Like a lot of people, I’m trying to make sense of the eclipse. I understand the orbits and the geometry, and I knew there would be significance and novelty. But I wasn’t fully aware of the depth of the experience. I don’t think I could have been.
This eclipse and my journey to observe it was a long time coming for me, something I’d anticipated and planned for years. Maybe it stemmed from some sense of resentment and retribution: I’d been locked away along with my companions in our classroom when I had my first opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse in 1979. I was in the first grade then, but I’d built up some bitterness ever since about that whole scene. (Some have suggested that it’s fitting, perhaps even causal, now that I’ve become a science educator.) Almost four decades later, it made sense to me to want to extract myself from the crowds, out in the depths of the backcountry and the heights of a rocky pass — as far outside of a classroom as I could possibly get. It wasn’t long after my first trip to the Wind Rivers in 2005 that I realized this area fit my requirements exactly. I just needed the right companions, fair weather, and good health. I’ve been very lucky with all these, and so I was able to witness a total eclipse of the Sun from Lester Pass, at an elevation of over 11,000 feet above sea level and with views of horizons, ridge lines, and the Continental Divide seemingly at my feet.
I’d read Annie Dillard’s description of a solar eclipse to prepare myself for what was to come — something I’m glad I did, even though there was no adequate preparation. The phrasing from Dillard that stuck with me was that “the world was wrong” as the moment of totality was imminent. That’s what I’d braced for; but it was exactly the opposite. Everything was sublime; the world was right. I was anticipating an otherworld that was sinister and foreign. Instead, what I witnessed was transcendent and peaceful. Pictures don’t do it justice. Words are inadequate. We were reduced to speechlessness, laughter, tears, and spontaneous exclamations all simultaneously. It was a singular experience, one unlike anything else I’ve ever known.
It’s especially fascinating to me to realize that everything we saw is already extant. It’s already all there. The corona and the horizon’s light and the deep indigo are all there now, and have always been. The act of taking away is what revealed all of the color, the light, the contrast. There’s a lesson in this, I’m sure.
We related it to the experiences we knew or could imagine, compared it to the birth of a child, a wedding day. We talked about the loss of time, some other reality or dimension that opened up. I had a sense of what people pictured the heavenly to look like, something biblical in the vein of shepherds in the wilderness witnessing an angel hovering over the landscape. There was awe and wonder and beauty and tranquility all wrapped up into one scene, and then it was over and there were no words. Anna was crying. John hugged me. Karyn exclaimed. It was more than we knew what to do with.
The photos that I see most from others are of the corona, the filaments of the outer atmosphere of the Sun that are revealed after the photosphere is swallowed in the dark of the Moon. Yet, for me, that was only the most central focus of a vast scene. The rest of the landscape set the stage, and we watched as the distant horizon fell off the planet, the nearer mountain ridges darkened, and our foreground braced in a light from another world.
It was dynamic. We saw darkness, but it was a different darkness than what led up to that moment. (Video I’ve seen squelches this, as cameras continually adapt to the lighting conditions so that you don’t see the changes quite so dramatically.) The distant horizon glowed because there was sunlight; the sky above was deep, dark blue. And it was all in continual flux as that dark shadow washed over like a soft blanket.
And then there was the trek itself. We had to walk to where we would witness the event, and it wasn’t a simple stroll. The process of getting there to the vista that few others shared: fording rivers, scrambling over rocky terrain, ascending passes, traversing snowfields. It was a three-day journey on foot plus an extra day of exploring, the last thirty feet of which I ran with a full pack; and then I couldn’t stop laughing. Clouds were beginning to break and disperse. I’d arrived at this spot on a map and in this time that I’d only been able to imagine, a long way from my first grade enclosure where the curtains had been drawn. That ascent was years in the making.
I spent this week in the backcountry and in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime event with those I love dearly. The contingent of my backpacking mentor, my dear friend, my life’s partner, and my two daughters represented the very people I wanted alongside me. We were there for the eclipse, but just as importantly we were there to share the journey. We got to cross the rivers and climb the passes together, and I think that these kinds of experiences bond you with others in ways that no other event can.
While the experience was immediately personal, the shared confusion of what we all saw united us. There’s a beauty in not being able to express something, merely agreeing on the essential fact that we were there. We confirmed with one another that we had no words, but we had that common experience in that timeless moment. I shared that with five other people on a mountain pass.
Yet, only seconds before, I knew colleagues to my west had seen the eclipse come and go; only minutes before this my parents had witnessed the shadow course over them from the home in which I grew up — the shadow flooded over my old elementary school, too. A few seconds later my friends in Casper would take the shadow and see it along on its eastward journey, until East Coast friends got to witness it. We were all connected in this shadow as it raced along landscapes. It’s all the simple arrangement of light and dark, one body moving in front of the other. But it ties us together, both in the speechlessness and the wonder. Maybe that’s enough.
Maybe it’s enough to know that this event that placed me on a line from Sun to Moon to Earthly peak not only connected me to a bigger piece of the natural world, but to my loved ones next to me and to the millions of strangers east and west of me. I believe there was inherent beauty in the remnant coronal light and in the repainted landscape; but for that beauty to be known it had to be witnessed. We were there, a small part of a big event, but together with the land and the people that stretched across a continent.