Dateline: August 21, 2017, Alta (Wyoming, population 394).
Even to the remote wilds of the Idaho/Wyoming border they descended. RV’ers from Hungary. Local rednecks. Or Salt Lake City, in the case of Tommy and Katie, a wonderfully pleasant couple who’d staked out their spot early but agreed to share some mountain with your blogger’s family. All of us were hearty, desperate pilgrims , hoping to remain removed from the crowds.
The reason? A total solar eclipse, a happenstance of regularly overlapping orbits aligned against a piece of terrestrial turf. Yet there’s something heartening about hundreds of thousands (millions?), trekking from home to witness a simple solar and lunar entanglement. Something scientific and natural, as opposed to events more humanly mundane: the Superbowl or Woodstock.
Staring directly at our solar center for minutes at a time, while hearing your mother’s voice, “Don’t look at the sun!,” even feels like a stupid idea, despite NASA approved disposable cardboard glasses. Yet the constant warmth against your face and eyes gives you a sense of El Sol’s radiant power, while simultaneously revealing the hidden strength of something as simple and galactically minute as our moon’s ability to negate that power as the two cross each other. There’s a Buddhist lesson in there somewhere.
As the moon cuts into the sun’s disk magic begins to happen. Sunspots become visible, solar events you never recall even existed outside your 8th grade science classroom. At about 35% eclipse the sun and moon appear to reverse roles. The sun’s new identity is that of a giant orange harvest moon or perhaps the beginnings of All Hallows Eve. Yet it’s the moon’s obscuration that provides the role reversal illusion.
As the minutes pass, building toward the totality, the 75-degree afternoon temperatures begin a parallel retreat. The sensation is unnatural, compounded by your shadow’s outline, which begins to blur until taking on a most definite refracted double image. The sky and hilltops around you appear hazy, like a summer’s wildfire, yet it was blue skies and mountain fresh air a few minutes ago. The birds escape the sky and the landscape is still. It’s chilly enough to put on the morning’s fleece. And still the light continues dimming.
Then it happens. In an instant, the sun’s blinding light is gone and you drop the glasses to find yourself staring into a black orb with ultra white radiating from around its edges. Your naked eyes see plasma being disgorged into space in all directions but with prominent streams in several. Unbelievably, you stare from the cold of a nondescript mountaintop. All around you is dusk and on the horizon in every direction is a sunset that should only ever appear in the western sky, a ring of orange and umber glow, but otherworldly, because your body is telling you this isn’t right. The birds know.
Meanwhile, back in the sky and just below the black and white contradiction to the senses sits a tiny star (left and below the sun in the above shots), for once visible to earth where otherwise it would remain hidden in the noonday light. You stare, impossible not to. Then a blinding crack appears off the right shoulder, forcing your eyes shut and it’s done. The glasses go on instinctively.
On the ground around you a giant outdoor light switch has flipped again, turning on what can only be described as a surreal neon light, like the inside of an operating room. Difficult to describe the sensation of an outdoor hospital room.
Slowly the glowing and warming sliver grows until the birds take flight and you realize the magic show is over. But not really. Your blogger came away with a sense of the supernatural and profound that even overcame the hours of traffic to return to Alta (Utah, population 387). Because the sun and moon show never stops, it’s always there. If only we’d take the time to look.