0700 – It’s Go Time

Last week I received an email from Amazon to advise me that they had not heard back from the company who sourced my order of eclipse glasses and, therefore, they could not attest to the protection they may or may not provide were they to be used while staring at the sun. Roger, lawyer-speak for “if you go blind using these, it’s your own darn fault.” Well, shoot. Amazon kindly refunded my money, but we arrived at Grand Targhee without any critical protective eyewear to view the eclipse. Not good.

While I have a feeling I will lose my sight at some point in my life, I’m hoping it’s much, much later than, um, now. Believe it or not, acupuncture is a blind person’s occupation in Japan (I am not making this up), so I should be able to manage if it comes to that, but Flight really does need to be able to see to do his job. I was quite relieved to see that, because the resort was predicting 400,000 people would arrive for the event, they had plenty of proper glasses for purchase. I bought commemorative ones for our family, which we promptly donned and stared at the sun to check their efficacy. In hindsight that may not have been the best idea because maybe Grand Targhee also ordered through Amazon, but the glasses turned out to be just fine (as far as we know…). We did bring with us a couple of the Amazon pairs to potentially serve as camera filters should we try to photograph the eclipse prior to totality.

After exploring all other not-quite-the-BEST options, we circled back to hiking to the top of Peaked Mountain and I briefly wondered whether the mountain peak namers had run out of more creative options. Before we started our journey, we watched an educational video about eclipses, which was neither Panda Pop nor route planning (I’m just setting the story straight, see Flight’s picture below). My college roommate had sent me the link and we gathered around my phone to learn how the movements of the celestial bodies occasionally make totality so.

Theoretical astronomy lesson complete, lab to begin shortly…

We took the cat track most of the way up the mountain and then walked the ridgeline near the top. Keeper seemed to have no difficulty with the climb (must be all that soccer…) and easily hiked to the peak.

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The girls did reasonably well, but relied on Flight to tote them for a spell once we passed a motivational 9400’ of elevation. They each asked me to carry them at various times as well, but I repeatedly assured them that the offer was extended only by their father as I had brought a whole can of nope sauce for such requests. I did, however, offer encouragement to self-propel, singing “Just keep walking, just keep walking” to Dory’s tune, which was less than enthusiastically received.

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As we climbed, the view to the west grew more expansive and breathtaking, both literally and figuratively, as did my anticipation for what we might see at the top to the east. I had no idea what to expect ahead, but WoodSprite did, as she reminded me several times during our trek: “Mom, I sawll (native Maryland pronunciation – we’re trying to expunge that from both of our daughters’ lexicons) these mountains yesterday. You’ll like them.” We were at last rewarded for our hard work with this stunning view:

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Behind and below us the mountain valley sprawled out showcasing the town of Driggs and beyond, striations of glacial movements past defined our view to the south, and the Tetons loomed to the east.

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Spectacular landscape in every direction, it was ridiculous. I have been referring to that vista as looking at the backside of the Grand Tetons since most people view them from the east side of the range (where the National Park is – and where we’ll be next week – !!!), but, really, who’s to say which is the proper side…

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Having carved their own more direct mountain path, Keeper and our friends welcomed us when we summited. I promptly sat down to regroup and tried to take it all in. As I glanced around, the doubter in me offered, “Well, at least the hike was amazing should totality not live up to the hype.” Flight and I have since agreed that, even without the eclipse, that hike landed solidly in our top five favorites ever.

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We claimed our vantage point and, after getting situated, we eagerly donned our glasses to check on the moon’s progress. Before the eclipse I was a little fuzzy on the whole event’s time line. I knew that totality was going to be little more than two minutes long where we were, and that I could grasp, but I really didn’t comprehend that the entire eclipsing process would take hours to unfold. More specifically, I got it intellectually, but I didn’t know how that would translate into reality. Initially paranoid about missing any bit of the experience and eager to engage the kids, I immediately threw out “Ooooh, look kids, the sun’s got a little bite out of it.” “Oh, wow. It does.” “Do you see how the moon is moving in front of the sun?” Pause, “Not really.” Hmmmm… Our first few minutes of intent eclipse observation assured us we could relax a little as the main event was going to take a while to manifest.

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I entertained a passing thought, “I should have brought my knitting – or at least a deck of cards.” Idle time is tricky for me. Being still and listening is especially so – a character trait I hope (maybe?) to soften on this journey. We struck up conversation with a lovely couple from Driggs who briefly gave us a list of local area must-sees. Keeper actually said he was kinda bored. I tried to keep my inner 11 year old (who sits next to the doubter) from echoing his thoughts. “Mom, why is it going so slowly?” Initially exasperated and then, after a deep breath, I replied, “Because it’s the moon. Please try to be patient.” I shifted around to get a few more panoramic shots. “Hey, Babe, you’re standing in front of my (precariously perched iPhone on) time lapse.” Oops. No wonder it focused on not the sun – my apologies, Flight! Eclipse check again. “Hey, Mom, it’s like an orange crescent moon. A little one!” Excellent – now we’re getting somewhere.

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It’s upside down, but you get the gist…

As the light started shifting, the temperature dropped. Both the changes in light and the chill were barely perceptible at first, and we kept donning our glasses to make sure the moon was still making progress. The doubter kept downplaying the magnitude of what we might actually see, Operation Expectation Management well underway. At some point, when there was only a sliver of sun visible through our glasses, the light took on an eerie, otherworldly hue and everyone donned the extra clothing we had each discarded on the hike to the summit.

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The temperature dropped nearly 40o when we were swallowed by the darkness. Beyond the wispy echo of my breath I could see Venus and a handful of stars. Witnessing twilight barrel across the valley and then engulf us in totality touched in me something very deep and very primal.

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I instantly bonded with every person on Peaked Mountain, sharing in something I couldn’t quite name. Simultaneously tearing up and grinning like a loon, I so desperately wished I could open every pore of my being to soak up the experience in its entirety. I’m again riddled with goose bumps as I type this.

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And then it was gone.  As muted daylight returned and steadily grew in its intensity, I couldn’t help but feel the profound loss of something wondrous even though I knew was never mine to begin with.

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In preparation for viewing this once-in-a-lifetime event, I’d read about “Eclipse Chasers” and in my mind I had dismissed those people as being something akin to the groupies we met on our Def Leppard cruise (that’s a story for another time…). After seeing totality first person, I get it now. Totally. I may even have already looked up where we might catch the next one (July 2nd 2019 and December 14th, 2020 – Chile anyone?). Although these pictures can’t possibly capture the enormity of the experience, this is the best I could do with a filter-free iPhone.

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With the return to some semblance of normal lighting and after a brief moment to gain concurrence among the group, it seemed only minutes later that we headed back down the mountain in a heady stupor. Keeper, Firebolt, and our friends took off at swift clip and Flight tried to ride the middle distance between them and me and WoodSprite before he, too, disappeared on the trail ahead of us.

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As WoodSprite and I ambled down the mountain, often holding hands so she wouldn’t let me fall, I tried desperately to catalog details of the eclipse in my memory bank. I was thankful her shorter legs made for a slower descent and our progress took longer still because we kept stopping to keep an eye on the (d?) eclipse.

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A couple hundred feet above the resort base, we could no longer see the moon through our eclipse glasses, but presumed she was steadily continuing on her path as we progressed down the remainder of our own.

Moon Shadow, Moon Shadow

I need to begin by saying that I won’t do this justice.  I couldn’t possibly.  I was clearly building up this day and experience for a while and my expectations were high.  But with hindsight I realize that my expectations were focused on the whole of the experience – the hiking together, the being on the top of a mountain sharing something cool with friends, the views.  I had never seen a total solar eclipse, but like most people I think, I’d seen several partial eclipses and they hadn’t made that much of an impression on me.  I knew this would be different, but I was completely unprepared for HOW different.

The kids were game in the morning, and gave no resistance to our early wake-ups – an auspicious start.  My friend, his younger son, and their dog were planning to meet us either at the trailhead or on the trail, so we bundled up (still cold in the morning!) got our stuff together, and headed up.

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We’re actually checking our route here, not watching mom pop Panda balloons.

We were hiking up a cat track for at least the first 2/3 of the way, so it was wide and easy to follow, but also a steady climb.  My friend and his son met us shortly after we had begun (they were a bit more nimble than we were), and together we made decent time up the hill.

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The kiddos did surprisingly well, but the anticipated calls for frequent stops to rest and “I’m tiiiiired”s started coming out at about the half-way point.  We were getting excellent views of the valley behind us, but still no Tetons.  We had counted on about a 2.5-3 hour hike and started in order to be at the peak prior to even the partial part of the eclipse starting, but we were actually ahead of schedule.

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Firebolt and Woodsprite assess our progress

At about 2/3 up, we hit the top of the chairlift that serves that peak (but wasn’t operating), yet we still had another 500′ or so of vertical to go, which turned out to be the steepest part.  There was a small path that led to the top via a long switchback, but Keeper and the other two guys were feeling strong and opted to bushwhack straight up in order to cut the distance down.  I hung back with the girls and took the longer, less steep route in order to offer pack mule assistance, which took me to my exhaustion limit pretty quickly.  A 40 lb Woodsprite on your shoulders is one thing, but Firebolt is a good 70 pounds I think, and tends to squirm — not good when you’re trying to balance, you’re wearing both her and a pack, and you’re at 9500′.  I made my best effort, but realized I was breathing as swiftly and deeply as I could and was getting light-headed along with the exhaustion.  I think she appreciated at least the short ride, and wouldn’t have enjoyed feeling her father pass out and crumble beneath her.

Things changed significantly one we reached the ridgeline and made our turn up to the final scramble toward the peak.  Suddenly we could see everything, and even the girls were speechless.  That last 1/4 mile seemed effortless.IMG_8931

We made it!  The others had reached the peak about 15 minutes before us, and we found ourselves in the company of about 2 or 3 dozen fellow intrepid hikers (and one guy who had ridden his mountain bike up — kudos!), with a 360 degree view, perfect 65 degree weather, no clouds to speak of, and a slight buzz from the anticipation and the elevation.  We could see the other ski area peak from our position, packed shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of people who had taken the chair lift up.  Amateurs.  Ha!

Here was our setup.

And then things slowed down.

The partial eclipse started and we all put on our glasses to look and to concur that yes, there was indeed a little strip of sun being blotted out by the moon, but of course you can only look at that for so long.  So we relaxed, mingled with folks, took a few more pics, set up a time lapse videos…  It was fun, and it was exciting.  But other than the stunning setting and the headiness of having hiked up there, it was exactly how I’d remembered other eclipses. “Is it darker?  I think it’s a little darker.”  “yeah, I think so” [glasses on, glasses off] “Yup, it’s like a crescent now” “Yup, the light’s kind of weird.  I’m pretty sure it’s a little darker”  “Yeah, I kinda think so.”  For about an hour.

I tried to take a few pics with the eclipse glasses over my phone lens, and they worked, but were pretty uninteresting.  A tiny, orange, crescent sun in a field of black.  Um, that’s nice.  I bet there are hundreds of thousands of those on iPhones and Samsungs around the country now.

I had read something about not trying to take pictures of the eclipse when it happens, as there would be plenty out there that would be better than yours — rather to devote all of your attention to watching it and experiencing it, as it would be a ton to take in.  Sounded good to me, but frankly at this point I felt like I had the time to take it all in 15 times over and still take a hundred pictures of everything I’d like to capture.  Still, I opted to take that advice, and to set my phone on “time lapse” and let it capture things on its own, and borrow others’ pics later.

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The kids started getting a little restless.  “Is this it?”  “No guys, it’s not, just wait.  There’s much more” (aside to Tacco — “there is much more right?”)

The sun got smaller and smaller, and it still didn’t look that different outside.  In fact it became very surprising to see how much of the sun could be obscured and still have it look like a mostly normal day.  Yes, it was dimmer, yes, the temperature dropped a couple degrees and it looked like dusk, but all the way up to just a sliver — probably 95% obscured — the whole thing was fairly ho-hum.  Keeper even tossed the word “bored” out there.

And then EVERYTHING changed.

I cannot overstate how different the next 2-3 minutes was from everything that preceded it.

Picture a 360 degree sunset at high speed.  It was that, and we could see the moon’s shadow rushing up the valley toward us at 2000+ mph.  I’m not exaggerating.  The temperature dropped fast.  I knew it would, but I didn’t expect it to drop as much as it did — about 30 degrees almost instantly.  It was a race to look from the extraordinary view of the valley with the shadows tearing across and the street lights coming on, to the mountains, to the sun through the glasses as the last sliver of sunlight was blocked, and then back again.  Stars and planets became visible.  People started getting louder and louder, just babbling.  “LOOK!”  “oh my GOD!”  You couldn’t look around or take it all in fast enough.

And then totality, and the sun which had looked pretty much like, you know, a sun up to just seconds ago, looked like something entirely different — like nothing I had ever seen before.  Of course I had seen pictures, but seeing it right there with the diamond ring and then the fiery corona against the dark sky… again, indescribable, and completely primal.   People were yelling, laughing, crying.  EVERYONE was.  I know I was babbling too, and I have no clue what I was saying.

Two minutes of that we struggled to take in, whirring around, staring, listening, yammering, shouting, and then boom, it was done.  Just before totality ended, I remember seeing a deep red color around the corona which I had read about, and I tried to point it out to Keeper, but he was just as engrossed as the rest of us.  He may have seen it, may not have.

Afterwards — no kidding just a few minutes after, if not seconds, everything looked pretty much normal again.  Dim, yes, but normal. Except for the 40 or so people trying to make sense (out loud) of what they’d just seen and understand why a sight that everyone could’ve described in advance of seeing it had just affected them in a way that was so different than they’d thought it would.  In retrospect, I think Keeper nailed it as well as anyone — for about 10 minutes, at just about full volume, he exclaimed multiple variations of “TOTAL. SOLAR. ECLIPSE, people!”

My time lapse video chose to focus on a point far nearer to us than to the sun, so unfortunately it’s blurry and more or less unusable.  See Tacco’s post (and hopefully Keeper will write one too) for some amazing shots at totality.  Here is us right after, trying to make sense of it.  You can probably see the excitement.

 

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Once it was over, no kidding just a few minutes after totality, we figured we might as well head back down.  Not sure why I had envisioned staying up there for the whole thing, all the way back to a full sun, but that seemed utterly pointless after what we had just seen.  The whole way down was a blur — we really were that affected, as was everybody else we happened to walk by.  Took a few family and group shots along the way.IMG_4932

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And that was that!  There was actually much more to this day that I’ll get to in the next post hopefully, but by 1PM we were down the hill and done with Grand Targhee, getting ready to move on while still trying to figure out what had just happened.

If we can remember and recapture even a sliver of it, I’ll be grateful.  Wow.