From $30,000 Airbnb rentals to animal sacrifices to 25,000 sometimes-naked umbraphiles, this is the weirdness that went down in the Wyoming resort town leading up to last week's astrological dance
Two Years Until Totality
Before the rumors of cult gatherings, the flock of nudists, and the threat of animal sacrifices, there was an eight-page memo. It was July 2015, and it appeared on the desk of the Jackson, Wyoming, town council. Written by Roman Weil, an emeritus professor of business at the University of Chicago, it warned that Jackson Hole—the region that encompasses the towns of Jackson, Wilson, and Teton Village, as well as the Grand Teton National Park—was dramatically underprepared for what was to come.
In two years, on August 21, a total solar eclipse would occur in the continental U.S. for the first time since 1979. It would be visible along a 70-mile-wide path known as the path of totality, which would stretch from Oregon to South Carolina. Jackson Hole, Weil’s memo explained, was not only on that path, it would likely be one of the more popular places to view the eclipse since it has a nearby airport and typically favorable weather during that time of the year. In addition, Weil wrote, “Of all the accessible places, Jackson has the best other tourist attractions.”
Weil’s memo went on to caution that eclipse-chasing “umbraphiles,” latin for “shadow lovers,” would arrive in droves, swarming the region like a bunch of bespectacled, telescope-toting zombies. Casper, Wyoming, he said, was expecting 50,000 to 60,000 tourists—and they’d been planning for two years. Jackson Hole was way behind.
The local media got a copy of Weil’s memo and began bracing locals for the worst. The area’s already overtaxed infrastructure—hour-long traffic jams in the summer are typical—would be brought to its knees by star-gazing nerds. The town could see up to 100,000 tourists, it claimed. (A regular busy summer day in Jackson gets about 25,000 people.) Grocery stores could run out of food. Gas stations could run out of fuel, even though L.A.-like gridlock could render cars useless anyway. It would be a sort of Y2K-meets-Comicon scenario.
Around the same time, umbraphiles began calling and emailing businesses throughout Jackson Hole, looking for lodging and the best places to watch the event. One such eclipse chaser was Tony Crocker, a retired actuary from Los Angeles, who emailed Anna Cole, the communications manager at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “The top of the tram at JHMR is perhaps THE best spot in America for this eclipse,” wrote Crocker, who has traveled the world to see ten total solar eclipses. “When viewed from a very high vantage point like the top of the tram, viewers will see the shadow crossing the earth from nearly 100 miles to the west, passing directly over them, then passing over Jackson Hole as it moves to the east.” Crocker sent more emails to Cole and others at the resort, writing so passionately about the event that he made it sound as though seeing the total eclipse was as life-changing as watching the birth of your child.
Many locals, however, were unimpressed, and I was one of them. I didn’t get it. I’d moved to Jackson two years earlier and was now plotting my eclipse escape. And I wasn’t alone. Disinterest, coupled with the impending doom we were being promised by Weil and others, caused many locals to start making vacation plans two years in advance. The most common question among Jackson Hole residents—myself included—wasn’t how they could best watch the astronomical phenomenon. It was how much could they get for their place on Airbnb.
200 Days Until Totality
On February 1, the Jackson Town Council and and Teton County board of commissioners hired Kathryn Brackenridge as the town’s eclipse coordinator. Buckrail, a local website, posted the news on their Facebook page, noting that she’d earn $50,000 for the job for eight months of work.
“In time of tight budgets for Wyoming/Teton county we choose to spend $50,000 on an event planner for the eclipse?!?! Really?” one person commented.
“Not just an eclipse, but one that lasts for a whopping 2.5 minutes,” another replied.
“Two people told me right to my face that they thought the position sounded ridiculous,” says Brackenridge. Even she wasn’t sure what she’d gotten herself into. She’d worked in marketing and public relations, but she was given a clear directive from town and county officials: do not promote this event. “Our town doesn’t need promotion,” she says. “It’d be a waste of resources.” Instead, her job would be to help various departments—from emergency services to public works—coordinate efforts, as well as ease the concerns of locals.
The idea for the job had come about the previous October, when Rich Ochs, the emergency management coordinator for Teton County, and Carl Pelletier, the town of Jackson’s special event coordinator, drove five hours east to Casper for a symposium where they gleaned tips from seasoned eclipse experts. There they heard from Kate Russo, an Australian psychiatrist and eclipse chaser, who had helped communities organize around eclipses in Australia and the Faroe Islands. Russo had dealt with negative media surrounding eclipses before. She knew it could demoralize towns located in the path of totality and cause locals to flee. That created a bigger problem. Locals comprise the workforce; if they leave, there’s nobody left to provide services for the tourists. Her recommendation: Hire someone to coordinate and reassure the locals.
Almost immediately, Brackenridge, who became known around town as “Eclipse Girl,” began putting in 60-hour weeks, doing everything from nailing down a staging area for the Red Cross—in the event of, say, "a lightning strike or fire evacuation," says Brackenridge—to lobbying the local government to ease restrictions on the places that people could park. She also began fielding phone calls from concerned locals and visitors.
One such call was from Huntley Dornan, who owns and operates Dornans, a popular restaurant inside Grand Teton National Park. He was anxious that his establishment would be overwhelmed by the masses. Brackenridge assured him that, if needed, the county would step in and help with Port-o-Potties, direct traffic, and get police there quickly in case a fight broke out. “I got lots of these calls and I just tried to let everybody know that we would try to have everything covered,” she says.
Brackenridge also became a main resource for umbraphiles. One day, she received a ten-minute long voicemail from an elderly gentleman in New York. He was concerned that when the eclipse happened, all the streetlights in the town of Jackson, which activate when it becomes dark, would turn on. The light pollution, he was afraid, would ruin the experience. “That wasn’t anything we’d thought of,” she says. “And the fact is, we looked into it, and it wasn’t anything we could fix.”
The street lights were among Brackenridge's smaller conerns. A week into her tenure, a massive windstorm swept through Jackson Hole, knocking out power for several days in Teton Village and shutting down roads in and out of the area. It was a wake-up call. “It made me realize, this is Wyoming, anything can happen,” she says. She quickly went about producing a survival guide for visitors, warning them about everything from forest fires to bear attacks. She also produced heart-shaped stickers that she distributed on Valentine’s Day that read: “Total Solar Eclipse: the Town of Jackson and Teton County, Wyoming Would Love Locals to Be Prepared.”
Meanwhile, many locals were preparing in a different way: by fleeing town. Several friends and acquaintances had already scored on the crowd-sharing rental market. Two-bed condos were going for as much as $1,500 per night. Four-bed houses were fetching up to $3,250 per night. One high-end three-bedroom house with a guesthouse went for $30,000 for the week. “For me, it was almost three-month’s mortgage,” says a friend who rented her condo. “It was a no-brainer.”
7 Days Until Totality
The week before the event, town seemed oddly quiet. “Sort of a calm before the storm,” said Lieutenant Matt Carr, the local police officer in charge of law enforcement for the eclipse, when I spoke with him earlier this month. Along with Ochs and other department heads, he’d helped create a 293-page incident action plan for the event that addressed everything from dangerous weather events to how to deal with communication outages. In a few days, he’d add 12 police officers to the force, all sworn in just for the eclipse. “Nobody knows exactly what to expect and tensions are high,” he said.
Locals started worrying that, when the tourists did arrive, they’d wipe out food supplies. One friend posted an Instagram story, a photo showing a shopping cart overflowing with eggs, milk, and toilet paper. “$500 worth of groceries!” she wrote. “Stocking up for the eclipse!” By the end of the day, Smith’s grocery store was completely cleaned out, and photos on social media began appearing showing empty shelves.
In the meantime, strange stories began to surface. The Jenny Lake climbing rangers inside Grand Teton National Park got a call inquiring about their policy regarding nudity during the eclipse. (It was allowed.) Bridger-Teton National Forest officials also received a request asking for a permit to do animal sacrifices. (Not allowed).
Days later, I found out that one group was planning a ceremony of some sort around the eclipse. “Did you hear?” somebody asked me. “There’s a cult at Toppings Lakes and they’ve fenced themselves in.”
“I do not recall ever seeing or hearing any references to animal sacrifices during a total solar eclipse,” Bryan Brewer, author of Eclipse: History. Science. Awe., wrote me. “Of course, some folks will have a tendency to attribute all kinds of strange or paranormal effects to an eclipse—a sign from God, a cosmic message, an astrological omen, etc.”
24 Hours Until Totality
At around noon, I hopped in my car and headed toward Toppings Lakes in search of the eclipse cult. The popular campsite is located inside the Bridger Teton National Forest, and to get there from the town of Jackson, you need to drive through the Grand Teton National Park. On the way, you pass the Jackson Hole Airport, where I watched private plane after private plane land on the tarmac: I’d later find out that 15 extra commercial flights had been added between August 18 and 23, and that 280 private planes landed in Jackson between August 19 and 22, a 50 percent increase over the same period last year.
I wasn’t sure what I’d find at Toppings Lakes, but my knowledge of cult gatherings that correspond with astronomical events was grim. In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide by overdosing on an epilepsy drug because they believed that, in doing so, they’d be teleported to a spaceship that was flying in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet.
Inside the campgrounds, I ran into one of the forest rangers and asked him if he knew of a group that had built a fence around their campsite. “You mean the Crystal Skull group?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said. “That sounds right.” The ranger pointed me in the direction of the group’s campsite. “Just be careful,” he said. “We’ve had some trouble with them.”
I walked into the campsite, a gravel parking lot but with a direct and spectacular view of the snowcapped Grand Teton. I noticed a few tents and several RVs, but no fence. A group of six people were sitting in foldable camping chairs on the site’s vista-facing perimeter, drinking beers and chatting.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Is anybody here aware of some sort of cult in the area?”
“The Crystal Skulls!” shouted a girl who looked to be in her 20s. “Have a seat,” said a man with graying hair and a British accent.
He explained that the group believed they had reserved the entire camping space. In fact, what they had was a permit to conduct their ceremony. Angry, they left. “But they said they’re coming back for their ceremony,” he said. “They’re bringing a crystal skull and they're going to energize it with the eclipse. Will you come back?”
I told him I had other plans but would follow up.
(Turns out the supposed cult wasn’t really a cult. After spending several hours tracking down the group that was holding the ceremony, I spoke to Adam Shield of the Feather. Adam and his brother Izzy travel the world holding spiritual ceremonies. This one, which ended up happening with 20 people at Cunningham Cabin, inside Grand Teton National Park, did, in fact, involve a crystal skull made of paleozic quartz. It’s about the size of a normal human skull and weighs 11 pounds. Adam, who used the skull in his ceremony, believes it, and quartz in general, help energize the spiritual circle. He also says some people believe the skull was made in zero gravity. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Like, in space? By aliens?" There's a reason this theory sounds familiar: it's the premise for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.)
3.5 Hours Until Totality
At 8 a.m. on the day of the eclipse, I rode Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s famous red tram to the top of the resort, at around 10,000 feet. There I met Tony Crocker, who wore large-rimmed glasses and a white polo shirt silkscreened with a half moon and balancing rocks—a keepsake from the eclipse he attended in Zimbabwe in 2002—and Liz O’Mara, a strawberry-blond product development consultant dressed in a white lace dress and white go-go boots.
The older couple met in 2010 via a listserve for eclipse chasers. O’Mara, who was living in New York at the time, wrote a post asking if anybody was going to watch the total eclipse on Easter Island and wanted to join her for a ski trip afterwards. Crocker, an avid skier, was watching the eclipse from a cruise ship and then skiing in New Zealand, but continued emailing with O’Mara. Finally, the two connected at Mammoth Mountain in 2011 and began dating. O’Mara moved to LA in 2013. She’s seen eight total eclipses, just two shy of Crocker’s tally.
For the Jackson eclipse, the two had organized a group of 57 people, many of whom pored over weather maps the night before. “I think it made Liz’s blood pressure go up,” Crocker said. The forecast for Jackson had been questionable right up until the early morning hours, and several people from Crocker’s party had decided to head a few hours away to Idaho, where cloud cover seemed less likely. For those who remained in Jackson, Crocker and O’Mara had a surprise: after totality, they’d be getting married on the mountain.
I wandered around Corbet’s Cabin, the tiny restaurant near the tram that serves waffles smeared with peanut butter, nutella, or brown sugar and butter. Outside, a small bar served Red Bull, vodka, and beer, including the limited edition Eclipse Ale from local brewer Snake River. The resort had sold 800 tram passes that day for $100 each and most of those people now gathered atop a windswept, dusty-brown knoll, where they’d set up telescopes and high-powered cameras.
I walked down to Corbet’s Couloir, the famous ski descent, where Red Bull had set up a slackline 150 feet above the rocky ground, spanning 75 feet from one side of the couloir to the other. During totality, Red Bull athlete Alex Mason, a 20-year-old from Berkeley, California, would walk across it, attached to the line via a harness. Obviously, this was a photo op for the media giant, a chance for viral views. But Mason told me a different story. “This was my idea,” Mason said. “Slacklining is a huge significant thing to me and the eclipse is a huge significant thing. I want to share what I love with the world at a very significant place at a very significant time.”
1 Hour Until Totality
Most people atop JHMR could not have cared less about what was happening in Corbet’s Couloir. The real show for them was in the sky. Any lingering clouds had moved into the valley. As darkness began to creep across the upper right corner of the sun, somebody in Crocker’s group with a portable speaker started blasting Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” I looked behind me to see hundreds of people wearing protective cardboard glasses, their heads craned skyward, looking as though they’d sat too close to the screen at a 3D movie.
“Jesus, this is cool,” shouted a man in a purple tie-dye shirt and cowboy hat. I watched him turn to his wife and son. “You guys are everything to me. Thank you for sharing this with me.”
45 Minutes Until Totality
As the moon sliced the sun into a crescent, O’Mara walked over to me. “If you wear a pirate patch over one of your eyes about half an hour before totality, your eyes will adapt to the darkness and you’ll be able to see more detail in the corona,” she said. “So I’m going to give you this patch.” She handed me a red plastic patch with a white skull and cross bones on it, something you’d pull from a treasure chest at the dentist’s office. “Dark Side of the Moon” played again. “Just turn it off about 15 minutes before totality,” said Crocker. “So we can experience everything.”
20 Minutes Until Totality
“Do you think it’s become colder?” I heard a woman ask. It had. The temperature had dropped a good ten degrees. I looked up and saw that the sun was about 75 percent covered by the moon. The man playing Floyd turned off his sound system and people began bundling themselves in puffy coats and putting on hats.
4 Minutes Until Totality
Somebody from Crocker’s group let me look through their binoculars, which had been covered with a protective filter. The sun was just a sliver in the sky. The breeze picked up. I shivered and zipped up my coat. My hands were cold. My nose was cold. I removed my eye patch. Everything around me looked darker. Not like during a sunset, but rather as though somebody had placed a giant pair of sunglasses over the sun. People began howling. Wavy lines of shadows rippled across the mountain’s gravel road.
As the diamond ring of fire appeared around the moon, the sky turned dark blue and stars appeared. A shadow raced across the ground and swallowed the mountain where we stood. The cloudy horizon turned copper. It got much colder but I was no longer cold. I stared directly at the moon, paralyzed with wonder. A bat flew by. It was the shortest two minutes of my life. As the sun returned, so did my senses.
For plenty of people in the Jackson Hole community who stayed, the eclipse was one of the more phenomenal things they’ve ever experienced. My friend Andy Bardon, a hardened mountain man and adventure photographer, told me he wept. Others told me they screamed. I was simply awed. The experience seemed otherworldly. My friends in other parts of the country, those who’d seen partial eclipses that day, couldn’t understand. Now I did.