Nearly a year ago, when we first learned of the solar eclipse, most motels in the Northwest Totality Zone were either booked, or charging up to $750 for a room. So we reserved a B&B in the Eastern Oregon town of Moro, a forty minute drive to Totality. As the day approached, epic traffic jams of eclipse chasers were reported. We left a day earlier than we’d planned, taking two days to travel 270 miles, with emergency gear: food, water, sleeping bags, gas can, a read-aloud book and our Kingston Trio CDs.
Traffic on I-5 was heavy, but we traveled east over the Cascades, cruising the speed limit, and sighting only the occasional RV heading to the Totality Zone from Yakima.
All the guests at our B&B were eclipse chasers. There were two couples, first-time viewers up from California, and a German couple, first-time visitors to the US, who had crossed an ocean and a continent for a ninety second peek at a natural phenomenon they’d seen many times before. I took that as a good sign.
Moro’s population is 316. Its only cafe had gone belly up, and the market closes early on Sundays, but the local history museum was open. We picnicked and were playing board games in our room when Thom discovered on Facebook that college friends were also staying in Moro at the only other accommodation in town, just a five minute walk away. Lona and Scott were as enthusiastic about the eclipse as you’d expect a science teacher and a librarian to be, and they had spent the last two days scouting out the best view spots. They invited us over, pulled out their maps and notes, and suggested a place just south of Shaniko, for its off-road parking and territorial views.
Taking no chances, we allowed four hours to travel the 38 miles into the Totality Zone. Rising at 5AM, we learned that the other guests were long gone. But the roads were clear and we were halfway there before the sun rose. At least sixty people were camped at our viewpoint, with more arriving all the time. The buzz of excitement filled the air, though the eclipse was still two hours away. One youngster kept a faithful watch, but I dozed, catching snatches of conversation between friendly strangers.
Finally the moon’s shadow began to pass over the face of the sun. Through protective glasses it looked like a sky cookie, with a bite taken out of it.
There was a drop in temperature and a subtle change of light. We couldn’t tell over the noise of the crowd whether the birds stopped singing, but the people-watching was superb compensation. For an hour, the moonshadow inched across the sun, its effect hardly noticeable, except through protective glasses. Without them, even with just a sliver of the sun peeking out from behind the moon, its light was blinding.
All at once, darkness eclipsed the world. It was as if a one-eyed sleeping giant had suddenly awakened, and the sky was staring back at us.
The crowd erupted into wild cheers, and Thom and I shared their exhilaration.
I’d seen it depicted on canvas, demonstrated in planetariums and National Geographic specials. But seeing a total solar eclipse with my own eyes was like hearing ‘Ode to Joy” sung by a heavenly choir after seeing only the musical notation on paper.
(Ivan Generalić: Solar Eclipse, 1961, CMNA )
Our dear Sol had pulled off his glasses and shirt to reveal his Superman costume. Ninety seconds later–it felt like the blink of an eye–the sun emerged from the shadow.
We took a deep breath, hugged each other, and hit the road, hoping to beat the crush of outbound traffic. We were elated as we drove north, verbally processing the experience. We both questioned whether we’d used our few precious seconds wisely. Ironically, Thom regretted not taking a single photo, while I wondered if I’d made a mistake by placing a lens between myself and an awesome once-in-a-lifetime-celestial event. Thom knew just what to say. “Argentina in 2019.” Yes, please!
A friend asked, half joking, if the eclipse had changed my life. Maybe. Especially if we go chasing the next one, which will appear in the Argentine sky in 2019. Meanwhile, there is a whole lot of Awesomeness right here on the mother planet.
I’ve read that awe is the emotion created by an extraordinary encounter that drastically affects one’s assumptions of the world. Experiencing this emotion can make us feel small, yet connected to something larger outside of ourselves, especially when the experience is shared by others. This was borne out in Shaniko, where traffic bottlenecked at the crossroads with the only stop sign in town. Traffic on the big road had the right of way. I feared we’d be at a standstill for hours waiting for an opening.
Then some generous soul hit the brakes and gave cuts to a person who was stuck at the stop sign, before continuing on. The next person with the right of way also stopped to allow a car through. They were still graciously taking turns when we reached the intersection, and were also waved on. There was a mile of backup, but not a single horn honked, no one hollered, everyone was patient and polite, and we all moved forward together. It was an awesome display of human nature.
There are other kinds of Awesome that sneak up on you.
These days we live under a dark shadow that has eclipsed our country, and the planet too. Instead of chasing shadows, it feels like we’re trapped in the dark, fumbling for the light switch. I found the light when I accompanied family and friends to the Women’s March in Seattle last January.
I was awestruck.
And I was not alone.
The solar eclipse did not move me to tears. But I couldn’t hold back tears of relief and wonder at the sight of 135,000 people speaking up for equality and compassion, and speaking out against oppression, bigotry and hatred.
Tears flowed again.
If it’s a Solar Eclipse that fills you with awe and purpose, you need only wait a year or two, and somewhere on this planet there will be a next time, another chance. But in the United States, if you’re looking for an extraordinary encounter, or want to feel a part of something larger than yourself, if you want to be more than an observer, you’d better start now. Because in a year or two, who knows what will be left to save.
We can’t sit on our hands hoping no one will get sick, or disenfranchised, arrested, abused, deported, or thrown into a concentration camp for no good reason. Our national parks, our environmental protections, our healthcare and social safety nets are being systematically carved up and sold to the highest bidder. Our politicians and our elections seem to be for sale as well. Our civil rights, our human rights, our right to protest in our own defense–these too are endangered by the deranged sociopath in the White House. We can only hope he won’t get into a pissing match with another tyrant and launch us into nuclear war.
We have no special protective glasses for this unnatural phenomenon, but we can’t afford to look away. It’s time to tear off our glasses and invoke our inner superheroes. Our superpowers will be to speak for those who have no voice. To protect those who cannot protect themselves. To organize, educate, donate, speak out, rally and march.
This isn’t a solar eclipse; there are no do-overs. I’m keeping the glasses, because I want to be prepared for the next big event. 2019 will be here before we know it.
And so will 2020.
All images and text ©2017 Naomi Baltuck