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When the common became the exotic

Aug 25, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

When the sun disappearedMonday morning, I was standing in the middle of Main Street, alone.

It was a strange place to be. I'm so glad I was there.

Thinking about where I might be for the big moment, I had bounced around town for almost three hours Monday morning, shooting photos for The Ranger. Riverton was hopping, busier than I'd ever seen it.

First stop, the airport, where a hundred planes that normally wouldn't be here were landing one after the other, inching along the tarmac looking for a parking place so their passengers could get out, set up lawn chairs, umbrellas, even a couch or two, some pitching tents right on the cement, others sheltering in the shade from the wings of the bigger aircraft. A couple of the jets were bigger than the 30-passenger Denver Air Connection jetliner. (It was there, too, with a charter group.)

Then down to North Federal Boulevard, teeming with traffic.The big store parking lots were full. The fast-food lines were long, motorized snakes. If there was a sausage-egg biscuit left to be had, I'd be astounded.

A couple of the hotels had viewing areas set aside, with a porcupiney assortment of tripods, telescopes, antennae and other gadgets. One man, who gave his name only as "Bethesda Bill," told me the 420-mile drive from Colorado Springs to Riverton the day before had taken him 12 hours amid hundreds of thousands of Colorado tourists who drove north to our state for a shot at the eclipse.

Everywhere I went, I scouted for my viewing spot, as did visitors from states coast to coast. I shot pictures of license plates, prompting a challenge from a young, bearded and braided man wearing a tight wool cap better suited for Wyoming weather six months from now.

"Why did you just photograph my license plate," he demanded, loudly.

I was tempted. "I'm compiling a central data base to send back to headquarters in D.C."

Instead: "I'm shooting pictures for the local newspaper to get an idea of how many people are here and where they came from."

"Uh-huh," he said with a scowl, and tried to zoom off. The parking lot was so full he only made it about 15 feet.

No good vantage points here. No way was I going to stand in a mob of out-of-state tourists to watch my Riverton eclipse. Back to the office for a charged camera battery and a scramble out a second-story window to the roof. Could this be the place, I wondered.

But there's no context up there, not for something in the sky. I figured a million people would shoot the same photo of the obscured sun with its angelic corona against the black sky. I wanted something that said "place."

A quick dash to West Park to see my cousin David, from Lovell, and my old friend Scott Acton. The three of us made a lot of trips together on the Riverton High School band bus in the 1970s. Scott is a Ph.D physicist in Colorado now, and had invited his uncle (a retired NASA astronaut) and several other scientists and family friends to Riverton. David agreed to let them assemble at the old farmhouse, and it was a fine location.

Ranger reporter Dan Bendtsen decided to hang around there, and we didn't need two Ranger people in the same place. Off I went: back to the airport for another look at the mob. Hundreds of people would watch from here. I thought of getting close to the terminal or the nearby "weather ball" at the NOAA office. Neither seemed quite right.

Of course, I could have stayed home and watched with my wife. I pulled into the driveway and gave her a camera -- but then left again. With no particular pride, I will say she's become accustomed to my absence in big local moments. Better hold off on the Husband of the Year nominations for now.

With 10 minutes to go, I stopped at the historic Riverton railroad depot, now home to a restaurant. It says "Riverton" in big letters on the north side, and I did a pre-check of a good camera angle.

But then I went back, up the slope known locally as High School Hill, even though the high school hasn't been there for 35 years. In the back of my mind, I might always have known this would be the place, but I kept telling myself there might be something better. There wasn't.

From that spot, the entirety of downtown Riverton is in full view. I've been there countless times before, often with my camera. I've walked the street's center line as a member of a marching band. I've ridden a bicycle up and down it time and again. Every day in good weather I buzz the hill on my little red scooter to the office, and, like all who live here, I've made thousands of trips up and down in an automobile.

But this was different, completely. I walked right to the middle of the street and stood still. It was profoundly darker and much cooler, five minutes before totality. Pedestrians had vanished. Not a single vehicle moved anywhere. With my long lens, I could clearly see four blocks east on Main. Silence, stillness. Abandonment.

At 11:38 a.m., I lay down on my back in the middle of the street, just so I could write this sentence saying I did it. Nobody saw.

Main street in Riverton is an important place in the life of the local newspaperman. It's a focal point, an icon, a thoroughfare, a destination, place of history, place of record, place of recognition -- a place of place.

And it was where I wanted to be on this day that would come just once in my lifetime.

Adjusting my camera, I missed the lights-out moment, that instantaneous switch-flip from the heavens that is like nothing else on Earth. I looked up, and there it was, the black disk against a suddenly starry sky, the wisps of white corona around it swirling and dancing.

Then -- was there a football game in the old Tonkin Stadium behind me? No, but there was cheering, distant but loud, from north and east. The eclipse was getting a standing ovation. This was my soundtrack.

My first pictures were crap. The cityscape couldn't be captured in the same frame as the sun ball. So, during that unique 135 seconds of the year (the decade? the century?) I ran to my pickup and drove down the hill to the depot, a roof between my eyes and the sky. I threw open the door, hurtled the shrubs along the Rails to Trial path, raced to the spot I had scouted before, tried to remember if I had set the camera (a different one) to the recommended settings, and raised it to my eye.

Click. And click again.

The second shot came at the instant totality ended. The Depot building is a silhouette against the sting of white sky. Useless.

But the first one? Ah, the first one. It's the picture we used on the front page Tuesday. It's the one I hope might last awhile, the one that might be looked at years from now when someone want to know about Eclipse Day in Riverton, Wyo.

I will acknowledge two things. First, that picture doesn't look like the eclipse looked. But it works. The camera compensated for low light: it used its composite feature to combine a wide shot of the Depot and a telephoto shot of the sun. And it works. I got the picture.

But getting the picture came with a price. Of the 2 minutes and 14 seconds of total eclipse time, I probably looked at it with my own eyes for no more than 15 seconds. The rest was spent dinking around with the camera, running to the pickup, driving the pickup, getting out of the pickup, running to the depot, and dinking with the camera some more.

I'll always kick myself for that. But I'll never forget the sight, brief as it was, and I'll try always to be able to summon those minutes alone in the middle of the street in my town, when that commonest of places became exotic, when time stood still during the fastest two minutes of my life, when the world changed and changed again, when, unbelievably, there was sunrise and sunset all at the same time.

We'll all have our eclipse story for the rest of our days. This was mine. I'll take it.

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2017-09-24