Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Great American Eclipse - how we found the perfect spot to see the total solar eclipse 2017

Most of the travel I do is in search of food. However - and I may have mentioned this before - my husband is the very opposite of a foodie, so when we travel together, I throw all my expectations of food out the window. It helps that usually we're going somewhere super interesting, and this time it was to see the total eclipse.

The Great American Eclipse, as it was called, was indeed pretty great for the US, because it basically crossed the entire country, west to east, and it's rare for totality to be seen on land (as 70% of the earth is water, a lot of times total eclipses happen over the sea and it's hard to catch them), let alone a country that is so relatively accessible by roads.

The thin band where one could see the total eclipse (ie. total obscurity - the moon completely covering the sun) is called the path of totality, and you can see an animation of it here:

For the purposes of this story, one point in particular is worth noting: Casper.

Before departing for the US, we had planned to see the eclipse on Casper, Wyoming, a town that is pretty much right on the path of totality. We had assessed it for possibility for cloud cover and general weather conditions, and it looked like a good bet. A lot of space geeks and meteorologists were planning on going there for the same reasons. What we didn't expect, but learned quickly once we arrived in the US, was that summer is the season of forest fires, and Casper was covered in smoke. Luckily, we booked a night in a small town east of Yellowstone, about 3 hours away from Casper, with easy access to highways, so we had options for alternative viewing locations if we needed them. And boy, did we...

On the morning of the eclipse (actually I couldn't sleep, it was 2am), I checked the weather reports for a few areas on our viewing shortlist. It looked like Shoshoni, the town west of Casper, was also beginning to get smoky, no thanks to winds blowing the smoke westward. So we decided to leave ASAP (we were pulled over for zipping out of Shoshoni a little too quickly, but thank you officer, for letting us go with a warning) to go even further west and get ahead of the smoke - the target being the viewing areas in the Grand Tetons, close to Jackson.

This picture is taken in Wind River Reservation, west of Casper as we were going full throttle (at legal speed, ahem) west out of Shoshoni
With internet being largely unavailable (thanks Verizon, for data coverage maps that turned out to be a total lie), we couldn't get weather updates, so had to be palaeolithic humans again and rely on our senses (I think I literally said out loud, "ok, let's think, what did people do before smartphones?" I was sleepy and frazzled), as well as stopping at the occasional petrol station to talk to strangers to share intel - it was safe to assume that anyone driving a non-commercial vehicle in the dead of night along this stretch of the US Route 26 was there to see the eclipse.

Crossing into Idaho
When we got to Grand Tetons, the viewing areas were jam packed (it was around 7.30am, and the eclipse was due to start around 10am, with the total eclipse happening around 11.30am), and there were still clouds lingering above us. In the back of my mind, I'd had Victor, Idaho, a town just west of Jackson, past the mountain ranges, as a backup plan. When we got data (which was very difficult, because middle-of-nowhere America and again, Verizon's totally inaccurate coverage maps), I searched the observatory's latest reports for Victor, and it reported "sunny and clear", so onwards we went, and crossed the state line into Idaho.

At the main cross streets of Victor, Idaho. Even on eclipse day, it was pretty chill!
We arrived in the small city of Victor, Idaho, population around 1900, at around 9am, thinking we'd have to just pull over a side street, but then G spotted a library, and at the back of the library was a park.

Victor City Park, Idaho, where we chose to end our 6-hour search for an eclipse viewing spot.
We could see some locals beginning to set up picnics, and viewing such a spectacle with other people was going to be much more fun than just the two of us pulling off a dirt road, so we knew this was it.

A little Instagram story of the park
It was a fantastic open space, lush with grass, no clouds, no crowds - we couldn't have picked a better spot. (Later when we were leaving, we spotted some astronomy enthusiasts in another patch of the park behind us, which validated our choice of location *fist pump*)

The closest I got to totality because I was too busy watching when it happened...
While we didn't get any photos of totality, we did set things up to get a rough video of the crowd's reactions, which you can check out at the top of the blog. You can also see the change in levels of light - you don't get darkness unless the eclipse is total. The sky changes colour really only at over 90% obscurity, which is why partial eclipses are nothing compared to total - it looks like sunset, except, it's a 360-degree sunset, up to the point where it eventually gets completely dark, and it suddenly gets really cold. The total eclipse lasted for around 2.5 minutes, but it was so amazing to watch, it felt like 10 seconds.

It's the first time I've had the feeling that I really live in the solar system that I learned about in school, and thinking about it still feels surreal.

I might write a post about what we ate along the way. After all, we did design a 2.5-week road trip based on these 2.5 minutes...

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