As we planned our trip to Idaho, I pulled up the map and showed the girls the path of The Great American Eclipse across the United States. The shadow on the map made a cross-country swoop from the Pacific in the northwest to the southeast and into the Atlantic Ocean like a pinstripe following the contour of a racecar. Its curve describing the path of the moon’s orbit and the tilt of the earth as they pass each other in space. The path of totality crosses over towns, cities, ranches, farms, and the lakes and rivers where I’m sure some will be sailing. The path will also cross stretches of public land through the American West, where we can go out and lose ourselves or find ourselves as the case might be. With a little effort, we can set out, follow a stream course, climb up on a ridge, and get beyond the automatic lights that will switch on and brighten the midday twilight as the moon eclipses the sun.
When I pointed out the place to the girls, Sophia said, “There’s nothing even close to it.” And the girls have been in some remote country in the past. “Yep,” I said. “Just the way I like it.”
These lands will give us the opportunity to spread out. I know there are areas in the country where people will be funneled into the roadways and small public spaces as the moon’s shadow continues east. The further east the more acres of private land with fences and no trespassing signs will meet the crowds. I am happy to be going back to Idaho. It was on Idaho’s public lands where I taught my daughters to fish, call elk, make smores, and to name the constellations of wildflowers in the meadows and the stars in the night skies. They learned to be mindful of bears, cougars, wolves, rattlesnakes, bees and ticks. I hoped they’d understand what it meant to be kid in nature and not kid against nature, because when you can be a snack or laid low by an insect you learn to observe the world differently.
With the help of my friend Dean Ferguson, we brainstormed some locations. A friend from my wildfire days at Krassel, Patrick Bageant, had sent me the link to an interactive eclipse map, and I used it with Google Earth, and Google maps to find the latitudes and longitudes of several locations on public land and how best to access them. I sent the coordinates to Dean, and he drove out to scout the areas. He sent back photos and after some discussion about campsites and hiking distances, settled on a location.
I know there are some misinformed souls who see federal lands as some form of tyranny, a sign of federal takeover – when actually all the land in the American West was once federal land after it was seized by military force or bought from another power, but the government gave it away or sold it below market value. The federal land that was left over afterwards belonged to the citizens – we the people of the United States. This means we should all have a say in deciding their future and not just a small percentage of the population whose main goal is not the common good. The value of the land isn’t what a few can profit from it by dredging, digging, blasting or cutting from it or being fenced off for a rich family’s private hunting estate like some entitled European aristocrats. That is a tyranny of the few. Public land gives us a place to teach our kids about the outdoors and how to exist in nature. In these places we can lay out at night under dark skies and trace out the stars and planets in our imaginations, a place to experience awe.
I think of Woody Guthrie’s song, “This land is your land. This land is my land. This land was made for you and me.” Federally controlled lands aren’t a symbol of tyranny. Those lands are the opposite. They are freedom. The freedom to roam. The freedom to be alone and contemplate the wind through bluffs and wonder at the life span of a tree. It is a place not just of solitude, but also of family, of bonding away from the torture’s rack of civilization’s schedule.
If you’re receptive you can learn some measure of humility. Out there with life tinged by a primal fear you can feel what Thoreau meant when he said, “Wilderness is a tonic.” It refreshes you because it makes you aware of your vulnerability and your strength to face it. We are so used to our power to overwhelm the environment, we forget nature has the power to fold us into the geologic record like batter. We will be one more layer in the cake. I wonder if the total eclipse will make people feel the terror of their own existence the same way it feels to be in the shadow of a bear?
Where will I be for the Great American Eclipse? Camped out on our great American public lands under a wide sky with my daughters and close friends. I’m excited to take daughters back to Idaho, their home state, to witness one of the greatest astronomical shows on the planet. We will wait as the shadow approaches, the nearest paved road fifty miles away, with the pale memories of past camping trips and all we shared and learned as they grew up and I grew as father. Now, if that’s not freedom, then I don’t know what is.
Up next: A Luna Eclipse?