Total Solar Eclipse, August 21, 2017 – Douglas, Wyoming

It was billed as the eclipse of the century. Not since 1979 had the moon’s umbra passed across the width of the USA to offer totality to perhaps 100 million people. A partial eclipse would be visible over the entire North American continent, Central America and the northern half of South America, and even the western British Isles would see first contact just before sunset. 

The moon’s shadow would first touch the USA in the north west, in Oregon, pass through Idaho, Wyoming and Nebraska and finally depart in the south east over South Carolina. Greatest eclipse would occur over Kentucky at 2m40s. Cloud forecasts favoured the north western to mid-western states where totality would be close to 2m30s.

Demand for accommodation in locations on, or near, the centreline was expected to be intense and owners capitalised on the demand by offering accommodation at prices 5-10X higher than usual for this time in August. Similar intense demand for flights into choice locations and for car hire were also expected.

Around twenty Astronomical Society of Victoria (ASV) members travelled to the US to view the eclipse and most were accommodated at locations on the track. However, six members including myself, chose an attractive alternative of accommodation outside of the track in Denver and a day trip by coach to the centreline in Wyoming.  Being so far away from the track, Denver had no unusual demand for accommodation or travel and, in fact we enjoyed 4* accommodation in downtown Denver at a discount of 25% off normal price. I have heard examples of the deplorable, and illegal, practise of owners cancelling bookings and then offering the rooms again at inflated prices.

As eclipse day drew near attention was increasingly focussed on the weather forecast for the small town of Douglas, Wyoming, our observing site. It got better and better as the day drew near. However, our confidence in the weather was tempered by concerns about the exceptionally heavy traffic expected to be heading to Wyoming on eclipse morning. Was a 4am departure from Denver early enough to avoid the traffic jams?

Eclipse morning arrived in Denver, to darkness. Our group of six met as planned, at 3:15am, in order to be some of the first passengers onto the coaches for the planned departure at 4am sharp. We got on the coach at 3:25 and waited and waited. It seemed our driver had a different itinerary to the one intended and, to our horror, we heard that we might be one of the last coaches to depart! The anxiety was extreme.

The problem was resolved and we set off at 4:30am, passing several other coaches waiting to depart, for the nominal four hour journey north on the Interstate-25 into Wyoming. Not long after leaving Denver the three lane highway became two and we were presented with a sea of red taillights snaking away far into the distance ahead of us. There were far fewer headlights approaching on the other side of the road. This was no ordinary I-25 traffic. North-bound traffic was already heavy and slow-moving and the prospect of missing first contact at 10:23am became a distinct possibility. 

We continued north in the procession making slow, but steady, progress until daybreak when the traffic started to thin out and we travelled at closer to the speed limit of 80mph. In bright daylight we entered the path of totality in Wyoming. We were amazed to see countless thousands of observers at vantage points off the road with their cars, tents, caravans, gazebos and chairs set up to view the event. A real festive spirit filled the air and we started to relax. There was clear blue sky ahead and we left what little patchy cloud there was, behind.

Before long we reached Glendo State Park, the original viewing location on the centreline, and found it already packed solid with people and cars still queued to leave the highway at the exit. We travelled further west, towards Douglas, with the road practically to ourselves, then a left at Douglas and a few miles south down a minor road to the viewing site on the centreline. Apparently, parking spaces off the road here were being sold by land owners for in excess of $100! 

We reached the spacious viewing site on reserved private property about 9:45am and set up in a relatively barren cow paddock (with dry cowpats dotted about that shoes seemed to be amazingly attracted to). The sky was clear and the only clouds present were low, and stationary, in the north. We, and an estimated 900 others who travelled with us by coach from Denver, were assured now that the eclipse would be viewed without interruption. 

In due course first contact was announced and soon we could see a chunk taken out of the sun at the 1 o’clock position; the countdown to totality had commenced. It was time to start taking photos of the partial phases and review the plan for totality. A drone buzzed around overhead, the wind was gusty and the temperature was rising as were the expectations for what lay ahead. 

After an hour of leisurely progress the moon had covered around 90% of the sun, the wind had died down, a distinct chill was in the air and the fading light had taken on an eerie golden colour. Shadows were strangely sharp and distinct. A couple of small aeroplanes were in the sky. Not long now to totality - time to panic.

In the couple of minutes to totality the light faded rapidly and I could clearly see the moon's umbra looming menacingly in the sky to the west. Before we knew it, the umbra was upon us, arriving to enormous cheers and celebration and the second contact diamond ring stood majestic in the sky. At 11:45am the site was plunged into darkness (about as dark as the illumination provided by a full moon), to find the round, blackest of black, disk of the moon surrounded by the brightest and purest white band of the inner corona spreading out into three beautiful streamers that penetrated the navy-blue sky; an outer corona typical of one near solar minimum. Venus shone brightly to the west. Through binoculars several small, radiantly red, prominences, in spectacular contrast, were visible. 

The 2m29s of totality passed with obscene haste. I was looking down at the camera when cheers erupted to greet the exit diamond ring. On looking up I was dazzled by the rays of sunlight shining through deep valleys on the lunar limb. It was all over, but wow, what a spectacle! What an adventure! Sensational!

Fully ecstatic, we followed the eclipse to fourth contact, packed up and departed the site on schedule at 1:30pm and got on to the I-25. Before long it was bumper-to-bumper. Unknown to us we were participating in a record-breaking event - the greatest migration of humans in one day, into, and out of, Wyoming, in US history! We numbered some of the millions of people who visited Wyoming that day!

Traffic south on the I-25 was truly horrendous and bumper-to-bumper for hour after hour. We were in good spirits and accepting of what we were a part of. To entertain us a generous passenger bought a DVD at a meal stop, a kindness that was appreciated by all on board. We arrived back at the hotel at 1:55am next day - a nominal four hour journey had taken over twelve hours to complete. It had been a very long day - sleep came very easily that night! 

The coach drivers were stressed, too, not only for having to maintain concentration for such an unexpectedly long period of time, but their regulated driving hours were also under threat of violation. After prolonged discussions over the 2-way radio, the drivers eventually changed over, but it was a difficult operation to complete due to the highly unusual circumstances. We learned later that the I-25 services in Cheyenne, Wyoming, ran out of fuel due to the unexpected (but, largely expected) demand.

It was a full day of adventure and magic shared with five ASVers and around 900 in the party, the other ASVers dotted along the track, and the many millions along the path of totality.

And, you know what? If I had the chance to do it all over again….I would!