My wife and I have always shared an interest in astronomy and space exploration, but it was the stunning images from a number of recent total eclipses that finally convinced us that this was something we had to experience for ourselves.
The fact that 21st August 2017 would be our 41st Wedding Anniversary was the clincher.
There were two conditions. Firstly, we had to be in the right place, there at the right time, and there with the greatest chance of good weather on the day. Secondly, total eclipses last for only a short time. So this needed to be part of a larger American holiday.
Searching the pages of the Sky at Night magazine, we found a company whose travel packages would take us to Grand Teton National Park, in the centre of the track of totality. Moreover, Dr John Mason, the UK’s foremost eclipse expert, would be with us on the day.
Two weeks spent visiting five national parks and three major cities in the Western USA looked inviting. So, on August 10th we set off from our home in France bound for Heathrow Airport. The following day we found ourselves in San Francisco, joining the other members of our group and our guide, Shane, to start our great American adventure.
If you take a road trip across the USA you keep coming across locations that you feel you already know, not because you have been there, but because they are already familiar. Not that Alcatraz looked any less menacing through the mist nor was the mighty rock wall of Half Dome in Yosemite any less impressive.
Old Faithful may be the most visited geyser in the world, but we were still thrilled to be seeing it for the first time.
Covering 2,000 miles and crossing seven states we came to appreciate the extraordinary diversity of this immense country. There were the fire-ravaged acres in the Sierra Nevada; the vast irrigation-fed almond groves and vineyards of Central California, and the Mojave Desert, barren but for Joshua Trees and Sagebrush. North of Las Vegas we followed the route that the Virgin River had carved through the red sandstone to Zion and Bryce Canyons.
Beyond Salt Lake City it was the wide, flat green valleys of Utah and Idaho with their cattle, horses and classic, red American barns. Finally, we explored the thermal springs, coloured pools and geysers of Yellowstone before ending in Grand Teton with its near 14,000 ft peaks.
Put a group of astronomy enthusiasts together and they will want to do some star gazing. Our chance came at Bryce Canyon, famed for its dark, unpolluted skies. We disembarked from the coach, looked up and waited hopefully for the sky to clear. It grew darker and the clouds miraculously melted away, to reveal more stars than almost any of us had ever seen. The Milky Way was a silvery ribbon stretching across the sky. In the pitch darkness, one of my fellow travellers said very quietly, “I have always lived in the city and I have never seen this truly amazing sight before”.
Then there were all those small things that create the anecdotes we tell our friends and family. Our encounter with a rattlesnake in Yosemite, the impressively potent 8.6% India Pale Ale we sipped at the Mariposa microbrewery, the chipmunk who wanted to share our trail mix at Bryce, and the diner where we had fried scones with our soup.
10 days after we set out from San Francisco we arrived in Jackson Hole, busy with eclipse watchers and electric with anticipation.
It was the day before the eclipse and we met up with the three other Intrepid Travel groups, who had been following different itineraries, at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Some 200 of us heard Dr Mason deliver his pre-eclipse brief. He calms our anxieties when he tells us that the weather on eclipse day will be perfect.
Before 8am on the big day we arrive at the Snake River Ranch, the site from which we would witness the eclipse, with barely a cloud in the sky. At 10.15am somebody with a long lens shouts ‘first contact’. Through our eclipse glasses we strain our eyes to see the moon take its first tiny nick out of the sun’s disc. Slowly, this nick grows and becomes ¼ then ½ and then ¾ of the disc. The temperature falls and we don jumpers and sweatshirts.
The countdown to totality begins. Now we have only five minutes to go. The light level is dropping fast; our shadows sharpen, and a flock of geese settles in an adjacent field. Two minutes left, and the planet Venus is visible high up in the sky. Only the thinnest sliver of gold is still visible.
We keep our eclipse glasses on until the last vestige of the sun’s disc disappears from view; totality is here. We remove our glasses and there are whoops of joy and gasps of astonishment. The pearly white corona is stretching out around the moon’s dark circle.
We hear the geese, disorientated, honking in the twilight; the sky is a deep purple, and there is the pink glow of a 360-degree sunset around the horizon. Then, all too soon, it is over, but not before we see a brilliant diamond ring as the sun reappears.
The end of the eclipse brings an outpouring of emotion. Some of those around us have tears in their eyes. We all go around hugging, shaking hands and clapping each other on the back. It is a moment to try and comprehend what we and our fellow humans have witnessed. But what has just happened is close to being beyond the power of words to describe.
To experience a total eclipse is surely to have won first prize in the natural world’s lottery.
The world is one truly awe-inspiring place. Check out the nature and magic of the United States on a small group tour with Intrepid Travel.
(Eclipse image taken by Steve Killick. All other images courtesy of Philip Clews.)