Standing under the shadow

I know everyone is writing and posting about the total eclipse last week. But I still feel the need to put it into words, mostly so I can remember it in the years to come. Viewing a solar eclipse is like going on roller coaster ride in a very busy amusement park: You wait in line for hours, enjoying the scenery, the snacks, and the company of friends. Then you strap into a cart and whoosh! It’s over in 2 minutes, before you even know what really happened. Afterward, you have the choice of hopping on the slow ride to watch the sun wax back to normal, or heading to your car in hopes of beating the traffic home.

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The moon’s shadow, clearly visible over the South Pacific Ocean, on the March 9, 2016 total eclipse (NASA image).

I’ve witnessed many partial eclipses. I clearly remember my first one in 1979. “Don’t look at the sun – you’ll go blind!” My mom warned me so strongly that I walked around all day looking down at the school yard with my eyes half closed. I couldn’t understand why the sun might be brighter on that day. At that age, it didn’t occur to me that it’s more tempting to look up when it’s dimmer. The path of totality in 1979 swept across Canada and down along the border between Washington and Oregon. I don’t remember acknowledging it at all in school, and it was years before I got to experience another partial eclipse.

Last Monday, August 21st, just two days back from an epic adventure with my students in Ecuador, I was feeling sleep deprived and sore from hours on buses and airplanes, and from hauling my pack on and off those various forms of transport. I wasn’t sure I wanted to face hours on the road, potentially with tens of thousands of other Colorado eclipse immigrants, to position myself in the path of totality for two minutes of real excitement.

Graham’s parents had come out from New York to chase the eclipse, and he and his Dad had poured over maps of country backroads to plan a route to the path of totality – a route well away from any major highways or interstates. But we had no idea whether it would work. The forecast for Nebraska, our targeted destination, looked cloudy. Wyoming looked clear, but already suffered from immense popularity. (How often will you hear someone express the sentiment that there are too many people in Wyoming?)

Maybe it was reading Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse on Sunday night, or the fact that the continental US will only experience a total eclipse two or three times in a century, but the adventuress in me made a split decision at 5:30 am Monday to join Graham and his parents on the road.

Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane.   — Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse

We decided to head to Wyoming. Traffic wasn’t too bad on the back roads, but it was heavy. It felt like we were all going to the world’s biggest rock concert: people with coolers and barbeques strapped to their SUVs, making pit stops in sunflower or corn fields. The sky was clearer in Northern Colorado than forecasted, and when we saw a long line of traffic on I-85 heading into Wyoming, we decided to veer eastward toward Scotts Bluff, Nebraska.

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We stopped at a Target to use the facilities on the outskirts of Scotts Bluff. People were already staking out spots along the grassy edges of the parking lot with their picnic blankets and coolers. We wanted someplace away from big box stores and parking lots with flood lights.

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One of the world’s largest tailgate parties, outside of Scotts Bluff, Nebraska.

The gravel road we found about 15 minutes outside of Scotts Bluff was lined with eclipse viewers. It looked like a scene from one of those movies where everyone is waiting for aliens to descend in their spaceship. Given that aliens are probably much more rare than total solar eclipses, this might be the most excitement you’ll ever find on a gravel road out on the Nebraska prairie.

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Obligatory photo with eclipse glasses.

The eclipse began innocuously enough. But I felt my excitement ramp up as the light shifted and I no longer needed to wear a hat or sunglasses. The temperature began dropping – ever so gradually at first, then more rapidly as the sun became a sliver of golden light. The day turned yellow, then a bit more orange, as only those longer wavelengths of light managed to avoid scattering and make their way around the moon’s shadow. I understood then, the temptation to look at the sun. I got glimpses of pure white, and kept reminding myself to use my eclipse glasses when looking up.

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The horizon, turning pink as the shadow fell.

The shadow came on us like a sudden nightfall. A dark horizon to the northwest, tinged with pink on either side, swept over us in a wave. We could see it coming across the prairie, then whoosh! – the light flickered and we were in the shadow. A collective oooh!  rose up from the car-lined countryside road. There were some hoots and gasps and cries of excitement. Some of those probably came from me. The sun had transformed into something different – something ancient and all-powerful. A sharply-defined dark circle ringed by a halo of dancing gold flames, set against an indigo sky. The photos – even those of NASA – don’t do it justice. They always show the sun against a black sky. But the sky was still deep blue, and there was an ever-so-thin ring of white around a dark moon. Photos don’t capture that well.

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My flimsy attempt to photograph the sun.

The air felt different, and the horizon in every direction was tinged with pink. The sky, away from the sun, turned a deeper, darker blue, and Venus twinkled brightly at us. I wanted to watch the sun, but also wanted to take in everything else around us. I could imagine this happening long ago, how people must have felt to see something so strange and freaky and beautiful, not knowing how it all worked (ok, it’s true, there are still a lot of people who don’t know how it all works, despite opportunities to learn!).

The sun had, just for the moment, been consumed. It’s corona shimmered at us like tendrils of hair on a windy day – or, maybe, arms waving for help?  I’ve always loved astronomy because star-gazing can give you a real sense of the antiquity of time, and our small place in it. I’ve never gotten that sense from our Sun before. I think that’s because I’ve never really been able to look at it before. I felt a glimmer of disappointment as the light shifted again and grew brighter. Please, can’t the Earth stop turning for just another minute?

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see anything like that again. I know that there’s another total North American eclipse in 2024, but the fact of the matter is that there are so many variables. Years of planning can be thwarted by a passing stratus deck. For now, I just know I’m really lucky.

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2 thoughts on “Standing under the shadow

  1. We, too, were lucky enough to see the eclipse. Along a gravel road similar to yours. We only had to drive about an hour north to see it. My brother-in-law got a beautiful picture of it with his regular camera. Definitely worth getting up early. Thanks for your blog.

    Sent from my iPad

    Chuck &/or Judy Gansen

    >

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