Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Great Eclipse Journey of 2017

The trip to Oregon to see the great eclipse of 2017 went surprisingly smoothly; a straight shot to the Eugene area from Napa in 8.5 hours, where family connections were providing hospitality for a couple of nights before the big event for the three of us 50+ male relatives. Then - just to be sure, you know - off on Sunday evening to a previously reserved 10x15 overnight spot at the Philomath, OR, Frolic and Rodeo Grounds, where 1,000 spots had been prepared for the onslaught of out-of-state ‘clipsers. (Turns out that only about 100 spots were needed.)

We arrived in downtown Philomath without the anticipated last-minute traffic congestion from Eugene and picked out a nice centrally located spot in the large stubbly field, where we set up the tent, the 6-inch Celestron telescope, and our various camping accoutrements. The astrobuffs of the group (not me) aligned the heavens on the telescope, and soon, while darkness descended, we were hosting nearby campers to look at Saturn and its moon, Titan. Somebody fifty feet away was singing songs with his acoustic guitar, a nice wine was near at hand, and conversation flowed freely among camping neighbors. Gradually people entered their eerily-lit nylon-covered dwellings for the night, with dancing lights making their way to the distant port-a-potties.

But you want to hear about the actual eclipse experience, and not the long night in the field (one person in the tent, one in the car, and one on the ground with an improvised tarp-tent above). The sky the next morning was clear as a bell, and the sun was hot, impossibly bright, and confidently overwhelming. The action in Philomath began at 9:04:47 and ended at 11:37:13. With the help of an eclipse timer app, a calm voice told us exactly what to notice at certain times, when to take off our special glasses during the total eclipse time ($21.35 on Ebay three days earlier… free at the fairgrounds.. Oops) and when to put them back on.

By this time we had made lots of friends, and a steady group of campers came over to look through our telescope, which by now had been set up with its solar filter and synchronized to the sun’s movement across the heavens. Solar flares and mini-astronomy lessons occupied our time until the app suddenly called out “First contact in 1 minute!”
This was the point when the moon first began to cover the sun. Nothing much was noticeable until about 30 minutes later, when 25-30% of the sun was covered, and someone mentioned that the world around her looked like somebody had lowered the brightness control on her computer screen. Things around us were darker and less defined. The closer we came to 10:16:49, there was less light and noise (no bird sounds at all) as we moved towards the time of totality.

The last minute was the most dramatic. Like a door closing on the sun, in the space of 60 seconds - with the app helpfully counting down for us - the world around us became dusk-dark, then evening-dark, then in the last five seconds after a brief flash of light (the “diamond ring effect”) completely dark
. The silent fairgrounds burst with short acclamations from the campers. Where just a moment ago there was a sun impossible to look at, there now was a black disk ringed with a fiery-bright corona, alive with bold, white-light power streaming out in all directions. Some of the brighter stars - planets actually - were clearly visible in the darkened sky. Cameras of all kinds - on tripods, car roofs, and in hand-held phones - were recording the event, as we were finally able to take off our solar glasses and appreciate the full impact of the eclipse totality.

The strangeness of the phenomena was what was most impactful to me. Something wasn’t right with the world in a big way, but we knew that it would only last a very short time (a minute and 34 seconds in our case), and therefore we enjoyed every moment. Kids young and old were agog with the overwhelming 3D immersive quality of the experience. You pretty much forget everything else while something like this is happening, as if a primal chord is struck for just a moment, the echoes of which you know will last a lifetime. One young man was seated lotus-style on the ground, calmly gazing upward with absolute equanimity and not a care in the world. An
elderly couple held hands while seated in their camping chairs, entranced by the sky-show above. And the dogs among the campers were absolutely quiet, along with the rest of nature, as if this were one of life’s hiccups to be quizzically endured.

Then in much too little time, the solar diamond flashed once again on the opposite side - “Put your glasses on!” - and the world rapidly returned to its daily normality. As quickly as the darkness had descended, it disappeared, the sun door was reopened, and animated conversations started: “Wow, did you see ….?” “How come ….?” “Can I look through the telescope?” Groups came to see the second half of the eclipse through the telescope against the bright ferocity of the sun and the clear tiny sun-spots, each of which in reality was at least as large as the earth. Within a few minutes, those around us went back to their camping areas to relax or in many cases to pack up. By the time the moon had covered 3/4 of its journey across the sun, half of the campers had finished their journey, packed up and left for home, eager to beat the traffic, which would prove to be as impossible as beating one of those celestial bodies in the sky.

We waited and watched until the real end of the eclipse at 11:37:13 am, enjoying unimpeded access to the telescope and the moon’s 2,288 mph (relative to the earth) routine trip around the earth and, for a very short while, across the sun. Then we packed up, made a beeline for Eugene on two-lane highway 99, and had plenty of time to enjoy the Oregon countryside as the predicted gridlock appeared in about one minute and 34 seconds. But no matter, we saw the eclipse, and it was worth it!