Another Perspective - A Las Vegan’s account of the solar eclipse

-A A +A

By Joe Cooney

I traveled with fellow Las Vegans Joe Whiteman and Mary Byers all the way to a remote mountaintop near Dubois, Wyo. to watch the recent solar eclipse.

The morning was glorious and sunny with no hint of the astronomical drama that was about to unfold. We had camped about a half-mile below the viewing spot because of the steepness of the rocky dirt road and because of a bog that had developed in one of it’s few flat sections that was a sure invitation to getting our vehicle stuck.

As the time approached, a few like-minded people on foot and on ATVs passed our camp on their way up the mountain.

All told, about 25 of us gathered in a meadow near the summit.

Some folks came from as far away as Boston. The mood was festive and we discovered two actual astronomers among us! They happily answered many questions from those gathered. One of them told me he was so excited he could hardly talk! He was not a young man and, as with me, it was his first total eclipse.

We were about two seconds from dead center of the eclipse line with a prime view of the surrounding countryside and within sight of the Teton Mountains 80 miles away.

We all had our eclipse glasses with us and there was a bit of excitement at around 10:30 a.m., when the first little divot in the round shape of the sun appeared. Very slowly over about an hour that divot grew and grew until the sun was just a slim crescent.

Even with so much of its light hidden from view it was surprising how bright the morning remained, almost like a normal partly-cloudy day.

As the dimming continued, the planet Venus and a couple of the brightest stars in the sky became visible. We were above 9000 feet and the temperature of the thin mountain air then dropped precipitously. Those not dressed for it began shivering.

That was followed by a dramatic change in the light. It reminded me of when there is a distant forest fire and the smoke and haze create an eerie, unnatural illumination. The surreal darkening continued apace.

The Tetons were also in the eclipse path to our northwest and we watched as it reached them first. Because of some fires burning in Montana there was a diffuse haze in the air, especially noticeable near the horizon.

The Tetons had barely been visible before, but suddenly they were very dark and back-lit so that their silhouette was clear and sharp. One thing we were expecting to see from our vantage point was the shadow of total darkness approaching across the landscape at 2,500 mph.

Because of the haze in the air, that wave was diffused into a pervasive darkening like the sudden arrival of evening. Just as in twilight, a rosy color gathered along the horizon with gray-blue sky above it. In just a few minutes we went from bright daylight, to evening, to night.

At totality the Sun/Moon was breathtaking. So very black in its center and so very bright around the edges. Three big areas of solar flaring reached out from the black disc like branches of a fiery tree. It was an awe-inspiring sight.

I couldn’t help but think of how people through the ages must have been struck dumb and filled with fear at this stark image and at the sudden and unexplained transformation of their world.

After about two-and-a-half minutes, the sun peaked out at the place where the dark divot first appeared. I watched the celestial diamond-ring-effect for just a second before putting on my eclipse glasses again.

Just as quickly as before, we then went from night to dawn to day. The temperature rebounded and all seemed back in the normal range of experience. When you looked at the sun with the special glasses, the shrinking silhouette of the moon traveling across its face could be still be seen for about an hour afterwards.

Throughout the whole experience there were plenty of whoops and hollers, and oohs and ahhs from the crowd, and when it was all over, big smiles beamed everywhere.

We all felt very lucky to have been in that place, at that time, to witness this extraordinary and magical event.

Joe Cooney is a Las Vegas resident, area vocal music instructor and retired Highlands University music instructor.