Marking the Clock
Kylee V. Luce travels to Casper, Wyoming to experience the lonely light of a total eclipse.
The ideal way to experience nature, ask anyone in the American West, is to be totally isolated while you’re doing it. The more remote, the closer to God – this is the opinion held by most people in possession of a tent, and by most American writers who claim nature as a subject. This I assume was the view of the cashier at the grocery store in Laramie, Wyoming, who told my sister we were “very brave for going to Casper”, where, she explained, there are so many people, including a group rumored to be a suicide cult bent on committing the final act of their lives during totality. We purchased four dehydrated backpacking meals and went back to the car.
The Great American Eclipse website estimated that Wyoming was the closest viewing location for 10 million Americans, a fact that the city of Casper duly accommodated by throwing a large eclipse festival. A professional conference for astronomers and geologists, a symphony performing scores from Star Wars, E.T., and Apollo 13, a rodeo, a murder mystery tour, a rockabilly music festival, a staging of the ancient greek tragic play Prometheus Bound, and a “Science is Sexy” keynote lecture were a small spattering of the activities on offer the weekend before the sun disappeared in the middle of the sky. It promised to be crowded, which is why I wanted to go. Though I’d never seen one before, the thought of witnessing a total eclipse in isolation was just a magnified version of my thoughts on cooking for one, or laughing out loud in an empty room – what, really, was the point? How could you be sure it had even really happened?
Wyoming by highway is low and pancake-flat and defined by the presence of a huge imposing sky the same way Los Angeles is dominated by sunshine. There are normally more clouds than cars, stretching big and leisurely over the blue horizon like royal house cats, and they hover so close to the road, their ends flattening abruptly, it’s easy to believe the land beneath them is sheathed in Truman Show snow globe glass. “Wyoming doesn’t exist,” a friend texts me while I’m driving. It does, but under the glass, time slows. On the road I decide to listen to aughts pop mixes from my high school CD collection for three hours. We pass no less than five Bible-themed billboards. In lowercase punctuation and dada ellipses, my favorite insists: “god loves you...god loves you...god loves you.”
B.F. Skinner, I learn, hated crowds too. From his thinly veiled mouthpiece T.E. Frazier in his utopian novel-of-ideas Walden Two, picked from the shelf of a used bookstore in Laramie on Sunday morning and read en route to Casper: “‘Some people get a certain thrill out of being a part of a crowd,’ said Castle. ‘A symptom of loneliness,’ said Frazier flatly.”Skinner was more scientist than writer, a “radical behaviorist” considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Obsessed as he was with social experiments, he might have liked Laramie, a small college town buoyed by a suffuse, fragile optimism. Laramie floats less on tourism money than on a kind of educated mobility over the still lake of economic depression and stultifying boredom that envelops so much of the rural American west; an idyllic sheen falls over an abundance of old trees and a yoga studio. The cashier at the bookstore is a hot student who told me he’s been meaning to read the book in my hands.
We spend longer there than we should, one thing after another going wrong like a trending meme, and by the time we pull into the cornfield in Casper, down a dirt road and on a farm charging $100 per camping space per night, it’s late afternoon, less than twenty-four hours before totality. One of the rosy-cheeked teens manning the check-in station asks if we want passes to the corn maze. The field is enormous and innocently verdant underfoot, in between about three hundred tents; beyond them the green extends all the way to the clouds and their shock of blue horizon. Inside and around the tents are people mostly middle-class and mostly from the West, the portion of the population most likely to have the equipment necessary to sleep in a field and the inclination to pretend to enjoy it. “I’m going to sleep in the car,” says my brother, surveying our tiny pup tent and its several broken tentpoles taped together with supplies from our first-aid kit.
The colors in downtown Casper on an overcast day are muted brown and grey, like most places, except here there’s so much sky the grey dome threatens to crush the meager buildings beneath it. The snow globe sensation anxiously revs my heart rate. The downtown festival, at six PM on Sunday night, turns out to be mostly t-shirt vendors and hot dog stands. I buy the last postcard left at one of them, a banal picture of a rain slicked intersection in the Casper Historic Core. Drake blares over a loudspeaker while a white woman in flares dances halfheartedly next to an overturned hat occupied by a few crumpled bills. It begins halfheartedly to rain and we shuffle into a crowded souvenir shop, where “I <3 Wyoming” hats share shelf space with “Make America Great Again” merch. We trudge into a tiny record shop, where a fortysomething man in a Grateful Dead shirt surveys us gently. He tells me his wife just texted him that she has, in honor of the eclipse, made hot dinner for him.
“This honestly never happens,” he says, flipping off the Open sign. “Never!”
I turn around. “Do you guys want to go back to camp?” I ask.
I had this vague plan before I came that I would ask people I met why they’d come to see the eclipse. Why did you bother with all this? But as soon as the words leave my mouth for the first and last time, in line at a gas station, I realize the answer is obvious. “Because, you know, it’s rare,” a man wearing crocs tells me. And I did know. We wanted to see this eclipse, so great, so American, for a reason no better or worse than to mark time. It was an opportunity looming large and unique above the numb repetition of our holidays and the mindless flat constant immediacy of living through screens, a lifestyle ensuring the omnipresence of novelty precludes anything from feeling new. Kill me it’s insta bikini season. @leninsucksmydick liked your pic. Meme calendar. On Medium, we clap to applaud our own slow deaths. If you fuck with him I don’t fuck with you!!!!
In Casper my cell service went on strike, the only one of the vaguely apocalyptic warnings issued by local authorities that actually happened and almost the only one I wanted to. I had wanted to ask people why, a question Skinner would have said should be asked of the circumstances rather than the person, because despite my burning desire to see the day go dark I couldn’t see this event’s narrative as apodictic; in what way I should make this eclipse mean something, how exactly I was supposed to metabolize it, I wasn’t sure. Was it an opportunity, as much of Twitter had informed me, to experience my own utter insignificance in the face of the vast and impersonal power of Nature? (If so, how exactly might we arrive at this impression when the weather is lately insisting the earth is not a transcendent force indifferent to us but a deeply cybernetic system, in endless conversation with our own worst tendencies?) Was it a dark planet called Rahu passing in front of the Sun, as the Flat-Earthers hypothesized? (The moon, I read on Buzzfeed, is believed by some of them to be a rotating screen illuminated from behind by a laser.) Was it a sign that America is over, as both Lana and an anonymous group of people in Carbondale, Illinois thought? Was it an excuse to stop working long enough to cost American employers seven hundred million dollars in lost productivity? Was it a ‘dark omen’ or simply entertainment, ‘nature’s most magnificent free show’? Was it a life-changing experience meant to inspire kids to get into STEM? Was it a violent celestial insurrection or had the sun, tired of being so surveilled, simply asked the moon to cover its shift in favor of a nap?
The astrologers, for once having something in common with the astronomers, had been obsessing over August 21st for a long time, warning me that August was going to be a wild ride and I had better buckle the fuck up, that this was the first total solar eclipse occurring exclusively over America since its founding in 1776. But later I read that, though it might not have been quite as exclusive, a solar eclipse was visible in America in 1918, the same year as something called “Great Train Wreck of 1918”, the same year that Frederick Trump, the grandfather of the president, died not a moment too soon. I think of an essay I read a few days ago by an astrologer predicting Trump’s impending death or impeachment with about ten pages of minutely detailed aspects, degrees, trines, squares, conjunctions, ruling houses, transiting planets; I get the urge to check the news but there’s no service. I settle for reading an article in a wrinkled copy of Popular Science about scientists who create extreme weather conditions indoors, in order to study them; after that I read another about people writing algorithms to predict the weather. I look forward to reading a listicle of celebrity reactions to the moon-sun swap. (In Walden Two, a group of about a thousand people leave society and create their own in the New England woods; there the community planners so hate being subjected to the whims of weather they build indoor corridors between all of their buildings, so as to never be inconvenienced by it again. I assume most of them would have skipped the eclipse.)
The morning of August 21st I wake up on the ground and early and decide to take a walk around the field. In the center of tent city, a group of people are doing yoga in spaces between hay bales; reach, reach, reach up! the instructor orders; I do a sun salutation with them and brush the hay off my ass. The air is warm, the clouds have politely thinned; telescopes sprout from the landscape like weird metal flowers; a man with a badge hands me a pair of official Wyoming Eclipse Glasses. Back at our car my brother is awake and reading Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods, the night before having explained the general gist to me, the evidence that advanced human civilization is much older than we thought, that the stone age was not the beginning but a blip between complex cultures; “We just keep rising, and falling, and rising, and falling again, who knows how many times it’s happened,” My brother said.
I remember that I forgot to bring my roommate’s copy of Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone To Talk, inside which can be found her vivid essay “Total Eclipse.” But it’s fine because I have a lot of the best lines memorized. “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane.”And I keep thinking about the way she describes the light:
“The white ring and the saturated darkness made the Earth and the sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world.”
So. Pretty dramatic. Later, after the eclipse is over:
“A college student, a boy in a blue parka who carried a Hasselblad, said to us, ‘Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.’ ...and I had to laugh.”
The sun starts receding in Pac-Man bites. The light dims slightly; this looks...like...an instagram filter, I think stupidly before willing myself to think a more interesting simile, and anyway it doesn’t look like a screen at all. I try to take a selfie in my official Wyoming Eclipse Festival glasses and my phone dies as soon as I raise the camera to my eyes. “It’s starting!” a preteen girl screams. We shamble next to a telescope. A shadow flings across the field. “You can do it!” a woman shouts, and it, whatever she meant, does: totality. An eerie ring of light announces itself in the sky. Has there ever, the thought intrudes, been a lonelier kind of ungodly light? Light that “sank and sank”, as Virginia Woolf wrote about an eclipse in 1927, light different than anything I’ve seen before: it’s dark as 9:00 PM but those Wyoming clouds on the edge of the horizon are lit up in loud orange and pinks borrowed from the afternoon’s magic hour; everything else in the snow globe glints in strange silvers and swims in blues prussian, midnight, iris. I turn in a circle in a daze; I feel high, reared by the sight of something actually new. I look inside the metal flower and see the same abstract lifesaver that I’m destined to see again and again as soon as my phone revives, as soon as I log back on. I back away from the image and look at the tents, the cars, the grass, the faces. I mark the clock.