Surviving the Wyoming eclipse

By: 
Doreen Heintz

The solar eclipse reaches almost totality in Wyoming. 

Photo by Doreen Heintz

I can still remember well the full solar eclipse of 1979. I was working at my brother’s service station in Stanford. Two things I remember the most were the eeriness when the moon completely covered the sun. Birds stopped chirping and singing – it was eerie not hearing a sound. The world just seemed to stop. My other memory was, it didn’t get what I would call dark “dark.” It was more of a twilight dark. 

With these memories in mind I decided to take my son to Wyoming to see a full eclipse. My brother and his wife live in Wyoming. They were not quite in the path of totality – just about 97 percent. It had been almost two years since I had seen Dan so I was going to plan some family time along with watching the eclipse. 

Sometimes I am a great procrastinator – and this was one of those times. When I decided I might need to get some eclipse glasses, every place I looked was all sold out, even on the internet. 

Mike and I left for Wyoming with one pair of welding goggles. I also took my camera as I really wanted to see what kind of pictures I could take of the eclipse. I even watched a couple of YouTube videos of how to take photos. I also read that eclipse photography should be kept to the professionals. 

After leaving Lewistown at 9 a.m. Friday morning, we arrived at Dan and Marsha’s in Pine Bluffs, which is 40 miles east of Cheyenne, at 7:15 that evening. 

We talked a lot about the eclipse over the next couple of days. Dan didn’t think it would be any big deal. I had no idea, although in 1979 it did not seem to be that important. 

My idea was to get up early Monday morning and head north so we would be in totality and also have a jump start on heading home. Mike and I left Pine Bluffs at 7:15 a.m. Traffic was just fine on Interstate 80 heading to Cheyenne. When we turned on to Interstate 25 to head north, the traffic was unbelievable. Being it was almost 8 a.m., I thought everyone in Cheyenne was just heading for work and the traffic would thin out once we got north of Cheyenne. Well I was certainly wrong. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic in both lanes of I25 as far as one could see. With the speed we were traveling, I quickly calculated we would not even get close to Casper by the time of the eclipse, and I was really hoping to be north of Casper to watch. There were signs all along the interstate telling people not to pull off the side of the road. Stopping on the interstate is for an emergency only.

I put a quick phone call into Dan. He told me to take the exit off the interstate and head to Torrington.

“The traffic on that road shouldn’t be too bad,” he said. 

We found the exit for Highway 85 and guess what? The traffic was just about as bad, although it was moving a little faster at about 45 mph. I made another phone call to Dan. He told me he was heading up our way. I could have just left Pine Bluffs and went north toward Torrington instead of getting on the interstate. That was Dan’s plan. He told me to wait for him at a junction, as we should be there before him. 

When we came to a rest stop, I needed to stop. It was the first time I had ever been to a highway rest stop when you had to wait in line to use the facilities - even the men had to stand in line. 

After standing in line for approximately 20 minutes, it was back in the car and back on the road. Of course Dan beat us to the junction. We then followed him into a little town called Albin. Dan had taken the Albin highway north. He said he thought usually there were only about 10 cars a week on that road.

“It was busier than that today,” he added. 

After stopping in Albin, Dan’s plan was to head north on some of the dirt roads out that way. Dan knew most of the side roads and where almost everyone lived. Off we go – soon we were the only vehicles on the road. Dan stopped at the side of the road. We pulled off to the side and sat on the tailgate of Dan’s pickup waiting for the eclipse. Besides us, there was only a farmer working summerfallow in the area. 

I asked Dan if he thought the farmer would stop and watch the eclipse. Dan said, “no way.”

I did forget to mention that Dan’s wife Marsha had come up with three pairs of eclipse glasses to watch it. Mike was bored rather quickly. He kept asking why we couldn’t hurry the eclipse up. 

Finally, the eclipse was upon us. We watched the moon as it began to cover the sun. As we got close to totality, the thing Dan noticed was the drop in temperature. I am fairly certain it dropped at least 10 degrees. This time I didn’t notice the quietness of the eclipse. Sitting out in the middle of Wyoming, it was already too quiet. There were no birds to quit chirping or singing. The farmer kept right on with his work. Again the dark was not as dark as some people think it should get. It still reminds me of the sun going down, but there are still a few rays hitting the sky.

After totality, we followed Dan to where we could get back on Highway 85 to Torrington. Because Dan was afraid I might run out of gas somewhere and not be able to get it, he topped off my gas tank with five gallons he had brought from home.

Getting into Torrington was not too difficult, because all the traffic was now headed the other direction. From Torrington, we needed to head west again to get to Interstate 25. It seemed like it took us forever. I am not even sure what highway we were now on, but it was slow going, especially when I kept thinking we must be getting close to the Interstate. 

Finally after what seemed like hours, I could finally see the Interstate and more importantly a rest stop. We signaled to pull into the rest area. The camper pickup in front of us did the same thing, but a woman was out in the road waving a flag for us to go on by and then we could see someone lowering the gate to keep anyone from going into the rest area. 

Dan’s text message, “only option is getting off an exit and XXXXX under a bridge.” No thanks, I thought.

Once we got on I-25 heading north it was smooth sailing – after all everyone else was heading south. Luckily there was another rest stop not too far down the road. It did mean standing in line again, but that was better than the alternative. 

While standing in line, I talked to a woman standing in front of me. She was heading back to Colorado, and it had taken them three hours so far to go 63 miles. I can imagine the frustration of all the people heading south. Some of the time, they were at a complete standstill while waiting for the Highway Patrol to let vehicles come in from a feeder road. I can’t imagine the time it took for people to get back to Colorado that day.

Wyoming had taken some steps to be ready for the big crowds. For example, all the train traffic in Wyoming was stopped for the eclipse. Also extra-wide loads and over-weight loads could not run on the highways, even the Interstates, from Sunday morning until Tuesday evening. 

I would like to share some interesting facts about the day as supplied by an Associated Press story

“The amount of traffic during Monday’s eclipse suggests Wyoming may have temporarily doubled its population of 585,000. That meant for a time the state’s population would have surpassed Vermont, Alaska, the Dakotas, Montana and Rhode Island to move to 43rd in population. 

Doug McGee of the Wyoming Department of Transportation said, ‘I would guess that yesterday (Monday) was the most people that ever have been in Wyoming at one time.’

Minutes after the eclipse until well past midnight on Tuesday, traffic was bad from Casper to Loveland, Colorado. 

Few accidents were reported. 

Finally, Wyoming’s previous total eclipse was in 1918. The next will be in 2106.”

Mike and I finally got back to Lewistown at 11:30 p.m. on Monday – 16 and a quarter hours as compared to the 10 and a quarter hour trip on Friday. 

Would I do it again? Certainly, it was neat to be a part of this special event, and my guess is I will never get to experience another total solar eclipse. Two in a lifetime isn’t too bad though.

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