August 21, 2017: Totality

Our plans were up in the air until, pretty much, earlier this month. I’d picked up some eclipse glasses handed out at Obee Credit Union on a whim, but my husband wasn’t sure he’d get time off work. Then things worked out that he had excess vacation to be used up, and was scheduled for a week off starting 8/20/2017. Of course we had no way to get lodging, but with the path of the totality within driving distance, we packed up our camping stuff, kid, and dogs, and headed out.

We camped by John Day River in Oregon, just outside of Umatilla National Forest; a spot my husband chose specifically because it’s so rural, with patchy to non-existent cell/ GPS service. We figured the long-term planners probably aimed for lodging in the cities, and dispersed camping in the open spaces of the national forest outside the totality would give us the chance to drive down the next morning (about an hour) into the totality range.

We ended up scrapping that plan Sunday night, after we drove into the totality region to check out the rest stop we planned to watch it at. Well, it was marked as a rest stop in the atlas, but it was actually a John Day National Park ranger station. Just before the ranger station, where the John Day river wound along the right side of the road and private ranchlands carved off into the hills on the left, there were cars and RV’s parked along the pull-off by the river, with room still to park. I don’t think it’s normally a camping area (maybe, possibly, for dispersed camping, but not in those numbers), but an exception was being made for the eclipse. Park rangers and state officers drove by occasionally, keeping an eye on the ad-hoc campsite, but weren’t disrupting the activity, so we decided to skip the morning traffic and just camp there for the night.

John Day River

Our GPS coordinates: 44.620142, -119.637936

I’m glad we did– we were awakened around 5 a.m. by a steady stream of traffic streaming by as people who either lived or camped right outside the totality drove past, and we were in no rush to fix breakfast, clean up our campsite or pack our car as we waited for the totality. Laziness ftw!

The other cool thing about camping out there was the unexpected camaraderie. We met some cool people, our “eclipse buddies,” and had some good conversations– even ended up exchanging contact info. To one side, we had campers who ride motorcycle and run a skeptic podcast, so we had a lot of fun conversations, and to the other side was a super cool software developer with a lot of interesting travel stories and excellent taste in books (he was reading Freakonomics). I didn’t think to ask if it was okay if I used their names, so they’re getting assigned pseudonyms: Skeptic Sam and Software Dev Taylor.

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The heat was pressing, down there in the valley– about 92 degrees when we arrived, just a little before 6 pm. It didn’t seem to abate much over the next few hours. My husband and I often joke that I’m like a lizard, or a vampire or an ice queen– it’s as thought I don’t produce my own body heat, but instead lounge around on warm, sunny rocks and curl up against sources of heat to soak up warmth. John, on the other hand? He’s like a werewolf or minor god of the forge; all hot-blooded mammalian heat-source with fire in his veins and sweat at his brow. So, obviously, I was fine, but my husband was in a little more discomfort. He spent quite a bit of time splashing about in the water with the dogs, and gawked in disbelief when I shrugged on a long-sleeved shirt and flannel pj pants as full dark came on. He also found a praying mantis!

Full dark in the desert comes with a star-strewn sky; the type of sky I’ve seen only once before, when I was 17 and on a camping trip/ trek for church. The Milky Way splashed a bright path across the sky, and constellations that are easy to pick out in the city, where all the others stars are drowned by light pollution, take a longer moment to locate in the vast dark blanket of a sky shimmering with an unimaginable expanse of glimmering points of light. It was breathtaking. I do not, unfortunately, take any photographs, but a google search produced this excellent (if slightly more colorful) example from @Joe Parks on Flickr:

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Some of the campers– about 10-15 sucky ones– trespassed on the private property nearby, and the rancher came by to yell at that them, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post (at my husband’s suggestion). The arrival of the ATV and raised voices of the rancher and the hillwalkers drifting over the campsite spurred me out of my tent to see what the situation was, and I ended up talking to Sam for a while under the last, trailing meteors of the Pleiades as they arced here and there in conversational punctuation across the blue-black sky. We finally ending up heading to our camps around 9 or 10 p.m., and I guess it must have been between 3:30 or 4 a.m. when I woke with a powerful need to pee. The sky was lighter at that point– hard to describe.

It was still clearly night, and it wasn’t the dawning glow of warmth that precedes sunrise, or the cool silver wash of moonlight. The moon hadn’t risen yet, apparently (Google tells me moonrise was at 5:55 a.m. at that location), but it was definitely noticeably lighter. Google search, again, provides an approximation of the experience, thanks to the talents of a photographer by the name of Brian Pasko:

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When I’d gone to bed a few hours earlier, I’d had to use a camper lantern simply to pick my way across the flat 10-12′ of even ground from Sam’s vehicle to our tent in the velvety blue-black night, but by 3 a.m., the brilliant silvery-azure sky and starlight alone provided more than enough light to make my way along much more treacherous paths.

I went back to bed, but slept uneasily, only drowsing, and got up around 5:30 a.m. It had cooled down to about 53 degrees overnight, and we had to wait for the sun to get over the hills for things to start warming up– it got up to about 76 degrees before the eclipse, I think? By then, it was getting fairly warm, even for me. I’d shucked off my jacket, then my sweatshirt and long-john shirt one by one, and was in my tank top by 9:30 a.m.

me

I looked for a pic of me on the trip to put in here (or failing that, another of John or even the Kid), and found we’d only taken nature photos. So, um. Enjoy this artistic rendering of me in a tank top.

We saw the first nock in the upper edge of the sun about 10:05, 10:06 a.m., PST. Just a tiny little subtle dent, heralded by shouts and exclamations up and down the river as campers in newly-minted friendships called the news from one to another. My husband had a camera on a tripod with a remote, while Sam was recording his own video, presumably for his skeptic podcast.

My son, myself, and Taylor left the recordings up to them, and focused on experiencing the experience. I did try a few pictures/ video on my cellphone, but uh … yeah. I suck at photography. I had no idea what ISO even was, or what I should set it at — see example:

So, I’ll settle for trying to describe it instead. It was pretty amazing. I actually want to travel to Canada or Mexico in 2024 in order to be within the path of totality for that eclipse, because there are certain things I wanted to be on the lookout for just around totality, but everything happened so fast, and I was so focused on the actual eclipse, I forgot to watch for them.

I’ll add a quick note: Taylor’s eclipse glasses had been printed with a warning not to look at the eclipse, even with the glasses for longer than 3 minutes, but ours had no such warning. Part of me was inclined to discount the warning (especially as he’d been worrying aloud about the efficacy of his Amazon-purchased glasses)– I wanted to believe the 3-minute warning might have been added as a self-preservation measure by one of the notorious scammers– but, then again, it sounds pretty common-sense, and I’d read an article about the history of eclipse glasses and retinopathy on the drive down which mentioned something about how we’re normally protected from sun-damage because our eyes start to water/ hurt when we stare directly at the sun for too long, and I vaguely recalled something about sun damage being caused within 2 minutes on the naked eye, so I was also inclined to err on the side of caution.

Despite all that, I found it difficult to tear my eyes away from the fascinating progress, and I do have a slight headache today (but no vision spots, so fingers crossed I’m okay).

So. As the moon crept across the sun the temperature began to noticeably drop. By 10:15 a.m, the sun was half-covered; a thinning crescent flame the inverse of our familiar new moon, and our shadows stretched long, fat, and fuzzy on the ground.

Confused night birds began their trilling cries, while the frogs and crickets who had chirped a twilight lullaby along the river at dusk the previous night began to falteringly take up the chorus once again. Taylor observed that he could see why, in eras past, people thought an eclipse was the sign of angry gods– the calling wildlife, the sudden chill in the air, the abruptly darkened sun. It is indeed eerie, and I have no doubt the vast swathes of population stricken with blindness didn’t help matters, either.

A swift and sudden gloaming descended with totality as the moon covered the sun completely, leaving only the platinum-white brightness of the ring around the darkness, and an eerie flat greyness of dusk-not-dusk/ night-not-night down here below that stole the daylight and flattened the landscape in an unearthly way.

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© J. Dresow

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© J. Dresow

I took off my eclipse glasses to look at the totality naked-eyed (the only time it’s safe to do so), flanked by my husband and son and new-made friends, as cries of delight and stunned exclamation echoed in my ears from up and down the river– a community of strangers brought together by this rarity of experience, wedded by that ring in the sky.

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© J. Dresow

The moon began to slip, sun breaking dazzling free in a diamond prism of light, and I turned away, putting my eclipse glasses back on (perhaps a half-second too late– that might be the source of my headache).

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© J. Dresow

And that was it.

We exchanged contact information with our new friends and said our goodbyes. Jokingly promised to see each other in Mexico in 2024, and went our separate ways.

It was … amazing. Exhilarating. Beautiful. Stunning. Indescribable, and something that pictures and video cannot really capture. It has to be experienced– the temperature drop, the animals, the feel of community (however temporary), the buzzing excitement in the air, the racing shadows, the changing scents on the breeze– it’s just something that has to be experienced. 

John and I talked about that on the drive home; how as beautiful and stunning as the photographs are, there is simply no substitute for the experience of it.

It reminded me of my first experience of a warm ocean– I’ve grown up in Washington, with the cold Pacific ocean. I’ve seen photographs of Hawai’i, and people have told me the ocean there was as warm as bathwater, but even though I intellectually understand the words they were saying, I didn’t viscerally “get it,” until I went to Hawai’i and actually fucking experienced it.

Some things, you just have to experience to really understand. You can tell people who’ve lived in the city their entire lives about what light pollution does to the night sky until you’re blue in the face; show them photographs in an album and try to express it– but there’s no replacement for the horizon-to-horizon cap of a true-dark night lit up with the brilliance of the Milky Way. There’s no replacement for experiencing the totality. We have too many senses to try and replace such an experience with a mere video or photograph– it’s far more than just that.

It is so much more.

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