I spent the last 10 months (well, 9 years really) planning to take my family to see the Great American Eclipse. When I started teaching, in 2008, my mother gave me a computer program called Starry Night as a little gift for my classroom. I used it during a middle school astronomy unit, and discovered with my students that the next total solar eclipse that would be accessible to us would occur near Casper in 2017. I vowed to go see it. When I was able to zoom in on a map location, I decided Glendo State Park, right on the centerline and just off I-25 in Wyoming, would be a perfect location. As soon as reservations opened up in October 2016, I grabbed a campsite and urged all of my friends to do the same. Many families took the opportunity also, and a whole group of us reserved eclipse viewing campsites. We spent the last 10 months planning our equipment, our activities, our travel times. Finally the big weekend came!
My husband and I and our two daughters traveled to Glendo on Friday, August 18th. We traveled in very light traffic, just us and a few more than the usual number of RV’s, but nothing you’d notice. We brought our 1981 pop up camper and packed extra propane, ice, food and water. I brought my “eclipse box” with paper maps, our camping passes, eclipse glasses, stuff to make a binocular projector, a video camera with a filter, a white sheet for viewing shadow bands, contact times written down, and various tools for making pinhole projectors.
We had a lot of fun at camp on Saturday and Sunday. We rented a pontoon boat from the marina, and we brought some paddle boards as well. We enjoyed boating, paddling, swimming, and lounging on the beach. Jason went on a nice mountain bike ride. None of us had ever camped at Glendo before. It was just wonderful. We liked the campsites, we liked the lake, we liked the beach access.
On Monday, I woke up with the sun after a restless night sleeping. I had been checking the weather forecasts for days and watching them go from partly cloudy to sunny and back again, and things were looking really good for Monday now. We woke up to glorious clear skies. Made breakfast, cleaned up, grabbed the eclipse box. We had some debate over where to watch the eclipse. We could be up on the bluff or down on the beach. On the bluff, we could see the 360 degree sunset and catch both horizons. On the beach, we’d have shadows from cottonwood trees and be able to see the shadow rushing toward us over the lake. I really didn’t care as long as I experienced totality, and as long as I was with my friends. I wanted to experience it with people. In the end, the beach won out because the kids wanted to splash in the water while waiting. It was also very windy on the bluff top, and we thought the beach would be less windy.
The beach was not less windy at first. I set up my binocular projector and got out poster board for pinhole creations. The wind kept knocking down my tripod and I was so focused on problem-solving that I almost missed first contact.
We watched the moon slowly take bites out of the sun with our glasses and with my projector (when it wasn’t being blown over). The kids made pinhole projects.
When the moon had advanced quite a bit, the wind died down and it became still. The light started to become strange and eerie. Over time, we noticed the shadows of the tree leaves became crescent shaped.
My friend Patrick had the good camera in our group, and he took a couple of pictures of the eclipse progression with a filter. (If you share any of his images, please give him credit.)
I set out a white sheet so we might be able to see shadow bands. Our solar eclipse timer told us to watch for strange animal behavior. The cicadas seemed to stop but it was hard to tell. We laughed because the dog started to become restless, wandering around and laying down random places. Did she think it was time for bed? Likely she was just tuned in to our heightened emotions and wanted some comfort.
We looked and looked for shadow bands, and a couple of minutes before totality, the quality of the light changed very suddenly and dramatically. The temperature dropped and it dimmed quickly. I never did see shadow bands because my attention was drawn to the opposite lake shore. There were colorful hot air balloons above the far shore to the west, and suddenly they were not colorful but dark, and we could see the light from the flames in the balloons like little candles across the water. We could see the darkness rushing toward us, and it was so exciting, like that moment a rollercoaster reaches the peak of a hill and you know you’re going to fall and you can’t do anything about it. The dark raced across the water, completely enveloped us – and we all screamed!
Here’s a short video of our reactions up until that point.
We took the glasses off and looked up, and I don’t know how I can find the words to describe what the sun looked like. When you see pictures of a total eclipse, you see a black background and a black disc and a white halo. This was so different and so strange and amazing! The sky was a deep violet color, and above us was a strange, sharply defined black disc, an empty void, with a pink and white rim and white streamers glowing and flowing all around. They were huge streamers of light. It was bigger than I expected. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m sure it’s the most beautiful thing I ever will see again. I’ve seen gorgeous mountaintop vistas and exotic cities, rainforest and ocean and NEVER seen anything that hit me right in my soul like the total eclipse did. I scanned the horizon and saw gorgeous orange and purple hues in every direction, and then Venus made an appearance in the sky. It was just glorious.
I did not take any pictures myself, but Patrick’s pictures are really good.
My ten-year-old daughter also captured video of her iPod, and although you can’t see the eclipse very well I just love everyone’s reactions… we are all in our own state of rapture here.
I could see the moon making its way across the sun’s surface, and again there was that rollercoaster feeling of an inevitable rush. The diamond ring was about to show. We saw a thin line of beads and then the flash of the diamond ring… how beautiful it was… and then glasses were on again and we had to come down from our excitement.
We were all in a frenzied state, talking furiously, hugging, crying. Everyone agreed this was incredible, it was worth any trouble in the world to see and we were so glad we had each other during the eclipse. We hugged and hugged and cried some more.
Some of us stayed on the beach a while, and others started packing up right away to try and “beat the rush”. We said our goodbyes and “joked” about the next eclipse in Chile and Argentina. Maybe we’ll actually do it! Jason and I and the girls dawdled a bit. We continued to swim and paddle, we ate lunch and later had dinner at Rooch’s Marina down the road. We could see the interstate the entire time from our campsite. It was stop-and-go the ENTIRE time. We told ourselves we would leave when the traffic thinned a bit, but it never thinned. Eventually we decided we couldn’t delay the inevitable and we left at 6:50pm. We were starting to get texts from friends about the journey from Glendo to Wheatland taking hours. But we felt if we took back roads for as long as we could, we would be OK.
To make this long story shorter, we took back roads as best as we could. We got one flat tire, took an unmaintained dirt road that resulted in way more stress than it was worth for the time it saved, got on the interstate for a couple of miles, gave up because it was horrible, took state route 34 down to Laramie, fueled up there, got stuck in more stop-and-go traffic south of Laramie and finally got home at 12:15am. It is normally a little over 2 hours to Glendo and it took us 5 1/2 hours including the flat tire. Our friends that left earlier ended up taking 8, 9, even 10 hours to get home to Denver. The traffic was relentless.
Gas stations started to run out of gas. Google Maps was really confused as it insisted we were always 3 hours from home no matter how long we drove. I think the eclipse day traffic broke Google Maps’ estimation algorithms. It couldn’t fathom that many people driving out of Wyoming all at once.
We didn’t care. The total eclipse was completely worth all of the trouble and the ridiculously long drive. I have no regrets about the state park, or the beach viewing location or the photography or anything. It was the most incredible event I’ve ever been a part of. I thought I knew what awe was. I had no idea. That was awe in its purest form, the most beautiful thing you can imagine.
Some people feel small when they look up at a night sky, but I feel big. I look out and notice all of that matter, the random atoms that are spewed out by stars and make up everything we can see. And I think about how I’m made of a lot of those random atoms, and yet I’m here and conscious and looking out at all of it and taking it all in. What a privilege to be alive here, on this planet, and looking out at all of the other stuff in the galaxy and beyond, being part of this living, breathing universe and wondering what else might be out there.
Thanks so much to Patrick for the awesome pictures. Thank you to my husband Jason for being a wonderful partner on this journey and enjoying it right along with me. Thanks to my kids for humoring their nerdy mom and agreeing that everything was worth it. Thanks to my awesome Glendo camping friends for the incredible weekend and viewing experience… I wouldn’t have had this any other way! Thank you to my fellow eclipse-chasing friends on the internet for all that you have taught me and for encouraging me to make the journey!! I am so glad we went, and I can’t wait for the next total eclipse.