Umbral dreams

I’ve got this notion about going up to Oregon to see the eclipse next month. They say a million people will converge in the Beaver State for this event, that will increase the roughly four million population by twenty-five percent. All for two minutes of totality. The entire eclipse will be over two hours, but the shadow will be complete for only a fraction of that time. I’m chasing that shadow nonetheless. Looks like a scouting trip up to the eastern part of the state is the first order of business. I’d like to find some dispersed camping spots out in the woods somewhere near the centerline. If I can come back with a list of three or four likely places that will make the actual journey more relaxing. It’s only a day’s drive from here, but I plan to stay away from the key highway corridors, especially US-97 and I-5, and I want to be up there before the weekend as the eclipse is a Monday morning.

We took a trip to Mexico in 1991 to see a total eclipse predicted to nearly last seven minutes. We were on the beach at Mazatlan and as totality approached the temperature dropped dramatically. What happens when moist air gets cold? Bay Area people know all about marine fog. That’s what happened. A fog layer formed and obscured the eclipse from view! But I remembered something a colleague told me before I left, which was to ‘turn my back on the sun’ and watch what was happening to the earth. Sure enough we did and we saw the moon’s shadow racing across the Sea of Cortez. I did not expect that to be such a startling sight, but it was. Eclipses create two shadows, one while the sun is partially covered (called the penumbra) and one when the sun is totally covered (called the umbra). As you can imagine, the umbra is much darker, noticeably so, and to see a shadow on that scale was mind-bending. I’m a big fan of mind-bending. That particular eclipse cast a shadow about 150 miles wide! The path this summer in Oregon will less than half that.

Nocturnal fishes leapt from the waters as the umbra passed over us. Diurnal birds circled and settled to roost. Lights came on in town. Stars and planets came out in the dark sky overhead. It was noon, but there was twilight all around us, like a 360-degree sunset. Too soon the trailing edge of the great shadow raced onward across the globe and we entered the lighter penumbra. As the sun emerged from behind the moon in the partial phase of the eclipse the temperature rose again and the fog vanished. Although we missed the main event it was still a full fight card, and in life you often have to swallow the bitter with the sweet.

One of the things you can’t control in this world is the weather. They say the city of Madras will have the best chance of cloud-free viewing. But I figure a great swath across the arid west including large parts of Idaho and Wyoming will have clear skies. That’s just the way it is most August days in these places, hot and bone-dry. But we could get out there and camp for four nights and wake up to rain or overcast or some other unusual or unlikely weather event and get skunked. But that’s OK. I mean of course I’ll be disappointed (and have to start planning for 08 April 2024), but that it will still be an adventure. And that’s what these umbral dreams are about—the adventure. A true hunter embraces the hunt; the outcome may not be the desired one, but there will still be the hunt. I like to think that the journey is just as important as the destination.

It’s going to be hard to find the right spot. It would be nice to have some shade and a water source. We are equipped for dry camping, but five days is a lot of water to pack. It’s not hard to ration for drinking and cooking, and you can do cleanup with a lot less if you plan ahead. But we will be in the heat and dust for five days. I’m going to need a creek to bathe in or a little brook to fill the sun shower. Water levels are falling and streams are drying up all over. And even though we’ll likely be in one of the many National Forests this is eastern Oregon. This is part Blue Mountains and part Snake River and much like the nearby Columbia Plateau and Great Basin. Hot summers, very little rainfall, cold winters, and snow at high elevations. Grasslands interspersed with forested slopes, rocky drainages, mesas, buttes, and arid landscapes. I expect there will be many old buck-hunting spots and other hunters camps near the roads, primitive but well-used, with flat spaces for a few vehicles and tents. The developed recreation sites will be the first to go and I don’t want to compete for any of those.  I’ve camped all over the west in such spots, usually they are empty in the summertime and don’t get action until deer season.

When you stand in the shadow of the moon you feel like dancing. Or running amok, naked and howling like the poor creatures who think the day has suddenly become night. It’s like the hand of god passing over the sun, you feel like you’ve forgotten to sacrifice an ox to Zeus and he’s letting you know you’ve fucked up. That terrifying and wonderful sensation of tininess, of irrelevance in the vastness of the cosmos surges through you and instead of despair it gives you joy and you shout and cheer with life. At least that’s what I think right now. Maybe after all the sunburns, bug bites, and rocks in my shoes I’ll feel differently. It’s going to depend, I imagine, almost entirely on how much water will be nearby. Nothing like a good cold soak on a hot day to improve the spirits.

So that’s what’s on my August calendar. If I were you I’d stay home and watch it on TV. Not that you shouldn’t enjoy this amazing natural phenomenon, I just figure you’ll get a better view and there will be one less car on the road.

Stay tuned for updates—I’m sure there’ll be enterprising live bloggers and all that sort of thing on the big day. Not me: I’ll be unplugged. But fully connected, I hope, with my umbral dream coming to life.

3 thoughts on “Umbral dreams

  1. This may be obvious, but you can make a reservation at many Nat’l Forest Service campgrounds and cabins. One place to consider – Newberry Nat’l Volcanic Monument. It should meet your criteria. If you go there, you can ask them why it’s not Newberry Volcanic National Monument.


  2. The FS/BLM sites that you can reserve are already reserved. There are first-come, first-served sites, they may be an option. But I think dispersed camping is the best idea. And Newberry is 97 country and I’m avoiding that part of the state.


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