Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Joe Omundson

It's been a year: remembering the eclipse



Today is the 1-year anniversary of the solar eclipse that many of us in the US got to experience, and my story about it has been sitting as a draft this whole time. Time to dust it off and share it!

I first read about the solar eclipse years ago, when 2017 was a distantly abstract number, and I knew that I wanted to plan a trip to see it no matter what else was going on in my life. I've been interested in astronomy and space forever and I couldn't imagine missing the rare opportunity to watch the moon block out the sun.

Earlier in the year I studied a map of the path of totality. From Moab, the closest place to see it would be in Wyoming; it was passing over Jackson. But I didn't want to be in a choked, noisy town, I wanted to be up on some peak somewhere with a broad view of the land, so I could see the shadow approaching and all the effects. I traced the centerline east and noticed that Union Peak was directly on it. A bit more research revealed that Union Peak was reasonably accessible and that it was an isolated peak with a sweeping view of the Wind River Range and the Tetons. Well. That was all I needed, grizzly bears be damned.


The eclipse was to happen on Monday; I left Grand Junction on Thursday morning to ensure that I found a campsite, and to have a few days of reflection to prepare for the cosmic event. I spent Thursday night in Dubois, a small town east of Jackson, where I scrounged up some quarters to afford a beer at the Outlaw Saloon. Wyoming seems to be stuck in 1995 -- you can still smoke in bars. The vibe was conservative and I knew I was out of place with my leggings-under-shorts, technical merino longsleeve shirt, beanie with longer hair, and gauged ears. I noticed a couple playing pool nearby, and they apparently noticed me too, as the guy asked me if I smoked and I said "not cigarettes" and he said "yeah I know" and gave me half of a joint. I sat at a table in the corner and used the wi-fi for a couple hours.

In the morning I drove 25 mile drive to my camping area. I'd noticed a lake near Union Pass on freecampsites.net and that was my destination. There were already a number of people camped here, and I probed around until I found a site at about 9AM. I lounged all day. I realized that I'd lost my hammock a few weeks prior at my birhday party. I hoped someone was getting good use out of it now.

On Saturday I decided to hike up to Union Peak to make sure I knew how to get there, and also to scout out a campsite that might be closer. I walked up the dirt road, past many campers pulled off to the side, until I reached a broad meadow with nobody camped in it. I realized I liked this site better and so I immediately turned around to get my van and bring it there; I could hike farther, later. On my way back, I met a guy named Randy looking at the information board and we had a quick conversation. He pointed out his camper and invited me to stop by for a beer later.

I moved my van, stopping along the way at Randy's camper for the beer he'd promised. I met his wife Althee (not sure how to spell that -- short for Althea) and they gave me an Alaskan Amber. We got to talking and I mentioned my heart condition, and it turned out Randy, one of those 63 year old active Coloradans who seems 46, had had an aortic aneurism and also required an open heart surgery w/ aortic valve reconstruction and a partially replaced aorta. They live in Carbondale. They were expecting 3 more couples to join them, longtime camping friends of theirs. They gave me another beer for the road as I headed up.

I'd paid attention to the road as I walked it the first time, to make sure it was passable in my FWD minivan, but apparently it's easy to be optimistic when walking. I made it to the meadow, but not without a whole lot of careful steering, bouncing about, a couple of loud clunks on the undercarriage, and almost getting stuck on a particularly tricky bit. The Rabbit actually did better on this kind of stuff -- just as much clearance, and the tight wheelbase made it easy to dodge and weave. I do enjoy the challenge of picking a passable route on hairy roads. People with 4WD trucks might have it too easy and miss out on the fun.

From there I walked up toward the peak, just far enough to make sure I understood what route would be the best to get me up there, then returned to my camp. I made a plan to hike up during the day Sunday and camp out for the eclipse Monday morning.

Sunday morning was lazy, I read a book, meditated, and ate food. Around noon I started packing my bag for an overnight trip up the mountain. The usual stuff -- sleeping pad, food bag, tent, plus both of my down quilts, because I expected it to get cold.

I started hiking up the hill and walked for maybe 15 minutes. The first vehicle that was going my direction was a Jeep and I turned around to stick out my thumb and grin at them. They stopped, thinking I might be joking, but I was serious, I wanted a ride. It was a male/female couple in their 30s and the guy driving jumped out to make space for me in the back seat. I said if it was a hassle not to worry about it, but he said no and enthusiastically got the seat ready. Their dog got out of the car and came around to say hi to me, which apparently she has only done to 4 people in the 7 years they've had her. We started bouncing up the hill. The road was strewn with bumps and boulders and the Jeep was necessary. They were from Albuquerque, had done some climbing in the previous days and were now going up to see the eclipse. They had the most benevolent energy, toward me and each other, and I was almost sad to say goodbye to them when I got to my dropoff point.

I hiked my way up to Union Peak, 11,491', a gentle hill really and no trail was necessary. At the top were 3 or 4 guys taking pictures and looking around; once they left I had the peak to myself. Three more pairs came up that night. Mike and Leon, a father/son duo: Leon was probably 15 and very interested in my gear and the general fact that I was camping right by the summit that night. He was all wide-eyed and grinning and full of questions, and you could tell his father enjoyed being his mentor and friend. Next two guys my age in green jackets from Minneapolis came to the top and asked me to take photos of them, and they returned the favor, and they also had a very kind attitude. Lastly was another father/son pair, the son was my age and they were from Dallas but had a ranch 4 hours away from where we were in Wyoming. They asked me to take their photo too.


I kept reading my book and I wandered around the meadow near the summit to keep warm, finding some rose quartz which I kept as a souvenir. Finally it was sunset and I went to bed after finding the most level and flat spot I could, building it flatter with some pancake rocks, on the downwind side of some big rock formations. I wrapped myself in both quilts and left my glasses on to catch a few shooting stars before drifting off. I slept well other than my pad going flat and needing to be blown up a couple times.

See my sleeping pad?


I woke up and stared at a stretched out dawn of orange and pink clouds, not wanting to get up to pee or reinflate my mattress, just stare and absorb it. 


Then I did my morning chores and I meditated for a little while, and not too long after that I heard rocks clattering up top and a voice mildly celebrating the summit. It was maybe 7:30 and my first visitor had arrived. He was Ty, from Texas, about 36 I believe, and we were instant friends. We talked for quite a while about our lives and the eclipse. Other people started arriving and soon there were a couple dozen people waiting for the celestial bodies to align. I mistakenly thought that we'd see a shadow scoot across the world when the moon first began to occlude the sun, but that was bad logic, as the darkening is quite a gradual thing at first.

I won't pretend to know all the ranges and peaks that are visible from Union Peak, but we had a view of many miles in many directions. On the horizon to the west were the Tetons, past Jackson, and since the shadow would be coming from that direction, that's where most of our attention was focused. The Wind River Range was to the south, including the highest peak in Wyoming, Mt. Gannett, but most of that was obscured by snowy formations in the foreground. East was a long valley of ridges and hills, north past the highway were interesting buttes and other peaks.

We used our eclipse viewing devices to track the progress of the occlusion. First there was a tiny notch where the moon was just beginning to impose. Then a small bite, then a bigger bite, then the sun started to look like a crescent. We were amazed that despite 75% of the sun being covered, it didn't seem any less bright to us, and it was only just starting to feel a bit cooler. I guess this is because human vision works on a logarithmic scale rather than linear; for something to appear half as bright, it actually has to decrease in luminosity by a factor of 10, or something along those lines. Night may seem 1/50th as bright as daytime to us, when in fact it is a factor of many thousands, as a linear sensor like a digital camera will reveal. The crescent got smaller, the air continued to cool, and gradually it started feeling more like twilight as the crescent got quite thin. By this point there were roughly 60 of us on the peak.

Then the crescent became a tiny sliver and totality was almost upon us. We looked toward the west. There was a general haze due to Montana forest fires, and as the Tetons dimmed, they were lost to our sight; but when totality fell upon them, they turned into stark black silhouettes against a smoky red backdrop. As the blackness rolled toward us over the hills and ridges, we moaned our amazement and looked back at the tiny speck of sun shining past the edge of the moon -- and then it was gone. No need for eye protection anymore, we looked at the gaping black hole where the sun should be, and the atmosphere projecting out around it, and several planets shining. This lasted for two minutes which passed unbelievably quickly.

Several airplanes flew overhead along the eclipse path. Someone in the crowd confidently announced that one of them was a NASA research plane. Others were likely private parties of people who wanted to maximize their time spent in totality, crazy expensive things that crazy rich people do.

In the minutes before totality I moved to a different position on the peak to get a better view, and I noticed a guy with a long beard in a down jacket who had that wild knowingness in his eyes. He noticed me too but we didn't say anything. Later, I approached him and said "Hey, are you a thru-hiker by any chance?" Was he ever. He was hiking the CDT at the time, and had traveled down from Montana to see the eclipse; he had five or six hundred more miles to get to the end. He'd hiked the AT in 2015, the PCT in 2016, and a number of other trails in between -- hiking almost nonstop, over 15,000 miles in 2.5 years. His trail name was Attrition because he was going to keep hiking as long as his resources lasted. We hung out for a while and then I started the walk back down the hill. He said maybe he'd catch up.

Sure enough, a mile or two later I looked behind me and he was approaching rapidly, obviously in excellent shape from hiking. I struggled to keep up once he caught up to me, but I didn't have to try for long -- I tried hitching a ride with a jeep, but it was too full of stuff; so we kept walking but then a guy in a 4Runner who had seen us talking to the jeep offered to give us a ride down, which we accepted. This guy was kind of a trip, he worked as some kind of environmental analyst who helps put a dollar value on natural systems to provide perspective for economic-minded people who would destroy it. He'd been an engineer before but quit that life to have more freedom; he was all about finding cheap solutions that met his needs, like a $28,000 house bought during the recession, travel rigs that can go anywhere and fit a bed in the back, work that can be done from anywhere. We bounced down the road again and he let me off at my minivan.

Half of the reason I make trips like this is for personal curiosity and satisfaction, but the other half is to meet like-minded people. I firmly believe that the best way to connect with people is to find an activity or event that exudes "you"ness and see who else is there. By going to that place at that time, I was applying a filter on humanity: selecting for people who care somewhat about astronomy and unique opportunities, who are willing to put in the effort to climb a summit for an optimal experience, who have time in their lives to plan trips like that, who enjoy the outdoors and wild spaces. Even then, 60 people showed up and I only had memorable interactions with two.

Reunited with my minivan, I scraped my way down the gnarly road, forded the creek at the bottom and was back on a smooth gravel road. I drove to Dubois to spend the night in the empty lot again. I got Wi-Fi and a couple beers at the saloon, then walked to a food shack where a couple guys were selling "Indian tacos" for $10 and quesadillas for $5. They were hardass, mean looking white guys. But I told him I couldn't afford the $10 option, and when I said I didn't have any cash and they also didn't take cards, he said "don't worry, just go sit down, I'll hook you up." They brought me a quesadilla for free. After I threw away the plate I warmly said thank you and asked if I could help with dishes or anything, but he just smiled and said "don't worry about it, enjoy your meal." It goes to show how useless my assumptions are about hardass looking guys.

I took it easy the next day, driving less than 300 miles south to camp in Irish Canyon in NW Colorado. A BLM campground, tables and fire rings and a pit toilet, all completely free; BLM areas are my favorite. Never crowded, usually free, still beautiful. Who needs national parks? BLM camping is where it's at. I got a bit drunk and wrote this story.

Now a year later I'm sitting in my bus in a parking lot in Hillsboro, having made a only few changes to the original story, and it seems as though the eclipse was another life. It's hard to believe that was only one year ago. I'm grateful to live a lifestyle where I'm doing new things with enough regularity that my memories of life aren't a featureless blur.


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