In a meadow 10 miles north-west of Jackson, Wyoming, the Universe revealed its unimaginable depths.
What had begun as a fine summer’s morning in the foothills of the Grand Tetons range steadily darkened, while the temperature dropped 15 Celsius degrees to the chill of Rocky Mountain dawn.
This eerie transformation was witnessed by just over 200 British holidaymakers.
They had arrived at 8am Mountain Daylight Time in a convoy of four motor coaches. Paying little heed to the morning magnificence of the mountains, they hurried to an area where the sea of grass had been cropped to a neat square, as though prepared for a village fete. A queue soon formed for the tent where tea was being dispensed.
Within minutes, they created a community that had something of the look of a genteel pop festival. But really it was a quasi-religious gathering of umbraphiles: eclipse chasers.
Aged from 14 to 80, and equally divided between men and women, they had each paid thousands of pounds for the privilege of seeing the sun disappear for two minutes, 20 seconds during the Great American Eclipse.
As the total solar eclipse was born in the north Pacific and began racing east at 1,800mph, they clustered around various pieces of equipment. Some had sophisticated telescopes costing thousands of pounds, while one chap was content with a cardboard box that he had procured from Walmart and, with the help of a lady’s earring, converted into a pinhole camera.
This corner of the Rocky Mountains was chosen for two reasons: first, the weather data for the third week in August indicated the chances of clear skies were high; second, because the location would, on any ordinary summer’s day, be a perfect place for a picnic. To the north-west, the Grand Tetons marched towards a climax, the highest peaks still smothered with snow even in the height of summer.
But all eyes, protected by special eclipse glasses, were staring south-east.
One of the strangest coincidences in the cosmos is that, viewed from Earth, the Moon and the Sun appear the same. And every year or two, the dead ball of stone that accompanies Earth everywhere blots out the Sun.
At 10.16am, First Contact occurred: a tiny nibble taken out of the sun at the one-o’clock position. By 10.25am, the youngest eclipse chaser, Poppy, exclaimed “It looks like the Apple logo!”
For the first hour it felt as though evening was arriving prematurely. Then the Earth became disturbingly unworldly - washed by subdued light that somehow seemed to accentuate the relief of the mountains and the features of the watchers.
At the end of the 78-minute countdown, the last frail crescent of Sun vanished behind the Moon. One hundred and forty seconds of totality began.
Some gasped or shrieked, others shed silent tears over the vastness of the heavens and the insignificance of humanity.
The sky became a canopy of stars, while the brightest light shining from Venus. The horizon was equally baffling, resembling a 360-degree sunset.
Every sense was accentuated, as the soul tried vainly to make sense of night just before noon.
Time, and the Moon, seemed to stop. After this brief eternity, the drama of the finale: the Sun bursting from the shadows, heralded by light cutting through along the deepest valley on the surface of the Moon.
The diamond ring, they call it; I call this phenomenon the sparkle that reawakens the world.
In a corner of the field, something even more amazing was happening.
When it was over, Joshua Bay said: “It was just overwhelming. The colour was amazing. And I proposed to my girlfriend.”
Last word to the newly engaged Alexandra Cheng, a few minutes after the eclipse had passed and her fiancé, Joshua Bay, had slipped a real diamond ring on her finger.
“I wish I could stay in this moment forever.”
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