Sunday, the day before the eclipse, featured high clouds in the morning that strengthened during the day. It was worrisome. We had the perfect spot to camp: along a forested creek in the mountains. We had the perfect viewing site: an old quarry a few hundred yards up the road. But the weather had to cooperate. I went to sleep on Eclipse Eve with a bit of trepidation. We’d left smoky skies behind us. The John Day River basin was the clearest place we’d driven through and the air got even better with the increase in elevation. The days we’d been in camp featured bright, blue skies.
The sun didn’t come up over the treetops until about seven in the morning but I was up and out of the camper an hour before that. My friend Robin told me later she’d heard my feet crunching on the gravel and was tempted to stick her head out of her tent and yell “Christmas morning!” It sure felt like that. I was all anticipation. I marched up the hill to our view spot, spooking a grouse in the process, curious if anyone had come to camp there. Sure enough, it was empty. More important than that, the sky was clear.
I knew we had a few hours before the event and that smoke or clouds could come rolling in but somehow I knew they would not. The morning was cold and very still. The air was dry and fresh, like a breeze had come through in the wee hours and given our little area a quick cleaning-out. I had to stop and deal once again with this feeling of shock. It was going to work out! The preparation and planning was going to pay off! We were going to get a perfect morning with which to experience the eclipse! I felt really lucky to be where I was and to be surrounded by the people I’d hoped to share the space with.
The road flattened out and the benches cut into the hillside gave us a broader view of the landscape than we had down in our riparian campsite. The rocks were a loose, brittle, shale-like stuff that I had a hard time figuring why anyone wanted to quarry. I suppose they might have made road fill, or riprap, but I sure would not have built anything on them. It didn’t look like material had been mined there in many years. Pumice was interspersed among the big plate-like pieces and angular chunks, it was sharp-edged and bits of volcanic glass were embedded in it. It wasn’t exactly a place to lie down, but it was a nice contrast to the flour-like soil in camp which oozed its way into the pores of my skin, not to mention coating everything we had with a fine dust.
Our camp neighbors joined us, it was they in fact who’d scouted the spot and suggested it. There were sixteen humans and two canines in our combined parties: thirteen adults, one teenager, two children, one old dog, and one puppy. Eighteen individuals poised to be in the shadow of the moon that would race across this eastern Oregon mountainside. Suffice to say all were eager and excited. Well, I can’t speak for the dogs, but I suppose they were happy to be running around in the sunshine.
The weather was crisp and cool at half-past eight but the bright rays of the rising sun warmed up the rocks beneath our feet in a hurry and we soon peeled off a layer as the air temperature started to catch up. First contact was a little after nine and the whole event, until final contact, was to last almost two-and-one-half hours. The sun would gain over twenty degrees in altitude and swing westward almost thirty-five degrees during the eclipse. We were feeling good about our spot, and you can see why:
The centerline is in red, you can see we were quite close, effectively on top of it as the duration was predicted to be the same, just a few seconds over two minutes.
We had our eclipse glasses ready and we settled in to watch and wait for totality. Partial eclipses are certainly interesting, but unless they are near-total you don’t get the light and color changes that happen when the sun is fully obscured. It takes very little sunlight to seem normal, a lot of the sun can be covered and yet not be noticeable. But this event was different. We knew the darkness was coming but it was still not something you could prepare for. I suppose the first thing most people noticed as the second contact approached (a little after ten) was the drop in temperature. The air got quite cool, perhaps ten degrees lower on Fahrenheit’s scale. At this point I was rooting for the moon as I’m a shadow, shade, and cold-weather fellow. Anything that reduces the heat of the sun on me makes me happy.
I noticed that the shadows around us were strange, with distinct penumbras and other odd features. We played with our splayed fingers, casting multiple crescent-sun images on the ground at our feet. Straw hats were in abundance and their multiple tiny holes gave us a panoply of pinhole projections. Colors began to get weird, like someone had dialed back the saturation, the hues graying and smearing, the objects losing their crisp edges. It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t like anything I’d seen before and I’m not sure I can put words to it. It was eerie, I can tell you that, and everyone was feeling a strange mix of excitement and wonder, even a little fear. The sun is one of those things we count on everyday—when the moon comes to cover it up you think, just for a moment, that it might not reappear!
Soon totality was seconds away and all of us were riveted by what was happening. This is the “awe” part of the story. When we were in Mexico in 1991, on the beach at Mazatlan, our view of totality was covered by fog. The sun was higher in the sky as the eclipse was at noon and it was also a long one, almost seven minutes. That time we could see for miles along the beach and out over the Sea of Cortez. We saw what looked like an enormous thundercloud hurtling towards us. It was the shadow of the moon! The sky was very dark and sunset colors were on the horizon in all directions. Our site this time did not give us the same vantage, and the short duration (and clear sky!) let us focus on the sun itself. Darkness, perhaps to the level of nautical twilight, came quite suddenly, eliciting gasps and cheers.
And we got to experience those special totality-only features: the corona, the diamond ring, and Baily’s Beads. But that’s for the next post.