At the Continential Divide, seeing a sunset and a total eclipse of the sun

Just as the used pickup I’m driving from Billings crosses the Continental Divide outside Butte the sun reappears as it sets in blazing orange, yellow, green and purple over the jagged new mountains I am seeing for the first time. Not knowing how to express the emotion I am feeling I pound the ceiling of the pickup and whoop as my descent to “the flats” hastens the sun’s disappearance. What remains is a radiant glow setting the mountains before me in relief against the sky Darkness descends and we pass down

the narrow hallway that follows the river to Missoula without knowing the mountains and forest service roads go on and on and on beyond sight.

Now I am standing on a hillside just north of Butte with my new spouse and my new reporting partner staring westward down the same valley. Waiting. It is the middle of a cloudless day. We can see for 50 miles at least. And then the wall of darkness approaches us at the same speed as the rotation of the earth. In seconds the wall darts across the valley and quickly engulfs us. All around us, street lights pop on and dogs are barking furiously. It is as dark as night. We have with us some exposed film. We double it over and watch the progress of the eclipse. A total eclipse of the sun. Then we look to the west and we see racing toward us the end of darkness. A line of light careens silently through the valley until it passes through us and to the Rocky Mountain wall at our backs. We can see it touch the top, the Continental Divide. Daylight. The dogs remain traumatized, barking their heads off. And we walk down the hillside to our homes in town.

1 comment

  1. THIS ESSAY CAPTURES TWO awe inspiring events that occurred in roughly the same place — Butte, Montana — at different times. I ended up driving a pickup truck from Billings from which I had been hitchhiking. A guy had just bought two pickups at the Billings auction and went up onto the Interstate hoping to find a hitchhiker to help him drive one of the vehicles. Otherwise he had to hook up a towing rig and it would take longer and use more fuel than two trucks separately driven. The tallest mountains I’d seen to that day were the Appalachians which seemed pretty big to me at the time. So you might imagine what it was like for a flatlander like myself to experience a sunset blasting down on the western slope of the Continental Divide right by Butte.

    So I end up in Missoula, sign up to go to Journalism School at the University of Montana, I meet and marry my spouse, complete my education, and now I have a job working for the daily newspaper in Butte as a government reporter. I find it hard to imagine better conditions for viewing a Total Eclipse of the Sun than the very spot we found just a half mile up the hill from our homes in Butte. Stretched below us was the arsenic scorched Land of the Copper Kings. The line of the eclipse framed on either side by mountains. It was mind-blowing, praeternatural, like watching spaceships landing on your neighbor’s tennis court.

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