A swan splashed down last spring in the lake near my cabin. Before that lone juvenile arrived, I had no clue swans flew through northwest Colorado’s mountain valleys. He joined a posse of voracious trout-devouring pelicans and stayed for the summer.
Last week, I tipped my cap to our audacious swan as I turned north. You never know how wildlife is going to react during a total solar eclipse. Predictions warned that erratic behavior might ensue. But crazier than a swan bedding down with pelicans?
Just before sunset, I headed toward the promise of totality in Sunrise, Wyoming. Along a crisscross of two-lane roads that delivered me out of the mountains and into the windswept grasslands, I renewed my love affair with nature. Fluctuations of blue in a wide-open western sky churned up elation. Clean air tasted delicious.
Cows were fat on plentiful Rocky Mountain grass after a sweet monsoon. Pointy-antlered pronghorn ran feisty as ever, gorging on sagebrush, then marathoning across fields at the speed of my trusty VW. Bitty rural communities blended into the landscape. Wyoming’s wind proved beastly as ever.
I rolled into Laramie with Hamilton Mixtape thumping through the sunroof. My first thought: Whoa. You’re a purple immigrant rolling into red territory. Turn that beat down.
Then I was, like: Hello Wyoming, but heck no. We’re eclipsing. Together.
Politics didn’t matter during the Great American Eclipse. This election was clear: Nature won big. Earth, moon, sun and humanity aligned perfectly on all sides of the debate.
My pride swelled as I flew past millions of acres of public land. This land is your land. This land is mine. We protected it for ranchers to run their sheep and for elk to roam. We preserved forests for construction and camping alike. We connected wild open spaces for wildlife and maybe our human sanity. There is silence. There is no cell connection.
An impending eclipse brought out a perfect level of geek in everyone. Proud amateur astronomers descended from all over the country with hydrogen alpha telescopes. They shared, so fellow gawkers could stare straight into a red blazing sun. Optometrists made the rounds with extra eclipse glasses to outfit unprepared binoculars. My flock gathered around an actual paper book for a reading aloud of Annie Dillard’s classic masterpiece, “Total Eclipse.”
Sunrise is a ghost town on southeast Wyoming’s Hartville uplift. It was an iron mine, a Colorado Fuel & Iron company town, built by ore that shipped south to Pueblo mills, and bricks that traveled the rails north to construct garages and pump houses that stand today. When the mine closed, every home not brick was burned off the tax rolls. Today, there’s a Glory Hole with glacial water 600 feet deep, heaps of tailings, and the remnant of an ancient red ochre pit where archaeologists found a 13,000-year-old Clovis site about three years ago. How that Paleo-Indian treasure never got mined is a wonder—but Sunrise is now ripe on the Smithsonian’s radar. Their three-week dig is deep into its third year.
In the glare of a sun we used to deem impenetrable, our ramshackle campsite became a conglomeration of tents and shade structures, plus two glampulances (glamorous + camping + converted ambulance = glampulance). Eclipse-themed cocktails were strong. Shared morsels delicious. Anticipation intoxicating.
A stately but slumping YMCA turned 100 the day before we arrived. A hootenanny filled the upstairs hall-cum-basketball-court one night. A square dance the next. Downstairs, Clovis points, mine maps and a mammoth bone lay on display next to volunteers scooping up root beer floats.
Our rowdy pack included a loyal group of red-caked dogs. If animals were destined to react, we were prepared for intimate witness. Would a mid-day moon elicit a primordial howl?
August 21, 2017 in sleepy Sunrise was nothing short of ecstatic.
From our perch atop a hill, the moon’s shadow ripped across fields of immeasurable space. Bright blue sky turned to dusky purple. Crisp light turned metallic. Planets sprung into an uncanny midday darkness. Voices shrieked in utter astonishment. No one remembers if the wind that had been whipping us to shreds ceased, or simply faded out of consciousness.
The sun sang its swan song at 11:45 a.m. We cried out, and we wept. We voraciously took it all in.
“Science is real!” echoed one jubilant voice in the rapturous crowd.
We laughed. We cried some more. My transformation to umbraphile became complete.
So much to look at. So little time to consume this eerie lunar illumination.
2:23 of totality in our spot above Sunrise. Inhale it. Absorb it. Surrender to the glow.
203 seconds to tilt your entire understanding of where we sit on this blue marble.
I’m a long-married woman, and Annie was right: “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him…Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.”
A total solar eclipse, from the first bite to the glow of the diamond ring…I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a prettier site in nature.
Space is infinitely awesome. Overwhelming. This week, astrophysicists confirmed that pure diamonds rain down on Uranus and Neptune. But all hypotheses aside, our dogs slept through totality.
And that mysterious swan still floats upon my lake like an emperor of the galaxy.
All photos © Jennie Lay.