Location, location, location — what’s critical to real estate is also critical to eclipse watching, and without sounding too boastful, those of us atop South Menan Butte, an extinct volcano in southeast Idaho, absolutely nailed it. Not only did we have perfect weather, we had an excellent camping experience, great food, a magnificent natural setting, and a perch 800 feet above a vast plain stretching endlessly to the east and west. Everything was set up for a perfect eclipse experience, and we were not disappointed.
The eclipse itself was merely the climax of a weekend that just kept giving, and that really started back in January when I started planning this trip. That was when I first wrote about the eclipse and announced that I’d selected Menan Butte outside of Rexburg, Idaho, as my ideal location. It turns out that while North Menan Butte is public land, South Menan Butte is private property partly owned by one Mr. Brent Gunderson. He actually read my Hackaday post and used it to gauge interest in opening up his land to eclipse watchers.
Thankfully, he decided it was worth it, and he and his neighbor pulled out all the stops. I spoke to Brent briefly at the Saturday night meet and greet picnic dinner he threw on the lawn of his house; he was clearly a busy man but still managed to work the food line and serve up some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. He clearly enjoyed meeting all the people he had corresponded with for months as they arrived at the campground he had set up in an alfalfa field nestled between his home and the Snake River.
I can’t say enough about Brent’s hospitality — where someone might have been tempted to take advantage of desperate eclipse watchers to extort as much money as possible and provide as little as possible in return, Brent and his family just kept giving. The food, the guidance on local services, the accommodation for the disabled and those unable to climb to the best viewing locations, even the merchandise like T-shirts and eclipse glasses — everything was available either for free or at extremely reasonable rates that I suspect barely covered his expenses. Everyone who camped at Brent’s owes him a debt of gratitude for everything he and his family did for us.
On the Rim
Of course the crown jewel of the experience was the location itself. The Menan Buttes are volcanic cones that were formed about 10,000 years ago, rising 800 feet about the Snake River Plain. I climbed South Menan Butte on Sunday to watch the sun rise and to scout locations for viewing; it was a tough climb but well worth the effort. The view from the top was spectacular, with the Snake River Plain stretching 40 miles to the northwest to the Lemhi Mountains and 20 miles east to the Tetons. The spot I picked was a knob of rock on the north part of the rim, the highest point I could find. I made extensive notes about what I’d need for my expedition and headed back to camp.
When the big day arrived, I set out for the rim at about 4:30 AM. It was still pitch dark, and the unpolluted skies of rural Idaho gave me a lovely view of the Milky Way as I picked my way up the butte. Eyes stared back at my headlight from the sage brush; deer perhaps? Or coyotes. After a hard hour of climbing, I reached my perch and staked my claim, watched another spectacular sunrise, and waited for everyone else to arrive. My son came up first with Chris, a Hackaday reader who also made the trip down from North Idaho and came to our little meetup on Sunday night. My daughters came up next, then my wife bearing breakfast sandwiches for us all. Nothing makes simple food test better than being outdoors.
It was cold while we waited — in the lower 50s and windy. Partiality finally started at about 10:30. By then my perch was fully populated with other watchers, and all were welcome. To me, the most surprising thing about the eclipse was how much the experience was heightened by sharing it with complete strangers. We had a couple who drove up from San Diego, a young family huddled under blankets, and a group of young people who had traveled all the way from Slovenia for a grand tour of the National Parks before coming to the eclipse. I shared around my supply of Hackaday eclipse glasses, most of which were instantly torn apart and their filters taped over smartphone cameras. Everyone’s a hacker when the occasion calls for it.
I truly was not prepared for what the last moments of partiality and the sudden onset of totality would be like. We had cameras trained to the northwest, waiting for the Moon’s shadow to race toward us across the plain. I desperately hoped it would be more than just a gradual darkening, and I was not disappointed. Here’s my raw video of the onset; I left the audio in because it shows how giddy everyone was:
It’s hard to describe — and harder to capture on a camera — just how freaky the light quality is just before totality. It looks almost like a bad CGI render, with hard edges on everything as the Sun approaches becoming a point source. The camera also doesn’t capture the way the darkness builds up as it approaches, like a tsunami swelling across an ocean horizon. And while there was no defined shadow edge, we could clearly see the false twilight eating up the plain before us.
Everything I had heard about totality was true, and more. The temperature dropped abruptly, the wind picked up and shifted direction, and the critters around us, like insects and the swallows that feed on them, came out in droves. We saw a 360° sunset, the sky went black, and stars and planets came out. Venus shone brightly in the southeast sky, and my camera picked out a few bright stars around the blotted-out sun.
What I wasn’t prepared for, though, were the colors. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I saw. The sky was a gradient from light blue to cerulean blue to pitch black, and the corona was silver-white rays. It was monochromatic in the most colorful way possible, if that makes any sense. I did manage to capture a bit of it with my other camera:
Mere words fail, and cameras can’t do justice to what we experienced, all of which was amplified immeasurably by the presence of other people equally agog at seeing something so simple yet so astonishing. I can’t imagine ever being satisfied with seeing a partial eclipse now that I’ve experienced totality. And the fact that it was all over so quickly only deepens my need to see this again.
They say the first thing you say after your first totality is “When’s the next one?” And that’s absolutely true. Luckily, another total solar eclipse will rake across a large swath of the USA a mere seven years from now. That’s seven years to plot and plan my next trip. I’m even toying with the idea of flying to Chile in 2019. Watching an eclipse from the Cerro Tololo Observatory might just beat this experience.
And for those who don’t see what all the fuss is about, all I can say is: just go. You’ll see.