Certain dates have acquired fixed meanings in my head. Family birthdays, for instance. September 3 is one of them — my dad’s.
He died five years ago this summer. He seems to have both vanished and to be as present as ever.
The physical presence is what’s gone, of course; that person about whom we worried, who often baffled and angered us, whom we loved and felt tender toward, was gone just like that. His ashes are in the same grave with our Mom’s — she died suddenly 14 years ago last week, and I still find myself saying “Oh, mom” out loud — and with the casket of our brother Mark, who died just before he turned two. There’s a whole story about that grave site, when and why it was purchased and how three family members wound up there. For another night, maybe. It must be said in the meantime that those remains in that spot were — are — the least of what those people were.
In that sense, in the sense of who Dad was and how he we saw him in life, he seems to be right here with me. I think about him every day. Still remembering a life of light and dark moments. Still trying to figure him out. Still trying to understand the gifts he gave all of us and those that he couldn’t give.
He lived to be nearly 91. If that’s a stake in the ground — I don’t presume much about my own future, but Dad lived nearly exactly as long, within about a week, as his mother — there are decades ahead to try to work all that out.
(The picture above is a favorite: Our grandmother, Otilia Sieversen Brekke, and my dad, at their home in Alvarado, Minnesota, in late December 1921. Dad was a little less than four months old. Grandma shows a warmth and attentiveness in this shot that doesn’t come out in other pictures.)
I will get back to the conclusion of the travelogue at some point this weekend. (It’s only been a week since I got back; I still remember most of what went on out there.)
But tonight the subject is the heat — it may have hit 108 here in Berkeley, which would have broken the town’s all-time heat record set 104 years ago (our local weathe record goes back to 1893).
And in San Francisco, where the previous record for September 1 was 90, the official high was 106 degrees. That bettered the all-time record of 103, which had been reached in 1988 and 2000.
But there’s more than heat to the story.
We are under a stagnant dome of high pressure. There’s very little wind at the surface, and for now, our dependable cooling sea breeze, which allowed folks on this side of the East Bay Hills to escape the severe heat wave that visited in June, is utterly absent.
The air is not only still, it’s full of crud. To be more specific, smoke from wildfires far to our north has drifted into our region. The result is a lurid kind of smoggy sunlight during the day and a waxing gibbous moon that has a persistent amber hue to it. There’s enough smoke in the air from fires that you can smell it and detect a smoke haze in the streetlights tonight.
Of course, this isn’t a disaster like the one that’s been visited on Houston. It’s not the kind of condition — persistent heat and reliably foul air — that folks in the San Joaquin Valley deal with all summer. And no, it’s not terribly humid, so it isn’t sticky and I can imagine getting to sleep tonight.
But it is warm out — 77 degrees as we creep tonight — and it is strange and smoky. This day and night have made an impression.
We witnessed the eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, took our time packing up, had an early dinner downtown, and then headed out on an alternate route toward Denver, state highways 220 and 487, thinking to avoid the parking lot that Interstate 25 had become with the Eclipsed Masses heading back to their lives.
In fact, there was very, very little traffic along 487 — although probably a lot by that highway’s standards — and we didn’t see any signs of the masses until we hit the settlement of Medicine Bow, which I recall being the setting, sort of, for the old TV western (and perhaps the movie and novel that preceded it) “The Virginian.” In the dusk, a long line of cars waited to gas up at what looked like a two- or four-pump gas station; a large crowd milled around in the huge parking area outside the adjacent store.
We finally joined the main exodus when we got to Interstate 25 in Cheyenne, and had about 40 miles of stop-and-go traffic down to Loveland, where the first thing we saw when we got off the freeway was a couple fighting on the side of the road (yes, I stopped to see what was happening when the woman appeared to flag us down; seeing that alcohol appeared to be involved, that the parties didn’t appear in danger of doing each other any real physical harm, and that they didn’t want the services of local law enforcement, we went on our way. They turned out to be staying at our motel).
Anyway. I don’t have time this morning — Thursday, in Moab, Utah — to give a blow by blow of what took us from there to here. But Tuesday took us to Denver International Airport, where The Dog and I took leave of Kate, who flew back to the Bay Area so she could be at work on Wednesday.
Then The Dog and I — I did the driving — headed out of the Denver area on U.S. 285, through a couple of pretty vigorous mountain thunderstorms, across Kenosha Pass and South Park and eventually to U.S. 50, where we turned west and stayed the night at a mountain lodge. (My brief adventures trying to find the hotel, just below 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, and my hourlong radio appearance by phone from my Wi-Fi-less, cellphone-less hotel room on KQED’s “Forum” program are entertaining details perhaps to be expanded upon later.)
Wednesday we crossed Monarch Pass on U.S. 50, then wound our way south and then west and then north from Montrose, Colorado, to Moab (U.S. 50, U.S. 550, Colorado highways 62, 145 and 90, Utah 46 and U.S. 191 were all encountered in this leg of the journey).
All I can say about this part of the world: It’s insanely beautiful, with virtually every turn revealing something I’m taken aback by. And what a varied landscape, from mountain crags to miles and miles and miles of red rock canyons and from dense conifer forests to oceans of sagebrush.
We’re about 900 miles from Berkeley at this point, and I was tempted to try and do it all in one go. But I won’t. Today we’re headed for Ely, Nevada, about 400 miles away. That will leave us with a long but eminently do-able drive tomorrow (I used to drive the 500 miles from Berkeley to Eugene at the drop of a suggestion; traveling solo with The Dog, however, is slower. Plus I’m always stopping to gawk at something or to read a roadside plaque).
As it turns out, I was an enthusiastic participant in the eclipse experience but sort of a lousy observer. My one idea for recording the event visually — to shoot a movie of the oncoming darkness and return of daylight — misfired because I apparently didn’t hit the record button when I thought I did. Oh, well.
But Kate was on the job. She caught the images below, looking west from our Casper golf course ridge. The first image was less than 10 before totality, I think. The second just after totality began.
Well — the clouds held off, and the smoke wasn’t a factor. What a lot of anxiety for … maybe nothing.
But the eclipse itself? Overwhelming. I’ve already used that word on social media.
First, watching darkness steal across the rolling terrain across the west from our viewing point, a ridge above the Casper city golf course.
Then the last sliver of sun vanished behind the edge of the moon.
I was puzzled — couldn’t see anything through my viewing glasses. When I pulled them away, the sight was dazzling. The moon, a jet-black disc surrounded by brilliant halo of pure silver light. I have nothing I can compare it to. Just writing that brings a jolt of emotion.
I looked through binoculars to see if other details were visible. There seemed to be flares and flashes of iridescent colors all around the rim of the moon.
Around us, the city’s streetlights had all come on. On the golf course below us, a herd of pronghorn antelope that had been grazing in two and threes quickly gathered and began running down a fairway.
The eclipse lasted almost two and a half minutes here. Boy, did that 150 seconds fly by. The first light had the same pristine silvery quality as the corona around the moon.
The moon has finished crossing the sun’s disc now, and sometime later this afternoon we’ll be heading south, toward Denver. But what a day. I’ll remember Casper for as long as I’ve got a memory.
One last note: I didn’t attempt to photograph the eclipse itself. Didn’t have the gear, really, and there are a lot of great photographers out to capture the event, including one who was sharing our ridgetop perch. I’m hoping to get an image or two from him to share.
I did record some sound, though, since I had my phone in hand. Beyond my bellowing, it’s cool to hear the sound of people cheering in the distance. Here’s 20 clean seconds:
Well, just under over three hours to T-Time. T for totality. The sky is clear but a little smoky here. Off to the north, a bank of high clouds is visible. Is it headed this way?
From the final, very complete forecast discussion published at 2:48 a.m. by the Riverton office of the National Weather Service:
“… Natrona county, including Casper, will lie within the other good area to view the eclipse as it will likely be mostly clear and sunny to begin the day with high clouds not making it into the County until after totality, through the afternoon. There is also one additional caveat to this astronomical event – smoke cover. The forecast area will see another frontal push through the area later this morning perhaps bringing in more wildfire smoke and causing or continuing some visibility decrease (keeping the sky a bit hazy side even without the clouds). Again, none of these factors will keep the eclipse from being viewed – but may somewhat limit how it/what can
be seen around the eclipse itself…especially near/at totality. On the other hand, the colors associated with this kind of filtering could be quite dramatic.”
Starting midday Saturday from Sidney, Nebraska — a town of 6,000 just off Interstate 80 in the southwestern corner of the Nebraska panhandle — we drove east on U.S. 30 through the towns of Sunol and Lodgepole (or Lodge Pole, if you believe the lettering on the Post Office building there).
Lodgepole was one of my destinations on this trip. According to letters from one of my great-great-grandfathers, Timothy Jeremiah Hogan, his parents moved their family to this part of Nebraska in the mid-1860s to work on the Union Pacific railroad. Tim suggests they lived first in Lodgepole, then Sidney, 16 miles west, so the family would have the protection from hostile Indians in the area.
We hung around Lodgepole for maybe 30 or 45 minutes. I took pictures, naturally. We cruised by the most substantial building in town, the old brick public school — every small Nebraska town seems to have one. Then we were off again in the rain — we were caught in the beginning of a pretty persistent thunderstorm — and stayed west on Route 30, then turned north on Nebraska 27 to Oshkosh, on the North Platte River.
North of Oshkosh, the state blacktop ends and you begin a 60-mile stretch that begins with well-maintained dirt roads for roughly the first (southern) half of the drive and continues on a single lane of choppy asphalt for the second (northern) half.
The reason you take that road, which goes through the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, is that it’s crossing one of the more remote parts of Nebraska’s Sand Hills.
The Sand Hills are a sweeping expanse of grass-covered dunes — about 20,000 square miles — said to have formed after the last ice age. And driving through on a road that twists and turns and somehow always seems to be climbing, it’s apparent you’re traveling through sand dunes being held in place by grasses and wildflowers (chief among the latter: black-eyed susans).
Anyway. I thought the Sand Hills would be the ideal place to watch the eclipse, and yesterday’s drive was to scout out the road. We saw a dozen, maybe 15 other cars, almost all with out-of-state plates, apparently doing the same. Passing ranches along the road, I had the same feeling of eclipse envy I experienced elsewhere on our trip — “Gee, these people live right here where the show is happening. Aren’t they lucky. I wish I could stay here.”
We got off that Crescent Lake road a little before 6 p.m. — another product of our late start — and headed east on Nebraska Highway 2, which runs for about 125 miles or so right through the heart of the Sand Hills. Our destination was Valentine, on U.S. 20 right up at the top of the state, and adding in that we crossed into Central time and lost and hour, we didn’t get off the road until 10 (it was all beautiful, though — even the lightning show to our east at dusk.
We checked into our hostelry, which I’ll call the Sketchy Rest, walked the dog, and then began checking on the latest Monday morning forecasts for the Sand Hills.
I want to say here that I am an inveterate, if not a sophisticated, reader of weather forecasts of all kinds. As I pored over forecast discussions and graphical forecasts and meteorological whatnot, the consensus from those who study computer models to understand upcoming weather was that it was likely to be cloudy in the Sand Hills on Monday morning. Part of me simply doesn’t want to believe that and found it hard to picture after experiencing one beautifully sunny follow another all the way through our trip. That included Saturday, when the Sand Hills were framed by distant, rising thunderheads but were spectacularly clear along our road.
The forecasts hadn’t improved by this morning (Sunday), so we went looking for options.
The forecast for Casper, Wyoming, was for clear, clear, clear skies. Plus, it’s close to the center of the eclipse path. What if we could find a place there?
I checked motels. There were a few room on offer online — $2,000 for a single night. No.
Kate, whom I believe is both charming and lucky (she wound up with me, after all), started to call motels. She found some friendly innkeepers, but no room.
I checked Craigslist. There was a single listing for a sort of in-law unit near the south end of Casper. No price listed. I got in touch with the person who posted the place. We talked. A price was agreed on (he happened to name the figure that Kate and I had previously agreed would be our maximum; more than I’d pay in any other circumstances, I think, but not a killer — and not anything like $2,000).
So we hit the road to Casper from Valentine — 325 miles on top of the 2,000 from the previous six days — rolling west on U.S. 20 about 1 p.m. It was a fast trip, with the usual dog- and picture-related stops, and we pulled in here just after (we gained an hour traveling back into Mountain time).
The sky when we got here? Starting to cloud up. Thunder was rolling. The light and storm clouds were beautiful. The stars are out tonight, though, and the forecast is still for sunny (and smoky) skies in the morning. Except for this one note from the regional forecast office, which noted the likelihood of some smoke in the air:
“One other feature to watch is (a) thinning band of higher clouds that is forecast by some of the guidance to be between the Wind River Basin and Casper around totality time. It may be clearing the Wind River Basin/Riverton vicinity in time and then possibly affect the Casper area between 11 and noon. May be a rather narrow band then but there could be some concern for viewing in this narrow cloud feature.”
Kate just reminded me that the moon will start crossing the sun’s disk here at 10:22 a.m MDT. Totality will occur at 11:43 a.m. I wonder where that cloud will be.
Meant to publish this Saturday morning. But here it is at the tail end of Saturday night — we did make it to Valentine after an amazing drive through the Sand Hills (above) — instead:
Don’t have time to say much, because we’re late getting on the road, but: We spent the night in Jackson on Wednesday; Thursday morning, we had breakfast with the parents of our son Thom’s roommate at Oregon, Barb and Tom Dillon, who live just south of town. They invited us to stay Thursday night, so we did — using the daylight hours for a leisurely drive up past the Tetons to Yellowstone and back.
Friday, we drove across Wyoming to Sidney, Nebraska, a town where our family has roots, sort of, that go back to the 1860s. Less than 10 miles outside town, the a tire-pressure indicator light went on in the car. We pulled over and discovered we had picked up a nail and had a leak big enough I could hear it. Since the tire wasn’t too bad yet, we jumped in and made it the rest of the way to our motel, just off Interstate 80, where the tire quickly went flat. I changed it (a chore in a vehicle as large as the 4Runner, but do-able thanks to the aid of a passer-by, a Seattle-ite named Michael). In any case, we got it done.
This morning I drove into Sidney to have the punctured tire fixed. It took a while, so I strolled through town, where a parade was forming up as part of the town’s contribution to Nebraska’s sesquicentennial. Chatted up some of the participants, went back and got the car, and now we’re getting ready to head out with a tentative destination of Valentine, which is a good piece up the road (we’re not far from the Colorado border, and Valentine is close to South Dakota).
The eclipse weather forecast in western Nebraska is not great right now. So we’ll see where we wind up Monday morning.
Once upon a time — at least 20 pounds and a decent quantity of decent muscle mass ago — I used to do long, long bike rides. The kind where you’d be out all day, sometimes all weekend, sometimes longer. A natural obsession attached to these rides: Would it be raining? Would it be hot? Would there be unfriendly winds. None of those factors would typically dictate whether you’d do a ride or not, but it was an important factor in planning and indulging your worst bad-weather anxiety.
So now, we’re driving across the western United States with the idea that we’ll see the August 21 eclipse in the general area of Nebraska Sand Hills. We’re about halfway there now, and we’re starting to take the weather forecasts seriously. And while I normally wouldn’t care about the weather in a place I’m visiting — It’s cloudy? Is that a problem? — the forecast for Greater Western Nebraska isn’t so sunny right now.
In fact, if you read the forecast discussions for the four National Weather Service offices handling forecast for the area from the Idaho Rockies to the west-central Nebraska, the word “pessimism” has crept into the several-times-daily notes. Three examples (and about the jargon: GFS, ECM and European are all forecaster shorthand for supercomputer-driven numerical weather models; 12Z (or other numbers) refers to the time the most recent model run was completed in UTC (universal) time (Z stands for Zulu, and apparently comes from military usage):
Pocatello, Idaho: GFS and European continue to offer up different
solutions. GFS is more pessimistic for us. It monsoonal moisture into the region Sunday. This could produce viewing issues for the eclipse in terms of scattered areas of clouds and showers. The European on the other hand keeps the monsoonal moisture south of us for Sunday and Monday and provides much better viewing for the eclipse. The forecast favors the pessimistic solution and includes partly cloudy skies with slight chances of showers and thunderstorms. At this point, we do think the eclipse will be viewable, but there may be a few clouds in some areas. However the consensus models are leaning more towards the European solution so hopefully the GFS will move into that direction as well within the next couple of runs. Forecast for Tuesday and beyond continues to look unsettled. Even the European draws monsoonal moisture into our region for midweek.
Riverton, Wyoming: For Monday, Eclipse Day, the 12z model runs still indicate that a weak surface cold front is progged to move into the northwest portion of Wyoming and will bring with it some mid to high clouds into the region during the morning. The models seem to indicate that the frontal boundary should weaken and become diffuse during the day as it attempts to move southeast into the state. The low level southwest flow ahead of the boundary should also result in more low/mid level moisture and partly to mostly cloudy conditions expected across the forecast area from the morning into the afternoon. It is expected that there should be some isolated showers/storms over the western mountains due to expected slight instability.
Cheyenne, Wyoming: It continues to be a tricky cloud forecast for Eclipse Day (Monday) with west-southwest flow aloft and decent H7-H3 [upper atmospheric] moisture. There are still considerable differences though in the RH [relative humidity] fields, so opted to maintain a partly cloudy forecast for most areas.
North Platte, Nebraska: The cloud forecast Monday continues to evaluate the potential for high cloudiness which could partially obscure the eclipse.
The ECM and GFS shows subtropical moisture aloft moving across the Rockies which could produce scattered or broken high cloudiness around noon Monday. The GFS also indicates substantial low level moisture and stratus across Wrn/Ncntl Neb leftover from heavy thunderstorms across Ern Neb Sunday night. The ECM produces the thunderstorms across SD but shows the same moisture in place like the GFS. Thus, it is possible significant cloudiness will occur Monday.
As a result, the sky forecast for noon Monday has been increased from 35-40 percent yesterday, to 40 to 60 percent with the forecast today.
Important to remember: While the forecast models are sometimes shockingly good, they also miss. We’re more than 100 hours out from the eclipse right now, and there’s plenty of time for things to evolve. Right now, though, I’m rooting for monsoonal moisture to keep its ass parked well clear of the eclipse zone; the same for stray moisture and frontal boundaries and all other atmospheric interference with OUR EVENT OF A LIFETIME. You listening, cloudmakers?
Anyway. Isn’t this supposed to be a road trip?
We started out in Twin Falls, Idaho, today, walking through a mall to the Petco with, guaranteed, the most scenic view in all of Petco World. Or, it would be the most scenic view if the entrance was at the back of the store, because that’s where you can look down into the Snake River Canyon of Evel Knievel fame.
Alas, Evel is pulling his cheap stunts in the afterlife now (and maybe still getting upstaged by Richard Nixon). But there were base jumpers leaping, one after another, from the big beautiful steel arch bridge that carries U.S. 93 across the canyon. Here’s a video — watch it full screen — that sort of conveys what that was about:
At the visitors center, near the Petco and overlooking the bridge, I had a talk with a guy who arrived with a daypack and a longboard-style skateboard who confided early on, “I’m a bum. I live down in the canyon.” But what he really wanted was to talk about losing a camera over the side of the canyon rim earlier in the week. He also confided he was an old time base jumper who had gone off the high bridge outside Auburn many times (OK — he said 1,000 times).
After that, we headed up 93 and saw lots:
An aqueduct that a bunch of kids — wearing personal flotation devices, all of them — were getting ready to jump into for a 20-minute trip downstream.
A memorial to a guy who crashed in February off U.S. 26 on the edge of Craters of the Moon National Monument; the debris field from the crash was still present, as was a memorial to “The Highwayman.”
Lava. Lots of lava.
Arco, Idaho, which advertises itself as the first place in the world to use electricity generated by atomic power (circa 1955). The proprietor of the Lost River Valley espresso shack served us a latte and a cappuccino. We talked eclipse, since Arco is in the path. Was she bringing on extra help? Her sons would be there, she said. “I started this business for them — they’re both autistic. They’re home today. … They’re anxious about all the people who’ll be showing up. …”
Idaho Falls. Bought gas there. By the way, the mileage on a Toyota 4Runner — the only car Hertz had to give us after I asked for a small SUV — sucks.
The towns of Shoshone, Richfield, Carey …
The Snake River. Swan Valley. The Grand Tetons. Jackson Hole. And that’s where we are tonight.
Tomorrow? We have a reservation in Casper, Wyoming. We’ll be looking at the weather.
A quick entry, since I’ve waited until after midnight to sit down and get something down.
As planned — I have never made so many reservations in advance in my life — Tuesday is supposed to be our longest day driving on the way to western Nebraska. We got started from Tahoe City, on the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, at 9:35 a.m. PDT and pulled in here, about 510 miles later, at about 8:45 MDT — a drive of a little over nine hours. Things got slow in the last couple hundred miles because I wanted to stop and take pictures at several spots along the way. Like the shot above, looking north on U.S. 93 about 30 miles north of Wells, Nevada, and 85 miles or so south of Twin Falls, Idaho.
A word about the weather: We are now inside the window where the National Weather Service is offering a forecast that includes Monday, Eclipse Day. And what do you know? The outlook is iffy for most of western Nebraska. Of course, there’s not forecast in the world that can make a call for a two and a half minute period that’s still six days out. But now we’ve got something to obsess about other than where exactly we’ll be standing when the celestial machinery does its thing.