August 21, 2017 was supposed to be the first day of high school for my younger son. What he experienced that day was so much more amazing than anything he could have ever experienced within the walls of any public school.
We had originally planned a big family summer vacation to Florida and the Southeast which would have culminated with a viewing of the solar eclipse from my sister-in-law’s house in West Columbia, South Carolina. However, family and job issues prompted us to cancel that trip in favor of a mini-vacation to Colorado earlier in the summer. Still, seeing this total eclipse, the first visible on continental U.S. soil in 38 years, was very high on my to-do list. I figured I could drive from my home in Fort Worth, Texas to northern Missouri or southeastern Nebraska to see it with very little cost or effort. The closest place to me would have been St. Joseph, Missouri, but my drive back would have taken me through Kansas City traffic on a Monday afternoon. Instead, I chose Beatrice, Nebraska as a location, mainly because the National Homestead Monument, run by the National Park Service, is right there and was planning several eclipse events.
Hotels within that 70-mile-wide path of totality were ridiculously expensive, so I booked a room for the night before the eclipse at a Super 8 in Manhattan, Kansas. Beatrice was only a 90 mile or so drive from Manhattan, and even with the heavy eclipse traffic, I didn’t think I would have any issues making it to that location before the eclipse.
I run the nursery at my church every Sunday morning, so my plan was to take care of the babies and leave right afterward, about 11:00 AM Central time. My younger son Elijah was going with me, but the rest of the family had prior commitments and would be staying in Texas. The weather was a huge concern of mine in the days leading up to the trip, and when I awoke Sunday morning, I was rather dismayed to see that clouds and possible thunderstorms were in the forecast for both southern Nebraska and northern Missouri. The forecast for locations in the path of totality in eastern Wyoming were for clear skies. I didn’t want to travel any distance and have our view of the eclipse obstructed by clouds, so I made a snap decision. I would drive to Wyoming.
Elijah and I hit the road shortly before 9 AM, leaving nursery duty to the rest of the family. With the less than 24 hours before the reservation in Manhattan, I didn’t think I could cancel the room I had booked, but I was prepared to lose the 64 dollars I had spent on it. During our first gas stop in Amarillo, I got on my phone and booked a room at a Motel 6 in Denver, Colorado for that night. Rooms further north in Fort Collins and Cheyenne were grossly inflated, but I got a good deal with the room in Denver, only 75 dollars. I didn’t know how bad the traffic from Denver to Wyoming would be, but I planned on giving ourselves lots of extra time.
I made the drive from Fort Worth to Denver in, for me, record time, less than 11 hours. I slept somewhat sporadically from 9 PM until 2:45 AM. I showered and dressed and dragged Elijah out of bed at 3:00 AM. We left our Denver hotel by 3:15 in the morning and started the 225 mile drive to Douglas, Wyoming. Driving through downtown Denver on I-25 at that hour was a breeze, but we ran into heavy traffic just before Fort Collins, and it remained heavy all the way into Wyoming. I joked to Elijah that this stretch of I-25 had probably never been this busy during any 4:00 AM hour. What was amazing to see ahead of us was the steady line of red tail lights in the two northbound lanes ahead of us and virtually no traffic at all on the southbound side.
We were able to move at a fairly steady 60 to 70 miles per hour for most of the way, although we did encounter slowdowns due to congestion within Fort Collins and Cheyenne. We came to a near standstill just after 6:30 AM somewhere in the middle of Wyoming. I wasn’t too worried since I figured we were already in the path of totality at that point, and the start of the eclipse was still over four hours away. I did notice that the left lane was moving at least a little bit, so I moved over. As I suspected, the backup was due to a two-mile long line of cars trying to exit at Glendo State Park. From what I could see from I-25 as I drove past, the state park was a sea of tents and parked cars.
I knew the center of the path of totality was just south of Douglas, so I stopped at a truck stop at a little place called Orin, Wyoming. There was a restaurant in the truck stop, and Elijah and I hoped to get some breakfast. The place was overrun with cars and people even at 7:00 AM. Inside the store, lines of people waiting for the restrooms intersected with the line of people waiting to buy something at the registers. The restaurant was off to one side, and there was one lady in a red shirt taking all the orders, doing all the cooking, and serving all the guests. I felt bad for her, but she did her best. Once we did get our food, more than an hour after we ordered it, I slipped her a ten dollar tip.
After eating a really good breakfast (the bacon was so thick it was almost like ham), Elijah and I ventured outside to find our viewing spot and wait. We were pleased to see that there was not a cloud in the sky. We climbed a hill and found a white-bearded man sitting by himself in a prime spot for seeing the countryside all around. As we talked, we discovered that this was to be his second total eclipse. He had seen one previously in Mongolia.
As the time for the partial phase arrived, a family from Minnesota and a young guy from Denver joined us at the top of the hill. We all talked and had a great time, checking the eclipse’s progress through our special eclipse glasses.
Since the entire United States saw at least a partial eclipse, I will skip to the moment that made the entire trip worthwhile, that buildup to totality. By the way, I love that word totality, and I’ll have to find ways to use it more often. Photos and videos do not do justice to the experience of witnessing a total eclipse. Cameras just can’t deal with changes in light the way our eyes do, so there is always something missing from any photographic representation of a total eclipse. I was surprised by how quickly darkness descended as the eclipse hit totality. There was an eerie glow on the horizon all around us, like a dark dusk that encircled everything. Stars were visible in the sky if you could pull your attention away from the glowing ring with the black center. It is an amazing thing to look directly at the sun with the naked eye and see that ring. It was surreal, like being in some kind of otherworldly animated movie. The video I took of the sun didn’t look anything like what I saw in person. But speaking of video, here is what I took of that build up to totality. (Since WordPress is framing the video rather awkwardly, it is also visible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7nCErVFLYw ).
Once totality ended, we started to pack up and leave. The remainder of the eclipse would just be a repeat of the partial phases, only in reverse. And really, once you’ve experienced totality, a partial eclipse is barely anything. Of course, getting out of the truck stop parking lot toward I-25 was going to take multiple hours. So I turned left, away from that main highway back into Colorado, and I continued to take the path of least resistance all the way out of Wyoming and into South Dakota. At that point, we figure that we might as well go see Mount Rushmore. We made it there from our eclipse viewing location in less than four hours. I did make the comment to Elijah that it was strange that when we finally get to see Mount Rushmore for the first time, it isn’t even the highlight of our day. But to be fair to Mount Rushmore, nothing can compare to a total solar eclipse.
We started for home right after leaving Rushmore, stopping at an overpriced hotel in Ogallala, Nebraska to spend the night. At least the room was only 168 dollars and not the 500 and up I was seeing for the night before the eclipse. We slept well, probably because of sheer exhaustion, although I did dream about seeing another total solar eclipse. We woke up about 7:00 Mountain time, skipped the free breakfast at the Denny’s attached to the hotel because of the long wait, and drove the rest of the day. We arrived home at 8:50 PM on Tuesday. There was a symmetry to that arrival time as we had left home at 8:50 AM on Sunday. In those 60 hours, I drove 2,268 miles through 8 different states. My lower right leg is still sore two days later (I like to be in full control at all times, so I never use cruise control).
It was an amazing experience, with some wonderful bonding time with my son. I would do it again in a heartbeat. There is another total eclipse coming to the US on April 8, 2024, and the path of totality passes near my home here in Fort Worth. If we are still living here by then (these hot summers are starting to get to me), we will still take a drive to get to the center of the path of totality. And you can bet that I will be watching the weather that day, prepared to drive to a location with the greatest assurance of clear skies.
It is an awesome thing to spend time with loved ones pursuing our mutual passions. My older son and I love baseball, and he and I have driven to attend games in three different World Series (to Denver in 2007, Arlington in 2010, and St. Louis in 2011). My younger son loves science, so this trip to see the solar eclipse was a perfect opportunity for us. I hope they both remember these special trips we’ve been on and take their own kids on adventures in the future. We do only live once, and it’s important to take advantage of every opportunity.