Marking the Clock
Kylee V. Luce travels to Casper, Wyoming to experience the lonely light of a total eclipse.
The ideal way to experience nature, ask anyone in the American West, is to be totally isolated while you’re doing it. The more remote, the closer to God – this is the opinion held by most people in possession of a tent, and by most American writers who claim nature as a subject. This I assume was the view of the cashier at the grocery store in Laramie, Wyoming, who told my sister we were “very brave for going to Casper”, where, she explained, there are so many people, including a group rumored to be a suicide cult bent on committing the final act of their lives during totality. We purchased four dehydrated backpacking meals and went back to the car.
The Great American Eclipse website estimated that Wyoming was the closest viewing location for 10 million Americans, a fact that the city of Casper duly accommodated by throwing a large eclipse festival. A professional conference for astronomers and geologists, a symphony performing scores from Star Wars, E.T., and Apollo 13, a rodeo, a murder mystery tour, a rockabilly music festival, a staging of the ancient greek tragic play Prometheus Bound, and a “Science is Sexy” keynote lecture were a small spattering of the activities on offer the weekend before the sun disappeared in the middle of the sky. It promised to be crowded, which is why I wanted to go. Though I’d never seen one before, the thought of witnessing a total eclipse in isolation was just a magnified version of my thoughts on cooking for one, or laughing out loud in an empty room – what, really, was the point? How could you be sure it had even really happened?
Wyoming by highway is low and pancake-flat and defined by the presence of a huge imposing sky the same way Los Angeles is dominated by sunshine. There are normally more clouds than cars, stretching big and leisurely over the blue horizon like royal house cats, and they hover so close to the road, their ends flattening abruptly, it’s easy to believe the land beneath them is sheathed in Truman Show snow globe glass. “Wyoming doesn’t exist,” a friend texts me while I’m driving. It does, but under the glass, time slows. On the road I decide to listen to aughts pop mixes from my high school CD collection for three hours. We pass no less than five Bible-themed billboards. In lowercase punctuation and dada ellipses, my favorite insists: “god loves you...god loves you...god loves you.”
B.F. Skinner, I learn, hated crowds too. From his thinly veiled mouthpiece T.E. Frazier in his utopian novel-of-ideas Walden Two, picked from the shelf of a used bookstore in Laramie on Sunday morning and read en route to Casper: “‘Some people get a certain thrill out of being a part of a crowd,’ said Castle. ‘A symptom of loneliness,’ said Frazier flatly.”Skinner was more scientist than writer, a “radical behaviorist” considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. Obsessed as he was with social experiments, he might have liked Laramie, a small college town buoyed by a suffuse, fragile optimism. Laramie floats less on tourism money than on a kind of educated mobility over the still lake of economic depression and stultifying boredom that envelops so much of the rural American west; an idyllic sheen falls over an abundance of old trees and a yoga studio. The cashier at the bookstore is a hot student who told me he’s been meaning to read the book in my hands.