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Americans gather in Idaho to revel in life journeys and experience a total eclipse

RIGBY, Idaho — Phil Harris drove more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to land in a desolate field of mowed weeds and motor homes.

Harris could have watched the eclipse from South Carolina or anywhere else in the United States, but his research showed Idaho would be the best spot for "totality."

"It's like dying or almost dying. It's totally different. There's no comparison," he said, describing the difference between witnessing a full and partial eclipse.

Then there's Joell Wilkins, a Murray technology teacher who was camping just a few hundred yards away.

"It's the first time I've missed the first day of school in 24 years," Wilkins said.

What is she going to do when the eclipse comes?

"I'm just going to enjoy it and look up at the sun when it's not there."

Wilkins wrangles schoolchildren for her livelihood and bought her eclipse glasses more than a year ago, planning early for the monumental event.

"I've done a lot of mental preparation," she said. "I couldn't trust that I would be alive and willing to do it in 2045," when Utah is scheduled to have a front-row seat for a total solar eclipse.

Wilkins and Harris were among 30 groups of campers in a remote area of Idaho, camping in a grassy field owned by Darin Lords.

Lords' relatives run an RV park, which has been booked up since last fall. So he decided to take 5 acres and turn it into an eclipse viewing party.

"It's been crazy. I'm exhausted," he said after running into town for more Dutch ovens to deliver on the $10 dinners promised to hungry campers.

Seated in a big, white pickup truck, Lords makes the rounds of the conglomeration of people from Utah, California, Florida and England — among others — to make sure everyone is comfortably settled in and ready for the big event.

Idaho is in the "zone of totality" for Monday's Great American Eclipse, and as many as 400,000 people are expected to pack into the Gem State.

At this festive field in Rigby, it's obviously a family affair, as Lords' daughter and son-in-law bring along Charlie, a 9-week-old chocolate Labrador puppy, as they prepare the Dutch oven dinners.

Harris is among those who amble over to the Dutch oven cooking to grab a plate and talk with the other eclipse party campers. He has his own story to tell, having survived cancer and losing his wife more than a year ago from dementia.

Harris bought a gaudy, roughly 4-foot-tall cactus statue at a local fair and planted it outside his trailer.

"This is my 50th state, my first time in Idaho," he said. "It was on my bucket list. It's not the destination; it's the journey."

Harris was married for 34 years to Priscilla and worked in the energy industry before his retirement. For him, the eclipse is a transformational event where the Earth goes dark, the animals go silent, and science aligns with nature.

A couple of campers away, a rowdy crowd from Denver was playing a potpourri of tunes, including "Fly Me to the Moon" by Frank Sinatra and tracks from Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon."

John French, part of that Denver party and a geologist by trade, said he was the first one on his block with a telescope as a kid and has always been interested in astronomy.

The eclectic gathering of people in pastures, RV parks and hotels throughout the "zone of totality" are tantamount to the singular, spectacular event coming Monday that no one can stop talking about.

Whatever happens Monday, cloud cover or not, it will a single, unifying moment for North Americans.

Animals may fall asleep. There will be hushed silence.

Will it be the end of the word?

If so, French says he's headed to Pittsburgh.

"I'll just go to Pittsburgh," he said.