It started when I was bored at work, reading the news. I was trying to absorb the latest insanity from the horror that is Trump, in this case threatening to eradicate North Korea. As I contemplated the end of the world, I saw an article about the coming total eclipse, something I had paid little attention too. Their seemed a commonality there, I mean, what better thing to do when the end of the world is nigh, than to see a total eclipse. And so it surprised even me that I decided two weeks out, to see the total eclipse. It seemed absurd, as some had planned their eclipse journeys several years in advance. But there I was, booking a ticket to my old home in Denver. I would visit friends there before heading out into the plains of Nebraska, to see the Great Eclipse of 2017.
Except I didn’t go to Nebraska. The night before I was to leave, I checked the weather report and it was not good- cloud cover expected throughout western Nebraska. I hurriedly put together a Plan B- I would head to Wyoming instead.
So on Sunday morning, I headed west instead of east, over the Continental Divide , out the great arid “Western Slope” of Colorado, and north to Wyoming. I had heard rumors of epic traffic jams, so I took back roads on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, listening to country music and talk radio. And on talk radio, Trump was of course Topic A. There was plenty of “it’s about time” talk. Yup, I was in Trump Country I guess, though I wanted to resist that narrative. It’s just too simple. I had a bit of perspective on it, growing up in rural/suburban upstate New York, and staying pretty connected to that red/blue place. And living in Colorado a few years ago, I fell in love not with Denver, but the far western slope and the vast eastern plains of Colorado. And it’s as red as it gets out there, according to some. I loved spending time out there, and I thought of that as I listened to the radio. The latest caller just wanted everyone to give Trump a chance. I turned it back to music.
I was now in Wyoming, and it was the early evening magic hour, when all landscapes are gorgeous, and tend to quiet all that din in the world. View of red state below:
I pulled into ragged Rock Springs, Wyoming, and testimony to my remote route, it was only here that I began to feel that I was now part of something big,- The Great Eclipse. People were here from all over the world, checking in front of me Germans, behind me Australians . And me. Kind of a Woodstock I thought. I headed to my motel room , and spread out before me a map…..and a bucket of chicken.
At 4:30 am, 7 hours ahead of the big event and fearing epic traffic, I headed north on my 2 hour drive. There was little, and before long, I arrived in Shoshoni,Wyoming with time to kill. I eventually found a state park to take this in. It turned out to be a pretty ideal place to watch it, wide open landscape, littered with other watchers, but not too close.
That is until that large family from Utah pulled up in a huge RV very close to me a couple of hours before the main event. Cathy would not give Timmy back his eclipse glasses- tears, shrieks, even Cheetos could not pacify the torrent. Then I heard Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in the distance. Amusing for a moment, but then, No, I didn’t come this far for this. I grabbed what I needed, and walked far away into the desert.
Before long, I was very alone. I wasn’t sure what to do, so …I just sat on a rock. Soon, I saw horned deer of some sort running in circles. I saw coyotes standing on rocks, whining. Then it started to get cold, the temperature dropping some 20 degrees. The light started to get yellow and weird, like before a thunderstorm. And then it got quiet. No crickets, no birds, no coyotes, just real quiet. I felt like I had maybe dropped a bit of acid.
And then it happened. I took one photo , which doesn’t do the experience justice. This was the landscape a few minutes before.
And then during the main event.
You’ve seen the photos, but looking up at that orb that you have known all your life as yellow and blinding, and it suddenly black and white, and able to be observed with the naked eye, was incredible. In the distance, I could hear some people shrieking. Myself, I was briefly overcome with emotion, and had a feeling in that moment of being embraced by this world. Like the deer, I was just another animal on this plateau. Corny I know, but that was it. All of us there, looking up at the moon and the sun. It was unforgettable..
And that was that. I headed back into town, had lunch, gabbed with the ladies at the senior center selling t-shirts, met a Korean family, had a talk over lunch with a retired army lieutenant from Alabama and a British reporter. A large group of hippie-ish folks who came on a school bus then arrived. We all bought T-shirts. The old ladies said Shoshoni had never seen anything like this. None of us had.
So then it was time for 500,000 people to go home. At first, I thought my luck would hold, as I had to catch a plane home that evening from Denver. But that was not going to happen.
I couldn’t think of anything I less wanted to do , after having such an experience, than to sit in this. And so, I concocted Plan C, I couldn’t go south, so a detour east- turned out I would see the Great Plains after all.
I drove east across central Wyoming dodging traffic, several long stretches on gravel roads. The landscape here, one I had never seen , was different from my romantic memory of the plains, here the land is at the service of man, and it seems everywhere every last drop of oil or gas was going to get squeezed out of the land.
This is the landscape I traveled that afternoon, from above. Each one of those squares another well.
As the afterglow of the eclipse faded, I turned on the radio, toggled now between a Native American Res station and the local Latino station. A different narrative from yesterday. That was my accompaniment as I reflected on the day, the world returning to the normal order of things. Yet everything seemed slightly altered. I felt I was “coming down from my trip”. I tore towards the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The next morning I had decided to get an early start to see Mount Rushmore. Two days ago, I listened to a few defending the current occupant of the White House, but today, we would genuflect to leaders of a different stature.
The crowd was mostly international tourists, though the couple next to me had Make America Great hats on. Really. As I regarded the spectacle, I felt a bit dizzy, the experience yesterday still fresh, and now both dazzled by the monument (it did not disappoint!) as well as being brought back to the here and now. I bit through my tongue to ensure I said nothing. The common brotherhood of yesterday seemed to be melting away for me. I hit the road, and the departing view was the best.
A few miles down the road, I found my way to a monument of a different sort. Here the Ogala Sioux leader Crazy Horse is being carved out of a mountain. You can see in the foreground what is hoped this will eventually be. This place was quieter, not as polished of course.
My mind went to a guy who used to cut my hair in Denver. He grew up , gay, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, not far from here. He was also a Ogala Sioux. Pine Ridge is perhaps the poorest reservation in the US, and he escaped it for Denver , for all the obvious reasons. I remember he would tell me about growing up there, and too my surprise, how much he missed it and his family. He told me of the beauty, and the hardship. But Denver was his home, for now. We shared that sentiment back then, Denver as a temporary way station. I wondered if he had ever been here.
The Black Hills eventually descend back to the Great Plains , and soon I was back in flat Wyoming. The public radio station I had been listening too for the last day finally faded away, and soon there was nothing. Just wide open, flat, beautiful.
At lunchtime, I pulled in to the town of Lusk, Wyoming for lunch. A farming and ranch town in eastern Wyoming, its pretty much it for a hundred miles.
Towns like Lusk are far enough off the beaten track that fast food chains don’t bother coming. The only game in town was the Outpost Cafe, and Tuesday was meatloaf day. The Outpost seemed to serve as a community center, cowboy hats, overalls, TV news, and meatloaf. I felt like an interloper, and kept a low profile behind my straws, attacking my meatloaf , mashed potatoes , and iceberg lettuce salad. Good stuff, but felt disconnected .
I stopped on the edge of town to gas up and get a cup of coffee. A rancher told me to go across the street to the market to get better coffee, and so I did. He was right. I walked with him, and we chatted. He noticed my Architecture firm’s T-shirt , and began a lengthy and stunning treatise on Wyoming architecture. He had a lot of questions about what I did, where I lived, what life was like in California, and how he had only left Wyoming a couple of times in his life. Didn’t need or want to. And there was the cattle. We regarded a fellow get in his pickup with Nebraska plates. Never trust anyone from Nebraska he said. I told him I had seen the eclipse yesterday, and the totality had passed here as well, this not far from where I ORIGINALLY planned to go. I asked if it was indeed cloudy here. Nope, not a cloud in the sky. Sigh.
But he hadn’t even gone outside. He said “the sun goes up and down every day, don’t understand what all the fuss was about”. We talked for a while, before I realized the time, and had to get on my way.
After the eclipse, this hour was the best thing about this trip. My time with Al The Rancher. (And we never talked politics). I liked Al a lot ,he reminded me that we are not as divided as the media thinks we are in this country. He gave me a connection, however brief, to this place. I decided the radio would stay off the rest of the way. I headed to Colorado.
When I lived in Denver years ago, I loved coming out to the Great Plains. After being lured back there to work, things went sideways in a hurry. Work was a giant ball of stress, I was in a long distance relationship, and my friends were elsewhere . I had little in Denver, and so I often drove out here in my turbo-charged car. I just wanted to get away, into the middle of nowhere. So these places worked.
I became fascinated with little abandoned outposts, some dating to the dust bowl, others of a more recent vintage. I began photographing them. The first photo in my now massive I Photo Library is this, taken in late 2003, with my new camera, an abandoned schoolhouse on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. As far as the eye can see, nothing but this weathered building. At a time in my life when I had a hard time sitting in my own skin, these little journeys were a tonic. It was far from everything.
The Plains seem empty, but of course there is much here, both natural and man-made, if you look closely. And while one may think one is as far from anything noteworthy as you could be, in other ways you are literally on ground zero. Exhibit A- the Plains are littered with live missile silos:
In the distance, a concrete slab with a circular cover that slides open to launch the weapon. They always struck me odd and somewhat anachronistic back then, guarded by nothing but a rather flimsy chain link fence. Today, in this new world of ours, they seemed a lot more ominous. And for all its modest appearing security, one step on the grounds and all manner of military would be on you in a heartbeat. I thought for minute about what would happen if I did just that. Could I get out of going to work tomorrow? (“Hi, I’m in a maximum security prison in Kansas, and I won’t be in today. Could you be a peach and let everyone know”).
I thought better of that, and made my way to one final Plains landmark, the Pawnee Buttes. The Buttes are two improbable tiny mountains in the middle of these vast plains, an eroded reminder this was once a vast sea. This is James Michener land, his epic novel “Centennial” was set here. I used to come out here often. I loved walking to the buttes, a single landmark far in the distance, gradually growing til they towered over you, and then offered shade from the merciless sun. I remember I came here on the morning of my 40th birthday in fact. Today, returning for the first time in almost 15 years, there was plenty of reflection. Much had changed , certainly for me, and the world seemed closer to this place than before, an influx of gas wells on the horizon, and all those missiles. At the same time, nothing had changed; just sun, soil and wind.
As I baked under that same sun that put on a such a show the day before, I remembered there would be no such relief today. I thought back to the Eclipse, certainly an incredible experience. But it is the ordinary moments made extraordinary that probably stay with me as much or more, chatting with a rancher from the other side of the universe, or maybe a long hot walk to a tall cool butte. The wide open spaces still offer up something to me, and I am pretty sure I will always be blasting out into them….still not sure I fully understand it. I probably would have made a good Hobo.
With that, I got back in my car, and for the first time in a few hours, my phone buzzed. I had a signal, and a message. It was the airline, and it was not too late to upgrade my seat for more leg room. I thought I probably had enough leg room . I turned my phone off and headed to Denver.