The Great American Eclipse
On August 21st, 2017 the United States experienced a solar event known as The Great American Eclipse. The moon positioned itself between the earth and the sun, and dissected the U.S. mainland hotdog style as it crossed directly over 14 states. The moon eclipsed precious minutes of broad-daylight across roughly a 70-mile-wide path of totality stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans.
It also happened to be my birthday.
To view the celestial event I packed a suitcase and flew back to the land of my birth, Portland, OR. New York City was only scheduled to get a partial view and I didn’t want to miss the show. My plan was to spend a few days out west visiting family before heading to central Oregon with the rest of the eclipse chasers. Unfortunately (and in hindsight quite predictably) tens of thousands of people had the exact same idea. In the days leading up to my birthday roads into central Oregon were backed up for miles and hours in every direction, and gas stations were reporting fuel shortages. After brief a deliberation with the members of my party, we decided against risking stranding ourselves in the car in the desert for 12 hours with thousands of strangers for what would normally have been a 4 hour drive. Instead we chose an impromptu backup viewing spot closer to Portland in McMinnville, OR. We would enjoy a perfectly unobstructed view of the morning’s stage by craning our necks toward the sky and staring directly up at the sun from the comfort of the sidewalk at the Naked Winery tasting room.
While our original intention had been to watch the eclipse roughing-it style in the desert, no one in our party complained about the conditions we enjoyed back in civilization. The weather was ideal. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The drive to the tasting room took less than an hour. I donned my safety glasses and stared directly at the sun for the whole ride. I could see the moon beginning to edge its way in front of the sun, eventually turning the two celestial orbs into one giant Pac-Man like figure. After settling in at the winery, mimosas in hand, enjoying snacks and hors d'oeuvres in true birthday fashion, we watched in awe as the moon continued its crawl toward totality.
I had been doing a lot of research about the eclipse since I first learned there was one scheduled for my birthday the year prior. I attended an event at The American Museum Of Natural History where the speaker showed video footage of previous total eclipses in the dome of the Hayden Planetarium. He did his best to describe the experience of witnessing one live. He told us the temperature would drop during the moments of totality, and that if the sky was clear we’d be able to see stars, but I wasn’t prepared for the terrestrial eeriness that accompanied the moon on its journey to a total eclipse of the sun.
The sidewalks were peculiarly quiet. Animals and nature seemed to fall silent for blocks in all directions. Shadows formed millions of dancing crescents that swirled and writhed against the face of the Earth as the moon overtook the sky. Street lamps turned on, and daylight rapidly melted into night. Stars appeared in the sky. Then suddenly laughter and applause and celebration erupted all around us as we were enveloped in exquisite daytime darkness. My friends and family and strangers were all hugging each other, fully satiated from the joy of the privilege it was to witness the occasion in person. Meanwhile I was completely transfixed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sun for even a moment lest I miss a fragment of the moon’s progress. I felt as if I were in a trance. I wanted to absorb the feeling and carry it with me forever. I couldn’t turn away from it. I was infatuated.
Once the eclipse reached totality and it was safe to remove viewing glasses I gaped silently at the veiled sun with my naked eyes. Sunlight sparked and pirouetted from the behind the black-hole-moon, blistering bursts of energy that were so beautiful almost everyone in our party was overcome with emotion. Standing there on the sidewalk submerged in the moon’s shadow I felt childish and small, yet somehow connected in a new way to the vastness that is our solar system and the universe beyond. I was fortunate enough to share the experience with people whom I love dearly, yet somehow I felt suddenly alone, but not in any way lonely. The eclipse demonstrated both the depth and massiveness of the universe beyond our world, as well as the fact that we are all a part of it. For the first time in my life I felt as if I were a citizen of the universe rather than a citizen of a politically torn, racially and religiously divided “civil” society. The fleeting darkness was both humbling and (ironically) illuminating.
After it was all over, and the moon’s shadow continued its earth-bound journey over the United States toward the Atlantic, I wished I had taken more pictures. I’d made a conscious choice to be purposefully present during the eclipse, to reject the norms of our social-electronically driven age where we tend to document events rather than participate in them. Yet after I sat dumbly staring at the sun in a state of silent, suspended animation, I experienced a profound regret that I had not taken more pictures. I’ve heard people lament the same regret as the years go by, and maybe it was just a symptom of having another birthday, but it felt more like a symptom of having experienced colossal cosmic wonderment and wanting to relieve it over and over again on demand for the rest of my life.
I’ve heard once you experience your first total solar eclipse, it’s easy to get hooked. I got hooked hard. The next solar eclipse over U.S. soil will happen on April 8, 2024. I’ll be there, probably with the same glasses I used this year, and hopefully once again surrounded by people I love. Certainly I will find myself a few years older than I am today, and hopefully I will remember to take more pictures.