When you book a room late in Casper, Wyoming, on the busiest night in the city’s history, you end up in a dump. Think of the Bates Motel with dirtier showers. At 8am, on the morning after the sleepless night before, we gathered in the restaurant next door for a head count: me, my wife, our two-year-old boy, my mother-in-law, her partner and my sister-in-law. Thankfully, we had all survived.
It was 21 August. The day of what we hoped would be a total solar eclipse. And, as we ate our pancakes, drank our coffee and Stanley, my son, got stuck in the slide in the indoor playground, we realised we needed a plan. We had spent two weeks on a phenomenal road trip, taking in Yosemite and Grand Teton national parks, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower and the Black Hills of Dakota, before ending up in Casper. Mark, my mother-in-law’s other half, is an astronomy buff. He had explained why we were going to Casper. This was a town right on the path of totality. I nodded along at the time, later Googling what ‘path of totality’ meant. It was the journey the eclipse would make across North America and the nearer to the middle of the path we could get, the more chance we had of experiencing the full deal; total darkness at around midday.
Mark had also explained that total eclipses rely on there being a clear sky. Hence, our lack of a solid itinerary. If the weather had been looking bad for Casper a couple of days earlier, we’d have headed somewhere else along the path. However, the predictions had been good, so Casper was the place for us. Total solar eclipses are not that rare, happening somewhere in the world every 18 months or so. The next one is due over the south Pacific, Argentina and Chile on 2 July, 2019, but today was going to be our moment (not) in the sun. All we had to do was drive around and find somewhere decent to take it in.
As luck would have it (and after our night in the motel from hell, we deserved some), we didn’t have to look far. Right outside, a couple packing up their 4 x 4 told us about the place they were heading to — a church just around the corner that was laying on food and drink, family entertainment and, the guy was particularly keen to tell us, toilets.
So, we rolled up to the Highland Park Church, a hideous concrete slab in the middle of barren scrubland. We joked about how we might be about to gatecrash an end-of-the-world shindig and taking our own lives would be part of the deal that went with our five-dollar entry fee. But, in our second stroke of luck of the day, everyone at the church — a mixture of locals and eclipse-chasers from across North America — was extraordinarily welcoming. And non-suicidal.
As we set up our base on the lawn, one of the pastors came over to say ‘hi’. An ageing smoothie with broad shoulders and perfectly placed silver hair, he told us he had heard about Big Ben being put out of action and offered his commiserations. A lady from Canada then let us watch the moon start to creep across the sun through her huge telescope. Nearby, a man in dungarees with a shaggy beard, whose first language was undoubtedly frontier gibberish, reclined in his camping chair.
With time to kill, Stanley and I headed for the lemonade stand and then on to the games stalls. The first one he chose was a health-and-safety defying darts game clearly not designed for mal-coordinated toddlers. But Stanley fancied his chances anyway and stepped up to the oche to do his best Phil Taylor impression. He somehow avoided injuring himself or any bystanders, before charging over to the ‘chuck the loo roll into the toilet’ game, which is as simple as it sounds, and, presumably, some kind of ancient Wyoming custom. The real toilets weren’t half bad either.
As the big moment approached, a hush descended on the small crowd dotted around the church grounds. Our party was fully concentrated, kitted out in special eclipse glasses that allow you to look directly at the sun, and eclipse T-shirts that allow you to look like an utter berk. The cloudless sky was just what we had been praying for. The temperature dropped suddenly and the light became increasingly murky. All of a sudden the eclipse, and the darkness, was upon us.
Car alarms immediately started going off. Street lamps blazed as if they were about to burst. And, most spectacularly, the stars appeared in an instant, enormous and dazzling, as if someone had flicked a switch. Mark pointed out Venus to me. There was nothing to do except cheer and hug each other — and try and look at everything at once. Stanley, meanwhile, was going mental. He charged around in a circle and chanted ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ like a possessed kid from a horror movie. Only the returning light banished the evil spirit and brought him back to his usual, only slightly loopy, self.
It’s easy to understand why some people become addicted to chasing eclipses. The adrenalin rush is part of it, but to me the real appeal — and why I’d love to do another one — lay in something more strange and less definable about the experience. The bizarre sensation of time both stretching and melting away. The eclipse felt as if it lasted an age while it was happening, and then, once it was over, seemed hardly to have happened at all.