2017 Chrysler Pacifica long-term test: small town, big van, bigger eclipse

August 22, 2017

Nebraska shouldn’t be this loud.

At least, that’s what I thought in the midnight hours between Sunday night and Monday morning before the so-called "Great American Eclipse."

The sounds from the I-80 Lakeside Campground near North Platte, Nebraska, were a contradiction of what I knew about the Cornhusker State. As we laid in the back of our long-term 2017 Chrysler Pacifica minivan and attempted to sleep through a circus—or perhaps impromptu music festival—I revisited my understanding of the state.

For me, the long stretches of empty interstates were only broken up with greasy cheeseburgers devoured in the back of an Astrovan during my childhood. My uncle was a long-time resident of Everytown, Nebraska—or more specifically, Dalton, Nebraska.

Uncle Steve was conflicted and Dalton's quiet probably appealed at first. Its rugged loyalty to him didn't hurt, and neither did $2 whiskey and waters at a bar called “John’s.” But it’s not time for that story.

Dalton, and the rest of Nebraska as far as I knew, could only be loud as the wind blowing through the tall stalks of corn or wheat, its only natural fences for noise.

The tens of thousands of people that crowded into the state, North Platte, and this campground should be enough to stop the wind—but they chose to make their own noises instead. At 2 a.m. Outside our Pacifica.

MORE: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited long-term test: Irish-twin mpg showdown

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To be fair, they were first. We had arrived, from Denver, at around 10 p.m. looking eagerly to wedge into a clearly overcrowded campsite and doze discreetly into the night with a warming glow from the van’s built-in Blu-ray player.

“To hell with them,” I told my girlfriend and our restless dog. “Try to go back to sleep.”

It was an impossibility, mostly. Our campsite was close enough to I-80 that we could not only hear the traffic on the interstate, we could smell it too. A dirty-sweet mixture of exhaust and oil cut through the muggy Nebraska night like mace. It hit our faces when we arrived and never left our noses as we tried to sleep.

At 6 a.m. we gave up and woke up. Each breath in the morning felt like a glass of water poured through a coffee filter made of flies.

Oh yeah, coffee. Coffee would be good now.

Total solar eclipse in Aurthur, Nebraska

Total solar eclipse in Aurthur, Nebraska

As we drove in the early morning, the charms of Nebraska cut through the fog. A moth, which may have been the size of a cat, jumped through the window and into my lap. The flies that found refuge in our van during the night had stayed for the morning drive, and burrowed into unlikely and uncomfortable places. The sandy soil that had thankfully clung to the ground and not into our lungs as traffic drove past in the night now caked into the Pacifica’s unusually deep piles. The Pacifica's built-in vacuum next, coffee first.

There was hardly time for reflection of our night during coffee, anyway. Finding our viewing spot in Nebraska wouldn’t be easy.

We ditched earlier plans for Casper, Wyoming, when we heard that hotel rates during the eclipse rivaled Midtown Manhattan. We landed on Nebraska shortly before Monday with fewer plans beyond a sleeping pad and deeply tinted sunglasses.

After studying the sun’s race with the moon across the state, we found a small slice of nowhere, 50 miles north of McConaughy Lake, in a town called Arthur, Nebraska.

The road to Arthur is a winding two-lane affair with hardly any permanent markings and fewer straightaways. The state has hardly any elevation to speak of, but state highway 61 aimlessly meanders north from Ogallala, past McConaughy, and into nothing.

A long line of cars at 8 a.m. bouncing along the highway’s uneven and undulating pavement filled the surrounding nothingness with a century’s worth of noise. By then, the patchy fog had lifted and revealed a natural canvas of golden yellow and tall green stalks.

Nebraska shouldn’t be this loud.

 

Total solar eclipse in Aurthur, Nebraska

Total solar eclipse in Aurthur, Nebraska

Arthur has seen its share of covered wagons before.

The town’s original homesteaders first populated the eastern half of the county before the western half was opened a few years later. In all, 4,000 people make Arthur County home now, although nearly all of them live outside the county seat and its namesake, spread out like only Nebraska can.

There are direct clues to the county’s humble origins and residents. Baled Hay Church, on the corner of Heath and Cedar streets, was constructed with inexpensive hay walls nearly two feet thick and slathered in “gumbo mud.”

Not far from the church, Arthur’s one-room schoolhouse is unused today—but Dave Sizer keeps it well-maintained from his house across the street. Sizer’s mother was the last, or next-to-last teacher at the schoolhouse, he says.

He returned to his hometown in 1972 and hasn’t left; it’s the kind of place where company and quiet are regarded equally.

As eclipse-watchers filed into his town, Sizer held a volunteer radio and listened in as traffic updates flooded across the band.

“We’re expecting 600 people—or 6,000,” he said with a chuckle. “In other words, we don’t know.”

Hundreds of cars filled the dusty rodeo arena on the outside of town, an indication that the higher end of the estimate was more likely.

A friendly man wearing a well-worn hat and boots greeted visitors to the arena with a smile, free parking, and for us, a comforting pat on the shoulder.

“Glad you’re here,” he said pointing into the lot. “Look for the kids in green 4H shirts walking around. They’ll tell you where to park. It’s free, but you can make a donation to the 4H Club if you want.”

Radios blared in the background, drones buzzed above, horse-drawn wagons clomped around the lot with free rides for spectators, and vendors shouted that they would sell $5 eclipse glasses—only a day ago in Denver they were $120.

Nebraska is only getting louder.  

Outside our van, we perched on the high ground and waited for the sun and moon to do their dance.

At 11:45 a.m., when the moon had eclipsed roughly 75 percent of the sun, the temperature noticeably dropped by 5 to 10 degrees.

An eerie dusk settled in and crickets confusingly started their nighttime chorus.

Gasps, claps, and cheering preceded the moon’s final walk across the sun’s surface, and a thin cloud that momentarily threatened the view raced out of the way. The groans may have created a small wind to help it out of the way.

The zenith of the eclipse drew loud cheers for the totality of its view. Noon turned into night almost immediately, and the unshakable primal feeling that something was fundamentally wrong crept across our skins like the chilled air.

According to the clocks, our sun was gone for two minutes, but it felt like two seconds. The sun’s corona wrapped around the moon like a celestial engagement ring. And it was over.

The reemerging sun was greeted with new cheers, applause, and instant reminiscence from just moments ago.

We packed up our Chrysler Pacifica and pointed south back to Denver, bracing for up to 10 hours behind the wheel for a 300-mile drive.

Once it was done, and we were back in the van, blissfully quiet again.

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