In 2010, my astronomy professor, Alex Filippenko, gave me the dream of witnessing a total solar eclipse. He devoted an entire lecture on the topic, covering the different types of eclipses and ways to safely view them. As an avid totality-chaser, he’s seen 16 of them and still can’t get enough.
“A total solar eclipse will pass across the continental United States in 2017,” he exclaimed, grinning with boyish enthusiasm as he projected a map of the eclipse’s path. “Put it on your calendars!”
I did. And there the event languished for 7 years before I discovered it this May: Monday, August 21 – “Total Solar Eclipse in US”. When I scheduled it, I had no idea where I would be in the world, but the band of totality would pass a mere four-hour drive away!
I would prefer to set up a tent in the Oregon backcountry for a week, but my boyfriend wanted to spend his birthday at home on Saturday. To make things more difficult, most of the remaining lodging I could find was priced between $500 and $2000. That wasn’t going to happen.
I didn’t want to leave it to chance, so I purchased an overnight parking spot for $20 at an airfield in a little town called Madras, Oregon.
I had no idea that Madras had been named the best place to see the 2017 solar eclipse, nor that they were hosting a gigantic SolarFest and expecting 100,000 people to descend upon their town of 6,000.
When I drove down with Nash on Sunday, I was full of fear. Fear of being surrounded by rowdy crowds, fear of being trapped in traffic, and fear that clouds or smoke from the wildfires would block our view. Would it be worth it?
Fortunately, there was no traffic on the way there, the crowds were tame and friendly, and the event was well-organized. We parked in a giant, dusty field under the beating desert sun.
“It looks like that scene from Contact,” Nash noted as we walked by row after row of people setting up tents and telescopes and playing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. They were not just from all over the States, but from all over the world. Two guys from Amsterdam with identical haircuts parked behind us.
We reached downtown Madras via a sweaty three-mile walk away down the highway. All the restaurants had stocked up on extra provisions and hired additional staff to prepare for the massive influx of customers, but the town felt surprisingly quiet.
Wispy clouds moved in on Sunday evening and combined with the smoky haze around Mount Jefferson to produce a spectacular sunset. Old-timey planes from the Erickson Aircraft Collection flew by in formation, avoiding the personal aircraft that still streamed in before the next day’s main event.
We slept in the back of the car, which is fairly routine for us. The lines for the port-a-potties were terrible, but otherwise the night was peaceful.
In the morning, we swallowed our anticipation by reading the graphic novel Moon Cop out loud to one another.
The Main Event
At 9:06 am, I put my flimsy eclipse glasses over my eyes and spotted the tiniest nibble taken out of the upper-right corner of the sun. Right on schedule – the astronomers hadn’t lied! It’s amazing that we can predict these events thousands of years into the future.
Over the next hour, we watched as the moon obscured more and more of the sun, which transitioned from an Apple logo to a yellow crescent that looked like a cartoon moon painted on a child’s bedroom ceiling. “It looks like a banana!” a kid next to us shouted.
The sun seemed so small with all its glare stripped away by the glasses. I peeked into a neighbor’s telescope for a closer view. A couple sunspots darkened the area that the creeping black disc hadn’t yet touched.
The sunlight started feeling weaker on my upturned face, but the sun still put out a lot of light even when 90% covered. The quality of that light began to shift, fading to a dim orange glow – the closest thing I could compare it to was a sudden summer storm rolling in. The temperature dropped, and my goosebumps were no longer just from awe. I shrugged on my jacket, and others did the same.
I pressed the glasses over my eyes as the last sliver of the sunlight shrank down to a point. The crowd’s energy grew and people shouted and whistled. A quivering tenseness rose in my chest and I giggled nervously. I was getting way too excited.
Someone started to count down. “5… 4… 3… 2… 1….” Totality.
I removed my glasses with shaking hands.
It wasn’t total darkness, more a deep blue-gray twilight. Only the brightest stars and planets pierced the sky, and the horizon still glowed white-orange in all directions, light from the area unblocked by the moon’s shadow. Above us all, the sun had turned into a tiny black disk ringed in a feathery white corona. It looked small and crisp. Otherworldly.
The weirdness of it surprised me. It’s no wonder the ancients freaked out whenever this happened. Even though I knew that it was just a chance alignment, a beautiful coincidence that our moon was the exact size and distance to barely blot out the sun, my mind couldn’t even begin to take it all in. My eyes unexpectedly welled with tears. “I’m, like, crying?” I said to Nash.
Even though I kept the GoPro rolling unattended, I only took one photo of the eclipse – I didn’t want to take my eyes away for too long.
Just over two minutes later, everyone shouted again as the sun reappeared.
It was over. I watched with envy as a planeload of skydivers spiraled down out of the sky into a nearby field. A hot air balloon also descended back to earth.
Afterward, we called Nash’s parents, who had watched the sun go dark in Idaho fifteen minutes after us. In my hometown in California, my family viewed an 80% partial eclipse through a pinhole projection. And millions of other people across the country shared in this phenomena, looking to the skies to watch the moon line up between us and the sun. There’s nothing like an astronomical event to transcend all our differences.
As moving as celestial awe is, its effect wears off quickly. Even though the eclipse still continued overhead, people were already jumping into their cars and turning their minds toward the practicality of getting back to their homes and jobs.
Everyone who had trickled in over the last four days was now trying to leave all at once. We walked to a Subway then sheltered under a tree by the highway until traffic looked like it had begun to inch along a little faster. Then, we drove halfway home to a Walmart, took a nap in the parking lot, and finished the drive at 3:00 am.
Earlier, I wondered whether all that madness would be worth it. My answer is yes.
Check out our (very amateur) GoPro and iPhone footage. It absolutely does not do the event justice, but it gives a vague idea.
Music is Nash’s piano improv of a slow version of “Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra.