Humanities and the 2017 Solar Eclipse

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There are few concepts so critical to our human experience and humanity as language. In the Bible, the naming of the beasts and birds is the first task set to Adam, even before Eve is created. And of all the punishments God could have brought early man, it was confounding of language that was punishment for trying reach the heavens, a story that conveys the fear of lost communication.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica notes life as we know it would be impossible, even inconceivable, without language. It is so important nearly all religions and cultures have stories and myths about the origin of language. Despite the indisputable power and importance of language, it has its limitations and it is constantly evolving. Is it he/she, (s)he, or they? What is the most appropriate term for XYZ? This evolution of language hints at its weakness. Language identifies something we recognize, or perhaps differentiates between many things we recognize. We have words for things (nouns), actions (verbs), and ways to modify these (adverbs, adjectives) into a structure and form we recognize (prepositions, conjunctions, interjections) and we do this with commonly understood and accepted phrases (syntax). But from time to time, we experience something that cannot be as well-defined. It requires social, cultural, or experiential references rather than clear-cut definitions. They draw upon our shared humanity while being distinctly unique and individualized; we call these sublime.

The recent solar eclipse on August 21st is one such example of the sublime. Eclipses have driven myths, social and religious events and activities, and science in an attempt to explain it all. And while we can now predict these with precision and accuracy, and record and photograph it, it is still a unique and unmistakable experience. For some no words can describe it, others may not wish to, and some have no interest. But because the experience is so individualized for each of us, because it captures myriad human thoughts and emotions, the whole process and event is perfectly sublime.

The sublime hints at our human connections shared though distinctly unique experiences. These are our brushes with the sublime. Find us on Facebook and tell us about your experience!

Sheila Bricher-Wade – Cheyenne, WY

Our plan was to head north to experience totality. Fred’s test run revealed an “invasion,” (“no Wyoming license plates!”) on Friday when he secured a camping spot on a ranch north of Torrington. Our house is a mile from I-80 and 2 from the I-25 junction; weekend traffic noise reminded us we could never live in Los Angeles. Travel warnings for 8 to 12 hour delays on I-25 following the eclipse with an added southbound lane, gave us pause. We reconsidered the implications of spending the night in a flat field with hundreds of people, no trees, no facilities, and daytime temperatures in the 90s with a single southbound return lane on US-85.

Realizing we just weren’t that into it, we skipped the trip and stayed home to witness Cheyenne’s 97.6% of totality from home. The actual change in light resembled a thin cloud over the sun. Watching through our special glasses was kind of cool but not particularly awe inspiring. It was disappointing to realize that space photos were more exciting than our view from the street. There were no amazing changes in temperature or natural phenomenon. For us, unlike for friends who communicated reactions to totality across the country, there was no amazement, sobbing, overwhelming poetic inclination, magnificent revelation or insights. Our eclipse experience: schadenfreude when hearing of impossibly long drives home by friends. Perhaps we’ve been in Wyoming too long.

Surprisingly, in our little corner of the world, the best part was watching and listening to the celebrations of the multi-generational Hispanic family up the street. Approximately two-dozen relatives gathered on a front lawn not much larger than a postage stamp to share three pairs of glasses we provided. Some appeared awestruck; there was excited oohing, awwing and wowing, pointing, a whole lot of laughter and squealing, loud music, with the smell and smoke of grilling meat and vegetables filling the air. They had a great time. The eclipse was just an excuse.

Monday night we realized that we have free housing with relatives in the zone of totality (Dayton) for the April 2024 solar eclipse. We’ll keep the expensive glasses, arrive well ahead of the event, avoid traffic and crowds and again experience a once-in-a-lifetime event from a different driveway.

Kathy Burman – Ohio

Anything that brings people of all walks of life and experiences together including ethnicities, faiths and economics is a win.

This past weekend, I traveled hundreds of miles to be with my lifetime friends to help console a friend who recently experienced a most horrific tragedy. While I have to admit we all “look” the same and we have all had pretty similar life experiences, we definitely don’t all have the same beliefs.

The purpose of our gathering had nothing to do with the eclipse, but as we passed around one pair of eclipse glasses, we experienced an incredible celestial event together that, for a moment, made you realize that life is much larger that our time on earth and the bonds we share are much stronger that our differences. Hopefully, that short break from “life” helps the healing process from life’s tragedies.

Erin Pryor Ackerman – Rawhide Wildlife Habitat Management Area, WY

I have a three-month old baby who, if I’m lucky, will wake me up only once per night. This means that sleep is precious. Very precious. But not more precious than seeing a full eclipse.

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So, despite the lost hours of sleep, I embraced the plan for a 5 a.m. departure from Laramie. Our group, including a Wisconsin climatologist and a last-minute St. Louis friend, had no idea how bad traffic might be and we wanted to make sure we would be in the path of totality come eclipse time.

We found that our eclipse enthusiasm was shared—and maybe even exceeded—by our fellow observers at the Rawhide Wildlife Habitat Management Area. There was the gentleman from Texas who had flown in for the event and had a flight out later that afternoon, a plan that, with 20-20 hindsight, was spectacularly optimistic. There were the two men from Colorado Springs who projected the eclipse onto a piece of cardboard so that folks without special camera filters could take pictures. There was the young girl in a full NASA astronaut suit who enthusiastically sprinted around the area waiting for the eclipse to start. And there was the 12-year-old girl who, during the 2 minutes of total eclipse, shouted repeatedly “This is unforgettable!”

A friend had recently returned from Yellowstone and rather than complaining about the crowds simply stated, “It’s crowded because it’s awesome.” The eclipse was that writ large: epically crowded and literally awesome.

I had known there would be crowds and awesomeness, although both exceeded my expectations in terms of scale. What I hadn’t expected was the community that formed around people’s excitement for this event.

Even the return traffic yielded community: Torrington residents sat with their neighbors and watched the traffic crawl by, while others leaned on car doors and chatted with drivers when the sheer number of cars ground traffic to a halt. A young man stood on the corner of a side street and waved his arms, trying to convince cars to take a shortcut. When we turned, he gave us a nod and a thumbs-up.

These interactions impacted our experience of the day just as much as the moments when the moon passed between the earth and the sun. While my daughter’s too young to remember this event, she’ll grow up hearing stories about it—both the eclipse itself and the community formed by eclipse-watchers. Both, as they say, were unforgettable.

Joshua Watanabe – Fort Laramie, WY

eclipse traffic in wyoming
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For something so predictable, there was nothing predictable about the eclipse. As the date neared my wife and I resigned to the fact that we would not travel. The traffic, the crowds, the value or worth of the total – being in the area of totality – was unpredictable. I like predictable. There is comfort and security in the predictable. I could predict that without travelling, I would witness the eclipse, however partial, but I knew what time to go outside, where to look, and when I would be home. The plan was small, safe, and comfortable.

But 10 days before the eclipse, an old friend and college roommate asked nonchalantly if I would be working on August 21. After checking the calendar, I laughed. No. So, he proceeded to tell me, he was going to fly into Casper, get a hotel, and watch the eclipse. If I wasn’t working perhaps I would like to come to Casper and see him. I laughed again. No.

Of course, 10 days before the eclipse, there were no accommodations, anywhere. I offered him a room while resigning myself to the simultaneous decision of now travelling. No one would travel across the country for a partial eclipse.

As the time grew nearer, I planned meticulously. I memorized maps and read everything I could from WYDOT. I knew what time we would leave, and struggled with the variable of arriving home. I compared road sizes, location publicity, and mileage. I decided we would go to Ft. Laramie. I predicted it would be less traveled than anywhere near Casper. I predicted it would be less crowed because they had not overly publicized the location, and it encompasses a large area. I predicted, based on others’ predictions, it would also have a clear sky – thus, not rendering the plans worthless.

We arrived by 8:30 a.m. It was predictably busy but not crowded. It predictably hot but I was prepared. As the eclipse near, the sky was clear, and I felt content. My predictions and planning had paid off. But in my predicting and planning for the eclipse, I had nearly forgotten to think about the event itself.

I predicted bad traffic travelling home so we waited before leaving. My prediction was right but not cautious enough. Four hours turned to five and rolled into six well before we got home. My prediction that Sybille Canyon would be less traveled was right. As I finally pressed the gas petal and neared Laramie, I noticed I had not predicted the traffic coming into Laramie on Highway 30.

Later, as I finally reached home and began to reflect on the day, I began to appreciate the magnitude and enormity of the event. From the last-minute plans, to sharing the experience with one of my friends and my wife, and the overexposure to the rest of the crowds, it was nothing like I predicted. I recalled the two minutes standing underneath the moon as it passed in front of the sun. It was nothing like the pictures. It was not nearly as dark as I had predicted or even hoped. The buildup and anticipation lasted forever, and then it was over. It’s beauty was unexplainable, but what made it so was sharing it with and among others as everything else faded.

Shannon Smith – Alliance, Nebraska

Most of us Nebraskans have known Alliance as a major hub for the Burlington Northern Railroad at the western end of the state, but in the late 1980s the town became famous for the unique car sculpture known as “Carhenge,” a formation of vintage American vehicles that replicates Stonehenge. In 1987, thirty-nine automobiles were placed to assume the same proportions as Stonehenge with the circle measuring approximately 96 feet in diameter. Some autos are held upright in pits five feet deep, trunk end down, while other cars are placed to form the arches and welded in place. All are covered with matte gray spray paint to replicate the ancient stone. The honor of depicting the heel stone goes to a 1962 Caddy.

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Community lore has it about ten years ago a “Russian guy” called the city’s Visitors Bureau to ask about reserving a large block of rooms for the solar eclipse because Alliance was in the exact center of the path of totality. The city had no idea what that meant or why anyone would want to rent an entire motel. They soon found out. People wanted to spend the eclipse at Carhenge. “There will be tens of millions of people who see this eclipse, but this is the best spot,” said Blake Marnell, who drove from San Diego deep into the wheat and bean fields of western Nebraska, “I figured this was the most American place in America to see the American eclipse. We have won the eclipse.”

The 8,400 people of Alliance were prepared for an “apoc-eclipse” or “eclipse-ageddon,” expecting more than 60,000 visitors to clog the streets and highways. It went off without a hitch. Farmers on all sides of Carhenge mowed their fields and all the town’s schools and churches were open for campers to park in their lots and use their facilities. Families sold lemonade and cabbage burgers and everything you could imagine on their front lawns and the town hosted a pow-wow and parade and had live music downtown for four nights running. The atmosphere was Woodstock. It was joyful, friendly, and fun.

Scott and I camped on friends’ land right outside of town. We drove out by Carhenge many times to watch the lots fill up and the people set up telescopes and tents. The governor flew in the morning of the eclipse. More than 160 planes flew in to the town’s airport and Denver International Airport had to take over flight control. The anticipation built. Everyone was listening to KCOW AM radio as the governor and the builder of Carhenge and various international visitors were interviewed. We had on our glasses, was that a little tiny divot in the top right of the sun at about 1 o’clock? Yes! YES, it was! I could see how ancient people could get a sense of what was happening because the occasional light cloud cover worked like our eclipse glaces to reveal the “bite” that the frog was taking of the sun as Cherokee legend described eclipses.

As the march of the moon progressed across the sun, KCOW began to play eclipse-themed music, mostly classic rock, and launched a countdown between songs. We started to worry the cloud cover was thickening and we couldn’t see through our glasses when the clouds were in front of the sun. And then with just three minutes to go, KCOW started playing Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a seriously awful song (hope I don’t offend anyone out there!) and we all groaned. Talk about messing with the mood of the moment! Then as someone got up to quickly turn off the radio a miracle happened, you remember how AM radio sounds when you go under a power line? Static filled the air and then the station faded out to silence with less than a minute to go. We couldn’t believe it. It stayed silent throughout the total-darkness.

At the same moment, the clouds cleared and revealed the sun as it entered totality; it was something beyond compare. For two minutes and 38 seconds we felt the connection of all things and all people. It reminded us just who we are here: small people on a small planet; many of us in small towns filled to overflowing with happy visitors all wanting to witness this astronomical spectacle. People prayed, people wept, people cheered, people wandered around dumbstruck. And when the diamond ring sparkled back on the other side and the reverse process began, we all felt overjoyed and renewed.

I see now, looking back on the entirety of the experience, it was the human interactions that defined this event. Millions of people simultaneously celebrating a magnificent and rare celestial occurrence reminds us of our shared humanity. Even the folks who were stuck in a nation-wide once-in-a-lifetime traffic jam agreed that it was worth it as they crawled their way home. As for me, I’m already looking at the 2024 eclipse. I might even grow to like “Total Eclipse of the Heart!”