It took two-and-a-half hours, but we finally escaped Glendo State Park.
We had driven along these same roads not 12 hours earlier, at 4:30 a.m., heading in the opposite direction. Surrounded by many other enterprising souls, we had crawled along the unfamiliar dirt road, the deep darkness of the pre-sunrise night enveloping us all, making the journey eerie. Somehow even forbidden. If I hadn’t myself just handed over our paltry park entrance fee to the booth attendant, and didn’t at that moment still clutch the park-issued map in hand, I would think we were trespassing into territory uncharted. With all of our ghostly headlights reflecting back on us in the dust-ridden air, a continuous line of family vehicles tentatively picking their ways along, I could almost be convinced that we had wandered into an adventure movie. Perhaps it was the apocalypse.
With one more turn around an obscured corner of the road, we followed those ahead of us into a large, dark field. Just behind us, a line of fellow travelers in turn followed our lead, and then someone after that, and someone after that. And after that.
The clock hit 5 a.m.
We came to a stop in that field, daylight just starting to edge in around the very base of the horizon, and hunkered down in blankets and pillows pilfered from our homes back in Colorado. Our little 2011 Toyota Prius wasn’t at all conducive to stretching our legs and re-arranging our spines into some semblance of order, but after leaving our Denver duplex at 1:30 a.m. and embarking on this four-hour journey, it hardly mattered. We just needed to sleep for a little while. Rest our eyes before the big event when we turned them skyward and barely dared to blink. We didn’t want to miss a moment.
A few hours later, we tentatively cracked our eyelids. I heard someone bellyaching that in all their careful preparations, they had somehow managed to forget coffee. Did her neighbor think she would be able to coax a a few precious ounces of java out of another park visitor? Another temporary squatter plucked away at a guitar. Greetings to old and new friends cut across the warming air.
We unfolded ourselves from the Prius and pulled our massive tan cooler out of the hatchback. In all of my hectic preparations, I had forgotten to bring along a knife, but we hardly let that stop us from spreading goat cheese and fancy jam across the subtly stale sourdough bread. There were cookies. And lots of deli meat.
Once fed and feeling every so slightly more human, we assembled our camera gear; Dan spliced together a DIY lens filter for my Nikon camera out of NASA-approved film and black foam board. Emily and I joined the bathroom line which never seemed to shorten, but somehow still managed to move us all through.
We still had two hours before it started.
Like so many in this nation, on August 21, Dan, Emily and I chased the Great American Eclipse. We drove north from Denver, crossed the Colorado-Wyoming border, and tried to find a Prius-sized space in that almost 70-mile-wide sweet spot, the so-called line of totality. Given all the hype that had grown in recent weeks to such a fevered pitch across the United States, a friend told me he wasn’t sure the near-hysteria was worth it. Did we really want to throw ourselves at the mercy of all that mess? There was a part of me that wondered the same thing.
We were told it would be life changing. We were advised that there was no earthly comparison to witnessing a full solar eclipse. Be prepared to have your mind wrecked with awe, they said. There was a part of me that thought this all sounded like an exaggerated load of poppycock.
Yet still, we came. We woke at 12 a.m., after only two hours of sleep, and piled an excessive number of supplies into our vehicle. Along with an estimated 600,000 of our closest friends, we crossed into Wyoming. Authorities speculated that local gas stations, grocery stores, and rest stops couldn’t possibly accommodate such a crush of humanity, so consider yourself warned. Turn back now. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Yet still, we came.
With two hours left before the eclipse began, we made a little habitat for ourselves in the Glendo State Park Bennett Hill field. Dan solidified his eclipse photography plan; Emily and I munched on cookies and picked flowered weeds from the field to press into our notebooks. Our nearby neighbor still sought coffee; we re-joined the constant bathroom line. Cell service slowly collapsed around us as everyone attempted to pass time browsing the internet.
And then, with no readily visible alteration to the surrounding atmosphere, it started. And nothing changed. If I didn’t have special-grade eclipse glasses at hand — that day’s most-coveted eyewear — and therefore hadn’t been able to safely look directly at the sun, I would have had no idea anything at all had started. For close to a full hour, the average unaware passerby would have thought the gathered crowd had collectively lost their minds. Why did they keep looking to the sky?
But, with my eclipse glasses securely in place, I felt my heart thud reassuringly in its proper place as I watched our constant solar force slowly get engulfed by a dark, dispassionate disk.
—This is so weird, I thought at least a dozen times over.
Of course, intellectually I knew exactly what was happening. Any number of scientific news stories had explained the phenomenon over and over for months now. And besides, I had certainly seen a partial eclipse before in my life. This wasn’t unexpected. This event had been forecasted for decades now. And yet…
Approximately an hour later, the world did begin to alter. Nocturnal insects began to chirp as the entire surrounding area descended into dusk. The shades of a sunset perked up in every direction, an impossible, 360-degree sunset. We all got colder, and pulled on our jackets. The wind picked up.
And then, in an instant, a shriek of awe. Howls of excitement. A woman exclaimed in a startled manner that suggested she hadn’t meant to summon such a noise. People everywhere about the park started cheering and hollering. Tears flooded my eyes.
As I gazed at what should have been bright, almost-high noon skies, my mind was as blank as the orb suspended above us. It was indescribable. No words. Impossible to verbalize coherently what this meant to my earthbound, human soul. The only available response was visceral. Tears, shouts of wonder, a gut-wrenching joy, near ecstasy. The most deep-rooted belief, implanted there by evolution and 200,000 years of experience, told us that the sun was our most reliable companion. That it would run its course every day for millennia to come. But there before our very eyes, our beloved sun had simply been erased. In its place stood a mesmerizing ring of pure, unadulterated light radiating out from around that perfectly circular, black disc.
People continued to cheer and gasp. It seemed no one knew how to contain the huge emotions inspired by this vision. And then, all-too-quickly, a flash in the upper-right corner of that imposing and spectacular sight, and the moon carried on its way. The massive shade lifted from the world, and everything became fully illuminated once more. In a daze, we put our eclipse glasses back into place and discarded our jackets as warmth returned all around. Totality was over.
It had lasted only two-and-a-half minutes.
In a rush, we all started to talk over one another, moved to vainly try to re-live and share what we had just witnessed. Did you see that? Can you believe it?
By taking part in this great national migration to the line of totality, we would indeed share this experience with hundreds of thousands of people across the country by the time the day was through, but it still felt divinely intimate. Personal. Somehow what I felt and thought and saw was strictly my own despite all the other eyes that had seen the exact same thing.
An hour after totality, the solar eclipse was entirely over. The moon again invisible in the daylight; the sun beating uninterrupted upon us. We watched as most of our neighbors packed up their cars and joined the impossibly long line of cars attempting to leave Glendo State Park, merge onto I-25 South, and head back home. We ourselves eventually stored away all of our supplies, and joined that same long line of vehicles. It would take us 2.5 hours to just get out of the park, and over six additional hours to complete the long journey to our front door.
Almost exactly 24 hours after we left, we arrived back at the beginning. Despite the exhaustion, layers of dust, aching joints and unstretched muscles, without fail we each declared the effort had been well worth it. We would continue to process what we had seen for days to come, we would look through dozens and dozens of eclipse images shared on every social media platform imaginable — Did you see that?! — and we would vow that whenever we got another opportunity, we would start the chase again.
SIGNED, anya elise