If there was one theme to the whole experience of the trip to see the total eclipse it would be one of the pace of events gradually but persistently accelerating from slow to fast.
I arrived at the site (selected based on extensive study and a carefully drawn-up list of criteria) a week early. I had initially planned on six days early but moved that up by one day due to the Malheur National Forest ranger station in John Day informing me that the day I was going to arrive would be one of their biggest arrival days; I did not want the site I had selected taken by someone else.
Nobody was in the general area when I arrived; it was the same quiet, out-of-the way part of one of the nation’s more remote and least-visited national forests that it was back in early July when I surveyed it. Nobody passed by on the road for the first 24 hours.
In the next 24 hours, a few cars did. A few more in the next. By Friday and Saturday, that formerly almost-unused road was quite busy. I was glad to be camped somewhat away from all the clouds of dust being kicked up by the vehicles traveling it. Sunday was busy, but distinctly less so than the preceding two days.
Monday, the day of the big show, comes. Absolutely no traffic on the road whatsoever. Everyone is in place, viewing the Sun.
There were four of us on this camp-out, and our nearest neighbors were at least a half mile away. We had an entire meadow, perhaps five acres in size, to ourselves for viewing the sky. Despite all my planning, I had neglected to print out and take a timetable of the major events of the eclipse (start of eclipse, start of totality, end of totality, end of eclipse). I knew the eclipse would start sometime after 9:00 and totality would be some time around 10:20 or 10:30, and that was as specific as I could remember.
So we made regular checks using eclipse glasses, No. 14 welder’s glass, and the image of the Sun as projected by my cheap thrift-store binoculars onto a piece of paper. At about 9:08 someone other than me reported that there was now a small bite taken out of the Sun.
That bite grew larger very slowly. It took a long time for the ambient light level to be perceptibly affected, and then the light level decreased only very slowly. Then the pace picked up a bit, then a bit more.
The temperature, which in that semiarid climate had as normal been rising rapidly after a chilly night, stopped rising, then began falling.
The clouds played tease. The first few days, there were none to speak of. Then, high clouds became more and more evident. By Sunday, the entire sky was covered by a thick and worrisome layer of high clouds.
The weather forecasts promised clearing, and it happened overnight. Despite the forecasts, I kept nervously awaking every few hours and looking up to verify the stars were still clearly visible.
The day of the eclipse dawned clear, but thin high clouds came in almost as soon as the eclipse began. I could still see increasingly eclipsed disc of the Sun through them, but they promised to compromise the view during totality. Then, about ten minutes before totality, they almost miraculously parted.
The final bit of crescent Sun disappeared astonishingly quickly. I quit taking pictures of dappled shade and binocular projections when I estimated totality was 10 minutes away, opting to just be in the moment and watch the show. It turned out that totality was at that point only 3 minutes away.
I lied down on the ground and alternated between looking at the Sun through my welder’s glass (purchased decades ago as a teen for eclipse-watching purposes) and looking at the now rapidly darkening world around me. The light was now perceptibly declining from moment to moment.
The final thin green arc in my welder’s glass rapidly shrank to a point. I glanced around me and saw the “platinum print” effect that Anne Dillard spent paragraphs waxing eloquent about in her essay in The Atlantic Monthly. It lasted about twelve seconds; far less time than I took to read about it in her essay.
The point disappeared; nothing but darkness was visible through my welder’s glass. I put it aside and beheld a world utterly changed in a moment. I looked at my watch. 10:21.
No photograph does the corona justice. It was irregular and multi-limbed, far larger than any photograph shows. The longest limbs were at least twice as long as the diameter of the Moon. It had a unique bluish-white color, and a three-dimensionality to it.
It was cast against the firmament of a sky of the darkest blue, but still blue and not black like the disc of the Moon. All around the horizon, there was a point where the sky rapidly graded into the colors of the sunset. Mercury, Venus, and some of the brightest stars were visible overhead.
I then notice some extremely brilliant white areas on the trailing edge of the Moon. Baily’s beads. Then, diamond ring. Look through the welder’s glass and see a rapidly growing crescent. It’s over, after what feels like a mere 30 seconds. I glance again at my watch. 10:23. It was probably the shortest two minutes of my life.
“It’s over,” I write, yet there’s more than another hour of partial eclipse to go. But, really, it’s over right there and then. As a friend remarked to me today, the difference between a 99% partial eclipse and a total eclipse is the difference between night and day.
The exodus soon begins on the gravel road. Everyone else thinks “it’s over,” too. The four of us stay to avoid traffic and mostly spend the rest of the day talking about what we just saw. As I wrote earlier, the experience was so otherworldly and brief that it was hard at first to believe it actually happened.