    • September 13, 2017 9:51 am

      I appreciate your taking the time to respond to the essay 🙂 And I’m so glad to hear you made the effort (why didn’t EVERYONE?!) to experience totality! Happy Trails . . .

  4. September 2, 2017 6:28 pm

    It was an amazing experience. Stay tuned for eclipse adventures in 2024…

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