Totalitarianism: Chasing the Solar Eclipse to Idaho

The summer of 2017 didn't need a cosmic omen, but we got one.

Unlike a Neolithic site of human sacrifice, Spiral Jetty does not align with any astronomical axis. Sculptor Robert Smithson deposited 6,000 tons of basalt at a remote location in Utah’s Great Salt Lake in 1970 because the algae gave the water a coppery color that reminded him of the primordial oceans. Curling back on itself, the Jetty extends 1,500 meters into the lake — or, it did at first. Submerged for decades, it’s now several hundred feet from the shoreline, if the lake can even be said to possess one. In reality, you walk out and the salt deposits get wetter and wetter until you are indisputably standing in water. And Spiral Jetty’s black, volcanic rocks have settled into the landscape, crusted with salt and half-buried in sand, like Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty consists of 6,000 tons of basalt arranged in Utah’s Great Salt Lake. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

This past Sunday, I made a sort of secular pilgrimage to the site, widely considered to be among the finest examples of land art or “sculpture in the expanded field.” I’d been there once before, on the three-week road trip that brought me to California. With the exception of a few disused pilings and a radio tower in the far distance, there’s no sign you’re on an inhabited planet. No one else was there, so my then-boyfriend and I walked around naked. This time, my current boyfriend, my dog, and I were on our way to Idaho to chase the total solar eclipse. Cars came and went, mostly people en route to the same destination. We kept our clothes on this time, and shooed my dog away from the decaying remains of a dead egret.

We stopped at the Jetty because it represents a specific strain of Americana, related to the transcontinental railroad, to Burning Man, to the artist colony at Marfa, Texas, and even to Western films. Call it “an errand in the wilderness” or an extension of Manifest Destiny, but for good or for ill, the landscape of the West is inextricably bound up with American identity. Add to that Utah’s pioneer culture, which has a deep relationship with the desert, the hard work it takes to make it bloom, and the ancient Israelites whose wanderings prefigured the early Mormons.

As a work of art, Spiral Jetty’s meaning is elusive by design. It could plausibly be read as yet another vainglorious projection of humanity’s desire to subdue and control our surroundings — but as a monument to little beyond the labor it took to construct it, it confounds meaning itself. Like the rocks that comprise it, it merely is, and whoever makes it all the way out there is free to appreciate it on their own terms. Smithson’s environmental sculpture isn’t particularly beautiful up close, nor does it force itself on the viewer in a totalizing capacity. In that way, it’s the anti-eclipse.

The author and his 14-year-old border collie mix, Dudley. (Photo by Paul Dally)

Syzygy is the term for any celestial occultation, or the blocking of one heavenly body by another.

Since the 1990s, scientists have discovered more than 3,600 exoplanets by the faint reduction in light they make as they pass in front of their stars, but a very special type of syzygy holds a particular resonance on Earth. From the Crucifixion in the Gospel of Matthew to Audrey II’s arrival in Little Shop of Horrors to Springfield’s shoddily built monorail on The Simpsons, eclipses figure as a handy, instantly available metaphor to imbue anything with extra significance.

Stonehenge, the Mayan city of Uxmal, the Bronze Age Nebra Sky Disc, and the genuinely creepy Greek analog computer from the second century B.C.E. known as the Antikythera Mechanism might all have been constructed with eclipses in mind. Closer to our time, Mitsubishi manufactured a sporty compact called the Eclipse, although it was named for an 18th-century racehorse. The Rolling Stones wanted to “see the sun blotted out from the sky” in “Paint It Black.” Carly Simon swore she wasn’t rolling her eyes at Mick Jagger’s self-importance when her unnamed ex went “up to Nova Scotia / To see the total eclipse of the sun” in “You’re So Vain.” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell died only three months before the opportunity to sing “Black Hole Sun” in near-darkness.

But for all their pop-cultural ubiquity, total solar eclipses have been curiously uncommon in America. The last one visible from the United States occurred in the Pacific Northwest in February 1979. Clouds obscured it in Portland and many points beyond, so comparatively few Americans got to see it. But the writer Annie Dillard watched it from Yakima, Wash., and wrote an account of it, simply titled “Total Eclipse.” Earlier this year, when I interviewed the author Geoff Dyer, who’s written compellingly about India and about travel on an aircraft carrier, I asked him if he was planning to see the eclipse. He said no, because Dillard’s essay is widely assumed to be definitive and unimprovable.

The last solar eclipse to traverse North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic followed nearly the same trajectory as this Monday’s. It took place on June 8, 1918, toward the end of the first World War, when there were only 100 million Americans. If taken as an inauspicious omen, there was plenty of circumstantial evidence: The Second Battle of the Marne would begin a month later, and the influenza pandemic that would kill 3-to-5 percent of everyone on Earth was already spreading.

I do not believe that God exists or that things “happen for a reason.” Chaos and entropy are the governing principles of the universe, and if these sometimes hideously amoral forces took an interest in human affairs, it would not be because of the relative motion of a lifeless satellite orbiting a dynamic blue marble that, in turn, orbits an unremarkable G-type main-sequence star in the Orion Arm of the spiraling Milky Way. But many people do. It’s fascinating to see how those beliefs, in the aggregate, act as a permeable membrane through which celestial phenomena pass, bringing out the weirdness in humankind the same way they bring out sunspots. In spite of the predictability of the event — unlike, say, a double rainbow — the urge to warn of God’s wrath proved irresistible to some evangelical Christians, who dove straight into numerology. One Republican candidate for Idaho’s second Congressional district seems particularly obsessed with the eclipse and the repetition of the number 33.

Meanwhile, 48 years into the Age of Aquarius — as The Fifth Dimension had it — an ordinary Monday suddenly felt invested with grave meaning just as it would have to the Toltecs or the ancient Assyrians. Mercury is in retrograde through Sept. 5, which supposedly interferes with our ability to communicate, but you don’t need an astrologer to tell you that the summer of 2017 is a terrible one, with signs everywhere indicating a restive nation sliding inexorably toward mass violence. Ill fares the land: Nazis, resurgent totalitarians, emerged from the shadows in the weeks before the eclipse. While Americans of good will can outnumber them, and we can manage to resist them without giving them the massacre they crave, we seem as incapable of correcting the conditions that led to their re-emergence as we are of knocking the moon out of its path. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity — and here comes an event of such cosmic drama that ancient peoples with only simple tools built their cities to align with it, and we are told not to look at it as if it were the ghostly contents of the Ark of the Covenant.

A motel in Elko, Nev. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

We drove from San Francisco to Salt Lake City on Saturday morning, stopping for enchiladas in Winnemucca and for kitsch roadside Americana wherever we found it. Nevada has plenty. We saw a blatantly unconstitutional display of the Ten Commandments outside the Humboldt County courthouse, and the 63-foot Wendover Will — a smoking cowboy who presides over the town of West Wendover, where vice-loving Utahns go for discount booze. And we saw White King, reportedly the world’s largest polar bear ever captured, now taxidermied and displayed in Elko’s Commercial Hotel and Casino.

We stayed with friends and their two young children, eating brunch on the patio of a train-car restaurant in Emigration Canyon called Ruth’s Diner. It’s been there since 1930, founded by a cabaret singer who apparently tore up early-1900s Salt Lake City. As the diner’s creation myth has it, Ruth was “dragged off the stage one night by a jealous woman with a fierce grip on her hair. Ruth recovered quickly and ‘the biddy regretted herself for some time to come.’ ”

From Salt Lake we headed north to Promontory, in Box Elder County, Utah, where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met on May 10, 1869, tying the boomtown of San Francisco to the East via telegraph and train. (Former California governor Leland Stanford drove the ceremonial golden spike into the earth, but it’s long gone now, having been deconsecrated in 1942 to help with the war effort.) From there, we drove to Spiral Jetty, and then onto Pocatello, where we had mediocre beer at a microbrewery that faces the train yards and camped in a canyon managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which meant it was free. Even 50 miles from the band of totality, all the motels and campsites had been long-since booked, and attics on Airbnb were asking $200 a night.

In Poky — as the locals call it — we met a couple Angelenos too drunk to light their own cigarettes. They were excited about the eclipse, but even more excited to show off their cowboy hats, even if one of them was crestfallen to learn that a black hat means you’re a killer. We were up with the sun on Monday, and drove to Idaho Falls in intermittent traffic that was nowhere near as bad as everyone in Salt Lake had predicted, but which still felt like the cheerful equivalent of a disaster-movie evacuation.

Idaho Falls is in conservative Bonneville County, which Donald Trump won 60-20-19. (That 19 percent went to renegade Republican Evan McMullin, who finished 338 votes behind Hillary Clinton.) I was looking out for visible signs of political sentiment but found almost none, and — it almost goes without saying — everyone was friendly. Most people said hello by asking to pet my dog. As we drove into town, I spotted two middle-aged Idahomosexuals holding hands on Broadway Street. They could have been locals or they could have been visitors, and they looked relaxed.

Kip Clark from Salt Lake City was there with relatives from Philadelphia and a son in the military who was on leave from Hawaii, where he was stationed. Clark had a serious telescopic rig set up, which he let me peer through as the sun was about 1 percent blocked. He pointed out sunspots that looked like the Hawaiian Islands. (The telescope appeared to be connected to a laptop, as if for an experiment. But that belonged to Clark’s wife, Tina Carrillo, who was working remotely.)

“We’re not even recording it,” Clark said of the eclipse. “It’s just visual, for my purposes. I’ve never seen a full eclipse before, so this is my first — and I’ve been gathering parts for this event for probably 10 or 15 years now.”

From southern Utah, he’d seen the annular solar eclipse of 2012 — which also touched San Francisco — but pronounced it “kind of a letdown, in that the sky didn’t get dark. You had to see through the scope.”

Four women from “the L.A. area” had driven up Interstate 15 on a whim the day before in a single pickup truck, with two dogs named Rigzin and Sage in the back.

“We just decided to do it, and we drove up at 12, and we got here about what, 5:30 in the morning?” said one, who gave her name as Nikki. “We had the pups.”

“We’re ‘sick’,” another said facetiously, referring to what they’d told their coworkers.

“Through Vegas, we threw these guys in the car ’cause it was too hot,” Nikki said of the dogs. “It was 108. We threw them in the car, and the humans suffered.”

The only remotely hostile person I encountered was a guy dressed head-to-toe in American flag regalia, selling eclipse glasses and other paraphernalia. Ten minutes into the start of the eclipse, before the naked eye could register any difference in the light, I waited until he had no customers. Could I have a minute of his time?

“Oh, no!” he said, as taken aback as if I’d just asked him to fill in for me on a jury. Then, gesturing to his nonexistent line, he said, “I have too much to do” and muttered something about glasses.

So we walked up and down the western shore of the city’s greenbelt, on the Snake River. There were plenty of families spread out on blankets, largely Idahoans but many from far away. People wore eclipse-related T-shirts, and we spotted a few modified welding masks, but there were no outrageous costumes or pagans conducting rituals. We did see a red, white, and blue minivan with Utah vanity plates (“GUMP2”) that was emblazoned with Trumpian slogans (“What made America Great still does! FAITH FAMILY FREEDOM”), but no preachers or ranters. The mood was buoyant but quiet, as people with amateur telescopes murmured that it was starting.

Twenty or so minutes before the climactic moment, shadows transformed as if the light were strained through a colander, especially beneath leafy trees. But it was only in the final five minutes that things got weird.

Totality occurred at 11:33 a.m., lasting for approximately 1 minute and 40 seconds. The moon was in its new phase, so we couldn’t see its approach. Although we were in a riverfront park opposite the quiet of the alabaster Mormon temple, that spot is also the site of hydroelectric turbines, so even if the onlookers had been stunned into silence — which they were not — we couldn’t hear any wildlife. It got noticeably cooler. Streetlights turned on. No stars came out, but Jupiter and Venus did. The latter was close to the zenith of the sky, where, owing to its position inside the Earth’s orbit and near the sun at all times, it’s almost never observed. For more than a minute, the previously invisible moon caused a peculiar circumhorizontal twilight to fill the sky, and the sun’s corona, a vaporous envelope of plasma that extends for millions of miles into space, came into view.

You realize then that a partial solar eclipse is nothing, an F-Market passing another F-Market. Only when totality occurs does the delicious agony of anticipation fall away, and a sublime, celestial terror fills you. Most people cheered as the last bits of the solar crescent disappeared behind the moon, but seconds later, they were reduced to sputtering, “Oh my God!” In his poem, “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” Wallace Stevens wrote, “It was part of the colossal sun, / Surrounded by its choral rings, / Still far away. It was like / A new knowledge of reality.”

Entrusted with this new knowledge, my hands were shaking so badly that I failed to take any good photographs. It isn’t Biblical darkness, like the ninth plague of Egypt in Exodus or the opening of the sixth seal in Revelation. But it is awesome, in the original sense of the word. A lucky few humans have gazed at the Earth from space or from the surface of the moon. Hundreds of millions of people have looked through the ice crystals on the window of a plane at 35,000 feet and seen the bow of the planet’s horizon. But Homo sapiens have witnessed eclipses since before any technological advancement made those other wonders imaginable. They are the only regular and small-d democratic celestial wonder our position in the universe allows.

People gathered early along the Snake River for a good viewing spot. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

In the period of totality, when you no longer need the 1950s-drive-in glasses that blot out 99 percent of the visible spectrum, you might as well be an ancient Babylonian trembling in a field. Unlike three-day music festivals or other cultural happenings that draw tens of thousands of people and traffic for miles, you didn’t have to be right there. You could be anywhere within a 70-mile band and still feel an overwhelming camaraderie with your contemporaries and with the ancients who offered sacrifices in fertility cults because they couldn’t explain rain. Because it was before noon on a Monday, relatively few people seemed intoxicated. But for almost 2 minutes, we were out of our minds.

Sunlight is diffuse, so you don’t need to jockey for position. You just look up. Electronic signs for miles leading north out of Salt Lake City and into southern Idaho warned drivers not to pull over on the highway, but like a bus driver mid-route at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, it’s impossible not to feel intense pity for anyone who couldn’t look up. Pink Floyd sang that, “Everything under the sun is in tune / When the sun is eclipsed by the moon,” but in her essay, Dillard called it “devastation,” that the hills were “obliterated.” She’s right. Totality is a magnitude beyond the reach of the excitement felt on the highway, driving toward Oregon or Idaho or Tennessee — or even aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, awaiting destiny with Bonnie Tyler.

In retrospect, it would be nice to be an astronomer or to have prepared a better camera setup, but I really wish I had a better knowledge of the way light works. The diamond-ring effect that announces the end of totality broke the spell, and for less than half a second, before I had to turn away, the light the sun emitted was almost LED-cold, like the flare of a strip of burning magnesium in high-school science class. That, to me, was the moment of purest awe. We had looked upon the mightiest god laid low, and then it returned in full splendor to punish us for peeking. Within a minute, it was as if nothing had never happened.

Pocatello natives Cody Russell and family await the eclipse. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

We left Idaho Falls at noon, circumventing the monster traffic jam on southbound I-15 by taking U.S. 91, where a faded motel called the Evergreen Glades that has a 50-foot sign in the shape of a conifer that’s missing the letters “OTEL” marks the edge of town. We stopped at the Idaho Potato Museum in Blackfoot, where you can take a picture of yourself in front of a giant, Claes Oldenburg-style baked potato with a pat of butter the size of a desktop monitor. (Admission to the museum is $4, and it’s obviously an industry-funded monument to civic boosterism. It’s also boring, and not in a self-aware way.)

We ate a very late lunch in Twin Falls, Idaho. Deferred hunger is funny, considering how the earliest Chinese term for an eclipse, is “shih,” which means “to eat.” Twin Falls could be a beautiful town if the zoning code hadn’t allowed an Outback Steakhouse and Ross Dress for Less right next to the Snake River gorge and the plaque that commemorates Evel Knievel’s unsuccessful 1974 attempt to jump it on a steam-powered rocket cycle. But at least Idaho lets you walk a dog through a restaurant to a patio. From there, we drove through northern Nevada, the desolate wastes that became a state in 1864 during the first American Civil War, and all the towns that sound like Johnny Cash songs — and, as we realized, a few Magnetic Fields lyrics — Jackpot, Elko, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, Reno.

We would eventually arrive in San Francisco at 3:15 a.m., having driven 950 miles in a single day. Hours before that, though, somewhere in rural Eureka County, Nev., we saw something astonishing: a beautiful desert sunset, free of obstruction aside from the anonymous, purple-black peaks. Artificially prolonged by hurtling west at 85 miles per hour, it’s a common sight on the open road — except that we were among the privileged few to witness a genuine rarity, a day with two twilights, darkness at noon and darkness later.

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