In late August of 2017, I loaded an Audi Q7 to the gills. I had camera gear, plastic storage bins filled with food and camping supplies, luggage belonging to five additional people, three telescopes, six pairs of binoculars, and about two hundred pairs of heavily filtered cardboard eyeglasses. I couldn’t see the rear window, and there was no room for even a single hitchhiker.
I left my house in Pennsylvania at the crack of dawn. By mid-day I’d muscled through the lush greenery of the Keystone State and reached Pittsburgh. By dinner I’d navigated what seemed like a hundred right-angled turns in the rural grid of Ohio to a small spot on the map northwest of Columbus. The town was Jackson Center, home of famed RV manufacturer Airstream.
The next morning, I hooked up a long, sleek trailer the company had loaned me for this trip, shifted most of the Q7’s contents into that, and again pointed myself again to the west. My destination: Wyoming. Specifically, the gorgeous landscape of the state’s western edge, billboarded by Grand Teton National Park. The solitude of the first several hundred miles across Indiana and Iowa was punctuated only by a stop in the largest truckstop in the world and occasional chats at rest areas with people who were clearly heading in the same direction for the same reason.
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I was part of a migration that summer to an event that had lurked stealthily in public consciousness until roughly mid-July, when it exploded into a near-frenzy among astronomy geeks and millions of public enthusiasts. I know this not just because I was dialed into media reports about the upcoming, and extremely rare, total solar eclipse that would pass all the way across a narrow ribbon of the United States, but because I myself had watched a Facebook group I’d created that was dedicated to the event explode from 300 members to 12,000 in just three weeks.
My own strategy was carefully developed: I would leave home with all the gear and supplies my family of four and two of my daughters’ friends would need out west, pick up the trailer, and meet them in Denver. Having them fly out would not only spare them two cross-country drives, but allow us to spend our quality time where it mattered most, in Wyoming. There were more benefits: It would compress the time enough to limit the chance of boredom among the kids and also reduce the likelihood of the kinds of friction and conflict that flares up with any group on the road when they inevitably get annoyed with each other now and then. It would also give me precious hours of peaceful, purposeful driving, allowing my brain to clear and to enjoy the scrolling countryside at my own pace, after many months of professional and personal preparation for the event, and prior to the magic of the experience itself.
In short, the solo portion of the road trip forced me to savor the experience. I enjoy the rhythms of the road, the impromptu visits to small towns for lunch, the exploration of new music between dips into podcasts. Doing all that alone internalizes the experience in ways that are different from shared experiences, and just as valuable. Having the trailer in the equation made it all the easier. I simply pulled over each night and sacked out in the back, able to spring up and go regardless of the hour and without the constraint of a posse of people all going through their morning routines at different paces. One night, I slept through vicious storm in Nebraska that pummeled the trailer and made me wonder what fields I, the Airstream, and the Audi would be found in the next morning. In Denver, I spent the night in a ghost town in the grasslands of northeastern Colorado, not a soul in sight, living or dead.
I finally collected my gang at Denver International, relieved by then to have company, all of us excited by the building energy of the eclipse. We rolled into Wyoming and rendezvoused with friends in the town of Dubois, just slightly northeast of Jackson Hole, where crowds were massing in town and across the mountainous landscape. We took in a Friday night rodeo, made a visit to Grand Teton National Park, and then, the morning of August 22, assembled on the top of a tall hill above a valley for the big event. The shadow arrived mid-morning, blanketing us in darkness as we donned our eclipse glasses. The Moon revealed a precise circle of solar corona above our heads as it passed over the Sun, becoming a black disk inside the ring of our star’s atmosphere. Though just 2 minutes long, it proved so perfect and awesome and otherworldly that it made every ounce of effort worthwhile. This teens ate it up, the adults marveled, and, as I dipped back online to file my own reports with my publications afterwards, I saw that crowds across the nation were reacting similarly. Mission accomplished.
The next morning, we repeated the entire process in reverse, with a few twists thrown in. The ladies all went south to Denver in a rental car to spend a few days with friends, and I went north to Devil’s Tower for a night, then back east—again alone with my thoughts, savoring the success and the experience, checking out diners here and there, and dozing off in the trailer each night, and occasionally mid-day as creeping fatigue prompted a few luxuriant naps.
In a few weeks, in Chile, I’ll have the privilege of witnesses another total solar eclipse, and have set up another road trip from Santiago to make it happen. I'll post a full report here, of course. If you missed the 2017 event—or want another go—start planning for 2024. An eclipse will again pass across the United States, this time from south to north. My advice: Make a road trip of it, and make it special.