How it Feels to See a Total Eclipse

We've been in Stanley, ID since Wednesday preparing for this solar eclipse. News reports wrote of sold out motels, declared a state of emergency for the area, told of tens of thousands of people descending upon this working class town of 63. One article we came across even shared a man's personal account to chase this thing - he booked his hotel 12 years ago.

And the fever spread.

In downtown Stanley, roadside vendors, huddled beneath white pop-up tents, peered out at visitors from behind "total eclipse" T-shirts swaying in the breeze. Bulletin boards throughout town declared "eclipse protocol" and warned of parking bans. There were torn advertisements promoting camping space for $250 a night. Nearly every business has a piece of paper stuck to the door notifying the public that supplies are limited and that they'll be closing for an hour on Monday to view the eclipse.

But as the day has crept closer, the excitement, palpable last week, has begun to wane. Fields that had been designated Eclipse Parking were scarcely occupied. Port-o-johns dotting the town remained relatively untouched. Business owners, despite seeing an influx of visitors, seemed deflated when we asked them about the eclipse, saying the town wasn't seeing nearly as many people as the papers projected.


Perched atop Nip n' Tuck Road, our vantage point allows us to look down on the town like an all-knowing Oz. Nestled in the Idaho foothills, the Sawtooths stand at attention before us, Route 21 at their feet. Each night, as the light of day fades into darkness, we're able to see a steady stream of brake lights moving like the Salmon River below.

A photographer from a local newspaper stopped by yesterday. She saw Matt with his big lens and told us we had the best spot. That seems to be the question on everyone's lips: "Where are you watching the eclipse?". It's both an attempt at friendship and also a pissing match.

Monday, August 21, 2017. The big day. We awake at sunrise alongside our new friends Meghan and Tyler, Jimmy and James. Matt unzips the tent, then the fly and pokes his head out into the crisp morning air. It's hazy.

You see, there's a fire - the Ibex fire - that's been burning in the area all summer. A few days ago, the wind changed course and began blowing smoke toward the mountains. This morning they're missing. It's as if the Sawtooths have been hidden behind a sheet of velum - visible but just barely.

And with the haze, the wind has brought an undercurrent of anxiety almost as thick as the smoke.

Last night, the six of us talked well into the night. We stood in a circle, literally breaking bread, sharing personal stories until it got so dark we couldn't see each other's faces. Meghan and Tyler to my left, Matt, James and Jimmy arcing counterclockwise from my right. 

Now, a U.S. Forest Service vehicle flanks either side of our camp site. They say they're here to help manage traffic. It's part Roswellian curiosity, part apocalypse. The air, last night electric with anticipation, is now punctuated by nervous laughter and the scramble of the U.S. Forest Ranger's walkie as we wait.

Then there's a pupil in the sky.

The seven of us are switching between putting our glasses on and taking them off. Some are trying to take photos of the process with their iPhones but the effort is proving futile. I place the glasses on my head and the cardboard cuts uncomfortably into the tops of my ears. I have to stick the ends into my Buff just to get them to stay on my face. I'm thinking to myself, and perhaps even said it out loud, that I look like a geriatric patient.

Our group is set up in a line, like a firing squad aimed at the sun. Heads cocked upright, talking and pacing, the sky slowly beginning to eat away at the sun. First it's a pupil. Then it's a Pac-Man. The nervous energy from this morning has distinguished. Everyone's aflurry with excited conversation.

The light has flattened. The sun is now a sliver being eaten by the sky. As I look around, there's a sallowness to our new friends' faces. The air has chilled. People are grabbing their coats and stuffing balled hands into their pockets. Death is creeping up our legs, our torsos, draining the color from our cheeks. We are at once everlasting and buried beneath the ground under our feet.

Someone calls out "five minutes to showtime!".

The chill in the air has frozen the blood in my veins. The hairs prick up on the back of my neck and we turn around as a collective to face the opposite end. The darkness falls upon us, rushing at us like a freight train. It feels as if the air is squeezing me from all sides. A wormhole. Time is at once stopped and hyperlapsed. Our feet are firmly planted, but we're in another dimension.

Above Earth. On Earth. For mere seconds there is no difference. We collectively hold our breath, united as one in this sacred cathedral.

As the curtain of darkness falls, someone yells, "look!" and I snap my head upward. The sun looks as if it has been shot through with a bullet; a huge gaping hole remains where the center should have been. The sun, free from its shackles, extends its arms and dances. Firey wisps seem to buzz with some otherworldly energy.

We screamed. We gasped. We howled with voices that simultaneously belonged to us and didn't.

For a brief moment in time, it's as if time stood still. It became flexible. Bendy. Turned on its head. All of us stood - except for James - and were frozen in some other place in time. At once it was the Middle Ages, or the 70s or prehistoric times. We were each transported to Elsewhere - maybe it was the same for each of us, maybe different. I'll never be sure.


Two minutes and it was over. The sun emerged as did we from our spell. In the blink of an eye, life breathed back into us. Our bodies unfroze. The light was like Prince Charming's kiss jarring us awake. When I came to, my heart was pounding, my breath labored. My skin had turned back to its olive tone.

The pockets of cars scattered along this long dusty road seemed to vanish. The heat of the sun had returned to my face; my heart to its natural rhythm. I glanced left. I glanced right. Life had resumed as if nothing extraordinary had occurred and I'm left wondering:

Was this all a dream?

Hillary Federico1 Comment