The sun rises. The sun sets.
This is the way of things.
This is the alpha, and the omega.
The beginning and the end.
The sun rose that morning bright and clear over Laramie Peak. I sat on a little rocky outcropping watching its rising, letting it bathe me in growing warmth.
It's sometimes easy to forget about the sun. Strange, given how ever-present she is. Our entire lives revolve around the regular and dependable presence of this orb. The passing of days, seasons, years, the cycles that endlessly roll on. They are as sure as the day is long. Yes, in the depths of winter we ache for the Sun's return and celebrate her arrival in spring with vivid ecstasy and worship. We curse her when we are sunburnt. We occasionally stop to notice her paintings at dawn and dusk. But on the whole, we can forget her because we always know she will return. When is the last time you said "I am GRATEFUL for the sun"?
Later that morning, my friend Alex and I scrambled to the top of a rocky prominence at the base of a small mountain affectionately dubbed "Great 'Clipse". We named all the stony hills in our little valley - "A - 'Clipse", "B - 'Clipse", "C - 'Clipse", "D - 'Clipse", "E - 'Clipse", etc. Like countless others across the United States in a narrow slash from Oregon to South Carolina, we were gathering that morning to see the "event of a lifetime", the 2017 Solar Eclipse. Alex and I had driven into the Medicine Bow National Forest of eastern Wyoming, braving the backcountry roads in her Prius, and found a lovely campsite among a dozen or so other groups in a wide meadow. The country there is open and sparse, dotted with boulders and rocky hills, jack pine and ponderosa presiding over sagebrush. Truly a "home on the range".
From our viewing balcony, our view was uninterrupted for miles in all directions. We had the rock all to ourselves. The sky was crystalline and cloudless. Anxiously we awaited the start of the eclipse, checking the eclipse glasses for any scratches or pinholes, checking the sun every few minutes for any disturbances. The grasshoppers clicked about in their stumbling, drunken flight. The gray jays soared in their bounding glides between jack pines seeking morsels of pine nuts. Chipmunks and squirrels darted between the rocks, gathering seeds and inspecting crevices. The lowing of cattle drifted in from over the hills. A little girl flew a kite in the meadow below. Daily life went on as usual, as if nothing extraordinary were about to occur.
The ravens cawed and cawed, on and on, screeching. I wonder what they knew. I also wonder what the celestial bodies knew. It is fanciful to think of the sun and the moon conspiring in their acrobatics. Fanciful, and silly. With the powerful tools of science, giving agency to hunks of rock and gas seems childish. Unlike our ancestors, we know precisely why eclipses occur. And based purely on geometry and the laws of planetary motion, we can predict, with astounding accuracy, the time and duration of the eclipse for any locality. And at 10:25 AM, just as the astronomers foretold, a chunk of the sun disappeared.
It was tiny. A little nibble out of the edge of a cookie. Alex and I squealed with anticipation.
And then we waited. Every few minutes we would look at the bright orb again through our glasses and more of it would be gone. Then we would scan our surroundings, inspect the rocks, scrutinize our hands for any perceptible change in light. Nothing. Without the glasses, there would have been no way of knowing that the sun was being eaten away.
We waited more. As Annie Dillard points out in her account of a solar eclipse "I never saw the moon once. The moon has nothing to do with a Total Eclipse". She's got a point. It's so wild to be told that the moon is covering up the sun because you never see the moon. It's too close to the sun to ever be visible, and so what is observed is the sun "going through phases". But the phases aren't what we're used to from observing the moon. It's less like a shadow, and more like a god eating our beloved star.
It was not until the sun was perhaps three quarters gone that there was any perceptible change in the world. The air began to cool. We pulled out our flannels to bundle up. And the light was weird. It was as if someone had dialed back the contrast and saturation in the world. All became pallid and sickly. I imagined myself careening out through the solar system, away from the sun. We were astronauts on Mars, then Jupiter, then Saturn. Never before have I experienced our star to be feeble. Even beneath thick clouds, filtered through fog, or refracted as in a sunrise or sunset, the sun is full of strength and fire. But not this sun. This sun was ill and waning.
The shade grew. We were on Pluto. The eye was confused - there was a metallic hue to the world - we were in outer space. The wind was cold. The grasshoppers went silent, the birds flew to their roosts. The crows said not a word. The sun was a vanishingly thin crescent. But we were still within the bounds of familiar reality. We were still in the realm of the living.
Then, the veil fell. It happened suddenly. In the west we saw the furthest range of mountains fall away. Then the next. This was the shadow of the moon, they say. But it did not resemble a shadow. It was more of a curtain, or a wave, or a mouth. It overtook us. It swallowed us whole. The veil fell, and the temple was rent in twain, and the film between worlds shattered. We were in the world of the dead.
The valley rose up in shrieks. Everyone screamed like jackals, and the howls reverberated off the walls of the mountains. Alex yelled "Look at the sun!" But the sun was not there. What I saw was not our Sun. What I saw was a horrifying, gaping hole ringed in flame. They say the it is the moon ringed by the gas jets of the Sun's corona. I say it is the most beautiful and awful sight I have ever beheld. I know in my rational brain that it was silent, this hole. But I cannot help but hear the most terrible, ear-splitting roar. I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me, but I wailed just the same. Somewhere between a laugh and a sob and a howl. Reflexively. Instinctively. There is no other way of responding to such terror.
A bird, scared utterly shitless, flew almost directly into our faces.
The sky was deep indigo, and there was a smattering of stars. It was the hue of twilight, but in vivid, artificial technicolor. And the horizon was in flames. It was a neon orange sunrise in three hundred and sixty degrees. Everything was wrong. We were no longer in the realm of the living, we were rising from our graves to be judged at Armageddon. This was the end of all things.
And then it was over. The light returned. It swept over us, and the shadow fled over the hills with frightening speed. We breathed. We were silent. We took stock of the world. We were alive, the world was just as we remembered it.
Color crept back into the hills, and warmth seeped into the air. It was high noon. The grasshoppers were chirping again. The birds and flies returned to the air. Life resumed after briefly ending. It was a miracle.
I began to relax. I realized my muscles had been fully tensed for the totality and much of the lead up. Alex and I made avocado sandwiches and scarfed them down like animals. We were breathless and speechless.
The one thing that continues to perplex me is that we knew this eclipse was going to happen. We were as prepared as one could possibly be. We knew that at 10:25 AM the moon would begin to travel over the sun, and at 11:45 AM it would fully cover the sun and totality would last two minutes. We read Annie Dillard's "Total Eclipse" the night before for an artistic and emotional understanding of what we were about to experience. We fucking knew everything, and it still knocked us flat. We humans are all full of hubris with our fancy machines and sciences, and then the moon blots out the sun and we're no bigger or better than insects again. Imagine not being aware in any capacity that an eclipse was about to occur, and then finding yourself swept up in Hades. You would think the gods were ending the world. No wonder people dropped dead in fear. This is the stuff people build temples and give offerings for. Suddenly it's not so silly to speculate about the plans of the sun and moon. Suddenly it's the only explanation that makes sense.
The following morning, Alex and I awoke early to greet the sun. And I must say, I have never before awaited a sunrise with such uncertainty and such gratitude.