WEISER, Idaho – Through a protective lens, the sun became a dense orange crescent. The sky dimmed strangely, as though a dome of shadow were filtering down. For a few seconds it seemed as if time had slipped its leash, set free by the combination of surreal natural phenomenon and intense anticipation.
“I’d say at this point we’ve got about one minute,” one man called out to the crowd gathered on the lawn at Weiser High.
“No,” a woman corrected him. “Eight minutes.”
“Eight minutes? Are you serious?”
And then, from farther away: “It’s five minutes or so. I think.”
A lot of people had been eagerly waiting. The Great American Eclipse, which laid a swath of midday darkness Monday from sea to shining sea, had been attended by epic expectations and hype, and this town of 5,500 on the western border of Idaho had been the subject of both. Now that the moon had almost completely covered the sun – now that totality was almost here – the crowd’s fidgety impatience was palpable.
That disappearance of that final sliver of sunlight – the difference between the partial eclipse that appeared in Spokane and the total eclipse that occurred throughout south-central Idaho – was taking seemingly forever.
“Dude, it’s getting dark!” my 8-year-old nephew, Josh, shouted. “This is sick. Look how skinny it is!”
“Oh, wow,” my 10-year-old son, Cole, said. “It just got dark dark.”
“I love it,” Josh said.
But still it hung on, that fiery sliver. Totality was like Christmas morning, forever not yet here.
“As soon as that ring of light appears,” a young man told his companions, practically hopping with excitement, “I’m taking off these glasses.”
My son, my nephew and I had come to see the eclipse together, staying in a fifth-wheel trailer that a Weiser couple rented to us. Idaho was among the best spots in the country to view the eclipse. The “path of totality” entered the state from the west at Weiser, passed through the mountainous Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and exited after passing over Idaho Falls and Rexburg.
We had come expecting a traffic apocalypse, hours and hours of driving, swarming hordes throughout the state. We’d spent the prior few days visiting family in southern Idaho, and the event was on everyone’s minds everywhere we went.
In the end, while there were surely crowds throughout Weiser and the traffic was definitely slow in some places, the worst of the predictions didn’t come to pass. But it was a remarkable event for the town in any case. The FFA club put on a pancake breakfast in the park, where booths and food trucks served the crowds. RVs and tents filled the fields in and around town. High school science students took telescopic measurements of the eclipse as part of a national project.
Kids sold “Eclipse Drinks” at roadside stands, and T-shirt sellers hawked “Eclipse Products.” Plenty of signs offered parking or camping for a price, but the Weiser Christian Church was one of a handful of places advertising free parking for eclipse watchers. Visitors came from all around the country and the world.
“For us, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Gary Hill, a resident of Weiser who watched the eclipse from his backyard. “Just to see all the people here is kind of fun – that our little town is kind of the center of the universe for once.”
Our original plan had been to drive up from Boise early on Monday, and then drive back to Boise, and catch a flight home that night. This plan drew a lot of skepticism and outright mockery beforehand. One person said there were predictions of 10-hour drives for the 74 miles between Boise and Weiser. Others noted, teasingly, that missing a flight would be a small price for pay for seeing a total eclipse.
Hill and his wife, Joya, came to the rescue. Through a combination of luck, timing and the Hills’ generosity, we ended up with a bed Sunday night in Weiser for $150. This was substantially less than he could have asked – people were charging hundreds, even thousands of dollars for that particular Sunday night for cabins, homes and even bedrooms. Sunday night, more than one RV on the Hills’ street was lighted and occupied, just as ours was.
We watched the beginning of the eclipse from the Hills’ backyard, which sits on a rise looking out over the town and the Treasure Valley. Josh and Cole began tracking the size of the “bite” the moon was taking out of the sun. We decamped for the high school, where crowds filled the football field and the lawns around the school.
Homin Lim, a 69-year-old veteran of two past total eclipses, gathered members of his family from all over the country to witness the event. He had cameras he had custom-rigged for eclipse photography, with long lenses and special solar filters.
What is it about eclipses that he loves so much?
“I don’t know,” he said, struggling to put it into words. “Some things can’t be explained. It’s just a rare natural phenomenon. It’s a wonderful happening.”
He paused. “You’re going to see for yourself.”
In the seconds before totality, the odd daylight darkness intensified, intensified, and then –
“Oh!” a woman exclaimed, part of a chorus of stunned reaction. “Oh! It’s about to go away.”
The moon practically clicked into place. The sun’s corona blazed around the deep black void of the moon, and darkness radiated down from the top of the sky to the daylight-bright rim of the horizon. It was hushed and strange and fascinating – and “sick!” – and then, after the grindingly slow wait for it to begin, the 125 seconds of totality passed in what felt like an instant.
The sun peeked past the edge of the moon, and people began rushing to try and beat the traffic back to Boise.
“Now we’re back to reality,” one man said.
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