Sixteen hours of driving is a lot. That’s how long it took us to drive the 888 miles from Pasadena, CA to Mackay, ID. But that’s what you do to see an event like the 2017 eclipse. Sure, we could have flown to Sun Valley or Boise, then drive, but we were bringing telescopes and other equipment, so we rented a Ford Expedition EL (the EL stands for “Extra Long”), packed up the family, and began the long drive across some of the most beautiful parts of the US. This is a journal of the travel and event.
Saturday, August 19th
Our first leg took us East on highway 210 to San-Bernardino, then up the 15 to Las Vegas. We stopped for the first time in Baker, CA. Famous for Alien Jerky (which we didn’t stop to try) and the World’s Tallest Thermometer. Pictured at right, you can’t quite tell that it’s nearly 100 F (38 C). Not much more time than to gas up, get some snacks for the road and then head out. We’re on a tight schedule!
The road continued on through the Mojave desert. I can still remember driving through this hot, dry landscape with our old 1992 Toyota Corolla (sans AC) on my drive to SoCal back in 2005. This time, we’ve got the Ford Expedition complete with cooled seats. It makes for quite a different driving experience.
Our first surprise was seeing the “new” solar power facility near Primm Nevada. Here, solar panels reflect sunlight to a tower, which heats up and generates steam to power a turbine. Maybe not so much on Monday…
The rest of the drive up to our first stop was uneventful. Nowhere did we see any of the increased traffic we had been dreading by leaving so late (well, at least compared to other eclipse chasers who’d left days earlier.
We arrived at Spanish Forks, a suburb of Salt Lake City, close to 5:45pm. Dan Kelson and his family had already arrived. We all had dinner at Malawi’s pizza. Excitement was high, even after all the travel. This wasn’t just a road trip anymore.
Sunday, August 20th
We got up relatively early, but mostly so Liam wouldn’t miss the continental breakfast. He’s very serious about being on time for breakfast, our Liam. While we were all heading for the same destination, we decided not to caravan with the Kelsons. Jenny just needs to get going. We got into a bit of trouble when Sasha and I found a playground nearby.
Turns out there are two Trader Joe’s stores in Salt Lake city, so we had a bit of a tour of downtown, near the University. Stocked up on lots of food because the general consensus among the eclipse crowd was that local resources would be stressed to the maximum and we should treat it like camping: pack it in, pack it out and leave it better than you found it.
On our way our of the city, I got my first “frissons” when I spotted the traffic sign alerting motorists that Monday afternoon traffic would be very heavy because of the eclipse. This just got a whole lot more real.
There were several other signs along the way, which you can see in the image gallery below. “Expect delays.” “No Parking on Highway.” But the roads remained clear. Occasional congestion due to road work, but nothing a seasoned SoCal resident couldn’t handle. North of Salt Lake, things are pretty flat. Lots of farmland with central pivot irrigation that produce those striking green circles I’ve often seen from the airplane. But before long, the Eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains were coming into view. Mackay, ID lay in a valley between the Lost River and Pioneer mountain ranges.
As we got near the town, we began to see literal signs of eclipse mania. Several spray-painted signs by the roadside told gave phone numbers of call to get a corner of land to camp on. The main road was blocked East and West off the highway for a street fair. Lots of out-of-towners walking the streets. A definite festival feel in the air.
We were first to arrive at the Wagon Wheel motel. A year and 2 months prior, I had reserved 6 rooms. Turns out one of those rooms was actually a cottage, which we grabbed for our family. Two of the motel rooms were in a newer building and also had full kitchens, so we had plenty of space for all the food/drinks. One went to the Kelsons, who arrived next. The other went to Drew and Gwen, who had requested non-smoking rooms. The remaining 4 rooms, well, let’s just say they were from a bygone decade when wood paneling and smoking were the norm. Luckily Racheal had brought Fabreeze spray and that kind of masked the tobacco smell. Well, not really.
Once everyone had arrived, we broke out the hog dogs, burgers, and tons of snacks and veggies everyone had brought along. We did not lack for food! Or drink. Aside from the Main Event, this will always be a very fond memory of mine: all of us just hanging out for a BBQ. The evening sky was… ominous. But the forecast was for clear skies. I do remember waking up at 4am and smelling smoke. But this smoke was from the wildfires in Oregon. That had me worried for the rest of the morning.
Monday, August 21st
It was clear. Yes! That was one major anxiety dealt with. Now all that was left was to get all the gear to the site. I took the Expedition at around 7:45 am and headed to the school. The rest of the crew decided that it was easier to walk the 0.8 mile distance. The truck navigator totally failed me here, but google maps saved the day and I found the location after some driving around. When you live in a small town, there isn’t much need for signage to the high-school football field.
We were treated to a nice breakfast by the teachers and parents of Mackay’s elementary school. Homemade breakfast burritos, yum! But we had to eat fast, ’cause there was equipment to setup, tables to get ready and easy-up shades to erect.
The View From the Ground
We had about 2.5 hours to “kill” before totality. But we had lots of stuff to show the folks while we waited. Everything from make-your-own pinhole projectors, to an refractor with H-alpha filter for seeing the prominences the Sun was so kind to show us even during her “down time” of solar minimum. I brought the pinhole projector I’d made for the transit of Venus and was so happy with how well it worked for partial eclipses (it was very tough to see the transit).
A few weeks before we left for Mackay, my contact at the school let me know that they had an 8-inch Celestron telescope. It had been donated to the school, but they had never been shown how it worked. It had been sitting in a closet for some time and needed some TLC. We not only brought our optics cleaning kit, but also a neutral density filter specifically designed for Celestron telescopes. As a result, the school had probably the best view of the sunspots. And they now have a functioning telescopes that can be used during the day as well as at night!
And of course, we had many eclipse glasses. Turns out we needn’t have bothered, as the local librarian had ordered 100 glasses for the town, but ended up receiving 1000 by mistake! Needless to say, most people showed up with their own pair, so no one had to share.
As the moon continued to take a bigger bite out of the sun, it was certainly clear that the quality of light was changing. Not only was the overall level going down, but the colors were becoming less vibrant. It was like sunset but with the sun high up in the sky. Everyone was getting very excited, even the astronomers, something more than one person noted to me later. Usually when we do outreach at schools and other public events, we’ve seen it all before. Not this time. We were all experiencing this for the first time together. The video below shows the 1.5 hours of partiality and 2 minutes of totality in a 4-minute time-lapse.
What struck me was how fast it came on. It doesn’t take much of the sun peaking around the moon to light up the world. So that last dip into darkness is very sudden. I used the school’s PA system to tell everyone it was time to take off their eclipse glasses and look at the covered sun.
I remember Venus being very bright overhead. I remember the corona being so much brighter than I had expected. The planet Mercury, never far from the Sun, had to be there somewhere. After a little hunting, I found it and let the crowd know where to look. And then it was over. The sun came back out and I almost exclaimed “No way that was 2 minutes!” into the microphone. I told everyone to use their glasses again. It was the shortest 2 minutes of my life.
The denouement was another 1.5 hours of partiality. Rather than everyone leaving, they stuck around almost until the end of partiality. There was so much to re-live with friends. I honestly don’t remember any of the take-down. I was on auto-pilot, a good part of my mind on other things. I do remember having lunch in the teacher’s lounge. At some point I drove the truck back to our Motel.
Rather than leave and risk the traffic snarls, we stayed another night in Mackay. That turned out to be good planning! Again, I was very thankful that we had so much outdoor space around the cottage and a fully functioning kitchen so that we could eat a communal meal of spaghetti, sauce, and fabulous garlic break. I was crashing hard, but not in a bad way. I hadn’t realized how much anxiety had built up in me. Having everything work out without a hitch, well, it felt really good to relax with a job well done. We took some time to wander the streets of Mackay, but this late in the day, everything was mostly closed. But we got a couple of souvenirs and a photo in front of the movie theatre, which had a special showing. Then it was back to the motel. I slept well that night.
Tuesday, Augst 22nd
We needed to get the boys back ASAP. Their school had started the week prior, and we didn’t want them to miss more than two days of school. We were going to drive the entire way back to Pasadena in one day. It was going to be grueling, so we took the time to tie stuff to the top of the Expedition, Jenny rearranged the back, and we managed to free up two rows of back seats: one for Sasha and one for Liam.
The next morning, we left by 6:15 am. Long before anyone else was ready. Quick breakfast of cereal, coffee, and we were off. The road through Mackay was quite deserted compared to the previous days.
The drive was just a longer version of what we’d done on Saturday and Sunday. We took turns driving, stopped for short breaks, including a visit to Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner in Barstow. It was a good amount of time for thinking. Foremost in my mind was this: 2024 isn’t so long from now!