Thursday, August 31, 2017

Succumbing to the Siren’s Song (eclipse-viewing in Wyoming)

Eclipse station at Rawlins, 1878 (The Daily Graphic, New York).

Sometimes the stars align just right, or—as in this case—a star and two orbiting bodies. When the Moon lies in the same plane as the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, and is close to Earth (at perigee), those in the right place are blessed with a total solar eclipse. This year we were among the chosen, but it was not the first time. In fact, the excitement of July 1878 still looms large in the short history of our state.

That year, a total solar eclipse traveled north to south over the western part of Wyoming Territory. Fortunately the First Transcontinental Railroad had been completed just nine years earlier. The path of totality crossed the railroad in the weather-beaten little town of Rawlins, and it was there that some of the world’s greatest astronomers gathered to observe things normally hidden by the Sun’s blinding light. They were joined by several lay assistants, including the Territorial governor.

Famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison chose Rawlins over Denver to measure the temperature of the corona with his tasimeter. Reporters were there to telegraph the news to the outside world. Soldiers came from Fort Steele to build observatories and other temporary structures. The town’s population ballooned, from 600 to maybe 700 or more. Accommodations were filled to overflowing, and some visitors slept in tents or railroad cars—or wherever they could.
Path of eclipse, 1878; Rawlins (misspelled) underlined in red (New York Weekly Tribune).

On August 21, 2017, the Moon’s shadow again passed over Wyoming. This time the path of totality extended 400 miles from west to east, across the center of the state. Hordes of pilgrims came in search of a cosmic experience, the majority driving up from Colorado that day. The population of Wyoming is said to have doubled, reaching one million (1).

We knew they were coming, and for months we analyzed and debated the best places to go. I opted for the Empty Quadrilateral in the center of the state (2).
I left Laramie mid-morning, and five hours later found what I was seeking. It was a very Wyoming kind of place—not the rugged mountain peaks that dominate tourist literature but high desert, on the northeast end of Beaver Rim where it meets the Rattlesnake Hills. Sagebrush and grass covered the broad divide, with limber pines scattered along the escarpment below. The view to the west stretched far across the Wind River Basin, into a distant haze of forest-fire smoke.

At first I was sorry that my Colorado friends had canceled, but by nightfall four other parties had distributed themselves along the Rim—new friends. We chatted about the day to come, full of excitement but also anxious. Would the sky be clear? (forecast was “mostly sunny”)
Pilgrims camped on Beaver Rim, awaiting the total eclipse of the Sun.
Monday dawned partly cloudy, the sky half-covered in high wispy clouds. They evaporated after a few hours, to our relief. The day warmed. Soon it was hot, yet we stood in the full Sun—staring at it. Our certified glasses revealed an imperfect orange ball, with a growing black chunk obscured by the Moon. Sun flecks cast by the colander shrank to crescents, looking like cartoon-character eyeballs. But we wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual without this special gear. The Sun shone brightly; the day got hotter.
Modeling the latest in eclipse fashion.
Vintage family colander as multiple-pin-hole camera.
Then around 11:25, things started to get weird. The temperature dropped markedly, and the world darkened, taking on a lurid cast just as Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb had said. “The light seemed no longer to be that of the sun, but rather to partake of the character of an artificial illumination.” I heard the words of Scottish Astronomer Royal Piazzi Smith: “Its effects on the minds of men are so overpowering, that they forget their appointed tasks of observation.” Did I really hear that?! I was too excited to care.
The darkening day.
The Moon’s shadow was approaching and approaching fast. Suddenly—in an instant—daylight was gone. But this was not the dark of night; I could make out my dog, my neighbors, and my car with limber pines behind. Overhead, the Sun had been replaced with a jet black disc, surrounded by a thin brilliant ring of light and pale diaphanous streamers.

That’s when the shouting started—not eclipse-crowd cheering, but rather a disembodied voice accompanied by banging, somewhere off to the south.
bang, bang, bang, bang … TEN!! bang, bang, bang, bang … TWENTY!!
I ignored it. After all, everything was weird. For example, the Moon's shadow had raced in from the west, instead of from the east where the Moon normally appears, rising slowly. I tried to visualize the various celestial bodies moving, while we tiny observers watched from our limited vantage points.
bang, bang, bang, bang … FORTY!! bang, bang, bang, bang … FIFTY!!
I realized I was wasting precious time. The Moon’s shadow was immense, but it was traveling at 1000, 1500, maybe even 2400 miles per hour! (accounts varied) The wonders of totality would be over in less than two minutes.

I grabbed my binoculars and noticed that the lower right section of the brilliant ring was red—maybe solar prominences, plasma from the Sun’s surface. And in spite of advice not to try to photograph the eclipse itself, I made a quick shot of the black haloed Moon.
Grainy, over-exposed, with lens flare … but full of memories.

bang, bang, bang, bang … EIGHTY!! bang, bang, bang, bang … NINETY!!
The eerie ruckus continued. I wished it would stop! … until I realized what it was. Captain William H. Beebe from Fort Steele was serving as totality timekeeper, counting the passing seconds. Out on Separation Flats west of Rawlins, the wind blew so hard that he had to bang on a cast iron lid from the cookstove to be heard. He shouted every tenth second.

I thought I could make out other voices—maybe that was Edison shrieking in ecstasy that his tasimeter was finally working (the wind died down). Someone cried over and over … turn your glass, turn it to to the southwest! Vulcan, Vulcan!! (probably Watson the planet-hunter). Then bang, bang, bang, bang … ONE HUNDRED!!

While Captain Beebe counted and the prominent astronomers went about their tasks, I just stood there, staring at a conjoined Sun and Moon. I completely ignored the Astronomer Royal’s stern admonition: “a total eclipse is a potent Siren’s song, which no human mind can withstand, for its effects on the minds of men are so overpowering …” He was unable to finish, for just then, the diamond signaling the end of totality flashed with tremendous brilliance. It ended as suddenly as it had begun. The Moon’s shadow raced toward Nebraska. The ghostly voices to the south were silent (3).

Over and over I replayed totality in my mind, cementing details firmly in memory. But the experience was impossible to save—it was gone.
“The totality had passed away like a dream, and no earthly power could recall that shaded sun.” (astronomer Cleveland Abbe, Dakota Territory, 1869)
As the Sun reappeared, the colander projected little smiles.


(1) One million is frequently cited, but is not an “official” tally.

(2) “Empty Quadrilateral” is my name for the part of Wyoming bounded roughly by Highways 287, 220, 20/26, and the Lander–Riverton “metropolitan” area. I left home with no specific destination, as previously I’d only explored the margins.

(3) The eclipse expeditions of 1878 showed the world that the young United States deserved respect for its science and technology. For a full and fascinating account, read American Eclipse by David Baron (2017). Highly-recommended.


  1. I was hoping you'd blog about the eclipse. Our last decent eclipse was in 2015 and it was cloudy for me!
    I really enjoyed how you intertwined the 2017 and 1878 events together. I'm glad that you had good weather!

    1. Thanks, Tim. I hope you get to see totality one of these days ... with your son. I bet he would have something interesting to say about it! :)

    2. oh yes, I'm sure he would! He absolutely loves looking for the moon. If he's upset or ill and the moon is out, it always calms him down and gives him something to concentrate on.

  2. Great post! Like you, I experienced the beauty--and weirdness--though we were atop Mary's Peak in the Coastal Range of Oregon. No words for me, I was awestruck! If you haven't read it, American Eclipse, by David Baron, is fascinating. Glad you enjoyed your slice of the sun, or lack thereof! You're correct though, once the experience is over, it's gone, not really saveable--the beauty and true awsomeness doesn't translate.

    1. Tina, glad to hear you got to enjoy the experience. I loved Baron's book! I read it the week before my trip, that's where I "met" some of the characters in my eclipse post ;-)