Path of Totality

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August 20, 2017

Against prevailing wisdom, we set a course for a ridge high above Stanley to sleep then sit in observation of the celestial mating.

Don’t play in the road
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Don’t play in the road
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/35985430464

Local news spent so many days focused on eclipse day traffic — be sure to bring extra jugs of water and gas! — that it was easy to expect the usually short trip from Boise to the center of the moon shadow to be some ten hour saga.

“Good luck with that,” our friends would say when we mentioned where we were headed.

It reminded us of winter news reports a few months ago filled with words like “serious” and “potentially catastrophic” that sent people in droves to grocery stores for water and batteries. Then nothing happened.

Stanley stop*
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Stanley stop*
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Stanley is busy like a holiday weekend but the highway up was cruise-control clear.

  1. starPhoto by Mikolaj Wus
Decrepit mines for Trump
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Decrepit mines for Trump
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36649148772

Nick and I sat a couple weeks ago and traced the center of the path of totality on a map, west to east, looking for a drivable mountain spot that would have us home with time to prepare for school starting the next day.

Something around Deadwood Reservoir? Bear Valley? A short hike around Stanley Lake? I showed Nick pictures of our previous visits to those places. They’re all nice. But when I saw the line cross Railroad Ridge, farther east, I knew the search was over.

The high road
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The high road
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36649153722

Depending on what you mean by “drivable road,” the track atop Railroad Ridge is Idaho’s highest at around 10,400 feet. While the road on top is easy going, a vehicle with some clearance is best for the climb up. Our Jeep scraped ground in a couple places.

Over ten-thousand
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Over ten-thousand
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36649158822

I visited this ridge a few years ago on a motorcycle trip¹ after hearing about it from other riders. I thought it was amazing and have been excited to share it with the kids.

  1. Trail Image, “Three National Forests: Challis”: trailimage.com/…/challis
Base camp
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Base camp
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010833763

I initially thought we might have the vast ridge to ourselves — it’s kind of hard to get to and not marked on any signs — but after seeing another truck, then three, then twenty, we realized that was unlikely.

“I shouldn’t have posted about it on Facebook,” I joked.

Center of totality
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Center of totality
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010837843

We were relieved to see most vehicles parking at the White Clouds hiking trailhead along Big Boulder Creek in the small valley below the ridge. Atop the ridge itself, within a few hundred yards of the very center of totality, are only about ten other, widely dispersed groups.

Party started*
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Party started*
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010842173

We position the Jeep and tent to create a break from the steady wind, sit for a photo, then Nick and I head off for a photography walk-about.

  1. starPhoto by Mikolaj Wus
Lichen
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Lichen
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010846543

“You always talk about that,” Brenna complains when I point out different colored lichens growing on dark rocks below our tent.

“I have a big, thick book just about lichens,” I tell Nick proudly, ignoring Brenna. My mom got it for me.

Best friends*
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Best friends*
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010850333

Sensing indifference, as pets always do, a little dog runs to me from a truck and tents some ways off, its owner in pursuit. I pick it up and try to simulate the sounds of someone who likes little dogs. “Hey there little guy, where you going?”

“Thanks,” the young owner says when he reaches us.

  1. starPhoto by Mikolaj Wus
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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010854573

It is still beautiful and awesome but I’m surprised how much drier it us up here compared to my last visit, also in August. It was a carpet of flowers then.

Lens hood kata*
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Lens hood kata*
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010859863

A common photography tip is to change your perspective: get high; get low. I don’t know if it helps the pictures but it’s funny for everyone else.

  1. starPhoto by Mikolaj Wus
Scree walker
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Scree walker
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010865603
Shadow boxing
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Shadow boxing
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010871383
Creosote
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Creosote
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010877533
Drinking buddies*
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Drinking buddies*
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820067825

Nick and I get back and find the ladies huddled on the inflatable mattress in the tent. “Do you want to go see the snow?” I ask Brenna, hoping to rescue her from this debauchery.

“Okay,” she answers with mild enthusiasm.

  1. starPhoto by Mikolaj Wus
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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820075595

“How far?” Brenna asks as we’re walking. My instinct is for a snarky answer since we can both see the snow from here.

“Just down this hill.”

Lupine
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Lupine
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820083535

“The sun is going to set soon,” I say absentmindedly, noting the long shadows falling across the valleys below.

“It’s getting ready for its big day,” Brenna replies with unexpected whimsy.

Reprise
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Reprise
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820089915

“That’s called ‘watermelon snow’,” I explain to Brenna after she’s walked out on the frozen ledge. “It’s caused by algae.” She looks at me incredulously as if I’ve told her it’s the work of elves. “It’s true!” I insist.

Neighbors
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Neighbors
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820097745

We leave the snow and start circling back around the other side of our ridge neighbors.

Bouquet
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Bouquet
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820102565

“These are for Kayla,” Brenna explains of all the lupine she’s picking. “And mom too.”

“They’ll like that,” I reply. “Just leave some for other people to enjoy.”

Crepuscular
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Crepuscular
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820107455
Prodigal
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Prodigal
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820111345

There are hot dogs on the grill (no fires allowed) when we get back to our spot. “These don’t have much flavor,” I complain of my vegetarian version as we’re all sitting with paper plates on our laps. I grab the mustard and squirt more on, looking jealously at the others. I’m not vegetarian but I do penance when I can for my ice cream habit.

Twin peaks
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Twin peaks
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820115345

“I think I’ll go say ‘hi’ to them,” I say, looking at a group of KLR riders on a nearby knoll. I’m curious to know where they rode from and if we know any of the same people.

“Yeah, you should go socialize.” Jessica says with too much enthusiasm. “Be friendly.”

“Now that you put it that way, I don’t really want to.”

Pink crags
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Pink crags
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820118305

The toothy horizon turns orange then pink as it swallows the sun. Nick and I dutifully record the moment as the ladies prepare evening entertainment.

“You add marshmallows to your mouth until you can’t say ‘chubby bunny’ anymore,” Kayla explains. Nick and Brenna are ready to go.

Side door
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Side door
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010936533

We don’t last long after Brenna and Kayla take turns reading cheesy, scary stories. Next thing I know, I’ve been awakened to the sound of footsteps outside. I focus my senses in the darkness. I can still hear them. It seems unmistakable but I’ve thought that before of midnight camping sounds … and been mistaken. I guess even if there is someone wandering around, I don’t care enough to see what it’s about.

“I went out to go to the bathroom about three,” Nick mentions in the morning. “The sky was a-m-a-z-i-n-g.”

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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010939233

Nick jumps out of the tent to join me as I start wandering toward the Chinese Wall, leaving the ladies to lie in their sleeping bags a little longer. The morning sun should have the broad stone face lit up nicely.

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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010941773
Occult
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Occult
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010944173

After coffee and a Costco pastry breakfast, the ladies join us for a walk to the other side of the ridge, the side we drove up. We’re surprised by all the smoke that rolled in overnight. We can’t even see the valley below anymore.

Some are red
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Some are red
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010949833
Alien forest
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Alien forest
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010953733
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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010957263
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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010961553
Latte
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Latte
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010966253
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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36423417320
Chinese Wall
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Chinese Wall
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36423423020
Gateway
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Gateway
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Pillow
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Pillow
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36423433090
Staring at the sun
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Staring at the sun
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36423438490

We pack up and find our special glasses as the moon begins to cross the sun, signaling totality in about an hour. This is what we came for.

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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36423442420

I was skeptical of things I’d been hearing about the eclipse. The temperature will drop thirty degrees. Fog will form over lakes. The dead will rise. C’mon, we’ve all seen the sun obscured on cloudy days. None of that stuff happens.

It turns out I was wrong. The air grows colder and colder as the moon makes its way. We started with a warm August day but now we’re pulling on jackets and finding blankets.

Partial*
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Partial*
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010995473

“It would be funny to play that ‘Total Eclipse’ song,” someone says.

“I have it but probably not here,” I answer. We’re far from any cell service. “It would only be on my phone if I downloaded it before. I don’t think I have. I guess I can check, though.” I walk to the Jeep, find it in Google Play and press the triangle button expecting to get a message about being offline. Instead it starts playing.

“Oh, sweet.” I connect it to the Jeep speakers and turn it up. We all begin laughing and singing along.

  1. starPhoto by Mikolaj Wus
White light
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White light
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36010999543

The color and quality of the light as the eclipse approaches totality is like nothing I remember. To call it surreal seems an understatement since it stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s like the fluorescent lights have been flipped on over a movie set that just moments ago we mistook for reality.

Layer of smoke
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Layer of smoke
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36011003853

The layer of smoke looks like a dark ocean in the strange, penumbral light.

“Play it again,” Brenna pleads of the too-obvious theme as we sit watching the slow but inexorable movements above.

“Let’s save it for the total eclipse,” I answer.

Awestruck
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Awestruck
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36011007073

I am unexpectedly awestruck as we enter totality and the moon becomes the dark maw at the center of a swirling, paranormal light that seems to radiate cold instead of heat.

I don’t want to turn away to bother with Bonnie Tyler again but Brenna insists. It kind of seems irreverent now.

Total*
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Total*
http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36011010963

It seems like hyperbole to assign much significance to so simple a phenomenon, something blocking the sun. But we all agree — the experience is stunning.

  1. starPhoto by Mikolaj Wus
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mapmap http://flickr.com/photos/trailimage/36820214865

Witnessing the total eclipse is more than worth the effort getting here. We are left feeling excited, somewhat triumphant, as we fold our chairs and regular light returns to this grand simulacrum.