“Six down and as many eclipses as I can get to go.”
This was my sixth eclipse. It was the first for my fellow travelers, JC and Val. What matters most is that we succeeded seeing a luminous, soul changing totality. What matters almost as much are the memories, the friendships and camaraderie that grew out of the experience
For me, this journey healed damage that I didn’t know was there. The darkness of totality replaced unfelt numbness with light and joy. It was my eclipse trip for me and something I did mostly by myself. To say I did all by myself would be to deny the amazing support of my girlfriend and the unbelievable organizing skills JC put to the task of making it possible for us to be in Madras at the right time with the right level of company.
But I get ahead of myself. All stories should start at the beginning but the beginning is elusive and changes with the storytelling. Was it my first truly total eclipse in 1973? Was it just being 20 or 30 miles outside the band of totality in 1970 because my father didn’t understand how important it was to get to Nantucket Island days before? Or maybe that memory of the eight-year-old me standing with my grandmother outside on a very dark night with very bright stars watching Echo satellite float overhead, its light slowly growing and fading. Or maybe it’s that very young memory of looking out my bedroom window and seeing a full moon rise, deep red just before being told it’s time to go to bed.
I guess this story starts with a stroke of luck which was the result of much hard work. I had the money to go. I was too late to go with people in the ATMoB expedition. I was tossing around the idea of going with my cousin to see the eclipse down in Kentucky but I remembered that JC had posted a note on a private mailing list about her getting a campsite in Madras, Oregon and inviting members of the list to show up.
So I bought a plane ticket, rented a car and went.
Originally I planned on just being a tourist. Taking a pair of binoculars, looking at the sky but…
On the Monday before I left on my travels, I was having dinner with a friend, a rather enthusiastic amateur photographer, and I told him about the trip. Of course he asked if I was going to photograph anything. I said I wasn’t because I didn’t have the equipment. I didn’t have time to really learn how to use the equipment but I may do some shots of the sky or something in time-lapse. I was thinking of leaning my cell phone (camera number #1) up against the cooler and just catching some time-lapse of the crowd but he had a tripod. A full-size tripod yet small enough that would fit in my carry-on.
So I thought I would use that tripod with my mom’s point-and-shoot camera (camera #2) running as a video capture device. On Wednesday night before leaving, I was with my girlfriend and I remembered she had a movie camera (camera #3)
Originally I thought about doing time-lapse of the approaching shadow’s departing shadow and change the camera in the middle to look at the sun. But no. I remembered the disaster I had in 1973 off the coast of Africa trying to change film in the middle of totality. So simplify. Just photograph from the beginning to the end of the totality.
In less that 24 hours, I go from having no camera to three cameras, my cell phone, my mom’s point-and-shoot, and my girlfriends video-camera. Yeah, simple…
Saturday morning August 19, 3 AM arrived way too early. My sister was driving for Lyft and she showed up on my doorstep. When the car was loaded with backpack and carry on she turned on her app. I waited a minute and then requested a ride. I popped up in her app and she grabbed the ride before anybody else can and off we go.
I got to the airport and thank God I had TSA pre-check. Zoomed right through. Stopped only for them to examine my bag because of the strange shapes on the x-ray from my binoculars, my eyepieces, and my little toolkit that I actually needed.
My flight was the cheapest flight, leaving Logan at 6:30 AM and arriving at PDX at 12:30 PM their time. I flew on this marvelous little airline called Sun Country. They are a tiny airline. They are very proud of their 24 planes and eight terminals at Minneapolis-St. Paul. I think they have a really great attitude. Yes, you pay for everything but you feel like a human being on this flight.
When I arrived at PDX, I was tired. Even though I slept on the plane, even though my travel CPAP worked fantastically, I — was — tired. I was grateful to see Val at the airport because now I had a guide to make sure my sleep stoned body could make it across Portland via public transit to the car rental place, and she could drive while I slept.
I had been cautioned by JC about the potential problems with forest fires. Everyone was extremely concerned about some idiot campers setting a forest fire and having it burn across route 26 and a stalled line of traffic. Fortunately that epic disaster remained in the planning book.
In the course of three hours I rode/drove through formally verdant Portland, Mount Hood National Forest, the high desert, Warm Springs Indian reservation, and finally, solar town on the north side of Madras, Oregon.
We had been warned that we would have tremendous traffic. We were told to expect traffic jams for hours but Route 26 was clear all the way through and we made it there on a half a tank of gas and three hours. What we weren’t warned about was the almost complete lack of cell service for about an hour through the National Forest and the start of the high desert.
My observations of Solar town speaks more to the nature of eclipse chasers than anything else. Solar town was just row after row after row of tents and campers and cars and trucks. I could imagine a friend of mine saying, “I thought you were going to the eclipse. Why are you in a refugee camp?”
It’s a funny thought but it has an element of truth in it. When you chase an eclipse, you are a refugee from the world you live in. It moves you, your heart, your mind to a different plane of thought and feeling. When you can no longer stay in that plane after the eclipse is over, you return to your homeland and try to continue on in your old path.
The campsite was hot. It was dusty. It was dry. Not more than 30 feet away was a field with rolling irrigation pipes spewing out gallons of water into the desert night and day to grow a very important American crop. Kentucky bluegrass. Not sorghum, not alfalfa not silage but bluegrass. For seed that will be spread on lawns all across America.
Yet 30 feet away in that dryness, in that heat I was happy. I mostly sat out of the sun, I didn’t do much except a few last minute preparations and enjoy the morning view.
One of the challenges faced during the eclipse was very flaky cell service. There were times when cell service worked and I could call home to my girlfriend or my mother to say, “Hi” and tell them what was going on. Slightly more frequently we could send pictures and messages via whatsapp or SMS. However most of the time the cell service was simply overloaded and collapsed.
I did do a smart thing. I did try out the video camera. I figured out how time-lapse mode works and captured time-lapse photography of the sunrise and sunset. I caught the very faint crescent moon on Sunday, some 28 hours before the eclipse.
I figured out everything I needed to know about this camera except for one thing. One annoyingly stupid critical thing.
On eclipse day, I woke before sunrise and the sky was beautifully clear. Then somewhere around 8 o’clock the clouds started across the sky. Part of what was so unusual about the clouds was that they came out of the southwest whereas previously almost all clouds came out of the north and northwest.
Somewhere around sunrise, I was able to get a satellite loop and see that the clouds were moving to the south-south east. As the clouds and smoke climbed out of the southwest I tried repeatedly to get another snapshot of the loop and succeeded once before the cell service totally collapsed.
The low clouds, the ones moving in, were invisible on the satellite loop. I seriously considered trying to outrun the clouds but it didn’t look like I would make things any better because it was worse to the south, east, west. The north might have provided an escape route but it would have taken me outside of the path of totality.
Trying to move was also not a good idea because of traffic and the roads. There aren’t many roads in that part of the state. Roads that are there either don’t go far enough or going the wrong direction to be able to avoid clouds. This was one of the downsides of Madras, built-in lack of mobility.
My friends said that it was okay if I packed up my stuff and took off for clear skies. Taking one last look around I saw some patches of blue to the southwest and decided staying was my best option and I’m glad I did.
One of our fellow travelers, a woman called Mary, had an amazing little solar observing gadget. It was a Heliostat with a very long focus (75 foot) lens. It projected a very fine image of the solar surface and sunspots onto a screen. This solar telescope was a wonderful addition to our observing site. It was a great safe way for many novices to see the sun in a way that they had never seen before.
As is usual for many of us eclipse chasers, I was wearing an eye patch over my good eye so that I would have at least one dark adapted. Of course this prompted questions from people who were trying to see their first total eclipse. It was a great opportunity to educate kids and parents on how to safely observe the eclipse and event timing.
Halfway to totality all of the campers around us were wearing some form of impromptu eyepatch ranging from creatively worn CPAP headgear to a taped on Solarfest sticker.
As totality approached I made sure my three cameras were in place. The small point-and-shoot on the fence, the video camera on the tripod, and on the spur of the moment I set my cell phone on the bumper of the truck on site and turned on video recording.
This is the moment when my lack of knowledge about the videocamera bit me. I had everything set up. Manual focus, fixed exposure, and right zoom level. I put the camera in pause and closed the lens cover.
Just as the horns of the crescent sun were pulling into each other, I went around and turned on the fence camera, set up my cell phone camera and went back to the videocamera to open the lens cover.
The moment I opened the lens cover, the video camera auto shut off.
Yes, the camera turned itself off. Apparently it had timeout built-ins so that you couldn’t leave the camera in pause mode forever. The camera also had the feature that when you turn it off, it resets to “automatic everything”.
Normally in such a moment, my reaction would’ve been to swear at it, to get upset but no, totality was going to be here in a few tens of seconds. So I did one of the two things I could do. I turned the camera back on, zoomed in to where I thought it should be and turned my attention back to the sky.
Video of the field from the fence camera shows me looking at the sun through glasses and then the light level drops dramatically. I’m holding my hand up as if to cover part of the sun and then it gets really dark.
I remember calling out instructions to others to look around to see the approaching shadow, how the sky was changing color, to keep the filters on their eyes when looking at the sun and then calling out when I saw the diamond ring.
I remember what I said but I don’t remember what I saw except for two things. I remember taking a peek when I thought the diamond ring effect was happening and seeing a really brilliant diamond ring but thinking it’s too bright. I don’t remember this but the video shows me putting my hand up to cover the sun for about three more seconds. I then remember seeing a much smaller diamond ring and Bailey’s beads.
What sticks in my memory that held me absolutely fixed was the sight of the corona in the deep eclipse blue sky. It was an effort to not look at the sun too early because the corona was so compelling. Finally when the photosphere was gone I took off my eyepatch and looked at the sun with both eyes.
I mostly remember the colors of luminous silver and lavender, white and purple; the black in the center that almost feels like a hole into infinity even though it’s the closest thing in the sky to us.
I remember the refreshingly cold air, the screams and yells of all the people in the camp. I remember trying to use a pair of binoculars but shaking so bad I couldn’t hold them still enough to focus.
I was just so transfixed by the colors in the sky that nothing else mattered. I remember almost crying because I never thought I would see a total eclipse again and the colors were more vivid than I ever remembered. I believe the vivid colors were due to having had cataract surgery and the right choice of lenses that pass colors through clear and unhindered.
In the back of my mind I was aware of why I wasn’t worried about the video camera failing or not really making a big deal about taking pictures. I’ve never ever seen a photograph capture the true colors of the total eclipse. This is one of those moments where my extra sense of color vision is used in every bit of its capacity trying to remember, trying to absorb what colors I was seeing and the texture they presented to the mind.
What my recordings gave me was something much more important. They captured the emotions of the moment through sound and people’s movement. They captured so much personal expression of emotion that I will only share two of these three videos with the public. The third will be kept as a private remembrance by Val, JC and myself.
Altogether too quickly the two minutes passed by. Everyone felt like it was much shorter than two minutes but it was two minutes unburdened by the weight of mundane life. Unfettered, it flew by but for a moment we were transported. We were light as well.
When light return it was almost as if someone turned on a spotlight. It was sharper, brighter than it had been before it vanished and the video records that effect.
As the moon receded, people showed us their experience. I sat silent remembering this eclipse, remembering past eclipses, and thinking how I had made the right choice being here, in this place, in this time, with these people.
Other people who had been polite, friendly or reserved with us leading up to eclipse came and said words trying to express what they felt, what they saw that this remarkable event left on them. To anyone else those words would not have made sense but we understood because we shared the experience and the words made sense in the context of that experience.
I offended many people this weekend by telling them that trying to describe the experience of a solar eclipse was like trying to explain what sex felt like to a virgin. After the eclipse some of those people came back to me and said that I was completely right.
We sat around to watch the projected image of the sun increasingly revealed by the departure of the moon. We all gathered around at the last moment to say goodbye to the moon just like I said goodbye to the moon in the early morning sky the day before.
You will see in the video of the campsite how moments after totality ended and people started leaving. After the eclipse had completely finished, I went with a couple of new friends to get lunch and just kind of talk as we returned to the reality of a hot dusty campsite together and then the transition back to our lives at home.
By about 3 o’clock in the afternoon traffic had died down significantly in the area and cell service had returned enough and Waze said it was only three hours back to Portland. We had all had enough of the desert and really wanted to take a shower where you didn’t have to reapply sunscreen and get coated with dust right after you bathed. I wanted to make it possible to maybe take an earlier flight home but at the very least be more relaxed getting to the airport Tuesday evening.
The rest the trip was pretty anti-climatic if you can call driving through dramatic desert landscapes, smoke filled skies, beautiful verdant forests, spending an hour with Mount Hood in front of you growing larger and larger, anti-climatic.
And true to the entire weekend, heading back cell service was also problematic because there is no cell service for the middle half the trip through the national forest and the desert up to about Warm Springs. Because there’s no cell service, Waze lied and it took us four hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic through the forest, and parts of the desert. I didn’t mind. The image of the corona was still fresh in my mind.
At a rest stop in Government Camp, we tossed around the idea of going to a sitdown dinner on the way home. Someone raised the point that we were all smelly and stinky and they might not like us in the restaurant. To which I said, “We’ve just seen totality, we are better than they are.”
I still think we were but it wasn’t until later that it dawned on me that we were indistinguishable from the Portland homeless. Dirty clothes, smelly, claiming to having had a religious experience and seen things that most people don’t see.
Maybe it was better we just went to JC’s and Val’s home.
After we settled in, I took a shower and then passed out. Woke the next morning, took a look at the videos and remembered the event we had gone through 24 hours and a lifetime before.
Had a tourist drive around Portland, bought some souvenirs and had dinner with JC before my flight. On the way to the airport I told JC the story of the spider God and the space elevator.
The flight home was silent for me. I slept, I read, I contemplated. I got home, I wrote, I slept and I wrote again.
This was my sixth eclipse. I’m going to try and make it not my last. I want as many as I can get between now and the end of my life. I also have to honor pledges to five people to be in Argentina or Chile in 2020 at the least and maybe even 2019.
Everything about this journey was eclipse magic. Having the right opportunities. Friends inviting me to be in their campsite. Having a fantastic eye surgeon that replaced my cataracts with lenses that made it possible for me to see bright colors again. Strangers showing up with great solar observing gadgets. Other friends loaning me equipment at the last minute. Being able to travel and traffic wasn’t so bad. Having the weather clear beautifully during totality. Being able to commit the time to travel out and back and most importantly the support of my girlfriend.
It’s all eclipse magic and I’m very grateful for it.
PS. If you find yourself in Argentina in December, 2020, look for us and share in the amazing experience of a total eclipse.