An Event Eclipses Everything Else

I have spent far too much time on social media and browsing the internet this week. Much of it has been in online conversation with friends I haven’t seen in years, discussing such important questions as:

Where did you go to see the eclipse?

Isn’t 98 or 99% almost the same as 100%? (Spoiler: no)

How many hours did it take you to get home, and was that less than or greater than three times as long as the same drive would take on a typical day?

The total eclipse on Monday was both a natural and a social phenomenon. Millions of people across the United States gathered in hundreds of locations in the path of totality to gaze at the sky in unison through flimsy cardboard glasses. Millions more living outside the path of totality decided that 85 or 99 % was good enough and that traveling was too much of a hassle.

My answers to the important questions:

On Monday, August 21 I was in Madras, Oregon, a town of 6200 people that transformed itself into eclipse central for the weekend. Its location precisely in the center of the path of totality, with two state highways in and out of town, made it an obvious choice. The population was predicted to swell to 100,000. I don’t know how many thousands of people descended on Madras, but it was sufficient to overwhelm the capacity of the local roads.

I first heard about the eclipse probably two years ago, through a message to the Harvey Mudd College Alumni Association gauging interest in attending an eclipse weekend in one of four cities across the U.S. Last fall I confirmed my reservation for Madras, joining several hundred fellow alumni and family members at the Mt. Jefferson Rifle Archery, an indoor shooting range with plenty of land around the building for camping. We shared the site with Cal Tech alumni and families, as it was a joint event for both alumni associations.

Sunday afternoon was slightly cloudy, which made us a bit nervous, but Monday dawned clear and warm. By 9:00 am we had packed up our campsite and the sun was high enough in the sky to rise over the rifle range building. The alumni association conveniently provided proper eyeware, so we were ready. As the sun slowly moved into the moon’s path, my son observed that it looked like an incandescent light bulb, which inspired a flood of haikus. (Note: this is not the first time this blog has featured haikus).

The sun’s a light bulb
The moon is holding on tight
Swallowing the sun

The darkest hour
Time of the eclipse is soon
We are waiting now

At 9:22
Sun glows like a harvest moon
Gold in dark sky

9:50 am
Sun looks like a banana
For the moon to eat

Air is getting cold
Sitting in full sun, yet not
Eerie breeze blows past

The sun a shining sliver
Nearly hidden by the moon
At 10:10 am

Flash! The sun goes out
Remove glasses to reveal
Landscape not quite dark

Moon in the sky
Surrounded by silvery white
Seen with naked eyes

Hear the oohs and aahs
In this magical moment
It’s over too soon

If you didn’t see the full eclipse in person, you must have seen photos, but it is not the same as being there. The experience is more than the strange sight of the moon surrounded by a silvery white corona. Everything suddenly shifts when the sun disappears completely in a way that is hard to explain. At 98 or 99%, the sky is still surprisingly bright, and you still need special glasses to view the sun.

But I understand not wanting to brave traffic. The roads leaving Madras on Monday were every bit as bad as predicted. Those two highways in and out of Madras are one lane each way. We started our 300-mile trip shortly after totality, sometime between 10:30 and 10:40 am, and did not reach home until after 10 pm. This was with Google Maps directing us off Highway 97 at times, including one stretch on unpaved roads for 7 miles. At 30 to 35 mph, we were traveling significantly faster than traffic on the highway, despite having to keep sufficient distance from the car ahead not to be engulfed in its dust cloud.

I traveled to see an annular eclipse in 2012 when I lived near San Jose. This was also with the HMC Alumni Association and was a great experience. Although the B&Bs in Redding, CA were booked months in advance, travel was relatively easy, unlike the trip to Madras. I wouldn’t spend that many hours in traffic again for anything less than a full eclipse.

I’m considering Chile or Argentina in 2020. I do speak Spanish, and it’s a part of the world I have long wanted to visit.