It was a year ago today that I got to see the total solar eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, definitely one of the most amazing experiences of my life. But it wasn’t just the awe-inspiring view of being in the zone of totality that has left an impression on me. It was what I witnessed in the millions of people who were on the roads in Wyoming on I-25 that day that will stick with me and inspire me for the rest of my life!
That day was an adventure! I was pretty sure that the drive on I-25 from Cheyenne where I live to Casper where I was going to meet friends in the zone of totality would take longer than the usual 2.5 hours, so Molly and I left at 3:00 that morning. As I got on I-25, I could see red tail lights bumper-to-bumper as far north as you could see, and the traffic was moving only about 25 mph. I wondered if I’d even be able to make it to Casper in time to see the eclipse which was going to begin in about 7.5 hours. I was amazed that so many people wanted to see the total eclipse.
Thankfully after we got just north of Cheyenne, the traffic began to move a little more quickly, although still bumper-to-bumper. I had hopes I would make it Casper. But a few miles south of the exit at Glendo, everything stopped. We were all inching along as everyone tried to exit into the first area in the zone of totality. And this is where I began to notice the difference in the traffic that day. Even though nearly everyone was trying to exit there from two lanes of packed traffic, there was no road rage whatsoever. People were politely waiting for each other and making it possible for everyone to get across to the exit. I never heard a horn honk once!
It was amazing to see all the license plates in that long line of vehicles, from just about every state in the US, and foreign countries, and even from Europe! One vehicle really caught my attention. It was a car that was very old and had probably been MacGyver-rigged a lot just to make it road worthy-ish. Behind it they were pulling what looked like a rabbit hutch on lawn mower wheels, stuffed full of all their clothes rolled up in little bundles, nothing between them and the elements. The car was packed with adults and kids. I think they must have made a very long journey to come and see the eclipse and probably endured quite a bit of hardships a long the way. Clearly the experience was one they felt was very important to share as a family. Being a part of this experience meant a lot to millions of people that day.
Once I got past the Glendo exit, it was smooth sailing – or driving, rather – to Casper. I met up with my friends, and we went to a nearby neighborhood park to spread out our blankets, put on our geeky eclipse glasses, and enjoy the view. I almost hadn’t chosen to go to the zone of totality, but I’m so glad I did. Cheyenne was so close that the view was going to be one of about 98% totality that day. What would be the difference? Who would even notice? But an astronomer from the University of Wyoming had put out an article a few days earlier saying that if we thought we were going to get the same experience down here as we would in the totality zone, we were very wrong. We would miss out on all the best features that make an eclipse so memorable from the diamond ring effect, the beads around the corona, etc.
So that helped me to choose to brave the traffic even though so many were saying to avoid it at all costs. And I’m so happy I did! The experience is etched in my mind forever. The unusual look to the lighting that began to creep over the area as the moon slowly crawled across the sun. The crescent shaped shadows on the ground under the trees. Being able to watch the moon creep across the sun with my eclipse glasses. The drastic drop in temperature.
And then, all of a sudden, the experience that the UW astronomer had talked about began! Up to the point where it was about 99.99% totality, we didn’t have the unique eclipse experience. But there was that moment when the moon finally completely obscured the sun, and suddenly it was as if someone in Heaven had flipped the special effects switch! Everyone in the park gasped in unison with awe! Everything that followed in the next 2.5 minutes could only be viewed from the totality zone.
We could safely take off our eclipse glasses. The sky was dark, but not like any night time sky or dawn or twilight sky. It was an eclipse sky, a unique color of midnight indigo that lightened a little around the sun, something I’ll never see again unless I can go to another total eclipse. Most of the stars came out. There was a band of “sunset” color, a strange yellow I’ve never seen before, all around the horizon for 360 degrees. I could see shoots of light and beads of color coming up from all around the ring of the sun. And it was freezing cold! Molly and I huddled together, both trying to stay warm.
For about 2.5 minutes, I watched this total eclipse in awe and wonder. I didn’t want to take my eyes off of it for a moment. It was impossible to photograph with a cell phone, so I knew my only memories would be what I could imprint in my mind during those brief moments, and I didn’t want to waste a second. Then the diamond ring effect started just as the UW astronomer said it would. Stunning! And all too soon, those brief few minutes of totality were gone, and it returned to the look of 99.99% totality, and the eclipse began to wane. The memories of the total eclipse experience were worth the difficult journey that day! I’ll never forget what that was like.
But what I went through driving home that day has stuck in my mind as much as the experience of the eclipse. I thought that if I ate lunch with my friends and gave the traffic an hour or so to clear out, that I’d have an easy drive home. How wrong I was! When I got back on I-25 an hour later, I was STUNNED at the traffic that awaited. It was bumper-to-bumper as far as I could see. We inched along the entire way back to Cheyenne that day. What should have been a 2.5 hour trip, took nearly 12 hours. But I was prepared for this; I knew it was a good possibility. I’d filled my truck up with gas, packed lots of food and water and even a sleeping bag for warmth in case the I-25 was so busy that it all came to standstill overnight.
And it was so hot! I was worried about conserving my gas, so I turned the air conditioner off and opened my windows. It was just stop-and-go all the way, inching along. Everyone else had their windows open, too, I assume for the same reason. Often times traffic was at a standstill for 15 minutes or more. Millions of people were on I-25 stuck in that traffic that day. Millions. That’s several times the population of the entire state of Wyoming.
But as we all inched along, you could have heard a pin drop. All of us with our windows open, and not a sound of a stereo or music or even conversation that entire way to Cheyenne. There was a collective feeling of awe and wonder and reverence that I don’t expect to experience again my lifetime. It was absolutely hushed. And not once did I ever witness anything that even resembled rudeness, let alone road rage. It was the most polite traffic jam in world history, I’m absolutely convinced of that. I never heard a horn. I never saw a rude gesture. I only heard polite people helping each other merge onto and off of I-25.
I thought at the time that it’s because we had all just experienced something so deeply spiritual. Could anyone leave a basilica after hearing a performance of Handel’s Messiah and blast their stereo while rudely trying to push their way to be the first to leave the parking lot? Of course not. But this was something a million times more sacred. And we could all feel it. I’ll never forget what I witnessed along I-25 coming home that day.
And I think that the lesson for me was that what I saw on I-25 is who we really are. We are not politics and division and racism and bullying and everything else we experience in our own personal lives or see on the news and in the media 24/7 these days. I saw something much different that day. We are people who want to feel united and to be surrounded by goodness and kindness and to know we’re all a part of something much bigger than we are, to share a common experience that gives us awe and wonder about the universe and life. We aren’t the stresses and distractions of our modern times. We wanted that moment of the eclipse and what followed to last much, much longer than it did. It was really hard to get my feet back on the ground the next day.
But I’ve thought a lot about this over the last year. I think we looked at the total eclipse with such extraordinary awe and wonder because it was something most of us will probably experience only once in a lifetime. But we have so many other equally amazing things that happen each day. Every morning and evening we get watch the sun rise and set and often we get a brilliant display of colors and lights to go with it. We can set aside our stresses and worries and our cell phones and news feed and just take some time to appreciate that and be grateful that we get to have a brand new day every morning.
And we have equally wondrous views around us in nature all the time. I think collectively we all can use more “green time” out in nature. It’s good for our health and just good for us as a society. We need to put down our devices and look up at the stars and the heavens every day. Perhaps if we could set aside time to experience the universe with awe and wonder on a regular basis, that would shift us all towards being once again what those of us on I-25 experienced with each other after the eclipse on August 21, 2017.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein
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