TWIN FALLS — For a few moments Monday, the Earth grew still, the bustle of everyday life stopped and all eyes turned skyward to witness a total eclipse of the sun.
Southern Idaho had prepared for months for the once-in-a-lifetime event; the next full eclipse won’t happen in Idaho until 2169. Police braced for massive crowds. The state transportation department fretted about white-knuckle traffic jams. Hospitals made extra preparations. No one knew quite what to expect.
But in the end, there was no catastrophe — only a moment of peace, when the heavens became a stage for celestial majesty, day became night and Idahoans marveled at the power and beauty of the universe.
“I feel so glad to be alive today,” said Ketchum resident Linda Johnson. “I feel drunk, stoned, altered — this is a life-altering event. I thought the experience of seeing the Dalai Lama was amazing. But that was a human-caused thing. This was even more amazing — it was a God-caused thing.”
A black moon covered the last sliver of a brilliant white sun in a sky of infinite dark blue. People burst into cheers. Some cried.
In the path of totality, where the moon passed entirely across the sun, the world changed in an instant.
While eastern Idaho was inundated with thousands of visitors seeking to find a prime viewing location, the throngs of tourists and traffic congestion feared by officials in southern Idaho never materialized. Plenty of folks came, but they trickled in over the weekend and there were few reports of traffic jams on Monday morning. Even farther north and closer to totality, in the Wood River Valley and beyond, visitors were patient and cheery.
Highways around Craters of the Moon National Monument saw the most drastically increased eclipse-related traffic counts in Idaho.
By early morning, U.S. 93 near Craters had seen 5,370 vehicles versus 2,210 during the same time in 2016, and on U.S. 20/26 near Arco traffic counts were up from 3,270 over the past day in 2016 to 6,000, according to the Idaho Transportation Department.
These numbers translated into many more people at the park. The weekend eclipsed all previous records for the number of visitors, park officials posted on Facebook, even leading them to close the park briefly Sunday afternoon to bring visitation back down to safe levels.
Parking at Redfish Lake, a popular destination near Stanley, filled up early Sunday afternoon, as well, leading the Forest Service to turn around vehicles at the lake’s entrance for a while. It had reopened by 5 p.m., however.
Outside Craters of the Moon near Arco on Monday, highway pull-offs were packed with cars and RVs hours before the event. Some visitors set up barbecues for breakfast and perfectly positioned camping chairs. The grassy area at the visitors center in Twin Falls was also full of lawn chairs, their occupants staring at the sun through special eclipse glasses.
For months leading up to the eclipse, officials had warned viewing the spectacle was safe only through those special lenses. Retailers across the Magic Valley continued selling them right up until the eclipse, and some businesses and public agencies gave them away for free. But with less than 24 hours to go, Dutch Bros. Coffee warned customers the business had accidentally given away faulty glasses and promised free drinks to anyone who’d been given a pair.
Schools in Twin Falls ensured students had the right eyewear. Thousands of youngsters were led from their classrooms to the playgrounds, where teachers gave lessons about space and the unusual alignment of heavenly bodies.
At 10:12 a.m., the moon began to creep across the sun. Near 11:30, the eclipse reached its climax.
A hush settled over Twin Falls as the Earth fell into the moon’s shadow. Streetlights turned on, even though the city, just outside the path of totality, never fully saw total darkness. Thanks to an optic pinhole-camera effect, glimmering crescent-shaped shadows covered the ground. Downtown, workers stood on rooftops for the best views. The temperature fell. Besides far-off engine noise, it was silent — even birds returned to their nests, thinking nightfall had begun. Viewers spoke to each other in whispers, in reverence to what was taking place 238,900 miles above.
The song “Bad Moon Rising” played on the loud speakers outside the Twin Falls Public Library, where scores gathered to watch. The library gave out all of its eclipse glasses.
“I’ve never seen this before and it’s new to me and really awesome,” said Sylvia Wood, who came to nearby City Park with her daughter and grandchildren.
Debra Rydalch was driving by the park on her way to lunch when she happened upon the party. Rather than experience the eclipse by herself, she opted to join those set up on blankets and chairs around the park. “I think it’s going to be spiritual,” Rydalch said as the sun began to disappear. “Something we’ll never see in a whole lifetime.”
Rydalch bought her glasses a month ago. She noted the coolness in the air as the moon muted the sun and the sky. “Already you can sense it,” Rydalch said. “It feels like you are going into evening.”
Mikkel Sherry and Laura Dutcher of Twin Falls originally planned to travel to St. Anthony for the eclipse. When they heard traffic might be congested, they opted to stay home. “We didn’t want to get stuck there,” Dutcher said. “We have to work on Tuesday.”
Their decision made Sherry Hennessey and Donna Afeaki happy, though. The friends sat in the grass near the Twin Falls bandshell watching the eclipse reach its near totality.
Andrew Hamilton put on his eclipse glasses at the peak and leaned in for a selfie with his 10-year-old son, Hyrum Hamilton.
“We are loving it,” said the elder Hamilton. “I remember watching one in Utah in 1979, but it was only at 50 percent. It’s cool to see it again.”
In the northern Magic Valley and into central Idaho, the mood was even more celebratory, especially in areas where large crowds had gathered. Shouts and applause began at the moment of totality, and then euphoria and a sense of tranquility that can come only through a shared human experience. For many, it was almost religious.
And suddenly, it was time to leave. The moon disappeared. The sun blazed as if nothing had happened.
People returned to their cars and campers. Workers came down off the roofs of their businesses. The schoolchildren went back inside. The bustle of everyday life returned.
For those who saw it, though, something was different. The universe had changed in those few minutes during the eclipse. They did, too.