Last week, I spent five days in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, one of the most remote and dramatic mountain ranges in North America and one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Add in a once-in-three-lifetimes-event – a total solar eclipse – and I’m absolutely sure, deep down in the granite bones of my soul, that we live on the best planet in the Universe.
Earth is the only planet in our solar system that experiences total solar eclipses: all the other planets either lack moons or have moons that are either too small or distant to block the sun or so large and close that they obscure it completely. In its current orbit, Earth’s Moon is in just the right place that it appears the same size as the Sun in the sky. When their ever-spinning celestial paths converge, as they did last week, the Moon is just the right size to cover the Sun, highlighting the Sun’s flaming white corona for a few minutes against the darkend sky. It hasn’t always been this way: it wasn’t until about 1 billion years ago that the Moon reached its right-size place in the sky. If you missed totality this time, you have time to make plans to catch the next event: the Moon will be in the right position for totality for another 600 million years, give or take a lifetime or three, before it will orbit outward too far from Earth to perfectly block the Sun.
We witnessed the eclipse from Titcomb Basin: a granite wonderland deep in the Winds on the western side of the Continental Divide, some 15 miles from the nearest road. Even in this remote location, eclipse watchers were plentiful. It’s a testament to the sheer grandeur of Titcomb Basin that it never felt crowded. I, for once, didn’t mind the company. Some experiences should be shared and a total eclipse is definitely one of them. Losing the Sun, even for a few fleeting minutes, is terrifying. In those dark, cold moments, you realize how much the Sun does for us. It’s not just an orb in the sky, the Sun is god: the very source of life on Earth. Leading up to totality, the six of us gathered on a granite knoll, at nearly 11,000 feet of elevation, and as the Moon slid across the Sun, we found ourselves sliding closer to one another, huddling for warmth, seeking reassurance that the Sun god would not forsake as, that it would return, as promised, after two minutes and thirty seconds of darkness.
Photographs will never do this event justice and in the moment, I snapped a few shots and then put down my camera and let totality burn into my brain. Those moments are among the most surreal of my life. In my mind’s eye, the black hole sun was huge, taking up my whole consciousness, inking out the whole sky save for a bright few stars and planets. We laughed, we screamed, we howled, we stood up and lay down, elated, dizzy, shaking with primal terror. And then the Sun god returned, the slightest sliver of light making all the difference. Then us six saw the eclipse through to the very end. Not until the last bite of Moon was gone did full warmth return to the granite bones of Titcomb Basin.
The Wind River Range is featured in my upcoming book Aerial Geology: A High Altitude Tour of North America’s Spectacular Volcanoes, Canyons, Glaciers, Lakes, Craters and Peaks:
With its smooth, silvery grey texture and tendency to erode into soaring walls and dramatic pinnacles, granite is one of the most beautiful rocks on Earth. North America’s most famous granite is found in Yosemite National Park in California, but Wyoming’s remote and rugged Wind River Range gives Yosemite a run for its money, especially considering that the Winds are much farther off the crowded tourist track.
The Winds are located south and east of the Tetons, but the two ranges have very different geologic stories. Over one billion years ago, a massive volcanic intrusion formed deep underground, cooling slowly over time to form very hard, ver crystalline granite. This so-called granitic batholith remained buried for millions of years until around 66 million years ago, when uplift along the Continental Divide formed the Rocky Mountains Mountains and exposed the mass of granite at the surface.
The day before the eclipse. we paid a visit to the Continental Divide, by hiking up to Indian Pass, a 12,600-foot notch between Jackson Peak and Knife-Point Peak. On the way, Erika and Mitch peeled off to hike up Fremont Peak, at 13,743 the third highest point in Wyoming. Not only did they summit, the beat us back to camp in time to pull down the bear bags and start dinner! In five days, we hiked over 40 miles and barely scratched the surface of this incredible place.
The Moon eclipsed the Sun but the Winds eclipsed everything else. I’ll be back!
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