My wife is an amazing person for many reasons, but perhaps most notably for her ability to appreciate and encourage my need for geekery and adventure. So when a couple of years ago I started talking up this ‘eclipse thing’ and how a trip to see it had to happen, she didn’t bat an eyelash. “Sounds cool” she said but was fine hanging out at home for a couple of days while I disappeared into the Wyoming wilderness to chase an incredible display of nature. The light would be on when I got back. Win! And so it was off to Jackson Hole.
The morning of the eclipse began with my eyes snapping open at 3:30am. What was that sound? Cars. Hundreds of cars. From inside my tent I could hear doors closing and engines revving, a mass exodus heading south out of Yellowstone. I threw on some pants and a hat and rushed to the car with my two friends who had come along for the trip. It was like a scene out of ‘Field of Dreams’ as a constant stream of headlights lit the road out of the park and toward the path of totality. Fortunately, we got out in time. Traffic was heavier than any of the grizzly bears or elk had ever witnessed in Yellowstone at 3:30 in the morning, but it was moving. The chase was underway.
What does it take to chase an eclipse? Most importantly, some long range planning. And thanks to some brilliant astronomers and mathematicians we can do that. Eclipses can be predicted well into the future, down to a second or so. There’s plenty of time to scheme, and my preparations started about a year ago. That’s when I booked a campsite in Yellowstone, and I was almost too late. Even one year out every single hotel and motel and Airbnb and resort was sold out in Jackson Hole. Ranches throughout the Tetons too. Even Yellowstone was nearly all booked up, so I felt fortunate to at least get a site there. Plus, it’s Yellowstone! Great place to burn a couple days before an eclipse.
Probability of cloud coverage for the eclipse time frame. Source: Brian Brettschneider
It also takes a little research. Thanks to climatology, we have a pretty good idea about the chances of clear skies. For August, the west was best. Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming had the highest odds in the country. Anyone who’s visited the Jackson area knows it is truly one of the most spectacular landscapes in the United States and I felt that it offered some of the best viewing possible. Imagine the first eclipse chasers in the 1800s that spent weeks or months traveling by boat, train, and any other means to get to a spot! There was no last minute drive to clear skies option. Astronomers from Massachusetts might go to China for an eclipse, and then have it rain. I cannot imagine the heartbreak. Fortunately climatology came through this time around! Skies were completely crystal clear on the morning of August 21st.
Finally, you need to decide your viewing situation. In a crowd? Share the experience with hundreds or thousands? Or try to escape to solitude? (Increasingly difficult). I chose the latter. Looking at maps and sniffing around online, I settled on a peak. Just east of Jackson stands Mt. Leidy, a pointy mountaintop at 10,326 feet. Why this peak out of so many? I figured few would take the trouble to drive outside of Jackson, then along 18 miles of dirt road, to get to the trailhead. Plus, it offered full 360 degree views to see the shadow coming and going, not to mention the sunlight still coming down along the edge of the shadow. And being two miles up would take some atmosphere out of the equation and hopefully any wildfire smoke as well. A clearer sky than at sea level.
Here is me trying not to throw up (a little afraid of heights at times) atop the very narrow Mt. Leidy
But when we got to the woods of the Mount Leidy Highlands, we were surprised to see tent after tent dotting the landscape. Around every bend there seemed to be another set up next to a car in a field, along a pond, or at the forest’s edge. We were going to have a little more company than expected. We arrived at the Mt. Leidy trailhead by sunrise and had time to spare before the climb. A chance to catch our breath, have some coffee, and reset the day. A pair of black bears ambled up the ridgeline without much of an idea of what lay ahead.
Our fears of a crowded summit, thankfully, did not come to fruition. By the time we reached the top around 915am, only two people were there to greet us. When ‘first contact,’ the moment the moon’s shadow first kisses the edge of the sun, came to pass about an hour later the crowd had grown to near 30. But no more. A few dozen souls and three dogs would claim this site with the Tetons flanking the view to the west, Yellowstone to the north, and Shoshone National Forest to the east. The Wyoming sky sprawled out in all directions – well worth the hike even without an eclipse.
It was about 30 minutes before totality that things started to feel a little ‘off.’ The light around us took on an odd look…a slight dimming that was barely discernible but something inside the brain registered it as being abnormal. That was the state of affairs until just a few minutes before totality, and that’s when time started to move awfully fast. A chill came over everyone as the temperature began to drop. Winter hats and fleeces were donned. And it was during the final two minutes that you simply did not know where to look. The shadow began to appear in the western sky, blanketing the Tetons in darkness. Stars and planets began to pop overhead. The temperature continued to fall. And then the umbra washed over us like a tidal wave. I heard my friend yell out ‘look at that!’ and after quickly ripping off my eclipse glasses I was treated to an otherworldly sight.
Many talk about how difficult it is to explain the experience of a total solar eclipse. One minute you have the sun. The next, there is a black dot in the sky with the most brilliant white wisps of light flowing around it. And that’s what hit me the most. The clarity and vibrant nature of the sky in that moment. The moon was the blackest black, the corona of the sun the sharpest white, the sky itself and most vivid bluish-black. And sunset all around. Being on a summit and seeing for dozens of miles in all directions, you could what appeared to be an end-of-the-day glow along the edges of the umbra. It was during this period that time moved most quickly. We were treated to over two minutes of totality but it seemed mere seconds. I tried to absorb all that was on display but before I knew it I glanced over my shoulder and saw the Tetons were already awash in sunlight. Looking back at the sun, a rim of bright red began to appear. It was the chromosphere, a complex zone of plasma and magnetic field that transmits energy between the photosphere (what we typically see of the sun from earth) and the corona. It’s also a sign that things are coming to an end.
The view during totality from Mt. Leidy. Photo by James Ohliger
Then it was over. The light switch flipped on and the world returned to its midday shine. That’s when you truly understand why it’s emphatically advised to get into the path of totality, and that 99% will not do. The difference is so great between the two, it is literally night and day. Everyone looked around bewildered and exhilarated…several unable to find words for a few moments. You know the moon is out there. You know the sun is out there. You know that they’re both massive and that their paths somehow manage to perfectly cross. But knowing and experiencing are two different things, and there was certainly a new appreciation for how small things are on our little rock in space.
Is it worth it? 100 times yes. Will you need to travel to see one? Most likely. The odds of seeing a total solar eclipse at any one spot in the northern hemisphere is about once every 330 years. Though some are luckier than others. When one finally moves over Dayton, Ohio in 2024, it will be the first in 1,192 years! On the flip side, Carbondale, Illinois will enjoy their second in 7 years when the 2024 path crosses overhead! Talk about some great cosmic luck.
Here’s the good news for New Englanders – the 2024 path cuts through northern Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. After the piqued interest in eclipses here in America, expect there to be plenty of advance buzz for it. To add to the excitement, this one will feature over 4 minutes of totality in some spots! And you may get to witness the stark beauty of a total solar eclipse above a snowy landscape, provided it doesn’t warm up too quickly. This one will occur on April 8th, which can still feature plenty of snow on the ground in places like the Northeast Kingdom or 100 mile wilderness of Maine.
I know I’ll be chasing. Will you?