THE BUZZ: Lights Out

By on August 23, 2017

The only black-out we’ll ever remember was surprisingly tame.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – The most anticipated event of the season has come and gone, and the feeling seemed to be one of camaraderie more than chaos.

“I’m glad I watched it with a group of people,” eight-time eclipse veteran Bob Coppock said after the total solar eclipse passed Monday afternoon.

Despite expectations of a town saturated with visitors, downtown Jackson was eerily quiet over the weekend prior to the eclipse. The Chamber of Commerce listed 48 hotels that still had vacancies between August 15 and 25.

“It was kinda spooky driving around town yesterday, there was nobody there,” Lieutenant Matt Carr said Tuesday.

That’s not to say no one came. Wyoming Department of Transportation reported 17,755 more vehicles than the five-year average in Teton County on Saturday, and 33,087 on Sunday. Statewide traffic increased more than 27 percent compared to the five-year average for the third Sunday in August.

“A lot of people were here to experience it, I think they just bypassed town,” Carr said.

Grand Teton National Park, on par with expectations, had a record-breaking couple days from Saturday through Tuesday. A traffic report recorded 2,400 more cars than usual on Highway 26 north of Moran, and 4,000 more cars at Gros Ventre Road on Saturday.

Saturday was also a record-breaking day at the Craig Thomas Visitor Center. As soon as roads opened at 6 a.m. Monday morning, traffic had filled in along the western part of Gros Ventre Road. By 7 a.m., traffic was crawling from the National Museum of Wildlife Art to Gros Ventre.

Still, GTNP personnel were in high spirits Monday morning. “I’m really excited,” said park ranger Vicky Mates. She had been stationed at the entrance to Gros Ventre campsite and amphitheater since 5:30 a.m. Her job was to direct traffic and distribute official eclipse glasses to unprepared visitors. She also had stickers, reusable bags, park maps and GTNP’s Total Solar Eclipse newspaper to offer.

GTNP offered 100 parking passes for the Gros Ventre campsite, where park officials established an “official viewing area” complete with telescopes and narration from Dark Ranger Telescope Tours. Passes ran out by 11 a.m. Sunday, Mates said.

But Mates didn’t turn anyone away from the spot. If they didn’t have a parking pass, she just pointed them a little down the road, where there was ample parking close enough for them to walk.

Gros Ventre campsite was one of three official viewing sites in the park. Programs at Colter Bay and Craig Thomas Visitor Center warmed park visitors up to the eclipse over the weekend.

Dark Ranger Kevin Poe presented two programs at Gros Ventre amphitheater: “Women’s Work: Mathy Maidens Solving Spaces’ Perplexing Problems” on Saturday night and “Syzygy: The Sciences, History and Mythology of Three Collinear Points” Sunday night. Poe also provided the telescopes and projected the eclipse on a big screen Monday. He and his dark rangers travel around the country to educate people during astronomy festivals and celestial events like the eclipse. He joked that he’ll even offer “off-world” discounts to anyone that provides the transportation.

Despite the programming in the official viewing areas, many viewers seemed to stay near their cars or on the road. Even passengers from 100 vehicles did not fill the amphitheater at the Gros Ventre campsite.

Still, when totality hit, the amphitheater filled not with people, but with shouts of excitement and wonder. One viewer counted down the seconds as the moon fully slipped in front of the sun, then erupted into applause at the first moment of totality. 

“Nobody got raptured!” another viewer shouted when it was over.

“That was the shortest two minutes of my life,” another remarked. “It felt like two seconds.”

But people planned for years to bear witness to those two minutes. Coppock visited Jackson last summer just to “scope it out,” he said. This year, he drove his RV into Jackson three days early, and took a taxi from his campsite at the Virginian into GTNP early Monday morning to secure his viewing spot.

This was Coppock’s eighth eclipse. His first was in Washington back in 1979. “That’s how I got hooked,” he said. He doesn’t know what, exactly, compelled him to chase eclipses after that. Part of it is the wonder of the phenomenon itself. But at least as much, he said, is the opportunity to travel. Eclipses have taken him to Turkey and Gabon. Madagascar in 2002 was his favorite, because he could watch the eclipse fall over the Indian Ocean and sink into the horizon. The journey is half the fun, he said.

Across the valley, locals and visitors shared in the wonder of the total solar eclipse. An estimated 250 people gathered at Snow King to watch with Wyoming Stargazers and its guest astronauts.

Evan Talker was on the Snake River, where he said it was mostly quiet except for three bald eagles and a flock of unidentified birds “flying very low past me and my friends” just as totality broke. “It was amazing,” he said.

There must have been some magic to it because one couple reportedly got engaged, and one reportedly got married. A baby was born at St. John’s Medical Center, Karen Connelly, chief communications officer, said, but the family asked to remain private.

Eclipse weekend was not completely accident-free. Connelly said Sunday and Monday weren’t the busiest days the emergency room has seen, but “paralleled the busiest days we’ve had.” Sunday was busier, Connelly said, with Urgent Care visitation up 15 percent compared to the same day last year. There was also one fatality: 30-year-old John Mione of Garland, Texas, died in an ATV accident Sunday afternoon in Alta, Wyoming. He was visiting for the eclipse.

But on a brighter (pun intended?) note, Connelly said no one has visited St. John’s complaining about vision issues yet. She credits meticulous preparation as “key to this being a positive experience for everybody.”

Indeed, other than managing traffic once the eclipse was over, Carr said law enforcement had an easy day. “We certainly geared up to be able to handle a lot of different situations,” he said. “It’s nice to be prepared and know that we were there for the community.”

Apparently eclipse viewers aren’t as inclined to commit crimes as, say, concertgoers, Carr said. “It was a really great crowd … I don’t think they’re as kooky as I used to think.”

Teton County Emergency Planning Coordinator Rich Ochs said perhaps the biggest lesson Jackson has to learn from this is how capable the community is of planning and working together on big issues. “If our community wanted to solve the traffic problem, we can—stay off the road, ride your bike,” he said. “It was pretty incredible … There’s only so much you can do with enforcement to make that happen. There’s got to be a community that wants that to happen, and it did.”

Whatever anxiety locals felt about the eclipse largely vanished once it was over.

“It’s bittersweet,” Connelly said. “It’s kind of like the day after Christmas … I haven’t talked to a single person who was disappointed.”

Back in Gros Ventre grinning ear-to-ear, Mates said she understood why people chase eclipses around the world. Maybe it’s time to plan her trip to the next one, she said, which will cross the United States from Texas to Maine in 2024.

There’s also one in South America in 2019. Coppock is already planning his trip.

And when an eclipse crosses Teton County again in 300 or so years? “We’re ready to go,” Carr said. PJH

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