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.