Imagine camping on the field of a football stadium with people lining the top row of seats. That was the uncomfortable feeling I had last week while sleeping under the stars in Idaho’s Caribou-Targhee National Forest just before the solar eclipse.
I found the site by scanning the eclipse route maps while looking for high points. At first I was planning to drive south into Wyoming and backpack into the mountains near Dubois. But the routes seemed steep for my crew and maybe not as prominent an overlook as I would like.
My search for a high point was driven by the 1979 eclipse. That year a friend and I climbed to the top of Bridger Bowl Ski Area to view the phenomena. Although I don’t remember much about the moon blocking out the sun, I have a distinct memory of the shadow racing across the Gallatin Valley as the full eclipse set in, automatic street and yard lights turning on during the short embrace of darkness.
Thirty-eight years later, by scouring maps I came upon 8,829-foot high Ryan Peak in the Big Hole Mountains, just west of Driggs, Idaho. Driggs sits in the shadow of the towering spires of the Teton Mountains. There’s a road all the way to the top of Relay Ridge, where Ryan Peak is situated, to accommodate the crews who maintain the radio and cellphone towers on top of the mountain.
It’s not a great road, which a group of area high school students found out when a rock tore a hole in their low-riding Volkswagen sedan’s oil pan. Luckily for them, cellphone reception was great on the mountain, and they could call down to the valley for a rescue ride.
Prior to the eclipse, when I phoned the local forest office for information on the road and area, I was told to bring plenty of water, stock up on food and to expect a lot of fellow eclipse travelers. Estimates for visitation to the small town of Driggs — population about 1,700 — varied from an astonishing 30,000 to 50,000 people. Those numbers seemed astronomical to me given that the eclipse would spread travelers out across the entire United States. Yet I fully expected there would be other folks along Relay Ridge. This would be a camping experience more like a rock concert, I thought, than a solitary weekend in the woods.
The road to the top was in surprisingly good condition, considering the zig-zagging climb, but in places the talcum-powder-fine dust on the road must have been 6 to 8 inches deep, almost like driving through soft snow. Some steeper spots had a buildup of small, sharp rocks that required drivers to either gear down and drop their vehicles into four-wheel drive, or to gun the engine in the hope that sheer speed would propel them up and over the rise.
The road conditions didn’t deter a wide range of campers from navigating the narrow road. Most pitched tents, although there was one tepee, several vans, the occasional pickup camper and a few brave enough to tow a full-sized trailer uphill. The most common license plates were from Utah and California, with Montana close behind and the odd Minnesotan, Kansan and Idahoan staking out campsites.
Finding a flat spot wasn’t easy on the rocky ridge, concentrating folks in a few areas. Unwilling to join the crowd, we pressed on to the end of the road. Stepping out of our vehicles after the long six-hour drive from Montana, the wind howled through the radio and cellphone towers sounding like banshees on a bender.
I voted to camp just off the ridge, out of the wind, on a tiny but not quite flat spot that would be easy to haul my large inflatable mattress onto. (At my age, roughing it has a new meaning.) I was overruled, and my guide status was revoked, in favor of a spot about 80 feet below. To reach that flatter ground required scrambling down a steep rocky slope. The multiple climbs back up, which required at least two stops to catch my breath, were reminders of how I may someday die of a heart attack in a similar situation.
Despite my initial complaints and the difficulty of negotiating the slope with armloads of full-size pillows, lawn chairs and a camp stove, the alpine spot provided a glorious view of the green and golden farm fields below and the hazy gray outline of the Teton crags. Unfortunately, the Tetons — only 25 miles away — were shrouded in forest fire smoke, dulling their beauty.
At first we had the place to ourselves. Then late-arriving campers rolled in and pitched their tents and parked their campers at the top of the hill. That’s fine. It’s a national forest, after all. But in the early morning, after a near-sleepless night thanks to the howling wind that flapped the tent fabric nonstop, the campers’ dogs were barking and children were yelling and crying so loudly that I was wishing the wind would come back.
By the end of Sunday, campers lined the ridge above, even though a forest sign forbid automobile traffic beyond where we had stopped. People either ignored the sign or thought the eclipse gave them special license to violate the rules. I warned one group from California, who didn’t think it necessary to move, but when others piled in it seemed useless to complain.
Although our camping took on a surreal feel under the gathering crowd above, by the time the moon ate chunks out of the sun on Monday morning we were all a bit eclipse giddy, possibly because of the lack of sleep. After months of planning, hours of driving, and many minutes spent hiking up and down that steep slope to set up camp, the eclipse came and went way too fast.
The only downside to the whole trip was the slow crawl down Idaho’s Highway 20 between Rexburg and Island Park. It’s a roughly 40 mile stretch of highway that took three hours to negotiate. Children on scooters were going faster. I’m not sure what the problem was, but traffic was backed up for miles — much like it was on nearby Interstate 15, where there was a construction delay, and Interstate 90 in Wyoming where estimates put the influx of people at around 1 million.
So maybe the estimates of huge invasions of tourists weren’t far off. The traffic jam sure surprised and frustrated the hell out of me. But in retrospect it was a weekend of oddities and unusual occurrences worthy of all the effort. It's unlikely I will have another camping experience like it in my lifetime.