I first caught wind of the eclipse in July. Eclipse on August 21st? Huh, what was that about? As I did more research, I realised I wasn't working that Monday and could actually watch it.
Hotels along the path of totality were completely sold out or asking for $900/night for a dirty bed in an equally dirty knock-off Best Western. Yeahno. Time to get creative. I began to play with the idea of just driving up with Mak, camping out, watching the eclipse then heading home. Not the most fun solo trip but could be worth it. But the closer the date drew, the less appealing the lonely drive became.
Until a week before the event when my friend Beth told me over drinks that she had been waiting to see the eclipse since 4th grade and would drive anywhere with anyone (or solo) to see it. Boom. Done. Armed with good company and renewed excitement for the trip I began to research the perfect location.
I compared maps, weighed driving distances against length of the totality, and stalked crowd sizes of places based on social media popularity. Length and ease of hike went under one column, distance from the road, quality of the road (high clearance vehicle needed?), and rating of the view were all filed under their respective slots until I finally narrowed it down to three locations, which would then get narrowed down further based on weather and visibility the morning of departure.
The night before we left, my friend Andrew returned from Alaska and asked to join "Babe Force 1" since he, too, wanted to catch the eclipse in totality. I allowed it (based solely on the flashy new title he gave our mission). After sharing our plan with him, he was equally excited to fulfill his photographic vision for the moments of totality.
The drive out was surprisingly uneventful, our caravan having miraculously avoided traffic the entire 7 hours up. The sinking sun lit up the hazy valley just before we turned down the final dirt road. The sky was awash in deep purples, the air cool and pungent with the scented pines lining the road. Hair flying in the breeze of a rolled down window, I took the open road and dusky beauty as good omens.
It was short lived. At the turn off to the trailhead, a stern looking sign declared "Water on road 4 mi ahead, travel not advised". Shit. After a brief conference, we decided to go as far as we could then make a game time decision. Sure enough, four miles up, there was a gigantic pool covering the road. My eyes went wide, I turned to Andrew, "There's NO way we can cross that!" In lieu of answering, he got out to check the depth. "Hey!" he called, ankles submerged in the inky water. "It's actually not that deep! And it feels like gravel under here, not mud. We should totally be good!"
Despite his confidence, I wasn't convinced. At all. I looked at the water now lapping around his shins, ripples glittering in the beam of the headlights. Beth pulled up behind us. She hopped out of her car, took one look at the water hazard, and laughed, "What the hell?! No way! NO."
Andrew was busy calculating angles, speed, and inclines. "Oh, we can totally do this," he said. Using his hand as a model for my car, he walked us through the plan of approach and his exit strategy. "And that's it! Super easy," He sounded like he knew what he was talking about but the idea gave me a knot in my stomach. They both looked to me, waiting for me to make the final call. My heart raced. Our options were to attempt this, be successful, and sleep at the trailhead OR attempt this, wreck my car, sleep 5 miles from the trailhead and get help the next day OR scrap this and sleep 5 miles from the trailhead. Facing a potential 3am wakeup call, I sighed, "Okay, let's do it."
After a heart pounding few seconds, my car roared up and over the other side of the bank, purring contentedly as I whooped with glee and relief. Beth hopped in our car and we reached the trailhead shortly after, my pulse still thumping in my throat.
We ended up crashing at another party's camp, thanks to the friendliness of everyone but me (I don't talk to strangers or smile at them). Running on four hours of sleep, Beth promptly crashed in the car, buried beneath a nest of blankets. Since the other campers knew the area well, Andrew and I discussed the plan while our new friends weighed in. With their topo map spread under the glaring light of their car, they showed us a sweet spot on the map that they said would be an incredibly easy approach with a high payout. It would also put Andrew in a perfect spot below the ridgeline, allowing him to line up his dream shot. Plus, this new route would let us get a later start in the morning, which was exactly what I wanted to hear. I settled in my tent and looked up at the stars, all ten million of them visible between the gaps in the trees. I counted three shooting stars before I drifted off to sleep.
At 4:30am, I swatted at my phone alarm. My eyes were heavy but everything else was cozy and warm, I was perfectly content to lay here forever I sighed, I'll never be a real morning person. By the time I had finished packing up the tent and getting coffee made, everyone was ready to roll. The sky was just beginning to lighten, though it was still a murky grey.
I hate mornings. Anyone who has ever met me can attest to that. But there is something magical about moving among the pines before anything else is stirring. The hush before the muted darkness erupts into birdsong and rosy light, air fresh and crisp with the scent of the sleeping pines.
Through the trees, we were able to catch glimpses into the sleepy valley below as we slowly ascended to the ridge. In the distance, wayward smoke from a distant forest fire lay thick atop the trees on the horizon. The rising sun splashed bright gold onto the tips of the jagged summits waking on the other side of the valley. The three of us hiked in silence, in total awe of the show happening around us.
After a brief scramble to the ridgeline, we split up. Beth and I decided to stay camped on some (relatively) comfy rocks, Andrew pushing on to set up his cameras and chase his dream shot.
We were perched on a thin spine of chunky boulders, edges sharply falling away on either side of the ridge and giving way to a lush meadow below, dotted with crystal blue lakes and meandering streams. The tiny lake directly below us was so clear, we could see the fallen trees at the bottom. The day was warm but pleasantly so. Beth and I chatted and sipped whiskey while we waited for the eclipse to start. Mak lay down on my jacket and promptly fell asleep; endurance dog he is not.
Then it began. The shifting sun slowly began to change the colours of the very air. Without glasses, it would be impossible to see that anything was amiss in the sky itself but the valleys below took on a soft indigo tint. Through the glasses, we watched as the moon crept slowly into place. The whole process took about an hour, from the moon's first appearance to its complete obstruction of the sun. As it covered more and more of the sun, Beth and I slowed our conversation until only silence remained in the moments before totality.
Suddenly, the light was sucked from the valley into the black hole in the sky. Cheers erupted from the few campers at the lake below as we threw in our own "WOOOO!". It was 9pm at 11:29am. I took my glasses off and stared up at the white ring that was a blinding sun just seconds before. My breath caught. The weather dropped but the chill never registered, I was still holding my breath as tears welled up at the wondrous beauty. A virginal orb of white light danced around the blackened moon, accented with twinkling shards of pale pink.
Transfixed by the black chasm above and its glowing crown, my thoughts raced, a tangle of ideas and emotions flashing in a millisecond. The perfection of the cosmos, that they should align with such precision disregarding the lightyears separating their celestial bodies. The audacity of the moon to block out a star as brilliant as the sun, a star 400 times the size of its own humbly dimpled body. What did the ancients think during a moment like this? With no warning of what was coming, no explanation of the phenomenon; just sudden darkness as night descended in the middle of the day?
In the darkness, on a ten thousand foot ridge, I was suddenly struck by my own insignificance. Nothing I did mattered, I was a fraction of a blink in the endless crawl of time, an ant-sized speck in the arena of galactic titans. I laughed breathlessly and let go. My crowded mind went silent. Without the weight of my thoughts to tether it to earth, my spirit floated up. I was aware of nothing except a pulsing ring in the sky and pure bliss, zen, nothing, everything. I was a creature transcended. Suspended in a single moment.
Then, slowly, the sun began to slip out from behind the moon. Light raced back up the valley and filled the sky once more.
The spell was broken.
Mak began to whimper softly, confused at what was happening. "Aw, you're okay, bud." I cooed as he leaned into me. I, too, wasn't sure how to process what had just happened. Whatever it was, it was totally worth the 7 hour drive.
Beth and I hiked down after the sun returned to normalcy, pausing to take a quick dip in the lake to offset the warm afternoon. We were reunited with Andrew and his pup at the trailhead, all of us chattering our version of events at once.
The ride home was mellow and again, free of traffic. Hours later, happiness still surrounded me, trailing after me into the house, wrapping me up in a fuzzy embrace as I drifted off to sleep dreaming of how lucky we were.
To think, if Beth hadn't been waiting since 4th grade to watch the eclipse and been deadset on the idea catching it in totality, I would've stayed in Utah to watch it, far from totality. I also wouldn't have had fancy eclipse glasses, which Beth had the foresight to purchase months ago. If Andrew hadn't come along, we definitely would not have the guts to charge my Lexus or Beth's Mazda through a lake twice. We would have camped miles away from the trailhead, forcing an earlier wakeup call on two already exhausted bodies, and tacking on additional miles that would've pushed the hike from pleasant to grueling. If I hadn't been forced to replace my tires the week before, we would've been attempting to cross the water with bald tires, which probably would've resulted in a tow or a push from a passerby. Without reaching the campsite, we wouldn't have met the campers who pointed out a much better spot to view the eclipse and we would've hiked a couple more hours and may not have made it in time.
Not only did the sun and moon align on this trip, the stars aligned and allowed every detail to work out perfectly. While the trip would've been worth the cost of whatever mishap could've befallen us, it was elevated by the run of good fortune we had. I didn't know what to expect from the eclipse beforehand but the experience was so much more meaningful than I could've imagined. It was deeply moving, a surprisingly spiritual affair. One of my favourite encounters with the natural world and I almost missed it.