Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sun and Moon Together

It might have been 9 a.m. when we arrived at Sugar Farms. Two young boys emerged from a very small tent as we pulled up. Just beyond them I could see tents and trailers in the pastures, amply spaces and uniformly enveloped in a thin cloud of radiant mist. Bright blue porta-potties punctuated the scene here and there. One of the boys called his mother, and we met up with her at a shed we'd passed on the way in. Tim and I forked over our twenty dollar bills and she scratched our names off a hand-written list.

"They call our place 'sugar ranch' because we fatten up our livestock real well," she told us, "but some people call it "disabled acres." That's because we like to buy disabled cows, fatten them up real good, and then eat them ourselves."

Looking out across the field behind us, I asked her about the condition of the terrain.

"Oh, I drive my Nissan all over the place out there. It's all pretty firm, though there are bumpy patches. The ground's a little higher over there by the fence."  

Indeed, the area by the fence looked good, and we headed over, skirting a shallow pond along the way. One trailer stood fifty yards to the north, and a gravel road cut through the property twenty-five yards to the south.  To the east we could see the distant roof of a ranch building half a mile away. 

There was still dew on the grass, and it sparkled in the hazy morning light. We parked the cars next to one another, but far enough apart to give us plenty of room between them to sit. For the next two hours, this enclave became our little home, office, laboratory, and lounge.

And it was perfect. Carol got out her knitting; Gayle and Hilary made a pin-hole camera out of a paper plate. Tim pulled out an umbrella, to protect his sensitive Irish skin from the glare. I read a few pages out loud about Lawrence Welk's early years in North Dakota from Ian Frazier's Great Plains.

I was totally entranced by the scene; I had never seen vehicles, mobile homes, tents, and people spread out with greater intelligence and taste across the countryside. But our only near neighbor didn't share that opinion. The first time I looked over his way, he made a gesture with upturned hands that meant "What? Are you going to park there?" As if we were blocking his view of the sky. His dog had started baking the moment we arrived.

"Yes, we are," I nodded, adding those facial gestures that mean, "Why not?"

The dog eventually quieted down. Hilary and Gayle went over to chat a few minutes later and learned that the man had been parked in that spot for three days. I guess by now he was feeling a little proprietary. I was happy when I saw his wife and daughter emerge from the trailer. It suddenly seemed less likely that he'd unleash the dog on us or pull a shotgun out of the cab.

For the next hour we chatted, goofed around, took some posed photos that I later photo-shopped into a group picture, wandered over to the porta-potty, and watched bands of clouds appear, pass overhead, and continue on to the southeast. Both Gayle and Carol consulted their phones repeatedly for the latest weather report.

Right on schedule (surprise, surprise) the disc of the moon took a very slim bite out of the sun. Distant voices cheered and whooped. A half hour later the fields started to look pale, then a little shadowy, then fairly dark. Clouds passed across the face of the sun from time to time and drifted on.
It took about an hour to complete the meal. One moment the moon had largely covered the sun, and the next it had popped completely over it, creating a fiery golden doughnut overhead.

What can you say? It was cool. People cheered in the distance. We opened a bottle of wine. The sky above our heads was a rich, deep blue, while the horizon was lit as if by a purple sunset in every directions. Hilary noticed that most of the cattle on the far side of the road were lying down.

But such moments are impossible to seize. Photos of fiery rings or leaping coronas don't come close. The effect is largely environmental rather than astronomical. It's simultaneously rare and insignificant. There is no way to wrap your head around it, and due to that fact, such events are often infused not only with awe and a giddy kind of joy but also with nostalgia. Instant nostalgia. 

Then it's over. Here comes the sun again. We just saw this movie, except in reverse. Twenty minutes after that brief two-minute span of totality, the light was merely pale and strange again, and all the cows were back on their feet. Ten minutes later, with the eclipse still unwinding itself, our neighbor had already packed up his chairs and his family and driven off.

We lingered in the after-shadow, looking up occasionally with the specially designed glasses from NASA, decorated with an American flag, that Gayle had distributed to everyone back in March. It had been an event to remember.

Two hours later, as we drove into Chadron State Park, we spotted a couple we often see at concerts in Minneapolis. Turns out they're eclipse chasers. This was their eleventh. They had gathered that evening with friends from the Netherlands and Australia they'd met at previous eclipse events.

I don't think I'll ever become an eclipse-chaser myself. It was a marvelous excuse for an excursion, but if I had to chose between the eclipse itself or the four day road trip with old friends, I'd forego the two minutes of midday darkness, awesome though it may be, and keep the trip. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Eclipse Overture

Our second day involved less highway grinding and more pleasant touring. I'm tempted to call it our wildlife day. After making a few stops at pullouts along the upper rim of the Badlands, we took a gravel road twelve miles to Sage Creek Campground. Along the way we saw a big horned sheep, hundreds of prairie dogs, and a ferruginous hawk—a species I'd never seen before. It was probably looking for a careless prairie dog to eat for lunch. At the spur leading to the campground the other car spotted three red-headed woodpeckers in a small grove of cottonwoods, while just ahead, we were coming upon our first magpie, which it hopped into the shade under a hippie van as we approached.

It was hot in the noon-time glare of the treeless campground, and I was glad we hadn't spent the night there. A few tents were scattered over the dusty expanse, but one of the women hanging out in the shade of a ramada said, "Last night this place was packed!"

On our way out we were stopped by a herd of buffalo desultorily crossing the road. I should have been admiring them but I was impatient to get going, and I started to wonder if the two cars bollixed up ahead of us were enthralled by the beasts or simply too timid to make their way through.

Studying the map a few minutes earlier, we had decided to have lunch in Farmingdale. When we arrived we discovered there was nothing in Farmingdale. We next chose Hermosa as a rendezvous, but the most appealing place we could find there was a deli in a casino-cum-truck-stop called the Flying J.

It was 2 p.m. and we were glad to get in out of the sun for a while.  I got a ham and cheese sandwich in a cellophane wrapper and a plastic container of baked beans. They both would have been better if I'd micro-waved them—the bun was on the verge of being frozen—but with loads of mustard and mayo and a big bag of bar-b-que potato chips, the "meal" was satisfactory.

Tim and Carol, more adventurous, purchased a chicken-fried steak sandwich, with the thought that if it was good, they'd buy a second one. They each took a single bite and then, by mutual consent, tossed it in the garbage. Hilary, going further out on a limb, bought a sausage wrapped in pastry dough with jalapeƱos and cheese that was sitting under a heat lamp —a glorified pig-in-a-blanket, one of the specialties of the deli.

I think the do-it-yourself root beer floats oozing out of a big do-it-yourself machine may have been the hit of the occasion. "We're going to get one of those for the house," Tim said.

Just south of Hermosa we turned west on Highway 36 and were almost instantly engulfed in a wonderland of rising hills, green pastures, and shadowed pine woods. The sudden contrast was extraordinary, and welcome. We forked over the entry fee at the park gate—$20 per car—and made our way along the narrow and winding road through the open woods to the Needles and on to Sylvan Lake.

At one point we spotted some mountain goats on the rocks just above the road. And at the Sylvan Lake Lodge we ordered drinks and sat on the terrace in the late afternoon shade discussing whether there might be a limit to how many birds could bear a single individual's name. For example, after the Swainson's hawk and Swainson's thrush, does the ornithological union cut Swainson off? But what about the Wilson's phalarope, the Wilson's thrush ... and Wilson's warbler!

The subject came up because I'd mentioned that I was surprised there weren't any Clark's nutcrackers anywhere nearby—it seemed like perfect habitat—and went on to say, in case anyone was interested, that the bird was named after William Clark of "Lewis and Clark" fame.

The lodge is small but nice—a large field stone lobby with timbered furniture, a quaint bar, and a well-lit dining room beyond—but the terrace doesn't have much of the view. And they were piping pop music out past the ponderosa pines! I think the Sons of the Pioneers or Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen would have been more appropriate.

On our way back to the car I spotted three big whitish birds attacking the cones in a tree alongside the parking lot.

"What are they?" Carol shouted. (They were parked on the other side of the lot.)

"Clark's nutcrackers," I replied.

"Next time, we should bring up the subject of ivory-billed woodpeckers," she said.

It was a ten-minute ride south to Custer, the attractive tourist town where Gayle had booked a "family suite" of rooms at the Rocket Motel six months ago. It was actually a single long room with the bathroom placed in the middle, which made the two sleeping areas more private. The rooms were immaculate, and the tile work in the narrow bathroom was superb.

The receptionist had only a single key to give the five of us, which proved to be a problem later. But the motel's great strength was its covered terrace, where, as the sun went down, we could sit at wrought-iron patio tables and watch the world go by on Main Street just below us.

A winsome couple from San Diego sat down at the next table to eat a pizza they'd picked up in town.
"This isn't the pizza we ordered," the man said as he opened the box, though he didn't seem very upset. "There's no pineapple on it."

"That means someone else got our pizza," his son said astutely. "Well, I guess we might as well eat it."

"So, you're here to see the eclipse?" the man called over to us. "Where ya from?"

We told him. He and his wife had flown to Denver from San Diego with their two kids. "Did you hear they banned double-semis from the freeways in Colorado and put construction projects on hold to alleviate congestion on the freeways? They say a million people are headed this way. We decided it would be easier to drive north of the totality line and ease back into it from this direction."

They had been hearing stories as they passed through the small towns on the path of totality. "In Agate," the woman said, "they've been discussing such things as what kinds of ordinance is in place to respond to someone who wants to sacrifice a chicken during the eclipse. Is that legal? These towns aren't used to all the attention. They've been preparing for years."

The outdoor terrace and hot tub
The eclipse had been calculated to commence at 10:30 the next morning (mountain time) and we were two and a half hours away according to Google Maps. I had been thinking that under normal conditions we'd have plenty of time if we got up at 6, but after a bit of discussion we decided to set our alarm clocks for 3:30 and try to leave Custer by 4. Carol located an all-night convenience store in town on her phone—the Corner Pantry—where we could get some coffee before setting out, and we spent a few minutes relaxing in the hot tub adjoining the terrace, confident that all the pieces were falling into place nicely.

It was at this point that we inadvertently locked ourselves out of the room.

*   *   *

I love the muffled sounds of early, early morning, when your mind is like cotton and your body is stumbling around on "safe" mode, not yet fully booted. Get up, get dressed, get packed, and get out: that's all you have to do.  Stepping outside into the cool night air, I noticed that on the street below, someone had driven a big white pickup truck up onto the curb. (I think he may have been delivering papers to the corner news stand.) We were soon headed downtown on Mt. Rushmore Blvd. to the Corner Pantry, which turned out to be a well-lit Conoco gas station stocked with plenty of sugary donuts and rubbery breakfast burritos. The coffee pots seemed to be empty, however.

The magic before dawn

"I'm making some more right now. It will be ready in a second," the manager said. She was thin as a rail, heavily tattooed, and looked to be about sixteen. Several of us noticed that the cream dispenser squirted cream sideways, and when I mentioned it to her, she said, "I clean that every hour. It just sticks out of the bag funny." She was definitely on the ball.

We headed out of town going south at 4:15 (I looked at the clock on the dash). The main drag soon turned into Highway 385, otherwise known as the Gold Rush Byway, which would take us all the way to Alliance. It was pitch black, and there were very few cars on the road. The landscape was shrouded in fog. The tail lights of our companion car soon disappeared around the bends ahead of us, only to reappear on the straightaways, growing ever smaller.

Rounding one bend, we came upon an elk standing in the road, but he moved aside into the ditch a split second before I tapped the horn.

The town of Hot Springs seemed to go on forever in the dark, and it struck me that many of the limestone buildings whizzing by in front of the headlights as we wove our way through it might have been worth looking at more carefully in daylight.

Semis caught and passed us occasionally, but as light came gradually to the sky and the fog lifted, the tone remained hushed. Gayle, who was in the other car, texted Hilary as we approached Alliance, and we pulled into the Conoco station on the outskirts of Chadron where they were already parked.

We were now an hour north of Alliance. Traffic continued to be very light, almost nonexistent. As the sun rose it transformed the fog itself into a thin diaphanous blanket.  At one point four large dark birds flew across the highway ahead of the car. My first thought was cormorants, but then I got a better look at the bills. "Hey, look," I said, "Ibises!"

That was the only unusual thing we saw until we passed a makeshift sign pointing the way to Carhenge. At the next intersection three men were ushering cars into a field. The fee: $10. It was easy to see that the "guests" were being lined up like sardines in anticipation of a big turnout, but the field was less than a quarter full. It was not an appealing scene. 

We turned left on the gravel road past the makeshift gate and continued east, passing several similar pay-and-park operations, and turned south on the next section road. We were looking for Madison Road, which sounded important but was no different from the other gravel roads in the vicinity. A mile or so east and we arrived at Sugar Farm.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Before the Eclipse

It all started in February, with a morning email from our friend Gayle:

There's going to be a total eclipse crossing the U.S. in August. Wanna go?

By the end of the day, everyone she'd notified had come on board, and Gayle had reserved the "family" room at the Rocket Motel in Custer, South Dakota. This would be our springboard to the typically open skies of western Nebraska, across which the zone of eclipse totality lay.

The small group of friends who made up the ensemble have travelled together in various permutations since the 1970s. We'd been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon together, and we'd been to the bottom of Dark Canyon, Utah, together. On our first trip to the Boundary Waters, Tim and Carol had been expecting their first child, and that child is now expecting her fourth child. We'd been to summer cabins on the North Shore, where we once spotted a Hudsonian curlew (now widely referred to as a wimbrel) wandering along the roadside, and established the Curlew Club in honor of the occasion. More recently we've been to winter cabins north of Grand Rapids together, though the allure of cross-country skiing seems to be fading for some of us.

One or two things had changed over the years, but here we were again, heading out together on a big adventure.

Thirty years ago, we would all have clambered into a single car. This time, we took two.

Thirty years ago, we might have planned a few meals  and bought groceries. This time, we decided to wing it.

A few days after the initial proposal was bruited, I suggested that we take an extra day going out to make the nine-hour drive less onerous and give us time to explore the Badlands and the Black Hills a little. The notion met with approval and I booked two of the four remaining campsites in the Cedar Pass Campground.

At some point it dawned on me that we might need somewhere to stay after the eclipse and I booked a campsite at Chadron State Park, forty miles north of Alliance, Nebraska, the locale where we'd decided to view the big event.

As the big day approached, the hype surrounding the event intensified. A half a million people would be coming to Nebraska, we were told. The governor would be flying in to Alliance from Lincoln to give a speech at Carhenge, a few miles outside of town. We began to imagine roads clogged with tourists, state highway patrol officers combing the back roads to ticket or incarcerate tourists who had simply pulled off the road to view the eclipse. (In fact, most of the roads out that way have no shoulders.)

The town of Alliance had been planning for the event for two years, and they'd developed a website to describe all the activities associated with it: food trucks, rock'n'roll bands, games, educational events. We didn't care about any of that stuff. But when you're six-hundred miles away, it's hard to imagine how big the town really is or how many people will show up. In short, we didn't know quite what kind of a mess we were getting ourselves into, and imagination runs rampant.

The Alliance website identified no less than 46 camping or viewing sites in the vicinity. I called up one near town, but he wanted $50 for a parking spot. I called another one who wanted only $10, but he didn't have porta-potties and would only take people with trailers. Then I called Sugar Farms, three miles north and east of town. The woman who answered the phone, Lexi, wanted $20 for the privilege of parking in her pasture. She took my name and said, "Just pay me when you get here." 

Fair enough.

We got to the Badlands after a full day of driving. Having crossed the Missouri River, we were now  in "the West": harsh, largely empty terrain, the land of coyotes and golden eagles, buffalo and pronghorn, sage brush and wide open spaces. There are badlands scattered here and there throughout the west, of course—heavily eroded but graceful landforms with colorful strata and (smetimes) sharp peaks—but the Badlands of South Dakota deserve their capital B. Dry and forbidding in the noonday sun, they're often gorgeous when clothed in the glancing light and deep shadows of sunrise or sunset.

The campground had nary a shrub or tree for privacy, but it did have picnic tables and slabwood ramadas for shade; with the flanks of the Badlands rising a few hundred yards to the north of us, it struck me as great, somehow.

Our only near neighbor was a family of four from Seattle who were situated across the road. I met them by chance as I was wandering around, oblivious to my surroundings, trying to determine if the bird on a nearby post was a mountain bluebird or a western bluebird. Lowering my binoculars, I noticed I was standing in their campsite.

The neighbors
"Oh, pardon me," I apologized."Do you know birds? I think that's a mountain bluebird. We don't have them in Minnesota."

"We don't have them in Washington, either," the man replied, with a bemused grin on his face. (So he did know a little something about birds.)

In time I learned he was a research biologist. He and his family had come out to see the countryside and also the eclipse. They were planning to intercept the historic event near Casper, Wyoming, on their way home. I promised him we would be quiet. "I hate noise in the campground," I said, as if to convince him of our benign intentions.

And we didn't make much noise that night. The wind was coming in so strong from the west, it often rose above the voices and the banging pots and pans. It was too warm to have a fire, but we ended up singing a few cowboy songs—"I Ride an Old Paint" and "Singin' His Cattle Call" among others—as the box wine continued to flow. We heard coyotes twice, high-pitched but distant, over the fluffle of the wind on the tents.

As night descended, the landscape had the feel of a gypsy camp, with individual couples and families minding their own business as they cooked, ate, chatted, headed off to the toilet building or the evening lecture at the amphitheater a quarter-mile away, or got ready for bed. One after another, the light from lanterns and hi-tech flashlights punctuated the darkness.

The wind blew for most of the night. The rainfly, just outside our tent but roughly a foot from my ear, went wuff-wuff-wuff incessantly, but at irregular intervals, seemingly forever. I might have woken up twenty times during the night, but they all seemed like the same time, so the damage was minimal.

The next morning Tim told me their tent, quite tall but lacking the support of rainfly guywires, sometimes bent over so much that it was flat to the ground with the three of them inside it. Yet the poles never snapped, and a few seconds later, the tent would bound up again, like one of those stove-pipe man-balloons you see on the roadside in front of a car dealership.

We ate breakfast at the restaurant of the nearby Cedar Pass Lodge. Hilary had spotted a sign on the door on our way in, advertising a buffalo butchering that we could attend at ten that morning. I asked our waitress if she was Oglala. "Yes, I'm from Kyle," she replied.

"Are you going to go to the buffalo butchering this morning?" I said. (Stupid question. But it gets the conversation going.)

"No, I'll be working," she replied, "but a few weeks ago my parents were given the honor of butchering the buffalo for our tribal powwow."

"Really. What kind of knives do you use?" I said.

"Different knives. We often use fillet knives. It's a ceremony."

"I suppose it's just for the tribe," I said.

"No, it's open to the public. You should come."

"We're the kind of people who  just might," I said. "Where did you say you were from again?"

(to be continued)