Rural Idaho and Total Solar Eclipse Hype

We took the scenic route out of Grand Teton, climbing up and over the Teton Pass—and the entire Teton Rangeas we headed west. The panoramic vistas of the National Park and its surrounding area were our final parting gift from this place as we crested the mountains and wove our way down towards Idaho.

There’s a good chance that no one else in the world puts Idaho on as high of a pedestal as I do. For over a decade, I have dreamed of visiting Idaho someday and seeing it for myself, with my own two eyes.

Why Idaho, you ask?

My all-time favorite musician, Josh Ritter, is from Idaho. His music transcends me to new places and different historical eras. His lyrical stories feel like my own memories. Every time I listen to his songs, I find myself in Idaho in my mind. In the twelve years that I’ve been listening to Josh Ritter, I’ve imagined what this place must be like.

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When we were trying to decide where along the eclipse’s path of totality we wanted to be, our initial plans had us in Grand Teton. Could there possibly be a place more grand and inspiring than this National Park to witness this phenomenon? It was a no-brainer. Truthfully, our entire itinerary was built around being in Grand Teton National Park on August 21 from the very day we started planning this vacation. We designed a two-week long excursion around an event that barely took two minutes. Total solar eclipse in Grand Teton: it sounded so perfect in our mind.

As the months passed and our trip approached, hesitation set in. The hype and media building around the eclipse, the path of totality, and online listicles (I hate that word, but that’s the industry norm) about where to be for the big event was impossible to ignore. Further research told us that finding a campsite in Grand Teton on a normal summer’s night was hard to do after 9 or 10 am. How could we possibly plan on getting a site for the eclipse?

If you’ve been reading along, then you know that camping in Grand Teton didn’t work out (for a few reasons…). Even if it had worked out, we were taking a huge risk by not securing a spot to sleep on Sunday night which guaranteed a view of the eclipse on Monday morning. What if the whole reason we took this vacation turned out to be a bust? We were honed in on being in Grand Teton but couldn’t make a reservation: it was a huge major risk not having any kind of backup plan. 

Two or three weeks before our trip (I swear that we normally prepare more than this), we found an Airbnb that allowed us to camp in someone’s yard in rural Idaho for the eclipse. It was $90 just to pitch a tent in their yard, but we would be on the path of totality. It was only 3.5 hours away from Jackson, and it would allow us to experience Idaho. Win-win. We booked it for Sunday and Monday nights, hoping that a Tuesday departure would help us avoid the post-eclipse traffic.

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And so we found ourselves in Idaho. The drive down from the Tetons set high expectations. The views were astounding, similar to what we saw near Jackson. As we moved westward, expansive farmlands from my Josh Ritter daydreams scattered the horizon. I pulled the car over a few times to photograph the barns and fields that I always knew existed in my heart.

But as we traveled further west, my daydreams fizzled out. The farmland gave way to empty desert-like lands with a few buttes off in the distance. Cell service was spotty at best. We saw countless signs warning us that we were on government property—”no trespassing,” “no parking for any reason.” Over the course of an hour driving through this desolate landscape, we only saw a handful of cars. It was just me, Sam and Shankar Vedantam.

Where the hell were we, and what had we gotten ourselves into?

The answer still wasn’t clear when we followed the “ignore the GPS” directions from our Airbnb hosts. We were instructed to take the dirt road at the back end of a church parking lot. Cautiously, we drove past a yard full of demolition cars covered in vulgar graffiti and seven or eight dogs barking at us. A few hundred feet later, we pulled up to our Airbnb. There were already three tents in the drought-stricken yard and a few RV campers pulled up near the tiny white house.

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The host, (I’ll call her N for short), greeted us kindly and showed us around the property. The whole house was undergoing massive DIY renovations. There was a bathroom we’d share with other guests at the back of the house, but given the renovations, it was bare-bones and of a questionable functionality. The shower didn’t have a curtain and N warned us that the toilet hadn’t been working correctly. So, you know, an ideal situation for a communal bathroom. N also told us there was free wifi at the park down the road, which was shocking but appreciated. Sam and I nodded aggressively: yes, yes, this was all fine and very good. Perhaps if we nodded enough, we could will it to be true.

We popped up our tent and decided to leave the rain fly off so we could see the stars at night as it was going to be pretty warm for sleeping. After that, we booked it out of there so we could have a moment to talk in peace.

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The only restaurant (Pickle’s Place) was in the next town over, Arco, which was about a 10-minute drive away. Our Airbnb’s “town” was pretty quiet but Arco was, comparatively, poppin’. It was easy to sense that there were more cars, RVs, and people in town than usual. The eclipse tourism was real.

We weren’t super hungry yet but because there wasn’t anything else to do, we went to Pickle’s Place to find a seat. Good thing we went when we did: the restaurant was exceeding capacity, and it was filled with tourists. Many people looked like they had been waiting for a long time for their food, evident by their stern faces and restless hands tapping on the vinyl tabletops. People sat at just-vacated tables filled with dirty dishes from the last customer simply to guarantee that they’d get a seat. It was already a small place, but because it was filled with hangry tourists both at the tables and lingering in any available standing space, it felt even smaller.

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Not wanting to lose out on an opportunity, we snagged the first table we saw with two empty seats. An hour and a half later, we were scarfing down the best damn cookies ’n’ cream milkshake we’ve ever had, burgers (veggie for me), and french fries while the noise and bustle of out-of-towners grew. It was clear the restaurant was prepared for the influx of visitors—they had a special menu for the eclipse—but given that it was one of three places in town serving food, there wasn’t a lot they could do about the crowds and wait times. We ate quickly, paid quickly, and wandered around downtown Arco for a short bit before driving back to our even-smaller “town” for the night.

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Over dinner, we discussed our options again. The original plan was to spend two nights in Idaho (the nights before and after the eclipse) so we could explore this state that I was so excited to see. But now that we were here, in the rural and totally-not-naturally-scenic part of Idaho, we realized it would be a mistake to stay another day and night here. It wasn’t worth killing time for a full day of our trip in an area we didn’t want to be. Instead, we decided the best choice was to drive into Salt Lake City a day early and hit the highway with eeeeeeveryone else as soon as the eclipse ended tomorrow.

Another change in our plans.

We sat under some trees at the (only) public park in town and used our phones to browse for a place to stay. There were a few people camping out in the park and using the public toilets, which under non-eclipse-circumstances might make me feel weird. It was like the entire world was having an outdoor sleepover tonight. Things that would normally be questionable were somehow ok. We couldn’t extend our Airbnb reservation for a day earlier, so we found a hotel in downtown Salt Lake City for one night. It would be a quick stay but it allowed us to start exploring our next destination sooner. With a new hotel booking and another shift in our itinerary, we made it back to our Airbnb campsite.

I’m an avid fan of starry night skies, which is a shame given my location in Chicago. After brushing our teeth and settling into our sleep clothes, we set up chairs outside the tent and gazed up at the vast inky-black-blue night for a half hour before heading to bed. It was only a matter of hours before we were once again craning our necks, turning our heads skyward, and watching the Great American Total Solar Eclipse.

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