Sunday, September 10, 2017

[Travel] My Own Public Idaho

I made a total hash of the trip planning, which is not like me at all. I pride myself on my trip planning -- finding the right balance of scheduled and impromptu time; knowing what is worth the extra money and what isn't. This time I mangled it such that not only was the travel more inconvenient than it needed to be, it cost me a small fortune.

I started out smart. This being ellipse travel, I secured my assets early -- an AirBnb in Ketchum, Idaho, and a flight to Bozeman, Montana, where I would rent a car and drive in. That was actually just fine, but, for some reason, months after making the arrangements I revisited them I could not remember why I booked into Bozeman, a 6 hour drive to Ketchum, when I could have booked into Boise, a 2 hour drive to Ketchum. I did a quick check on flights and there were open seats to Boise so to save me 4 hours on the road each way, I dropped some cash and switched my flight. (I could go on a mad rant about airlines charging fees to switch flights, but that would be futility incarnate.)

Then I go to switch my rental car to Boise and what do I discover but there are no cars available in Boise, except from a 1-star rated company that I would have to take a cab to from the airport and were charging in excess of $150 dollars per day. Evidently my head start had dissipated and the other eclipse travellers had snapped up all the rentals in Boise. F*ck me. Now I was hosed. I had no choice to but to switch my plane flight again to a bigger airport.

So I start looking at flights again and I realize that I can switch my flight to the much larger Salt Lake City airport and my drive time would be 4 hours each way so I'd still be shaving a couple of hours off my original plan. I bit the bullet and dropped more cash to change my flight again. Not having learned my lesson, I go to rent a car in Salt Lake City only to find there are none. F*ck me two times.

Yes, it was stupid not to check to see if cars were available first, but in I my own defense, let me point out that SLC is a huge airport and a Delta hub. I never contemplated the fact that such a place could have no cars available. Are the rental agencies incapable of moving cars around to satisfy demand? Last I checked cars were movable.

Dumbfounded and in disbelief, I had to drop even more cash for a another flight modification. This time, back to Bozeman where I originally started and was able to reserve a car. So I spent a few days hemorrhaging cash to end up exactly where I started. Worse in fact, because my new flights included a three-legged red-eye back home. I was too stunned by the turn of events to smash my head against the desk. I cannot emphasize how unlike me this is. In most cases, anyone who is privy to my travel planning will be summarily impressed, but this time I couldn't have mangled things any worse if I had been sniffing glue.

Arriving in Ketchum, I checked in to my Airbnb (a first for me) and took a stroll around town. Ketchum is famous for being the place that Ernest Hemingway blew his own brains out. What it is now is an up and coming hipster town. I heard it described as "like Aspen twenty years ago". I gather they get a fair amount of celebrity visitors for ski season; the renowned Sun Valley Resort is a mile or two away. The town itself is so-so. Not really very beautiful, but clean and walkable. Usually in such places you get outstanding restaurants but there was only one I found that had food that was particularly good, that was the Sawtooth Brewery and Public House. Everywhere else the food was mediocre. The most famous place in town is the Pioneer, an old school, north woods bar and steakhouse. Of course, the place is packed with people trying to have "the experience" of being there. I couldn't get a seat at the bar at any time during my stay.

Ketchum was in the path of totality for about one minute, but an hour north was the tiny town of Stanley, which was set to get a full two minutes of total eclipse. When you're photographing an event like this, a hundred things can go sideways so that extra minute of totality was worth pursuing. It was Friday; the eclipse was Sunday. That gave me two days to strategize my location or photos. You see, the big topic of discussion was the impending cosmic traffic jam. The warnings were dire and the evidence supported it what with airports being out of rental cars. The supposed likelihood was that over the weekend more and more people would pour into the path of totality and a huge swath of the West would be gridlocked. With that in mind, I began general reconnoitering and developing contingencies.

The road north to Stanley is a lovely drive. It starts with a long picturesque run towards Galena Peak. It looks like one of those inspirational memes people post on facebook with some caption about the journey being more important than the destination. It runs roughly along the Salmon River -- lots of fishermen -- with rustic scenery and distant mountains on either side. As you approach Galena Peak the road transforms into one of those winding mountain roads that would bother someone afraid of heights. Along the way there are a number of turn-outs, including one that is manned by park rangers at least part time, to get views of the Sawtooth Wilderness region from on high. You then descend off the peak and back to flat road this time with mostly ranchland on either side. Eventually you pull into Stanley, but before I get to that, let me point out that Idaho was well prepared for eclipse visitors. There were alerts posted everywhere, cautioning drivers that traffic could be very heavy. Along the way between Ketchum and Stanley there were numerous designated eclipse viewing areas -- large open spaces with room for campers and parking and plenty of port-a-potties. I found that very impressive. These folks didn't decry the crowds or accept that they were in for a day or two of chaos -- they took active and constructive action to makes things easier on people at their own cost. That's pretty rare in government at any level.

In Stanley proper, pop. 68, they were bracing for a mad rush also. Make-shift signs were everywhere, food carts were out slinging BBQ and beer. I parked and took the lay of the land. Stanley looks to be a very seasonal place -- dedicated to outdoor activities in the surrounding area. Whitewater rafting seems big, as does fishing and mountain biking. There look to be quite a few choices for lodging from basic hotel/motel to rustic cabins with firewood for heat. There are also a couple of cool places to eat beyond just the standard bar food -- Redd's is a tiny converted red house with some truly delicious sandwiches for lunch. If you want a wilderness experience where each days ends with a tasty meal, Stanley might be your place. Likely best avoided in winter, though.

There is plenty of camping in the surrounding area, as you might guess, and the gem location is just south of Stanley proper at Redfish Lake. I don't know if it is technically an alpine lake but it certainly carries all the characteristics -- cold clear water, pine forest all around -- the stand out feature is the multiple beaches begging to be lounged upon. Redfish Lake and it's associated lodge would be a top choice for a vacation in the area. It might actually be my pick next time around.

So having taken in the landscape, I formulated a plan. The morning of the eclipse I would pack my camera gear in the car and head north. I would go as far as the traffic would let me. Ideally I would get all the way to Stanley. If not there, maybe one of the designated viewing areas, or one to the overlooks on Galena Peak. Even if things were so bottled up I couldn't get out of Ketchum, I still noted a couple of interesting places I could set up right in town and cross my fingers nothing when wrong in photography.

Sunday came and went and around town the conversations turned to how quiet everything was and how maybe this wouldn't turn out to be anything more "cosmic" than a typical holiday weekend. I took the opportunity to do some photography and a drive up to Redfish Lake for a late afternoon swim. The lake bed is mostly rounded off rocks, no sharp edges but careful stepping is required. It was no small matter getting used to the cold water, but it was as refreshing as possible. There is something to be said for a nice lengthy soak in cold water and its effect on weary muscles. Surrounded by forests and mountains; paddleboarders and kayakers gliding out on the lake with sun sinking. It was a like a scene from a travel magazine. I was getting to like Idaho. Back in Ketchum the talk around town was that all the media hyperbole may have scared everyone away so the feared traffic apocalypse might not be so bad.

Monday came, the big day, and I was up early ready to implement whatever contingency was required. None was. I hit the road and was free and clear. I barrelled north to Stanley with only the slightest noticeable increase in traffic. There were crowds at the overlooks on Galena Peak, but the designated viewing areas were barely touched. In Stanley, the parking areas and banks of port-o-potties were barely touched. Well, well, well. So much for the traffic jam of cosmic proportions. Sad for the businesses that laid in extra supplies and scheduled extra workers, but good for me.

I setup my camera and tripod at pretty much the center of town, near some people who had much more sophisticated equipment that I did. I had bought the cheapest telephoto lens I could find and some disposable solar filters. Others had multiple full frame cameras with live connections to the internet and laptop displays. Someone else had a telescope of some sort from which he was projecting the eclipse image onto a screen. My el cheapo setup wasn't working out too well. The camera and lens combination (650mm) were proving so heavy that the tripod was not strong enough to stabilize it. I could locate the sun but could not lock it in because there was so much play in the connection between the lens and the tripod. As a result, every time I wanted to shoot, I ended up having to re-locate the sun. I got pretty good at it, but it was worrisome considering when totality hit I would have only two minutes.

Folks were milling about, settling in getting coffee and bagels from the vendors and such. Others were wandering around passing out free eclipse glasses to anyone who didn't already have them. Then someone said "It's starting!" For roughly an hour and a half, the moon moved steadily across the sun towards totality. I began taking shots. Every ten to fifteen minutes I would go to my camera, re-locate the sun, steady it as best I could, and knock off 10 or 12 photos. In between I would look using my glasses or chat with the other folks hanging around or just sit on a conveniently placed rock.

Observation: all the way through to totality, or at least up to 99%, you have to use glasses. Through my camera I could see, and shoot, the crescent sun at various phases, but even the slimmest sliver of the sun uncovered is enough to blind you or light the world. At the point of full totality is when things really change. As the moon moves across the sun the skies get perceptibly darker, but it is not a big difference. It's about the same effect as cloud cover moving over the sun. Once totality comes you are plunged into darkness as if night fell in an instant. The temperature plunges. You remove your eclipse glasses and look directly at the sun; those pictures you've seen of the coronal ring are pretty much exactly what it looks like. As a final treat, the horizon glows like sunset, all 360 degrees of it. I confess I was semi-braced for disappointment as such events that are hyped like this often fall short, but not this one. I was awestruck. Better yet, I was able to lock in on the black hole in the sky and get a number of great shots.

I can see how such an event would have been terrifying to primitive people. Without solar filters you don't know the moon is moving across the sky to the sun, you can't see it at all. For you the day would be going on normally, maybe you notice the sky darken a bit but you probably wouldn't even look up, thinking it was just an errant cloud. Then suddenly night would fall. You'd look to the sun but only see a great black hole where it was supposed to be. You'd feel the cold in your bones. The human brain's remarkable ability to generalize trends would cause you to think the world was going to end. If you were lucky the terror would only last a couple of minutes, but in the right circumstances, a total eclipse can run over seven minutes -- that's enough time to sacrifice a virgin or something. Luckily there was no such drastic activity in Stanley, Idaho. There were audible oohs and ahhs, though.

The calculated time passed and the moon begins to slide off. The eclipse glasses and solar filters go back on. It would be another hour and a half to complete the passing. I took some more shots but the sun rose far enough that I couldn't get my tripod angled high enough to lock in anymore, so I called it complete. I packed up my gear and threw it in the trunk then wandered about Stanley a bit.

The more time I spent there the more I liked it. They appear to be in the early stages of growth and I can't imagine them failing for better or worse. As a summer recreation destination, it would be most amazing. If I had more on the ball, I'd buy up some property there.

And that was that. The only traffic I ran into was about a ten minutes delay getting back into Ketchum. The next morning it was up and off on my six hour drive back to Bozeman and my triple-legged red-eye back home. I am so glad I did this trip. Despite the enormous expense and monumental screw ups in planning, it ended being a great one. The eclipse experience and the discovery of Stanley were so very worth it. I need more Stanley and more eclipses in my life.