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.
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.
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.