July 13 through August 25, 2017
(Kids viewing an eclipse in 1963…the year I was born! From Time magazine.)
I’m just getting back in the groove after a whirlwind of a road trip vacation to, primarily, view the total solar eclipse. I was able to cram so much into 5 days, and I was able to do it with 2 of my most favorite people on the planet. If only every day were as free and relaxing as those 5 days were… But, life isn’t that way (until I win Powerball), so I’m going to write a post about it before my old brain forgets any details I’d like to remember.
Day #1 – August 19 – Home to Lamar, CO – about 580 miles, 9.5 hours of driving
I picked up my best friend, Jerri, at her house and then we dropped off Tilly at the Woodland Park Pet Resort. By 9:00 AM we were on the road and headed toward Colorado. Most of the trip was the same as when I drive to see my sister in Crested Butte, so there weren’t any new or exciting vistas or landmarks. I’ve been driving that route for 20+ years, so I could do it in my sleep, and there are times when I may have done that.
When we got to Dumas, TX, we went straight instead of making the turn toward Dalhart, and that’s when the drive changed course from my usual route. Both of the new “sights” we saw were Mother Nature-related. The first was a huge thunderstorm that had the look of a tornado. We could tell it wasn’t because there was no rotation and it wasn’t moving, but it sure looked like a funnel from a distance.
In all my years of driving and all my years of eating sunflower seeds (sometimes at the same time), I have never seen a field of sunflowers. Well, now I can check that off my list as I saw some on this trip. The pic below was the first field I’ve ever seen, which was in eastern Colorado. It’s an awful photo, but we really thought we’d see some more later with a place to pull off the road. We did see another field in South Dakota (or was it Nebraska?), but it wasn’t convenient to pull over then either. So, this, and a postcard I bought, will have to do:
Lamar, CO is not too far north of the Oklahoma panhandle and is definitely in an agricultural and oil-producing area. Wind farms dot the landscape along the way, too. We arrived around dinner time, but we checked into our hotel first. The room was acceptable, but I doubt that I’ll stay there again if I find myself stopping in Lamar in the future. It appeared to be old but clean, but on closer inspection the bathroom wasn’t really very clean at all. It wasn’t disgusting, and it may have been cleaner than my own bathroom, but as my sister said, “Those are your germs, not a stranger’s.” Neither Jerri nor I showered there. The desk clerk was very nice though, the price was reasonable, and it was quiet.
What the room lacked in luxury, the town made up for with charm, friendliness and hospitality. I had seen online that Lamar is home to a Petrified Wood Building. My postcard collection includes many, many views of fun places like this, so I’m always thrilled when I get to see one in real life. The building is now a used car lot.
Lamar is also home to one of the 12 Madonna of the Trail statues. I have postcards of one or two of them, and now I have a photo of the one in Lamar, CO.
The statue sits on the grounds of a Welcome Center, and it was open for another 30 minutes so we went inside. A wonderful woman named Margaret spent that half hour talking to us about the town and many other topics. She is a great ambassador for Lamar.
We chose Pizza Hut as our dinner spot as I rarely get to eat pizza at home since I’m the only one eating it. So, I only get pizza when my friends are in the mood for it, too. The Pizza Hut in Lamar did not disappoint. The salad bar sucked, but the pizza was absolute perfection…thin and crispy crust, light on the sauce, pepperoni slightly “toasted,” and even the water I drank tasted like heaven. Yeah, I’m weird to be raving about the Pizza Hut meal we had, but couple that with an attentive waitress, and it was probably one of the better dining out experiences I’ve had in months!
After stuffing ourselves, we went back to our musty room (the indoor pool was across from our room, so it had the feel and smell of a humid day in South Florida). I was so tired that I managed to crochet maybe 3 rows of an afghan square, and I may have read 1-2 pages in my current Kindle book before I passed out.
Day #2 – August 20 – Lamar, CO to Casper, WY – about 470 miles, 7 hours of driving (running total – 1,050 miles, 16.5 hours in the car)
We had no idea what to expect regarding eclipse traffic. We’d heard reports of people sitting for hours on the highway in some parts of the country. Jerri’s nephew told her that 60,000 people were expected to flood Casper, and I actually heard 100,000. We were hopeful that by traveling on Sunday, a full 24 hours before the big event, that we would be OK. We figured that people going up from Denver would either go throughout the day on Sunday and not all at once, or they’d go on Monday morning. When we reached the outskirts of Denver though, we thought we may have been completely wrong about that. Cars for as far as we could see. I exited around Loveland and we got some gas, lunch, and alcohol — in that order. Then we got back on the highway and creeped along for a few more miles. Around Fort Collins, we exited again and went to Walmart for hot dogs, buns, chips & the stuff to make s’mores. When we got back on the highway, we had to look at the GPS to see if we were going the right way because all the stopped traffic had cleared! After talking to some folks later, we found out that part of the highway is always crowded.
When I started to plan this trip to view the eclipse, way back in December ’16, I had no idea where we would view it. We had somewhere to sleep; I booked a room in Laramie (the closest I could get us to a town within the path of totality), and we were going to drive up to Casper from there on Monday, watch the sun go dark, and then drive back to the Denver area that night. As for viewing, I figured we’d find a parking lot or park, plop down into our chairs, and wait. As I learned more about the crowds that were expected to travel to view the eclipse, I worried that we would end up stranded somewhere along the way and miss it altogether. I looked into state parks (full) and small town events (possibilities, if I could figure out where to send the fees), and Google street viewed wide open spaces where we might be able to pull off the road without getting run over or ticketed or gored by a bull. Then, a couple weeks before we were leaving, Jerri’s nephew told her he and his wife and daughter were driving up to Casper from Denver to view it from his best friend’s home and we were welcome to join them! He said there was 5 acres where we could pitch a tent, so I cancelled our hotel room, and my sister loaded her car with tons of gear, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Then, as we were driving through Denver, Jerri’s nephew called to tell us that his friend’s in-laws were offering us the use of their RV so we wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground! It could not have worked out better. The whole family welcomed us with open arms. They cooked for all of us (I think there were 20 people at dinner time!), and the next morning they even had biscuits and gravy and extra eclipse glasses.
Here’s a view of the sky over their little piece of heaven in Wyoming:
Day #3 – August 21 – ECLIPSE DAY!! – then, Casper, WY to Keystone, SD – about 230 miles, 4 hours of driving that took 6 hours (running total – 1,280 miles, 22.5 hours in the car)
Jerri’s nephew offered to take us up to Casper Mountain to view the eclipse from another friend’s cabin. I was worried about getting stuck in traffic, and my sister agreed. Jerri did ride up there with him, but my sister, her friend Trudy, and I went as far as town to get t-shirts. People were scattered everywhere. The Walmart parking lot was crammed full of RVs. Hotel parking lots and the green space around them were full of people with telescopes and folding chairs. But, there wasn’t much traffic at all. We went almost into downtown and found a guy selling shirts from folding tables in a doctor’s office parking lot. Then we went back toward our new friends’ home and got coffee at a gas station along the way. It wasn’t any more crowded than the place I stop to get a Coke on a workday in Dallas. There were definitely more people in Casper than normal, but for a city slicker like me, it was no big deal.
After clearing our stuff out of the RV, we settled in to watch the eclipse. Jerri and her nephew and his family did get back in time, and they told us about the crazy folks on the mountain who had set up chairs, air mattresses, and even an inflatable couch alongside the road. Traffic was definitely heavier on the mountain, but it didn’t prevent them from getting up and getting back.
Around 10:40-ish we started to watch the sun. I don’t recall ever looking at even a partial eclipse through the special glasses. I think we did the pinhole thing for a partial when I was a kid. So, looking at the sun through the glasses was interesting all by itself. When the moon made its appearance, everyone gathered in the yard, and I don’t think anyone moved until totality ended a little over an hour later.
When it was nearing totality, we all commented on how bright it still was outside, despite just a sliver of the sun being visible. The street light on the neighbor’s pole came on when the sunlight began to dim. The chickens started to make some noise, but we weren’t sure it was due to the eclipse. Apparently, Bruce the rooster is pretty…ummm…adventurous with the ladies, and he may have been stirring up the hens just because he could. The 2 horses and 3 goats had been lounging in the grass by the fence behind the chicken coop (which is a cute little building that looks like a playhouse), but when we went to go pet them after the eclipse, we saw them all peeking from the doorway of the barn. The temperature dropped and a couple of stars were visible.
Jan, the lady of the house where we were staying, pointed out something really cool: when not wearing the glasses, you could see the sun reflecting off the windshield of her vehicle, just like when you’re driving and see it bouncing off a car next to you; but when you put the glasses on and looked at that reflection, you could see the moon eclipsing the sun on her car! She also saw the shadows of the partial eclipse that were cast by the leaves on a big bush in her yard. I took 2 pictures of it but they don’t look anything like what I saw.
We had all been practicing taking safe photos. My method was to look through my glasses at the eclipse and hold my phone up until I could no longer see anything because my phone was blocking my view of the sun. Then I’d click the button to take a pic. I got several pics of the sun, but it’s just a big bright blob. What is odd is there is a crescent-shaped image below the sun. It’s a mirror image of what was happening to the sun though because the picture was taken before totality so the dark area of the sun should’ve been opposite of where it appears. Someday I’ll find an astronomer or scientist or photography buff and find out how that happened. Jerri’s pictures have what appear to be pink flower petals around the sun.
The moment the moon blocked out the sun was simply breathtaking. I can’t do justice to it in words. I was crying. I was hugging people. My sister had set her phone to play Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” when totality occurred. So appropriate for the setting, as well as for the times in which we currently live, which everyone forgot about for at least a few hours. I have yet to see any photos or videos that accurately captured what I saw. The cameras with special filters make the sky look black, but it was actually a beautiful blue with a black dot surrounded by a bright light. See? I can’t describe it well.
I had downloaded the SkyView app a few days before so I could see which planets and constellations were visible. We saw Mars and Venus with Jupiter hovering just along the horizon. There was a sunset all around the horizon, too.
This is the last frame of the quick video I took during totality to show the sunset and stars. Again…nothing like what I saw with my own eyes, which was a shimmering black spot.
I didn’t spend much time looking at my phone because I didn’t want to miss all of the 2 1/2 minutes of totality.
When totality ended, the Diamond Ring appeared and we hollered to the kids to put their glasses back on. It was so bright; it was like a spotlight had been pointed directly at us! I don’t know if I saw Baily’s Beads, but that’s OK because what I did see was an experience of a lifetime.
I hope I make it to April 8, 2024 when I can view another totality that will last twice as long. And, if I’m still in Dallas, I won’t have to drive even 1 mile to see it as it’ll be right overhead in my back yard.
We all lost interest in the rest of the partial eclipse once totality was over. We were all talking about what we’d seen, how we felt. We took a few peeks at the sun as the moon finished its trek, but it was anticlimactic compared to totality.
We also wanted to get on the road to try to beat some of the traffic leaving Casper. We had to drive through Douglas, WY, which was another town in totality that we knew would be a stopping point for Denverites, so we figured traffic there would be bad. However, it wasn’t any worse than a slow-moving rush hour, and we exited shortly after passing Douglas. We thought we had escaped the crowds and headed toward Keystone, SD so we could see Mount Rushmore. My original plan, way back in December, had been to pop over the state line so I could say I’d been to South Dakota, thus crossing 2 states off my list (I’ve now been to 40 out of 50!). However, when we saw how close Mount Rushmore is to Casper (4 hour drive), we decided to change our plans and go there instead of back to Denver.
Just outside of Lusk, WY, traffic came to a dead stop. We were on a 2-lane state highway in the middle of nowhere and had no idea what was going on. We couldn’t imagine that the traffic was from people going home to South Dakota! We creeped along and checked the Waze app when we had a cell signal, and it appeared that if we could ever get to Lusk, we’d be moving again. I figured it was because Lusk was a small town and the 1 stop sign or stop light couldn’t handle all the traffic and their lone policeman couldn’t direct traffic fast enough. I wasn’t far off. There were 2 guys directing traffic at the Lusk Fairgrounds, which it appeared had hosted an eclipse party.
Traffic snaked out of Lusk and along a 2-lane scenic highway toward South Dakota. We got into another small jam, which was caused by a 2-car fender bender at an intersection with another 2-lane highway. After that, it was smooth sailing.
In Custer, I snapped a pic while sitting at a traffic light. I have wanted to see Mount Rushmore since elementary school, and I was getting closer.
That sign is a little deceiving. There were still a few miles to travel. Along the way, we passed the Crazy Horse Memorial. Rather than pay the $28/car fee to go on the grounds, we snapped a photo as we drove by. You can barely see the outline of his face, but I know I’ve seen it so that’s all that matters.
We also saw a bright white mountain goat just before the entrance to Mount Rushmore. And then, as we curved around to stop at the light at the entrance, to my left were the four presidents carved in stone! It was surreal to finally see something I’d wanted to see for over 40 years. My sister and Trudy missed the goat and the first peek at the Presidents because they were watching State Troopers search a car with Colorado plates. They were both paranoid (without cause) that they’d be stopped too because of her Colorado plates (due to the marijuana laws, they thought they’d be profiled as mules, I guess).
Our hotel, the Roosevelt Inn, was a much better place to spend the night than the motel in Lamar. It was clean and quaint and perfectly situated to view the vast main street of Keystone.
We had dinner next door at Grizzly Creek, which even allowed Trudy to bring her dog, Sally, onto the patio and gave her her own bowl of water.
Due to the extra 2 hours of drive time, we weren’t able to make the loop through Custer State Park before going over to Mount Rushmore. It was already getting dark when we went to eat. I also didn’t know there was a lighting ceremony that started at 8:00, so when we arrived a little after 8 and the lights weren’t on, I worried that we’d somehow missed something. The woman who took our $10 entrance fee said they’d be on “in a few minutes” though. I wonder how many times she has to answer that question!
In the parking garage, there were license plates from different states on every car. I don’t think any state was duplicated along both sides of the row on which we parked! When we got inside the grounds, we walked toward the light (the boys were now lit up), and it felt like we were salmon swimming upstream because there were people coming toward us in waves. That’s when we found out about the lighting ceremony at the amphitheater.
The grounds are open until 11pm in the summer, but the museum closes at 9pm. So, we had to walk through it quickly to see a few of the exhibits. Luckily, the gift shop stays open later, so I was able to add to my postcard collection.
While taking pictures, I used my SkyView app to see which constellations and planets were visible. (It’s a really fun app; download it sometime.) On the night before the eclipse, while waiting for Trudy to arrive (she drove up to Casper from Denver when she got off work), I pointed it at the ground and it showed the Space Station was at our feet. It was amazing to think that it was on the other side of the Earth from where we stood. So, at Mount Rushmore, I pointed it at our feet, and Orion was there, ogling my sister’s rear end.
When we got back to our room (after Shirley & Trudy got dipped cones at Dairy Queen), we were all exhausted but amazed that we’d experienced a total solar eclipse in Wyoming (which is not the home state for any of us), along with a 4-hour drive that took 6 hours and culminated in viewing Mount Rushmore in yet another state. I felt so alive and so grateful that I was able to have a day like that!
Day #4 – August 22 – Keystone, SD to York, NE – about 500 miles, 9 hours of driving (running total – 1,780 miles, 31.5 hours in the car, not counting a side trip into Custer State Park)
Since we missed driving through Custer State Park the day before, I really wanted to do part of it before heading home. I’ve had postcards of Needles Highway since I started collecting 25+ years ago and have wanted to see it someday. We looked at the map and realized we could do a portion of the loop, then part ways with Shirley & Trudy, and then we could backtrack to Keystone and head toward the Badlands (our last “tourist attraction” before the long trek to Texas). Using a little map we got at the hotel’s front desk, we set off along a twisty road through the trees that slowly rose in elevation. There were a couple of tunnels, and as we rounded the corner to enter one, we were met with a perfectly framed view of Mount Rushmore! To show how tired we were the night before, I actually bought a postcard of this and didn’t realize we were going to see it the next day. As such, I was already through the tunnel when I took a really crappy pic. My sister was slightly in the tunnel and got a slightly less crappy pic.
This is not my pic or hers; it’s one I borrowed off Pinterest, which someone else borrowed from some other site, so you can see how cool it really looks.
We were supposed to turn on Playhouse Road, which would take us to Needles Highway. We did turn on Playhouse Road, but idiot here turned left instead of right. We kept going and going and finally came to an intersection that should’ve been the Needles Highway. It wasn’t. It was a highway we didn’t even see on our map. Once we figured out what happened, I felt like crying. I wanted to see Needles Eye and the narrow tunnels so badly. I had to remind myself of all the amazing scenery on the roads we had already traveled.
We got dumped out at a highway intersection with a gas station where we filled up and got more snacks and said our good-byes to Shirley and Trudy. My poor sister had a 10-hour drive home (which turned into a total of 13 hours over 2 days, due to horrible Denver traffic; she ended up getting a room in Leadville because she was beat and didn’t want to drive anymore).
Jerri and I continued on to Rapid City and made a stop in Wall, SD. I have old postcards of Wall Drug Store and it was another “must see” place on my list. We ended up driving past, turning around, and never getting out of the car. It was nothing like what I imagined based on the old cards I have. It reminded me of the strip of t-shirt shops in downtown Branson.
We got back on the highway and headed to the Badlands. I had a whole route planned out that was going to take us through most of the park and then come out near Interior, SD where we’d take back roads all the way down through South Dakota and into Nebraska until we got to our next hotel in York, NE. Well, something went awry, and we missed our turn/road/exit (still don’t know what happened). We ended up at a different entrance, paid $20 to drive through but only went as far as the visitor center and turned around. It was an eerie landscape and worth the ticket price, but we decided to cut it short since we’d already lost time in Custer State Park.
In the time we were there, we did see 3 bighorn sheep (Jerri’s pictures are better than mine since she was able to hang out the window). And the drive was kind of surreal. We stopped for postcards, of course, and had hoped to pick up a brochure about the park and what we were seeing, but there wasn’t anything there. A small museum had some exhibits, and 2 rangers were answering questions, but there wasn’t anything (free) to take. Instead, Jerri read the Wikipedia article about the Badlands as we drove out.
South Dakota is really a lovely state. The western portion in the Black Hills is somewhere I would settle in a heartbeat. But even the more “desolate” central portion has its charm. I doubt it was charming in pre-modern times without central heat and air, cable television, and Internet, but it’s interesting and diverse.
We arrived at our hotel in York, NE about 8:00, grabbed a breakfast for dinner at the Iron Skillet Restaurant in the Petro Truck Stop, and went back to our room where we crashed just as easily as we had all the other nights on our trip.
Day #5 – August 23 – York, NE to Home – about 590 miles, 9 hours of driving (running total – 2,370 miles, 40.5 hours in the car)
We woke up in our 5th state in 5 days (Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska) and prepared to drive home. It was hard to not get down about the end of a wonderful trip since there would be absolutely nothing of tourist value along the way. In fact, most of our drive would be along the Interstate. I thought about a quick side trip to Lindsborg, KS, which is a small town with a Swedish heritage that I have also admired via postcards. But I needed to pick up Tilly by 5:30 or else pay another day of boarding, so we kept on driving.
As we neared home, the clouds started to build for afternoon storms, so we had fun with finding shapes in them. We also played a US States game — one of my many talents is the ability to list the states alphabetically, so we started with Alabama and talked about what we’d seen in each state (if we’d been to it, of course). We made it to New Jersey before we tired of that.
Here’s the coolest thing, apart from the clouds, that we saw all day. It’s at an equipment sales lot in Gainesville, TX.
A little after 5:00 we arrived at the Woodland Park Pet Resort to discover that Tilly had decided that morning to eat her bed.
Tilly and I then drove around the corner and dropped off Jerri and finally headed home. It was nice to see Maxi and to cuddle up with the two of them. But, I would give up some of my yarn and postcards to have the ability to drive around the country more often than once every two years or so. We are lucky to live in such a vast, beautiful part of this amazing planet. And when you keep the radio and TV and Internet turned off, it can feel like we are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We met so many people along the way and every single one of them was friendly. Like Jerri said, “We took a little piece of them with us, and we left a little piece of ourselves with them.” It doesn’t hurt that both of us can talk to fence posts and come away with a story.
My next trip is to my sister’s in Crested Butte for Thanksgiving. Always cherished but nothing different from any other Thanksgiving. I don’t know where I’ll get to go after that. As my mom used to say, “Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise,” I’ll get to go somewhere. I have 10 more states to cross off my list!