You were expecting a big giant blank here, weren’t you? “If she has no words, what’s she doing writing a bunch of them?”
I live in Tacoma, Washington. On August 21, 2017, 95% of a total solar eclipse would be visible here. Ordinarily, that would be enough for a good many things. Not so with solar eclipses. One astronomer on the radio said the difference between totality and 99% eclipse is like the difference between being dead and nearly dead. I knew I would kick myself around the block every day until I died, if I didn’t see this solar eclipse in full. So I committed to the trip, mostly winging it.
Baker City: On Friday the 18th, I drove east across Washington, gingerly avoiding the edge of the Path of Totality, then well past the turns south that would take me to the popular much-ballyhooed viewing places of Madras and Mitchell. I ended up in Baker City, Oregon (“On the Historic Oregon Trail”). In town there was a park with music and food and booths, the Powder River runs idyllically through the town, with a nice trail that winds past a beautiful modern library, and the historic district is made up of wonderful old storefronts with over 100 independently owned businesses. Franchise businesses are few. There was prosperity there, and still seems to be.
After the eclipse, when I went back to Baker City to have lunch, I would make small conversation with strangers about the event. “No words” was something people said a lot. There are no words to describe the totality experience on a deeper level. I did make a few observations about it, with words I actually have.
Ready, or not: Early on that blazing bright Monday, parked on the side of the road, six miles outside of Baker City, I had my paintbox and sketchbook on the hood of the car, and had prepared eight circles (drawn with one of my dad’s brass WWI shot cups) across two pages so I could draw the shapes I saw through the solar filter and paint, at least, my impression of the color of the sky.
Other preparations were a 5mm pinhole in a piece of heavy paper in the shape of the state of Oregon (which I got from the NASA site), a piece of white board onto which I projected the shape of the sun, my dad’s flask and shot cups for a toast to Things (which I shared with the woman in the car ahead of mine), and a variety of solar viewing filters.
The eclipse’s dimming effect was evident for about five minutes before and after totality. The temperature does drop noticeably. I was glad to be with a few observant people by the side of the road; one young woman was walking past me and said with delight, her arms outstretched, she was noticing it getting cooler, which I didn’t notice until she said it. We could look through the filter glasses and see the encroachment of the moon over the sun for about an hour before and after, but if I were a cave dweller, I’d never know about the approaching event until it got there.
Approaching totality, there’s a completely eerie dimness. “Eerie” is the perfect word. It’s not normal. A guy I talked to back in town had been alone watching the sky in the company of a curious cow and calf, and when it got weirdly dim, the cow and calf freaked out and ran away. They came back about half an hour later.
Totality: We watched the shadow of the moon through filters, then the lights went out. Boom. A guy up at the interpretive center was watching through a Celestron telescope and said that when the moon covered the sun, he wondered if his telescope was still working. It took ten seconds or so, he said, to realize this was the time he should look up at the sun. The filters blot out the little ring of light around the moon, so there’s nothing to see: you have to look with your own eyes. This is where my observational skills failed me. For one thing, the sun is a small ball. I didn’t observe color. The moon’s shadow was darker than the rest of the sky. The bright circle around the moon was red, or white, or something. I didn’t notice what color. Someone nearby pointed out a star. I think it was one of the brighter planets, but there it was. Someone later said the sky was a wonderful sapphire blue. I didn’t notice that, either. I just thought it was grey then black. Out there in the desert hills of eastern Oregon, in a string of cars by the side of the road, there was the random shout, not even a word like “wow” or the kind of hoot you’d make at a ball game, just no words, and a sound coming out. The sight of the blotted-out sun triggered a tiny tide of fear for a few minutes. It’s literally unearthly.
The moon continues on its way: Then, while staring at the blackened sun a minute, the moon moved on and there was a blinding explosion of light out of one small corner of the moon. Boom. Forced painfully (and sadly) back to the eye protection and the perfect crescent shape as the sun was revealed. Here’s my best motivational-poster-worthy observation about the eclipse: How fast the sky returned to familiar and perfectly workable brightness after being completely blotted out took five minutes, and the tiniest sliver of sun, to light up the sky to the point that the cow and calf returned like there was nothing unusual, and if you were a cave dweller you’d just carry on, though wondering what the hell just happened. Was it a hallucination? Was it a bad mushroom? Did everybody have a bad mushroom?
It was about this time that a lot of people revved up and left, even as the waning eclipse was still in progress. They possibly thought they could get a jump on traffic that actually took two full days to clear. I went up to the Oregon Trail interpretive center to go through it, and see what the hundreds of visitors were doing up there. The guy with the Celestron showed me the sharp shape of the waning moon and sun spots (not a euphemism) and told me about how the sun disappeared during totality. I watched through my filter glasses as the moon drifted away. The Celestron guy declared the show was over.
Being in the present moment was inevitable. There’s no point in photographing it; no camera can capture it. Fuzzy little crescents reflected on a piece of paper are a tiny hint of the raging majesty going on in the sky. Even looking through strong solar filters mitigates the experience to a dull sham. Nothing a puny human can do to interpret the event can even come close.
You can’t really capture the experience. There was really no capturing the actual totality experience, not with paint, not with words, not with efforts to photograph. You could try interpretive dance and that wouldn’t do it, either. Afterward, all during the drive home, and now back in Tacoma, there’s a lingering sense of being in the present all the time. I don’t think much about the past, or the future, which means I don’t live with regret or fear or worry or guilt. I tried to fill out my Productivity Planner this morning and plan the coming week’s projects and work, and I don’t want to open it up or write in it. I know what I have to do. So I just do stuff. It all will work out. And if it gets dark, the light will come back in a flash and much sooner than I thought it would. Metaphorically, of course.
I also notice the sun, and shadows, and light, pretty much all the time. The next morning, near Prosser, Washington, the sun came up in an orange ball with purple stripes through it. I’d never seen that before.
The next one: In seven years there will be another opportunity in the US and Canada to see a total eclipse; and newly minted Eclipse Chasers will find more of them even sooner. It’s well worth the time and trouble to get there and in preparation, you have time to lose your words.
Corner Brick Bar and Grill, Baker City Friendly place, good bar and food.
Geiser Grand hotel, Baker City. Splendid restoration, nice bar.
Bella, Baker City Good espresso, surprising kitchen shop.
Boomer Radio 105.9 & 95.3 KKBC out of LaGrande had the most perfect playlist for eclipse-eve