Was the hype worth it? YES! A hundred times YES! Nothing could really have prepared me for how spectacular and overwhelming it would be to witness a total solar eclipse for the first time. It was beautiful, strange, and emotionally evocative all at the same time.
Having made plans and reservations just about in time for the trip to Oregon, I was naturally looking forward to the event, as were millions of others who traveled far to see totality across the United States. Logistical preparations and extensive reading was all part of the plan, but I also indulged in content about the awe experienced by one-time viewers and eclipse-chasers alike. I had seen all kinds of pictures and read all about the confusion that accompanies a total solar eclipse. To be honest, I had wondered if this wasn’t just undue hype. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
After having witnessed it, I cannot overstate how stunning it was to see a huge dark spot in the sky with the sun’s corona around it. It just hovered high up there making no sound as the surroundings suddenly became dark and cold like dusk on a winter day. For the two minutes of totality, everything else seemed to stop mattering. When it ended (and it did end rather quickly), I was left wishing I had more time to process it. I could understand why so many individuals throughout history have described it as a spiritual experience. I’ve been seeing surreal photos of the eclipse over the last couple of days. Photographing it (and doing it well) is not easy, and many people go to great lengths to capture its essence. Despite trying hard to relive it through these photos, I’m afraid they don’t come close. I must admit I want to see it again, even if it means traveling to a different part of the world.1 For now, I feel extremely lucky and satisfied.
Having decided to be in the Portland area over the weekend, the plan was to drive out to somewhere in the middle of the path of totality for maximum viewing time. The first idea was the city of Madras, which apparently had a NASA event, but after some weighing of pros and cons, V and I picked the town of Independence in Oregon for its proximity to Portland and totality duration of 1m59s. Like several cities along the path of totality, Independence had organized a festival to attract crowds. This also meant good infrastructure (i.e. food and toilets).
Traffic was expected to be a problem, so we started from our AirBnb in Vancouver, WA at 5am. To our great surprise, we got there rather quickly with minimal slowdown. Our AirBnb hosts decided to accompany us at the last moment, so it was a picnic on the banks of the Willamette river in Independence.
The moon started crawling over the face of the sun at around 9.06am, and it took over an hour for the sun to be covered completely. The novelty of the partial eclipse died rather quickly for me, as the moon slowly made its way across. Somewhere around 60% or so, it suddenly hit me that daylight had noticeably reduced. While it wasn’t dark as such, there was a strange eerie dimness that would easily fit into a Stranger Things episode. The slight drop in temperature was felt as well.
There were lots of other fun things to do and observe during the partial eclipse. Among them was noticing natural pinhole cameras producing images of a crescent sun everywhere. That, and repeatedly blaring Amber alerts, given the large number of phones in the area and persistent eclipse warnings.
As we reached roughly 95% eclipse, with around five minutes to go before a total eclipse, anticipation was really high. The excitement was palpable, and in hindsight I’m glad there were people around. I could not take my eyes off after this point, not knowing what to expect and certainly not wanting to risk missing it. At 99%, just a minute before totality, a tiny sliver of the sun was all I could see through my eclipse glasses, until it went out like a dying flame at 10.17am.
The next moment was pandemonium. I took off my glasses and experienced a rare moment of wonder, despite having seen it on screen numerous times before.
I’m sure the others were experiencing similar overwhelming awe, the kind I thought would be reserved for when (if) aliens landed on earth. My experience of the moment was deeply inwards and personal. I didn’t want to talk to anyone during it, or right after. I wish I had better words, but I found two videos that helped capture some of the magic.
Something about the eclipse brings out visceral reactions from people. This was the case for everyone around me. I was on the verge of tears after it ended, and I don’t really know why. If I had more time to process and reflect then, I might as well have cried. Unfortunately, we had to drive out ASAP to make our flight out of Portland (we missed it, but that story does not belong here).
In conclusion, I will say this – if you’re one of the people who haven’t seen a total eclipse of the sun before, and question the hype around it, then I know where you’re coming from. And I know you’ll change your mind when you see it, like everyone else including me. To quote eclipse chaser Fred Espenak
The difference between a 99 percent eclipse and a 100 percent total eclipse is enormous. I like to use the analogy [that] it's like getting five out of six numbers right on the jackpot. If you got five out of six, you were close, but you lost. ... Only 100 percent counts.