August 21, 2017
On the third weekend in August, I along with two friends boldly ventured down to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to view the much-anticipated solar eclipse, a spectacle that would span the entire continental U.S. Some six years before, I’d shared an article about this with them and we’d kept it on our calendars ever since.
For the uninitiated, a total solar eclipse is when the moon completely blocks out the sun for a few minutes. Although they occur approximately every eighteen months, they rarely appear over a convenient location. For many of these, you need to be a Lapland deer herder or an Antarctic pen-guin to observe them. This is what made the 2017 eclipse so special — I would not have to be looking up at the sun surrounded by Zimbabwean tribesmen.
We arrived a few days early and hung out in Eugene over the weekend. The day before the big event, we made a special trip up towards Salem, checking out small towns that would be in the path of totality, hoping to find a stretch of ground where we could set up a picnic while watching the sun and moon do their special dance. It took a few hours of driving around, but eventually we came upon a sprawling riverside park in the town of Stayton that offered an unobstructed view of the sky. Laced with hiking trails and somewhat secluded, it afforded a chance to escape the crowds.
On August 21 we were up early and on the Interstate by 6:30, our fingers crossed that we would not encounter any major tie-ups. Fortunately the really heavy traffic would be coming from the north with seemingly half of Seattle and almost all of Portland on the road. We had smooth sailing all the way up I-5, though there were places where dozens of people had pulled their vehicles over and were already out basking in the morning sun, casually waiting for it to disappear.
When we arrived at the park in Stayton, I volunteered to do a recon-naissance to see how much competition there would be for a picnic spot. We certainly didn’t want to be crammed elbow to elbow with hundreds of other avid sky viewers. But after only a few minutes of walking, I could see to my delight that the area was not going to be overrun. I mean let’s face it, most Americans are not into taking any kind of an extended stroll unless it’s to a convenience store. I returned with the good news and we proceeded to lug the food, drinks, a large blanket, and a special camera out to a place a few yards from the river.
The biggest bugaboo with solar eclipses is of course the weather. Trying to take in an eclipse behind a cloudy sky is like watching a play with the curtains closed. You miss the drama. Fortunately this was not a concern — we had clear, bright blue skies the entire time.
We set up camp a good hour and a half before the darkening, taking turns tracking the moon’s glacial progress through smoked glasses while we snacked on grapes, cheese and crackers. The idyllic Pacific Northwest summertime practically demands that a person be outside and I took a few meandering strolls along the paths, marveling at the perfect morning.
There were maybe two dozen other people in the general vicinity, some of whom had brought telescopes. A festive atmosphere prevailed, not unlike a college football tailgate, but without the booze. (When it comes to viewing the sun, sobriety is an important safety tip.)
At last the big moment arrived, eliciting assorted gasps and applause from our neighbors. It was like someone had flicked a switch and turned off the sun. The temperature took a noticeable dip and the sudden dark-ness was eerie. An anthropologist once speculated that for a prehistoric man (that is to say someone who never had an iPhone), a solar eclipse might have been so terrifying as to trigger a heart attack.
I managed to survive without having to call the paramedics. The magical two minutes (and one second!) in fact passed all too quickly.
A couple of months later, I delved into the iMove app on my MacBook. Since I’d taken an amateur video of the eclipse, I decided to make that my first “project”, adding music and few photos. This will not make anyone forget Steven Spielberg, but it’s worth sharing… (I’m the one in the red t-shirt.)