So that we wouldn't have to get up at 3 in the morning, we decided to drive north a couple hours and camp the night before the eclipse at Pawnee National Grassland, where free dispersed camping is permitted on select roads. (You can see where on the motor vehicle use map.) In the national grassland, sections of unspoiled shortgrass prairie are checkerboarded with private holdings and areas where drilling is occurring. The undeveloped sections are pretty in a subtle way.
We arrived in time to take a walk and have dinner. These activities were difficult because of the dense population of mosquitoes in the area. Despite our not having seen any water on our drive, the mosquitoes were thicker than anywhere else I've been in Colorado. We put on full rain gear but were still being driven insane, so we took to the car to eat our dinner. Unfortunately, the density of mosquitoes that had gotten trapped in the car while we were unloading seemed even higher than what was outside, and we were easy targets. We fled to the tent, where we ate with a sense of getting away with something (generally, "no eating in the tent" remains an unbroken rule as it attracts everything from mice to bears).
We didn't sleep well thanks to a number of things, such as cows mooing during the night. When the alarm went off at 5, we groggily decided to sleep in until 6. After all, there'd been almost no traffic on the roads the evening before. Maybe the eclipse traffic predictions were off.
Soon we were setting off toward Wyoming.
Following country roads, we stopped to fill up at a middle-of-nowhere gas station so we wouldn't have to stop on the way back. There were short lines of cars at the pumps and an overall air of excitement.
Coming upon a giant field of sunflowers, I asked A to pull over so I could take some photographs in the morning light. At the cattle guard, there was a weasel watching us.
We turned onto a more major road, Hwy 85. Here there was significant traffic. After one long stretch of stop-and-go, we began to worry that we might not make it into the totality zone in time to see the eclipse. Certainly, if it continued like this, we wouldn't. Stupid cows!
A few impatient cars passed us, and everyone else, on the left, zooming into the distance toward oncoming traffic and veering back when a car appeared from the opposite direction. I was concerned someone would cause an accident and ruin it for everybody, but traffic continued to creep along.
We passed this car, which turned out to be full of smiling middle-aged adults.
Finally we entered the outskirts of Torrington, WY, which was over the line into the zone of totality. We were going to get to see the eclipse! Signs pointed to parking and camping areas for the eclipse all along the road. Some farmers were charging $50 or more a night to park in their fields. But we continued driving, toward the center of the zone of totality. The town fell away and we were on a two-lane road surrounded by miles and miles of prairie. People were pulling their cars off the road and parking. And then there was this:
We stopped here. Someone had miscalculated in parking their RV and gotten stuck.
The sky was almost clear, and it would have been hot if it wasn't so windy. We had lunch by the car and took some selfies.
As the eclipse began, we knelt beneath the one tree for miles around to watch the crescent-shaped shadows:
All along this stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, cars had parked in a very orderly fashion, as if it were an organized festival. A large number of people had expensive cameras or telescopes, and many had eclipse t-shirts, either purchased or homemade. People were excited and friendly.
The eclipse progressed toward totality. The light was odd and resembled what you would see when putting on sunglasses in the middle of the day. It was the color of midday light, with short midday shadows, but the dimness of a cloudy day.
A woman with a group of kids was next to us. They had spread out a bedsheet in order to try to observe the phenomenon of shadow bands. And, as the moon got closer to covering the sun, there they were: faint fluctuations of light and dark racing across the sheet. I made a futile attempt to capture it.
The air began to get chilly. And quite quickly, it looked as if it was sunset all around the horizon. I had been watching to see the moon's shadow racing toward us, but I didn't see it.
The woman had an app that was telling her how close the totality was, and she was calling out aloud. "Ten seconds to totality... Okay! You can take your glasses off!" I took mine off and looked, and the sun -- the corona of the sun -- was absolutely stunning. It was a blazing, electric white ring with fine streamers shooting off in all directions, with concentrations in three directions. It looked so bright and powerful, and the black moon and sky so, so black and empty. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. It drove home that the sun and moon were real, giant things that we were orbiting and being orbited by, and that the black vacuum of space was real as well.
Bright stars and planets could be seen. There was still a glow around the horizon, as if it were half an hour after sunset. I took a photo of A, which my camera corrected by making it much lighter than it really was outside:
The woman with the app was counting down the seconds remaining in the totality. And then she was saying, "It's over... put your glasses back on!" But I wanted to see the diamond ring phenomenon, so I glanced up one last time with naked eyes, squinting. On the upper-right side of the corona was a dazzling burst of white light, seeming a hundred times more powerful than the ring of corona itself, which had itself stunned me a moment before. And then I put the eclipse glasses back on to see the moon pull away.
It all happened so fast! And I spent too much time trying to take pictures and too little time looking. The sky began to lighten and warmth began to return to the air, and we jogged back to the car and turned south, hoping to beat traffic.
Over the four hours it took to get home, we chugged along in an unending caravan of cars headed out of Wyoming. We stayed on the back roads and mostly traffic progressed at or near the speed limit. Witnessing this peaceful, pseudo-organized mass migration into the empty prairie, and back again an hour later, was almost as entertaining as the eclipse itself.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Should you be devastated if you didn't make the drive? Probably not; I'm one who thinks the Earth delivers a steady supply of awe, and if the eclipse wasn't a possibility for you, well, there's always the northern lights, the Grand Canyon, humpback whale watching, Macchu Picchu, etc. And I don't think the eclipse was necessarily greater than these; it just felt a little more immense because it's a bit harder to orchestrate.
My faithful companion managed to capture a video of the eclipse, though I'm not sure if she filmed this on purpose or by accident. Enjoy!