Before I took off on this trip, I really only had two things that I absolutely planned on doing: take the best photo of the Milky Way I've ever taken, and see the total solar eclipse.
Forgive the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer symbolism, but everything lined up just perfectly for me to see the eclipse.
I planned, re-planned, over-planned, re-over-planned, and finally threw my hands up in the air and hoped for the best. Originally, I was going to put myself in Kentucky for the eclipse because they had the point of longest totality (and bourbon), but then I worried about clouds. I don't think I could face the irony of having the freedom to be ANYWHERE on the path of totality and have it ruined by cloudy weather. Casper, Wyoming boasted the best chances for cloudless skies, so that became the new destination. That also meant I could pick up my mom in Montana and drive down to Wyoming. I figured we could just drive down there on Sunday, find a place to camp overnight, and see the eclipse in the morning. Then, as the day of the eclipse started getting closer, more and more people seemed to be interested in seeing the eclipse. The news made it sound like getting there and back might become an apocalyptic nightmare. AirBnBs were popping up for $1,000 a night. Camping spots were going for $200. I tried to research places that wouldn't be overrun with people where we could park overnight for free without being bothered. That's when I decisively gave up and decided to play it by ear. The final plan: drive south from Montana until we were in the path of totality and then drive west until we found a suitable place to stop. With my plans as final as I was going to get them, I made a quick loop out to Seattle and Portland to visit some friends and headed back to Montana.
Now, I come by my love of road trips honestly. My mom and I set aside a whole day for road trip errands: getting snacks and PB&J fixings, building a road trip playlist, clearing out space in the van, making sure the dog had water and food and toys, etc. You know, all of the things that are more important than knowing where you're going to be sleeping the next couple nights.
We hit the road Sunday morning, topped off the gas, and started driving south to Idaho. Once we entered the path of totality, we started seeing RVs huddling in patches of gravel just a little ways off the road. The gas was down to about half a tank, so we stopped off for another refill. I checked an app on my phone which said we were well in the path of totality. I started considering pulling into one of these spots off the side of the road. They didn't seem to be horribly crowded, they were near the road, and most importantly, we could get home easily without refueling if the media was right and things turned to a dystopian Mad Max survivalist scenario overnight.
After driving through Mud Lake, which seemed alternately inviting and unwelcoming to eclipse visitors, we saw another patch of gravel with a handful of RVs parked there. We decided to pull in and see if we could stay there.
It turned out to be BLM land (read: 100% free and legal for us to camp there). Not only that, but the people who were already there were friendly and welcoming, and the owners of two RVs let me squeeze into a space between them. It was a perfect fit. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had also backed into the perfect viewing spot. The back of the van was facing east, and there was just enough space before the expanse of scrub brush for me to set up my hammock and a chair for my mom.
I ended up sleeping in the hammock that night, staring up at the stars. Everyone else around us had gone inside, my mom and Ollie had headed into the van to sleep, and as the sky got darker and I could see the Milky Way again, I felt like I had the entire expanse of the night sky to myself.
I woke up to the sun rising. In the night, more cars had come to park on the side of the road, but still off in the distance. Nothing to get in our way or block our view. The haze from the wildfires had died down. The few clouds that had hung around at sunrise evaporated quickly, the sky was completely clear, and would stay that way for the entire morning. It was perfect.
We all waited, expectantly, for the eclipse to start. None of us had ever seen one before. At first contact, we put our eclipse glasses on and looked at the sun. We watched the moon take bigger bites out of the sun for the next hour or so. We saw the sky get darker and turn to lavender. We felt the temperature drop from a warm summer day to downright cold.
That's when shit got weird.
When the sun was just a sliver, I started looking for shadow bands. I had heard about them, and heard they don't always show up. I looked on the back of my van and wished that I had washed off the dirt. Luckily, I went a bit further, and saw the wriggling, snaky shadows rippling across the side of my van. I think I audibly gasped. Or swore. I wouldn't be surprised if I even squeaked. I called everyone over to check them out. I think I was the only person who had heard of them, so I felt like I got to share something cool and unexpected with everyone else.
I turned back to look at everyone and realized just how dark it had gotten. We were about to hit totality.
There is nothing like totality. No amount of research I could have done could have prepared me. Even if I hadn't dismissed all the stories that said it was a life-changing event, I still wouldn't have been prepared. Once we hit totality, I could hear everyone in the area let out whatever their personal sound of delight was. Some people shouted with joy, some people squealed. My mom howled at the moon. I laughed, uncontrollably.
I felt transported to another world for a little over two minutes. The entire horizon looked like a sunset. The sun's corona floated away from it in three wisps. I could see Venus, and then I realized the small dot by the sun must be Mercury. It was magic.
After the fastest two minutes and fourteen seconds in my life, the second diamond ring showed up, and we had to put our solar glasses back on. I said, "do it again!" to the universe. It did not oblige. I would have given anything for another eclipse at that moment.
At this point, you might be expecting pictures that I took. Sorry. I never took out my camera for the entire trip. I didn't forget, it was a conscious decision. I didn't want to be distracted, and I am so, so, so, so, so (so many 'so's) glad. I absolutely made the right decision. Just google "solar eclipse", my pictures wouldn't have looked much different.
Shortly after totality, people started packing up and hitting the road. Within half an hour, the highway going east to I-15 was at a complete standstill. I leisurely packed up the hammock, said goodbye and exchanged emails with the new friends we had made, and very happily drove west, past the growing line of completely stopped cars. For the entire ride home, there was no traffic to speak of. We made it back in about two hours and some change.
I can't imagine a single thing that could have gone better.