It takes a hell of a lot of stuff for two humans to take a road trip to the mountains. Today I’m on stuff-management duty, otherwise known as packing. Sleeping bags, flashlights, shovel, saw, sun shower, camp chairs, binoculars, radio, rope, hammock, tent and stakes, mats and pads, tarp, crate, and bucket. That’s a few of the items. Plus water—LOTS of water—and a water filter. Food, of course, in bags and coolers. Ice is always the limiting factor of a camping trip. Beer, actually, is the limiting factor, but that’s what the ice is for! Clothing and footwear for five days at the campsite and a day on either side in the motel room. Not to mention reading and writing material, cards and games, the all-important maps, plus eclipse information. I’ve got a three-page checklist just for the stuff I keep in the camper and another page for the stuff I’m bringing. I know I’ll forget something, and I already can’t find something I know I’d like to have with me.

It’s a dizzying array of crap, I have to say. Who knew it was this hard to “get closer to nature?” Speaking of crap or the-call-of-nature we have to take care of our own needs. We won’t be in a developed campground so there won’t be a pit toilet. In the old days you dug a latrine. These days they frown on that what with all the impacts on well-visited sites. Veteran campers all know places where the toilet paper is still sitting, half-buried, trying to decompose. We’ve got a portable loo solution that works pretty well and we’ve used it successfully before. (Check out ‘wag-bags’ if you have not heard of them.) We’ll also have to pack out all our own trash. The campgrounds don’t have garbage bins and we only found one place in town (at the ranger station) that had a dumpster. We may have to drive home with all our refuse and debris, which I am prepared to do. It’s a small price to pay for a clean camp. We are actually bringing large heavy-duty bags to collect the existing trash that people left behind from previous visits to the spot. It’s disgusting what people leave behind and bewildering that they would do so. We figure we’ll pick up what we can, it will make our stay more pleasant, but we’ll leave the tied-off bags behind with a note for the Forest Service. Something like “you can thank us for cleaning up after the low-life assholes who were here before.”

But this is an adventure expedition and I’ve no time for negative thoughts. It could be cloudy or smoky or otherwise poor viewing. There could be a forest fire and road closures. The crush of visitors could overwhelm the infrastructure and cause foul-ups or delays. The small towns along the path could run out of gas! Lots of bad things can happen. I’ve decided this is one of those create-your-own-reality moments. I’m going to see—to visualize—a thoroughly successful outing. Easy travels, a happy camp, and great weather. The plan, such as it is, coming together just the way we want it to. That’s where I’m going to put my mental energy. I am banishing fear and doubt and putting courage and faith in their places.

We leave tomorrow and drive to Burns in our VW Eurovan camper. Thursday we are at the campsite. Friday a buddy is coming in his Eurovan. Saturday we expect one couple in their RV and another later in their VW bus. Sunday another buddy should arrive. A few other folks I know have threatened to crash the party and that would be just fine but I don’t expect them. Monday morning is the eclipse. If you think all these people coming to  Oregon this weekend is a cluster-fuck, just wait until they all try to leave afterwards! We will stay one more night in the camper and then it’s back to the motel in Burns for Tuesday and home on Wednesday. (Yes, we have reservations.)

There will be no campfires on this trip. This is an extremely high fire danger time all over the West and the USFS has already issued its restrictions. I’m guessing most people will comply, one hopes that eclipse-chasers have some outdoor savvy and that the idiots will mostly stay home. One hopes.

There’s a full tank of gas in the rig. We’ll stop for ice on the way out of town tomorrow morning. Thursday we’ll make one more stop for supplies in Burns, then head for the hills. Wish us luck!


Wildfire smoke didn’t blot out the sun last week but it did give the moon a red-orange cast. It’s part of life here in the high country—hazy skies from forest fires. Some are local, some are hundreds of miles away. We get smoke in the valleys every summer and it matters not where it comes from. All you can hope for is the wind to shift and push the smoke somewhere else.

Saturday evening altocumulus clouds emerged from the southwest and gradually covered the entire sky. Sunday morning and early afternoon were overcast and eventually rain clouds formed and we got evening thundershowers. It was nice to get a break from the smoke and be able to open the windows and let in some fresh—well, fresher—air. This morning the altocumulus were back and they looked like a big smear of frosting overhead and to the east. Sure enough the sun was obscured until almost noon.

Right now it is clear overhead but a big heap of clouds still covers the eastern sky. The smoke is back, not as bad, but persisting. This is pretty common stuff all over the West. Mostly summer days are clear, dry, and hot. Rain, other than from thundershowers, is unusual this time of year. If an eclipse were happening in two weeks over Yreka I would tell people that odds are excellent there will be bright blue skies.

We are going north in two weeks to the zone of totality in eastern Oregon. It’s a lot like here. Most of the time it is clear and dry. Sometimes there are thundershowers, but they are typically in the afternoon and mornings are usually could-free. Wildfires are a problem as they spew their smoke all about. It’s not so bad when you can get indoors and stay indoors. But we will be camping for at least five days. Right now the skies over where we want to go are described as “hazy” from smoke. Overcast skies and possible thunder, lightning, and rainfall are expected over the next few days. The National Weather Service graphics for this week up there look just like they did for last week down here.

What can you do? Unless a forest fire closes the roads or otherwise impacts local services we are still going to our planned camping spot. It’s a risk, I know. We could get “skunked” for the eclipse. Our viewing site could be overcast or fouled by smoke. If today, a Monday, is just like Monday the 21st, we’ll be watching the eclipse behind clouds!

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s mostly hot, dry, sunny, and clear in this part of the world during this time of the year. So I’m banking on that. But if we do suffer the misfortune of totality being blocked by some other natural phenomenon then we’ll just have to make the best of it. Sure, I’ll be disappointed. And I’ll pursue my next chance to see a total eclipse with much more vigor and enthusiasm.

But chasing the moon’s shadow is an adventure. The journey is as much a part of it as the destination. The eclipse, in all its phases, is only a small percentage of the time that we will be out and about. So, we expect to enjoy ourselves regardless of the outcome. The part of the country we will be visiting is both beautiful and bizarre and I know I’ve a lot more to learn about it. It’s always fun being in the mountains. Our site is forested and there’s a big creek running close by. It’s remote, but accessible. We don’t have to go four-wheeling or ford a stream or winch ourselves out of some gully. So there’s little or no danger. It should be mostly relaxing. No phone, no computer, no TV. Lots of hammock time. The only uncertainties that matter are how long the ice and beer will last!

We are ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at us. I’m expecting a fastball right down the middle but if I get a curve or a change-up I’ll still put a good swing on it.


The moon is a better timekeeper than the sun. At least as far as eclipses go. A solar eclipse can only occur on a new moon. So the NEXT solar eclipse has to be an integral multiple of new moons away. The sun can only be eclipsed when the moon it at its orbital nodes. And the type of eclipse—be it total or annular—depends on the moon-earth distance. The moon appears about 11% larger at its nearest distance to us in its elliptical orbit—this is called lunar perigee. All of these events are on different time scales.

The moon moves from new moon to new moon (the synodic month) in about 29.5 days. The moon moves from node to node (the nodical  or draconic month) in about 27.2 days, and the moon moves from perigee to perigee (the anomalistic month) in about 27.6 days. It turns out that 223 synodic months, 242 nodical months, and 239 anomalistic months are all about 6,585 days. That’s about 18 solar years.

Ancient astronomers were aware of this eclipse cycle and the word that’s come down from antiquity to describe it is saros. The saros is a group of related eclipses, all about 18 years apart. Eclipses separated by a saros have similar characteristics. They have the same geometry: they occur on the same node (ascending or descending), at approximately the same time of year, and when the moon is at the same distance from the earth. The 6585 days is really more like 6585-1/3 days, so every third saros (54 years) the eclipse is roughly on the same place on the earth. That 1/3 day means each eclipse is shifted about 1/3 of the way around the globe, so it takes three cycles to get back to the same area.

The saros was first noticed for lunar eclipses because a lunar eclipse is visible over half the earth at the same time. Ancient peoples did not have the travel and communication capabilities that we have today so they may have predicted a solar eclipse but were unable to know if it occurred. It may have taken place thousands of miles away!

Eclipses happen every year so there are multiple saros series going on at the same time. A saros lasts over a thousand years and is comprised of dozens of eclipses. The upcoming total solar eclipse is part of the same series as the 11 July 1999 total solar eclipse that was seen across Europe and was possibly the most-viewed eclipse in all human history. Eclipses in a saros begin with the most fleeting of partial contacts, pass through the annular/hybrid phases, peak with total eclipses, and then fade back again. They reflect, in depth and degree of the eclipse event, all the motions that have to coincide and overlap for us to be able to experience an eclipse. People mostly live in a narrow temperate-equatorial band on the planet, but the shadow path of a solar eclipse can brush the huge polar regions or plunge miles of empty oceans into darkness.

Humans had to view, record, and study eclipses for generations in order to learn about patterns like the saros. Take a look at the path of the upcoming 21 August 2017 total solar eclipse:


Now take a look at the path of another eclipse in the same saros series, this one 54 years away on 23 September 2071:


I don’t think I’m going to make it to 2071. Adding 54 to my current age pushes me well past the century mark. But it is interesting to see that the third eclipse in the saros after this one is pretty close to the same part of the earth’s surface. (GE means Greatest Eclipse where totality is longest.) The 02 September 2035 event passes over China, South Korea, and Japan. The next one after that on 12 September 2053 sweeps across North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Finally the third in the group returns to the Americas. It amazes me that astrologers and astronomers of yore were able to predict eclipses, or at least create eclipse-predicting algorithms, of such precision. Obviously they lived in sufficiently stable societies that could preserve the records and educate succeeding generations about the measuring and calculating methods needed.

Fortunately for those who would like to view a total solar eclipse we have all these overlapping saros series to choose from. We don’t have to wait 18, 36, or 54 years to see another one. In fact, there is a total eclipse in July of 2019 if you want to go to Chile or Argentina. Hmm, it’s winter then, maybe I can go skiing! Actually I’m trying not to think too far past the trip to see THIS eclipse. But there is another one I want to plan for, it’s in 2024 when I’ll be almost Medicare age:


Anyone up for a trip to Austin, Texas? I hear it’s a really fun town.


Partridge says that this word comes from the Greek zeugnumi which means “yoke” or “join” and that gives us the modern sense of the Late Latin word that emerged of “linked” or “paired together.” In astronomy a syzygy is a conjunction of two bodies, actually three, because you have to include the body the observer is on. In the case of an eclipse we have the lining up of Sun, Moon, and Earth for the solar variety; and Sun, Earth, and Moon for the lunar variety.

This happens monthly. Perhaps you had one of those teachers who tried to show you moon phases using a flashlight and a tennis ball. When the moon is between the earth and the sun the near side is in shadow and hence can’t be seen. We call this a new moon. When the earth is between the moon and the sun the near side is fully sunlit. We call this a full moon. But the moon and earth are offset slightly, otherwise we would have a solar or lunar eclipse every two weeks. A solar eclipse can only occur during the new moon. A lunar eclipse can only occur during the full moon.

But we only get a handful of eclipses per year, not two per month. This is due to the inclination of the moon’s orbit about the earth. The earth and other planets lie roughly in the same plane if looked at from outside the solar system. That is why planets appear in the sky very close to the sun’s path. The apparent path of our sun through the sky is called the ecliptic. If we project this line infinitely into space in all directions we get the ecliptic plane. The orbits of our celestial neighbors lie along this imaginary plane:


The moon, though, has its own ideas. Its orbital plane is tilted about five degrees relative to the ecliptic. Here’s a way to visualize that:


As you can see, the moon only puts itself in a blocking position when it is at the so-called nodes where the two planes intersect. Thus eclipses can only happen then, when the moon is at those points. One is called the ascending node and the other the descending node reflecting our earth-bound sense of up and down. Here’s another look:


Most of the time the moon is “above” or “below” the ecliptic and cannot eclipse or block the sun. Thus most new moons don’t produce solar eclipses. The same with lunar eclipses—most of the time the moon is not in the same plane as the earth and so the earth cannot cast its shadow on the full moon’s face. In order to have eclipses the moon must be ascending or descending through one of its two orbital nodes.

The moon is at or near its nodes twice per year. So we ought to have two solar and two lunar eclipses per year. And we do, usually. But it’s not that simple. The nodes are not fixed. This “regression of the nodes” is due to precession, a phenomenon that all non-uniform spinning bodies exhibit. Think of the wobbling of a spinning top—that’s precession about the spin axis. If the nodes were fixed, eclipses would happen at the same two times per year, half a year (six lunations) apart. But they don’t, they can happen during any month. This is because the eclipse half-year is about nine days short of half a solar year and thus two such eclipse half-years are about 18 days short of a full solar year. Consequently conditions for an eclipse (moon at the nodes) move “backward” through the calendar. This was known to the ancients and formed the basis of some of the first eclipse predictions.

This month we will have a syzygy of epic grandeur, that of a total solar eclipse. The moon and the sun and the earth are all in the right places at the right time and observers in the United States will get a chance to experience the turning of day into night. Although the path of totality restricts the viewing of the total eclipse to a narrow band, all fifty states will experience a partial eclipse somewhere within their borders.