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We Lost It at the Eclipse

August 26, 2017
by Pat Joseph
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Until last Monday morning I was what Berkeley astrophysicist Alex Filippenko calls an “eclipse virgin.”  I’d seen partial solar eclipses before, which mostly meant observing the shadows cast on the ground through leaves or through a pinhole in cardboard. A total solar eclipse is different. It’s like a brief opening of the heavens, a fleeting glimpse at celestial perfection. The lead up is an interesting mix of sensations. The temperature drops, the light takes on an eerie quality, and shadows become impossibly crisp. Suddenly, as the moon’s shadow races out of the west at more than 2,000 miles per hour, the moment arrives. The veil is lifted. The sun is now a black hole crowned by an aura of purest light. The effect is both emotional and physical. People scream and gasp and burst into tears. By comparison, a partial solar eclipse is cool but incomplete, like sex without the orgasm.

Professor Filippenko was the guide of the Cal Discoveries Travel eclipse trip to the high desert of Central Oregon. Four-hundred-some travelers, a mix of eclipse virgins and eclipse chasers like Filippenko, who has now witnessed totality 16 times, met up in Sunriver, then viewed the event from Ranch at the Canyons, a beautiful faux Tuscan development in the path of totality near Terrebonne, in the shadow of Smith Rock. Totality was brief—only about 90 seconds—but wondrous. Afterward, people were milling about the viewing lawn or sitting starstruck in their camp chairs.

During the eclipse I had made no attempt to record or photograph or take notes. I only experienced it, the big shining O in the sky. Then, as the moon and sun slowly returned to their normal positions, I walked through the crowd to gather impressions, to have what Filippenko calls the “How Was it for You?” conversation. I didn’t gather names or ages or any of the other usual reportorial stuff. The moment seemed a bit too intimate, a bit too ego-less, for that. I just wanted voices, impressions.

Astronomer Alex Filippenko and 400 friends experience the moment with Cal Discoveries Travel./ Kelley L. Cox, KLC Fotos

“It was so awesome,” the first woman I encountered told me. “We were in tears; I AM in tears…it’s my second one, and I’m so excited. I just laid down on the ground over there and watched it all away from the crowd.

“It seemed perfect,” she added. “That’s what it was—perfect … The universe is perfect. Ahhhhhhhh … I was in shock [the first time], and I don’t think it really affected me until afterwards. This time, our kids were here…and they were crying, and now I’m going to cry. So good.”

Another woman: “We’re still crying. I had no idea that that would come out. It’s just as if the primitive brain said, ‘Oh my god. The sun’s gone. This is it.’ It just came out of nowhere. It was astonishing. I didn’t expect that. It was very odd. Wonderful. Beautiful.”

Umbraphiles in their element./ Kelley L. Cox, KLC Fotos
A man next to her said, “It was just gorgeous…it was the white corona that shocked me. Beginning with the diamond ring and going into the white explosion-like corona was just stunning.”

The corona kept changing, the woman added. “It was so expansive. I was expecting it to be a little more compact…that was quite amazing…I cried, from whence I know not.”

Other folks spoke of the quality of the light around the horizon. “The twilight–the pink–the orange-pink aaaalll the way around,” a woman said. “Like we were in the land of the midnight sun all of the sudden—but it was nothing compared to what it was going on up there.”

On and on it went.

Woman: “As soon as it was over, I was experiencing such grief that I would have to wait a couple of years before I could see this again…I’ve had this eclipse on my calendar for 19 years…about 10 years ago, I would tell people, ‘I know where I’m going to be on this day, 10 years from now,’ and they’d look at me like I’m crazy. Here I am.”

Man: “It was my first time…I have no words. I didn’t know what to expect. You see all these videos and photos, but to see it in person was a very different experience…I wasted about ten seconds taking photos. In hindsight, that was a waste of time. I should have just soaked it in…everybody should see this once.”

Noelle Filippenko and Haley Hart, post-totality. / Kelley L. Cox, KLC Fotos

Man: “This is our third total solar eclipse. Compared to the previous two, and the most recent one was four minutes long, this one had way more corona, where you see those…light rays. And in the chromosphere there was red, and maybe a touch of green that was incredible. It was unexpected and dramatic, and anything that’s in color is amped up as far as emotionality goes… Alas, the 90 seconds seemed to go by in ten…But it does create that addictive response. I think we’ve created a number of addicts during this event.”

I spoke to the main organizers of the eclipse trip, Cal Discoveries’ Haley Hart and Joanna Aguiar, both of whom had been involved in years of planning for the event, logging countless twelve hour days in the weeks and months leading up to the event. When the moment finally arrived they were working on very little sleep. I found Jojo near the front of the crowd wiping away tears. “You broke into tears spontaneously?” I asked.

“I sure did. It was just sort of the culmination of everything… It was a privilege to look around and see the faces of everyone enjoying it.”

Haley said: “My phone was about to run out of batteries, and then I was just like, ‘What are you doing trying to take pictures?’ I put my phone down and I just put my viewers on and I sat there and watched it. Then totality happened and then I think that I spent half of it crying.”

Perhaps my favorite reaction of all came from a woman who was on her eleventh total eclipse. A veteran umbraphile, she said it was the biggest chromosphere she’d ever seen. It “was like, ‘Shit, look at the size of that sucker!’ That was really thrilling. Really, really thrilling.”

She had gone down to a lake on the property to be all by herself.

“I like to be away from everybody, but still be able to hear people. I tend to go completely nuts, and I don’t want to inflict that on anybody. This time, the going nuts consisted of, for about five minutes, screaming, ‘No! No! No! No, no, no, no, no!’ But it did it anyway, the damned thing. But then [the sun] came back, so that was alright. … I just give over to it, and it’s wonderful.”

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