Travel Journal No. 9: The solar eclipse of 2017

The scene was apocalyptic: Smoke from nearly 60 reported nearby forest fires choked the late-night air as I sat in my truck and pondered the situation. For the last 200 miles each gas station I passed was either closed or out of fuel. My tank was less than half full, barely enough for the trip to my final destination, a remote location in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. I considered giving up and heading east into the desert or perhaps even turning back home.

The next day, Aug. 21, 2017, throngs were expected to stand in witness as a total solar eclipse swept across America in a 70-mile-wide ribbon from Oregon to South Carolina. And although I wanted to watch the rare event, I also had been hesitating for days, not wanting to be caught in what was being reported on the news as a mass migration of people and cars.

A solar eclipse occurs when a new moon passes directly between the sun and Earth. The result darkens the daytime sky and creates a spectacular display of shifting shadows and light. When the moon finally moves into position, it perfectly blocks the sun to reveal the corona, a wispy halo of hot gas, during a moment that is known as “totality,” often only lasting for a minute or two.

Eclipses are rare, having occurred only 20 times in America since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the last one being in 1979. But this occurrence was even rarer still, not happening since 1918, the spectacle crossing the entire continent so that people on both the West and East coasts had a chance to view the breathtaking event. The next coast-to-coast solar eclipse in the U.S. will be Aug. 12, 2045.

I pondered my predicament as a car approached slowly, its headlights forming two soupy streams of light in the sooty night air. Inside, a couple sat leaning forward as they struggled to peer into the haze, their forms appearing ghostly through their ash-covered windows. As they passed, I saw that written in the dust across their back bumper was “Follow me.”

I laughed and shook my head. I would likely never have this opportunity again, I thought as I started my truck up and pulled back onto the road.

The air cooled as I drove higher into the mountains toward a remote spot that a friend had suggested as being nearly in the direct path of the eclipse.

An hour ago the car I’d been following had pulled off the road. Since then I’d passed numerous camps of fire crews preparing for their next battle and the occasional parked car, their windows steamed with condensation, apparently from those sleeping within — eclipse-seekers or fire evacuees, I could not tell which.

The twisting narrow pavement had gradually been replaced by a rutted-earthen road full of deep potholes and sharp boulders that made the travel slow and teeth-rattling. At a particularly challenging stretch I finally stopped, turned off the engine and again considered turning back.

The dark-blue night sky glittered with stars, and the aroma of the nearby fires remained intense, smelling of charred sandalwood and sage. An owl called, its reassuring sound blending with the cool night air and the soft whisper of wind through the surrounding pine trees.

“The road up there is pretty bad, but that will keep the hordes away,” I remembered my friend had said encouragingly.

I checked my phone. No service. The sun would be up in just over three hours. I took a deep breath, started the truck and continued up the road.

When I reached the end I was surprised to see a parking area jammed with more than 30 other vehicles, each covered in a thick layer of dust and ash. A few individuals, flashlights in hand, readied for the day’s event along the edge of the nearby Breitenbush Lake. Opposite the parking lot, the trail I’d come for twisted up into the dark forest as it headed deeper up into the mountains. I packed up my gear, hoisted my pack on my back and headed out.

By the time the sun rose I had hiked a couple of miles and set up a makeshift camp just off a particularly steep section of the trail where I planned to ready my cameras for the impending drama.

In the distance the grand 10,000-foot snowcapped peak of Mount Jefferson loomed in the south. The winds had shifted, taking the smoke-filled air westward. Now I breathed in aromas of minty pine and moist-earthen smells of the mountain lake lifting from the below valley while I listened to the back-and-forth chirping of the many chipmunks that guarded nearly every boulder.

During the hike I’d stopped often to gather a small bag full of berries from the many wild blueberry bushes that lined the way. Now I leaned back and nibbled on the sweet fruit and waited.

A few individuals passed on their way higher up the mountain, but a group of a dozen or so from Seattle gathered nearby. They looked to be in their early 30s, and they talked and joked as if they were very good friends, their excitement palpable in their laughter.

In the distance the faint rhythmic sound of a beating drum began, accompanied by rhythmic chanting.

“That must be the medicine man from the local Indian tribe who we saw down by the lake earlier,” one of the men said.

I nodded and continued monitoring the sun closely through the special filters on one of my cameras, searching for any change.

“It has started,” I called to them when I noticed the first hint of the eclipse, a small black crescent barely visible at the sun’s edge.

The entire group hushed as we each gazed up through tinted glasses that made us look like spectators at some 1950s 3-D movie. But we were not looking at a special effect from a science fiction film. Instead we stood in wonder of a natural phenomenon as the sky darkened toward totality.

In the far distance, hardly audible above the sound of the other noises around us, a faint wave began to grow. Directly below the shadow of the total eclipse a sound somewhere between a gasp and a cheer rolled toward us through the wilderness. Generated by unseen thousands, we each joined our fellow revelers’ expression of awe as the sky went black and grew still and cold. I pictured this sound wave crossing the entirety of the United States, coast to coast.

The sun’s halo glowed around a black disk. The breeze stopped. The sky dimmed to an unimaginably darkened indigo color, and the stones and twigs on the ground turned into fiery coals of silvery pewter. Two nighthawks swooped and cried overhead, and surprised crickets began frantically rubbing their legs together. The earlier human sounds of joy seemed to shift to an uncomfortable silence. Would the sun’s glow ever return?

In Annie Dillard’s “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” which references her witnessing the 1979 total eclipse, she wrote: “Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world.”

In that single moment there were no sides. There were no politics, no economics, no forgiveness, nothing to acquire and no answers, but instead only to stand and watch in reverence at our sun’s radiance being blocked by the moon.

There was an audible sigh of relief that was followed by self-conscious laughter when the sun flashed back into view. When I turned to look at the group from Seattle they’d gathered close and a few were hugging, their emotion still clearly visible on their faces.

I wanted to say something meaningful, a phrase that might lighten the mood somewhat but also pay homage to what we’d just witnessed, but no words came to mind.

We waited in silence like that until one young woman in the group slowly raised her head and gazed around at her friends. “We’ll always have the eclipse,” she said and then smiled.

The others nodded, and I joined them, our heads bobbing in unison, our movements seemingly tentative, but also, somehow, determined, even resolute.

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Originally published in the Napa Valley Register, September 2017