Eclipse

Eclipse Diamond

Last Monday, America was graced with an experience that hadn’t occurred in about one hundred years: A total solar eclipse that spanned the nation from coast to coast. Being science geeks, (Or just geeks really) my family and I had been planning to place ourselves in the path of totality for about a year. I had ordered the finest glasses, studied the best camera settings for capturing solar eclipses, and reserved a campsite right on the lunar shadow’s center-line. Once the day arrived, all we had to do was load our camping gear in the car and tiny trailer, then drive south and west through the the lonely heart of Nebraska’s Sandhills.

 For five hours, we rolled up and down miles of hills and empty two-lane highways, plenty of time for thought. I spent my time watching out the window at the pale green of little blue stem, cheery yellow sunflowers, and spiky yucca soap weed. All doing their part to anchor the sand dunes hidden underneath. Below the sand, ran a giant delta of freshwater called the Ogallala Aquifer. It was invisible, but it kept the world above alive with it’s ancient and silent running water. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d wonder what magic kept the landscape from drifting away.

Windmill in the Sunflower Covered Sandhills of Nebraska

So much of the world is hidden — eclipsed by layers of nature that both blanket and depend on what’s underneath. I thought of how, in two days, the moon would slip between Sun and Earth and wondered, “What revelations might emerge from the lunar shadow?” I couldn’t say, or rather, didn’t want to say. I wanted my memory of the eclipse to rise out of experience, not expectations.

Then, in an incongruous jump, I thought, “Really, why see an eclipse at all?” Some of my friends had said, “What’s the big deal? There’s a shadow and it get’s dark. So what?” But that low estimation was lost on me. People traveled around the world to experience a few minutes of totality. Something drew them. Something was drawing me. I wasn’t completely sure of what it was: the rarity, the beauty of the corona, or maybe the uniqueness of being surrounded in a shadow from space. Everyone held some individual idea or expectation of one degree or another.

My friend, Sofia, who traveled all the way from Maryland to Nebraska with her family, was with us, too. She is an aerospace engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope at one time and still works at the Goddard Space Flight Center, so her interest in a cosmic phenomenon is understandable. But she had other reasons.

Through a close friend’s confrontation with an unexpected illness, Sofia solidly collided with her own mortality. Her friend and colleague had been recently diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which is always terminal. In looking back on his life, he saw there were many things left undone, so to fill his last months or years, he started a bucket list. He urged Sofia to do the same, but soon, and not to wait for a death sentence. She took his advice, created a bucket list, and “see a total solar eclipse” was on the list. So, here she was.

Paul, Sofia’s husband, was there largely in support of his wife, and he wanted to see, as he put it, “the solar system’s engine run with all the perfection needed for an eclipse to occur.” I have to say, that’s one of my reasons too. The improbability of our Sun, Moon, and Earth all being the exact sizes and the exact distances necessary for a total eclipse is mind-boggling. For me, that astronomical implausibility adds to an eclipse’s mystical draw.

On the day of the eclipse, we awoke under a thick blanket of fog. Everyone was a little anxious, and we attempted to get satellite pictures on our phones, looking for unclouded areas we could quickly drive to if the skies refused to clear. Unfortunately, our remote location in the Sandhills made reception an iffy proposition. Sofia was very concerned. She had invested a lot into this trip, financially, and even more emotionally. In the end, the maps revealed the the same message Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz learned — that no place was really better than where we were, so we settled in to wait.

Soon the fog lifted and clouds cleared away. Our anxiety lifted too. Paul and Sofia set up their enormous binoculars and SLR digital camera on tripods and we tracked the sun as it moved across the sky and watched the moon chase it even faster.

As the moon Pac-manned it’s way across the Sun, our excitement built as the light changed, turning slightly more yellow and intensifying the grass-green hills. The light on our skin lost some of its heat and the air turned cool and still. By the time the last sliver of sunlight disappeared behind the Moon’s stony lid, everyone in our group grinned uncontrollably, clapped, cheered, or happily cried.

At totality, The Sun stood seemingly still in the noonday sky. Its center utterly black. The solar corona wisped around it like, as Sofia said, “white hair floating in water.” Darkness had fallen like a stone. The stars lit like someone had flipped a switch. All around us, morning and evening colors painted the horizon like stained glass. I felt directionless, and no matter how beautiful, it was disconcerting.

Two minutes and thirty four seconds. That’s all we had to absorb this, perhaps, once in a lifetime event. That’s a lot of pressure. I wanted to savor every second, but at the same time, I wanted to take pictures, look all around me, actually be with my friends and family, see the totality through the binoculars. It was too much. So I sat in my chair, craned my neck back and gazed into the totality. Well, I did take some pictures.

Looking East during Totality
Sunset at Noon

A black gem ringed with silvery light, a little like a star sapphire. That’s my analogy for what it looked like. Ebon and beautiful. The fact that the gem was our Sun and Moon made it all the more magical. Since I don’t believe in magic, you could say a part of me was in disbelief. But another part was awed beyond belief. Emotions were all that were left me.

Did I cry? Almost.

Even though I fell short of tears, my feelings must have connected to an ancestry stretching back into pre-history, because, nagging in the back of my mind, there was a tiny fear that the sun wouldn’t return. Science be damned. Paul held that same niggling dread and made the observation that, “the Sun’s return seemed like a physical manifestation of hope.” I like the idea of a cosmic reprieve. We don’t deserve it, but I’ll take it.

After the Moon brushed by the Sun, and the light slowly brightened, it felt like that moment after all the Christmas presents are opened. Now what? I wanted to hit rewind, see the instant replay. It couldn’t be over.

But it was and we were finally more free to interact with one another and so we milled around laughing and saying things like, “That was amazing!” and “That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced in my life!” Nothing Neil Armstongish, but everyone knew what the other meant. We had gone through it together.

It’s been just a week since millions of people united together in their appreciation of nature’s wonder. We all stood in the Moon’s shadow for a minute or two and gazed into the Sun’s corona for the first time — that unseen solar atmosphere is what warms our planet. Like the Ogallala Aquifer and the Sandhills, it keeps us alive, even when we can’t see it.

Much has happened in a week. Charlottesville stands out. It’s surreal in a way to live for a few days outside the sphere of the news and then to return. I’ve done it dozens of times as a backpacker, gone into the wilderness and returned to find all kinds of things changed. This time I returned to something out of the late 1950’s. But, the total eclipse has formed a new analogy of hope for me. Even as we slip into a shadow, I feel like the light of our better nature will soon emerge, and we’ll walk in the Sun again.

19 thoughts on “Eclipse”

    1. Thanks for stopping by and your kind words, Teresa. I appreciate the time you took to read my post. Please, if you really liked it, tell other folks, too! I can use the traffic.

  1. Roy, you amaze me! I had absolutely no desire to see the eclipse (meh). Thank you! Your piece is an emotional masterpiece that allowed me to experience this phenomenon through your eyes. Well played, sir. The pics are pretty incredible too.

    1. Aw, Shucks, Joyce. Thank you for the kind feedback. To me it was a special experience. I think you’d like it, or at least you might be surprised at some of the emotions one experiences while watching our solar system at work.

  2. Loved it, Roy! While reading it I almost felt like I was along with you. Much better than my experience watching through my husbands welding helmet in the middle of my backyard in Northern CA. But still a beautiful phenomenon to witness!

  3. Your reflections on the day remind me of some of my own, except that yours are written so much more poetically! I’m ready to repeat the experience as soon as possible… Buenos Aires in 2019, anyone?

    1. I was wondering if you experienced totality with similar thoughts and emotions. Thanks for your comment, James. I really appreciate your compliments on the writing’s lyricism. I am also ready to do it again. I don’t know about Buenos Aires, though. I think I can wait for 2024 and see it in Illinois. The totality is supposed to be nearly twice as long as this last one. Can you imagine!

  4. I drove for 4 hours, got lost twice, and had more fun listening to the kids than anything else. You captured the moment well; I’m sorry it didn’t mean so much to me but reading your stuff is always fun.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Amy! And thanks for your nice compliments. I appreciate them. Well, we all have our personal reactions to the world around us. Me, I am always swimming in the depths. Some day I’m gonna drown down there! Cheers!

  5. Reading your essay brought back all the suspense and glory of the eclipse, through a poet’s eyes. When that poet is a master, prose shines, too.

    Thank you for sharing your observations on this rare event in Nebraska’s Sandhills.

    1. Thanks, Mary Jo! I appreciate your assessment. Get ready for more of my poetry coming your way. I’d like to fly some poems by the group. Cheers!

  6. Beautifully written! This definitely put into words much of how I felt before, during, and after the eclipse. I had seen a partial eclipse before (I’m thinking 4th grade with one of those homemade projectors since we couldn’t look directly at it). So I wasn’t all that excited. But Dad was and it was infectious so we traveled to a path of totality. Breath taking. I too did not know how to fully make the most of those 2 fleeting minutes. I felt in awe but scared at the same time (as in .. this is probably the perfect zombie apocalypse time). 😉 But you put it into words better than I could! What a humbling experience. And an experience that got most of us looking up at the sky and being unified in something. Reminding me of God and his goodness and power and the amazingness of the universe. I’m glad I put 4th grade me to the side and went to enjoy this 🙂 Thanks for putting this into words Roy! And great pictures too!!

    1. Thanks Kristin! I knew your Dad would be excited about the eclipse, and I’m glad you pushed past being underwhelmed before and went to see the totality. When the Sun is completely obscured, the experience is far more moving. I think most wonderous things are a little scary as well. Their immensity, beauty, or power reveal to us our place in the world and universe, and that can be uncomfortable and frightening. Thanks again for stopping by and for your long post! I love it!

  7. Great post, Roy. And the photos are amazing. I am so glad that Andrew and I took the day off of work and school to drive west to experience the eclipse. The beauty, feeling of being alone with my son, but also connected with everyone else watching, and the amazement that came with totality will stay with me, and I think with Andrew too, for our lifetimes. There are so very many distractions that pull us in different directions, and there was something deep about being still and in awe for that short, but powerful time.

    1. Thanks for coming by, Julia! I appreciate it. Yes, the connection that ran through the groups as they experienced totality together was amazing, and something that many have mentioned. What an opportunity for us all to set aside our regular, ultra-packed days, and experience something so beautiful and much larger than ourselves. Our experience plays the role of magnifying glass, giving us insight and clarity that we may not have had before.

  8. Roy,
    Pretty impressed with your writing skills. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised as you are an outdoor person but did not know you to be so articulate. Did you take the photos? Roy did you notice any wildlife change habits? I notice the barn swallows come out and start looking for insects. The cats seemed to move around a bit like it was supper time. Good job Roy let’s hear some more!

    1. Thanks for coming by and giving my blog a read, Tim! And for the nice comment. I started writing when I was in the fifth grade and never stopped. It’s been my deepest dream to be a full-time writer. I have published some work, but not too much.

      I did take some of the photos. A friend with a longer lens took the one of totality. I have one like it, but it’s smaller. I’m going to try and expand it with some computer processing.

      Unfortunately, I did not notice any animal life changes. We were camping, but there weren’t any animals to observe. I may have heard crickets, but I’m not sure.

      Take care, Tim. Hopefully the NAG will schedule a climbing trip sometime. Cheers!

    1. I wish you could have been there too! The eclipse was a soul-stirring experience. Thanks for stopping by and the feedback, Sky!

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