Chasing the Sun Across the West

Setting out

This adventure was built around seeing the #GreatAmericanEclipse of 2017. About a month before the eclipse, we decided that the best option would be Southern Idaho—just drive out from Los Angeles along I-15 until we hit the path of totality, somewhere around Idaho Falls.

So, on the Friday before the eclipse, we set off late in the afternoon with a cooler packed with milk, fruit, goldfish, and whatever else two toddlers might need a few long days on the road. The traffic out of LA was atrocious and what should have been a 4-hour drive to Las Vegas turned into a 5.5 hour drive, stopping just briefly in Barstow for gas. By the time we arrived in Vegas, it was 8:30 PM and still ~100˚ F. We found some good ramen and continued on our way to Mesquite, Nevada and a waiting hotel room.

Empty Train in Tokyo
I-15 Near Barstow, CA. Cutting a slow path across the high desert towards Las Vegas, NV.
Empty Train in Tokyo
A late-night bowl of Ramen in Las Vegas

Before leaving LA, I had wondered just how much “eclipse traffic” there might be and was slightly worried that it had taken so long to get out of the LA Basin (looking back, I think it was normal Friday night traffic to Vegas). But somewhere between Las Vegas and Mesquite, in the dead of night, we passed an RV with a large banner attached to its rear reading “ECLIPSE OR BUST!” America was officially on the move towards a once-in-a-generation event.

The next morning, we were out of Nevada within about 5 minutes (Mesquite is on the Arizona/Nevada state line). Then, I-15 takes a very short path through Arizona (29.4 miles) and cuts a beautiful and winding path through the Virgin River Gorge, a towering set of steep, barren cliffs and hills. About as soon as we crossed the Utah state line, the road straightened out and the scenery was somewhat plain most of the way to Salt Lake City. A quick stop at McDonald’s in Beaver, Utah was the only thing that broke up the monotonous drive from the state line all the way to Provo. It was a good chance for the kids to escape the bonds of their seats and visit the PlayPlace.

While Salt Lake City is the “official” headquarters of the Mormon church (or the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints), Provo seems to be the cultural center of Mormonism. The town plays host to Brigham Young University and is thoroughly Mormon-feeling. Clean, nice, friendly, huge families, well-educated, but just a little bit different. After the kids played in a seemingly-public park—which was in reality part of church grounds in the city center—we had ice cream, waiting in a line behind a single family of 10. A bit of shopping and then back on the road all the way to Logan, Utah.

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Bear Lake and Entering Idaho

It was a blessing in disguise that the eclipse fell on Monday rather than Sunday. It was close enough to the weekend to justify taking time off from work, but leaving us with an entire day with nothing planned or scheduled, only knowing that we would start and end in Logan, UT. We headed out US Route 91 over the Bear River Range and ended up at Bear Lake, a large freshwater lake shared between Utah and Idaho that glistened blue-green in the sunlight.

After a bit of playing in the clear waters and my son admiring every wheeled vehicle he could find, we briefly slipped across the Idaho state line and found a place on the hill overlooking the lake to grab lunch. Then, it was back into Utah, back across the Bear River Range, and back again to our hotel in Logan for an early sleep—the next morning would be an early start for a drive northward towards the path of totality.

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The Sun Disappears

We woke up at 3:00 AM the next morning and piled into the car for a ~2.5 hour drive north to Idaho Falls. Setting out, it was obvious that there was higher than normal traffic. Traffic wasn’t yet heavy, but there was a steady stream of cars cutting across rural Utah. About thirty minutes into the drive, we passed into Idaho and the number of towns and buildings quickly dwindled until the road was lonely and winding through the dark. When we merged onto the I-15, we found the road absolutely packed. While traffic moved at or above the speed limit (80-85 MPH), both lanes of traffic were full. It seemed all of America really was coming for the eclipse.

When we made it to Idaho Falls, we knew we were “safe” and had made it to the path of totality. We stopped for a breakfast of Biscuits and Gravy at the North Hiway Cafe and then continued out of town another 20 minutes to somewhere near Thornton, ID—very close to the centerline of the eclipse. The kids played around outside the car and we texted my parents (in Nebraska) and my sister (in Missouri) who were also on the path of totality. It’s pretty unique to be simultaneously participating in the same natural event across the country.

Although I am a scientist by personality and schooling, it was still remarkable when the top right corner of the sun began to disappear behind the moon at the expected moment. Over the next hour and a half, the moon would slowly move across the sun, blocking out more and more of its light. But I don’t think it was until the last 5-10 minutes that it was noticeable without eclipse glasses. At that point, a noticeable temperature change took place, the light began to visibly dim, and animals began to act a bit strange.

And then it arrived: the 2-minute event for which we had driven for 2 days: the moon passed fully over the sun and blocked all but the sun’s atmosphere. In pictures, eclipses look interesting, but I have yet to see a picture that truly does justice to what an eclipse actually looks like. The ring around the sun is much larger and brighter than it looks in pictures. It also pulsates and moves in a way that still photos can’t capture. It’s magical and marvelous and well worth your time to get to a total solar eclipse. During the eclipse, birds took off into the sky, crickets started chirping, the whole world got darker, and everyone (about 5 car loads of people) at the random turnaround on a dirt road in rural Idaho was mesmerized.

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The Drive Home

And the other thing you sort of expect but that no one really tells you about before the eclipse: the traffic on the way back. The 20-minute drive back to Idaho Falls was now 90 minutes. Once we passed through Idaho Falls, the road opened up as we drove the “long” way through Arco and Craters of the Moon National Monument. Along the road, we passed EBR-1 (Experimental Breeder Reactor 1), the world’s very first working nuclear power plant—which provided power to nearby Arco. We stopped for lunch along the way at a small burger place, which only took 2 hours and was crammed full of eclipse chasers from around the world! From Arco, it was a long very-slow drive all the way to my Great Aunt’s house just outside of Buhl, ID (nearby Twin Falls). We visited and ate dinner with her and her husband before a much needed sleep.

The next morning, my Great Aunt (my dad’s dad’s older sister for whom my daughter is named) cooked us a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Just like my grandpa always did, she dutifully cooked the bacon in butter before cooking the eggs in the bacon grease, tasty but not the healthiest in theory, though I think that’s what most of that generation had every morning for breakfast. It was great to see my daughter, Annabelle, and my Great Aunt, Annabelle, playing the piano and dancing together.

After saying a million goodbyes, we hit the road and turned South for Nevada. We crossed into Nevada maybe an hour into the drive and stayed pointed mostly south for the next seven or eight hours! We passed through Ely, Nevada and then kept on down US Route 93 to avoid the still-heavy eclipse traffic, passing through some very remote country as well as some farmland that I had no idea was tucked away in Nevada.

Eventually, we made it back into Vegas (4 days later) and after some McDonald’s, we headed back to LA. Oddly, there was a bunch of rain that had passed over the NV-CA state line just before we got there, leaving a big flat lake which reflected the last rays of daylight and the low hills as we entered California. When we finally made it back to Sierra Madre, we had done 2,041 miles chasing the sun across the west.

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