It all happened so fast. The sun became a tiny sliver as totality approached and then slipped, liquid-like into a shining ring around the moon. Then it slithered into mercury-like beads and in a few seconds was gone. Shouts and whoops came from the group as the darkness increased and we could all look directly at the spectacle without our viewers. I was transfixed by the filamentous corona extending into space. It’s something I’ve seen pictures of but had never seen in real life. Much like seeing wildlife in the wild instead of a zoo, the thrill was palpable. I was short of breath and my heart was racing. I kept thinking “wow” and I think I kept saying it, too. The silvery whorls and plumes of light extending from the eclipsed sun were subtle and beautiful and extended out at least a full solar diameter.
Everyone was excited. I hugged my bride and told her I loved her. She’s faithfully joined me on many nutty adventures over the decades and this one was particularly special. I was a bundle of nerves all month beforehand, worrying over trip details and wondering if we’d get skunked by crowds, chaos, or the weather. But none of that mattered now. An odd calm came over me and I started to feel a little giddy. All the worries and stresses of daily life seemed so silly standing there on the mountainside with the moon covering the sun.
And we were looking, unaided, at the sun. The eclipsed sun. One doesn’t go around looking at the sun. But with the moon blocking its rays we could. That was a weird feeling, I must say. Totality was much too brief. The image of the usually-hidden solar corona was etched into my mind, for good I hope. I had a feeling that I’d been let in on some special occult knowledge, that I was now a member of some secret society, that I’d been allowed to view what was forbidden. But that was transitory. The two minutes were up before we could fully grasp the event and the process began to repeat itself in reverse.
There were cries of delight and not a little bit of anguish as the sun began to emerge again. On one hand, my reptilian brain was thrilled that our life-giving orb was still there to shine down upon us. On the other, my modern mind was sad that the great conjunction was waning away. All of us wanted it to last longer so we could revel in its novelty. How many of us will experience another totality? I thought again about how lucky I was to live in a place where I could play in the shadow of the moon. I had the luxury of both time and means to pursue this adventure. I marveled too at the ancients who could, many centuries ago, watch and learn the patterns of the moon and the sun and grasp the rhythm of the saros and predict the re-occurrences of this celestial marvel.
As the twilight began to fade and the daylight re-emerged we all began to relax and chat and mingle. I noticed that I was both exhausted and exhilarated. I’d lived a whole day in a few minutes! The coronal features had faded away and we got another fleeting look at the diamond ring and then it was back to a partial eclipse. The day began to warm up and the landscape began to look normal again. I used to joke that whenever I did any interesting demonstration in chemistry or physics class that the students would never really see it the first time because they unfailingly demanded that I “do it again!” which of course was not always practical or even possible. I understood them now. I did my best to be open to this amazing experience but I longed for a re-do so I could look and feel again, and see it and feel it with a sharper eye and more finely-tuned heart.
But it was not to be. The sun and the moon had done their dance and that was that. There was still an hour to go until the final contact, and we kept putting up the filters to our eyes and scanning the sky, but the main event was over. All we had now was our memories and impressions. We began to talk and share among ourselves and re-live the experience. I developed a sudden thirst and was thankful that our party had prepared itself with coolers of beverages and refreshments. Of course I had my water bottle but what I really needed was a cold beer and I sucked one down greedily. I remember being a little unsteady on my feet and sat in my trusty fold-out nylon camp chair, alternately looking up and waiting for the eclipse to be completely over and staring wordlessly out across the forest all around me and the naked ridge to the west. I was, for a time, bereft of thought.
The approach of totality and totality itself seem to race by unnaturally fast. Time had sped up just when we all wanted it to slow down. Now time came to a stop. The last limb of the moon took, it seemed, forever to be free of the sun. Those final minutes stretched agonizingly. Oddly, we all wanted it to be over! Now that it was done let it be done. But whenever you wish for something to happen faster it never does, it always slows to a crawl. But nature can’t be bothered with our perceptions and the moon and sun continued on their imperceptible separate marches and soon all was back to the way it was before.
The moon, despite eclipsing the sun, was thoroughly invisible, as it always is during its new phase, and what evidence we had seen of its presence in the sky was gone. The sun climbed upward and westward as it does every morning, heating the air and the ground and casting the shadows that mark the progress of the day. It was like the thing had never happened!
But it had, and we were there. I’m sure I’ll be playing that movie again and again in my mind in the days ahead, and I’ll remember the feelings even if I won’t be feeling them again. It’s hard to recapitulate awe. Suffice to say it was indeed something special, and I’m thankful that I got to be a tiny part of it.