Saturday, August 19, 2017

Chasing the 2017 North American Eclipse

I am just back from working and lecturing on an expedition ship in Alaska. The very first time I came back from "The Last Frontier" to the lower 48 from such a gig was in July, 1991. And as soon as I returned home back then, I took a very long road trip to see a total solar eclipse in Baja California. I guess some things never change - even after 26 years, 1 month and 1 week.

Yep I am on the trail to the way-to-hyped but not-to-be-missed Great North American Eclipse. Most references leave out the "North" part but when a big shadow across the planet travels a quarter million miles spanning the entire continent, I feel it deserves that larger description.

I've been planning this trip for at least four years now. So when the hype about gas stations running out of fuel and 30-mile traffic back-ups in Prinville Oregon began to circulate, I did wonder if I should to begin stress about it. Then I remembered how in 1991 things just kind of moved into place the way they were supposed to. On that trip, I couldn't decide if I was going to drive to watch the eclipse in Mazatlan on the mainland, or do a much wilder and remote trip down the spine of the Baja Peninsula. I fretted for the whole 142 miles from Flagstaff to Phoenix on which way to go. I was trying to guess about the cloud cover. At one point I thought the mainland would be better, 10 minutes later I was leaning toward Baja. It went back and forth like this for 141 miles. As I approached the stack where I-17 meets I-10, I knew I only had a minute to decide. At the last second I thought, "Well, if its cloudy in Baja, at least I'll be in Baja! I took a turn to the west and it turned out great.

There was a bit of back and forth about this one too. Stories about thousands and thousands of people cramming along the center line did not go unnoticed. But I had planned a detailed back road route back in early June of this year and as it turned out, I stuck with that. Here is the story of my approach.


I pulled away from Flagstaff on August 18 at 2 PM - only one hour later than planned. I took my time loading the car and did not stress a bit. I soon realized that I would be traveling on five segments of road during this trip. The first segment - south to north from Flagstaff to near Tuba City - would be the shortest at about 70 miles. The second segment was the first west to east one to near Mexican Water, AZ. The third segment took me north again to Moab, Utah where I overnighted. Then I turned east again onto I-70 through Grand Junction and on to Wolcott, Colorado. The fifth and final segment took me north into the promised land - Wyoming and the town of Laramie for night 2.

The skies in Arizona were clear as could be - the recent summer rains had scrubbed them clean. There were some puffy clouds and believe it or not, I only stopped once (for five minutes) between Flag and Moab. As I exited Bluff, Utah, I called my friend Chuck since he had mentioned that he might go up to see the eclipse. I wanted to see if he made it out of town or not. When he picked up the phone he was just entering Moab. We chatted a bit and then he said, "Oh oh, that doesn't sound good." Something in his rear transmission case went way bad. Within minutes he was saying, "My trip is over." I told him I'd be there in an hour and a half and could help if need be.

As I pulled into Moab I called again. Yep, his car was down and out. So I pulled into a shake shop and got he and wife a chocolate shake. When I caught up with them at the junction of US Highway 191 and the River Road, the tow truck was there and I handed them both those shakes. They were so pleased! Then Chuck said, "Hey, I called my friend Cynthia to ask about a mechanic in town and she said, 'I'm up here in Idaho for the eclipse so just crash at my place - the key is under the yellow pot.' Chuck invited me over too. So instead of camping my first night I set up the cot in her living room and slept indoor with plumbing and air conditioning. Yep, its all going to work out just fine.

We had breakfast at the Moab Diner, I said goodbye and was underway at 8:30 AM. My camera was on the passenger seat next to me but I had so far waited to use it. Once the camera comes out, it becomes a different sort of trip. It was scenic enough passing east of Grand Junction, and I just had to stop in Palisade Colorado for some peaches! I got six huge ones for $6 - they are indescribably juicy! I went east through the young lake beds (only 50 million years old!) sliced open by the Grand River (Sorry - I like the original name for this section of the present-day Colorado River). Then at Rifle Colorado, the young lake beds were upturned and much older rocks appeared by Glenwood Springs. It was great to see this large uplift. Just east of Eagle, the beds dipped down again and we were back in younger rocks. Then at Wolcott, the last segment began.

I tuned north and drove from State Bridge to near Kremling. This was the only dirt stretch in the whole approach. I took my first picture when the road climbed up above Gore Canyon.

Gore Canyon. Note the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad above the Grand River.

These Precambrian gneisses and schist and essentially the same as the Vishnu Schist in Grand Canyon and part of the Yavapai terrane.

So far, I had not detected any "Eclipse traffic." There may have been some but I-70 was not really that busy. When I turned onto US Highway 40 from Kremling toward Steamboat Springs, I was looking for obvious traffic but couldn't detect any. As soon as I began to suspect eclipse traffic, the roads would become quiet again. I suspect what I saw on US Highway 40 was just normal Denver-to Steamboat Springs traffic on a summer Saturday.

 US Highway 40 west of Kremling Colorado.

Wheeler Peak on the north side of US Highway 40.

Summer flowers on a stretch of Highway 40.


All along this stretch are signs for the F.M. Light & Sons boot and hat shop. They are reminiscent of the Burma Shave signs elsewhere.

Here's my ride! In 1991 I had my 1984 Toyota 4X4 pick-up. I still have her and wanted so much to take her. But she might not have given me the level of confidence this baby can.

At Muddy Pass (elev. 8772) I turned onto Colorado State Highway 125. The pass was not very evident as it is one of the lowest passes across the Continental Divide. I moved from the drainage of the Grand River into the drainage of the North Platte. Woo hoo!

In this stretch of land near Walden Colorado the rocks are Cretaceous shales and there is a bit of oil and gas activity here. Those are the peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park in the far distance. Again, I kept looking for eclipse traffic and may have seen three or four cars that fit that description (young folks - often single men - in pick-up trucks with river running or climbing stickers all over the back). Then just past Chowdry, Highway 125 went west and 127 went east (my route). Every suspected eclipse traveler I saw went the other way!

Just past Chowdry on Highway 127 is this old-looking gneiss. I suspect this may be the trace of the Cheyenne fault where the younger Yavapai terrane was sutured onto the much older North American craton. If true, these rocks are 3 billion years old!

The color change in the pavement can only mean one thing.

I made it! Wyoming, North America. Fantastic! This was by far the quietest stretch of highway I encountered on the whole trip. Between Chowdry and Woods Landing (just before the outskirts of Laramie), I saw one other vehicle going towards the center line! This was certainly a great route to take. I had heard that I-25 between Denver and Colorado Springs was crazy busy.

Into Laramie - a long time coming. I have always wanted to come here for a number of reasons. Some of my favorite geology professors at NAU got their PhD's here, it is known as the highest elevation 4-year university in the United States (with NAU in Flagstaff second), and (drum roll please) it is the location of the Laramie Basin, a 70 to 40 million year old depression that gives the Laramide orogeny its name. Awesome!

It is a quaint old town with many old homes and buildings. Looks like there is a big switching yard here for the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad.

Corner of Garfield and 2nd St. in downtown Laramie.

My first bonafide eclipse seekers at a gas station in Laramie. Three 30-somethings looking on their cell phone for, what? Weather updates, traffic alerts? Regarding gas, I had filled up in Grand Junction and then told myself I would top off when it got to half full. That was about in Kremling. Gas was $2.50 and I almost pulled in...but...I kept going...in Walden it was $2.59...I almost topped off again but held back...Wyoming is full of oil and gas...and even though it may be crowded with eclipse-goers...I'll just stretch it a little more.... I filled up here for only $2.12 a gallon. You win some and you lose some.

I'm overnighting here to get a fresh start on the day before the eclipse. Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

Laurie said...

I was caretaker at Red Buttes Biological Station south of Laramie for five years while getting my PhD there in the late 70's-early 80's! Say hey to UWyo for me! May the skies be clear!