The American Eclipse - 2017
A Moment in Time
According to Einstein’s physics, time is a dimension just like the 3 dimensions of space. But our human experience of time is different. Time moves like an unstoppable river. In space we can pause for a while and take in the view. In time we can’t. Time seems to be built with moments that come and go, like a summer breeze. Moments are chunks of time that belong together or at least they belong together in our life’s narrative. We use these bricks of time to construct our lives.
Each day is an opportunity to give ourselves moments of lifelong memories. Sadly, some moments are so forgettable they fade into oblivion as if they were never lived. How often do we remember our commute to work? Its like we never lived that part of our lives.
Some moments change us. We examine our lives and find life changing moments everywhere. Some are the result of planning and hard work, like graduating from high school or college. Some are pure coincidence or luck. But these life changing moments define us. Some moments are so vivid we will forever have immediate recall from our memory bank. Like spitting cherry pits off the deck of a ferry boat on a warm spring day. Or watching day turn to night with a good friend. Or biking through the mountains with friends. Or skiing through powder that blows in our face. Or watching your child ride a two wheeler for the first time……These memories, these cherished moments are what life is. Time flows from past to present to future. If we are living properly, the moments of the etherial and elusive present become eternal and brilliant memories in our future.
Planning for the Future
In August 2017, the alignment of celestial bodies, often referred to as a solar eclipse, appeared like a wavy streamer across North America. Most people would see a partial eclipse. Only viewers within a narrow, thin ribbon of darkness stretching across the US would experience a total eclipse. We wanted to find our spot on that ribbon. And to bring the moment of an eclipsed sun into focus required planning.
Totality began in Oregon and passed through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Tennessee and South Carolina. Oregon was a strong possibility since other family members were viewing from Lincoln City. However, mornings on the Northern Oregon coast can be grey with rain filled clouds and fog. We have good friends in Bend where the summer sky is more often filled with sunshine. But these clear skies would bring LOTS of people to that area. Plus the drive from Park City to Oregon was a long one. So we set our sites on Jackson, Wyoming since the sky is often clear in the high desert. And, Jackson is only a 4 hour drive. But almost everyone who wasn’t going to Oregon had made reservations long ago in Jackson. Next door at the Grand Teton National Park, every camp site and cabin was also full. Undeterred, we called many places 2 or 3 times, in case of a cancelation. Finally someone in Jackson heard a rumor of an unexpected cancellation at the Wyoming Inn. We immediately followed the lead and booked one of the only available rooms. Yeehaw! We were going to experience totality in Wyoming!
Some say that luck can occur when preparation meets opportunity. There is wisdom and truth in these words. Our preparation ahead of the eclipse was important since we found a place to stay. But this was only the beginning. Our eclipse education continued with discussing, reading and watching videos about eclipse chasers and evangelizers. In 1982 Annie Dillard wrote about the 1979 eclipse (which I viewed). Her moving words were republished this year in the Atlantic. Her masterful writing communicates the intangible qualities that I remembered from 1979. I hoped to relive those feelings and share this totality with my family in Jackson. Everyone’s story about the solar eclipse is different except for one thing - totality is the way to go. 75%, 88% and even 99% are revealing numbers for the stock market or book reviews. But not even close during the alignment of celestial bodies!
We arrived 3 days early but Jackson and the National Park were beginning to burst at the seams. Every room was booked, parking lots were full, every campground and RV park were at capacity. The restaurants were bustling and there was excitement in town. The eclipse was coming and everyone was there for this single purpose, perhaps like a pilgrimage to Mecca or to Bethlehem at Christmas. People having nothing in common other than a single interest - to congregate in a specific location to observe and experience an event that can only be experienced then and there.
Checking in to Jackson, Wyoming
At the Wyoming Inn, we experienced authentic mountain hospitality. The lobby was filled with beautiful art depicting the nature that is bountiful in Wyoming. Images of local wildlife like elk, bison and eagles and landscapes of mountains and streams. The beauty in this part of the world is as plentiful as noise in a city. Mike, the manager, took the time to welcome us and shared some ideas on where to view the eclipse. Curtis Canyon is right out of town as well as the glorious National Elk Refuge. And, the Grand Teton National Park is only a 30 minute drive. The line of totality would pass directly over the Gros Ventre River, however, many other people in cars had the same idea. We continued to scout out our perfect viewing location.
The words "majestic, intimidating and grandiose" fail to describe the imposing Grand Tetons. These regal mountains abruptly extend from the high plains without warning as there are no foothills. They simply appear. Driving out of Jackson on Highway 19, you round a bend in the road and BOOM. Viewing the eclipse here would be an excellent choice, however, many other people would have the same idea. In fact, the park was preparing for thousands of visitors. Would it become a stampede? We agreed to keep searching.
Bikes became our mode of transportation in order to avoid traffic snarls. On the day before, we cruised around as there are many miles of paved bike paths surrounding the town as well as in the park. The ideal location must be accessible by 2 wheels and have a beautiful setting. So many choices! We found our spot next to acres and acres of pasture land. Our nearest neighbors were a herd of cows and several flocks of geese that flew in v formations in every direction. From our chosen spot we could observe the eclipse and the reaction of the cows and geese. We were far enough away from the highway so there was no chance of traffic disturbance. This perfect place was only a 20 minute ride along the bike path.
A peculiar and momentous energy permeated the morning of the eclipse. Or, maybe we were more open to the bizarre since anticipation filled the air. At breakfast, the tables were abuzz with conversations about where, what and there was a high expectation for amazement. Over and over, we heard “Do you have your eclipse glasses?” and “Where are you going to watch?” We ordered the hearty Cowboy Breakfast of eggs, bacon, yukon gold potatoes and toast in preparation for the eminent event.
As we rode our bikes along the meandering path out of town we encountered many fellow “eclipsers" lounging in lawn chairs and sporting the glasses. There was some loud music and a party atmosphere. If today was the end of the world, they would go out happy. Hoots and hollers were abundant along with friendly cheers and greetings. There was also some oddness - like the guy who passed us shouting an ominous warning, “Beware of the poodle with the purple ears!” Seconds later we turned the corner and were face to face with the "poodle à oreilles violet." Now the rather large, white canine did have purple ears which is a little strange but not exactly unique. Thankfully the dog didn’t do anything out of the ordinary as we rolled by. But …. this warning was perfect since the eclipse was heading our way.
We rode past a hill with a zigzag trail from bottom to top and noticed countless people, one following the other, solemnly marching to the summit. Was this simply a gathering of individuals searching for a shared and unique experience? Or were they on a lemming suicide walk? Or were these “humans" heading to the mother ship? There were no cars around so where did they come from?
Our trek continued to our pre-determined viewing location and the light shifted in an unfamiliar and foreign way. The flocks of Canadian geese were there along with the herd of contented cows grazing in the field. With our bikes propped against the fence (Would it hold if the animals suddenly went berserk?) separating us from the bovines, the eclipse commenced. The quality of the light changed slowly. Two other people were parked about 100 yards down the path. We chatted. They had their glasses. We did too. We were ready.
Time is funny. Sometimes things go slow. Sometimes things happen in an instant. The eclipse was starting and it really didn't seem very different. We looked up with our glasses and the sun looked like pac-man or a cookie with one bite taken on the side. It was a little dimmer but it really did not look all that different. This slow start gave us a chance to look round and notice of our surroundings. More geese appeared. Traffic slowed down. Apparently most people had gotten to their destination. Suddenly, a young girl appeared on the path riding a rickety 2 wheeler on training wheels. Her parents weren’t far behind. Now, we were in a Stephen King movie. The child slowly cruising by on her noisy, metal rubbing on metal, creaky bike. We smiled to her parents as they passed. Then the noise stopped. It seemed like everything stopped.
Waiting for totality is like waiting for the doctor. You known what's coming because you have an appointment. But it seems to take forever. Time was slowing from the anticipation. Then things started to change and change rapidly.
The light and shadows were from another world. Annie Dillard described it like this, "I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages.”
She described it perfectly. This time of transition feels like accelerated time. Everything changing noticeably and quickly. And the change is happening in an unnatural way. You know this is the world you knew but it looks strange. The ratio of light that comes directly from the sun and the reflected light of the atmosphere changes everything. The reflected sky light is a blue color while the sun light is white. The mix is changed. It is not of this world. And the direct light is much less intense. But the direct light is coming from a smaller source and this creates the strange effect of making the shadows sharper and dimmer simultaneously. A photo taken at 20 seconds before totality provides a sense of the eeriness. And time was still accelerating. This was a moment to remember forever.
In an instant the light disappears. The sun is gone and darkness arrived around 11:30am.
The air cooled as the sun's warmth dissipated over the past hour. With the sun blocked it was cold and suddenly, sounds were all around. The cows mooed loudly. The geese honked in a chorus. There were screams of apes (people) in the distance. This was an instant night but not a silent night. I took a couple photos with my camera, but I was really there to experience this. I looked around the fields. I looked up and saw stars. I looked at the hole in the sky where the sun was supposed to be and tried to imagine how this would have frightened people not that long ago. This is unlike anything else. Unique. Indescribable. Ethereal.
Then it was over.
Time. It comes. It goes. You can’t stop it. A total solar eclipse lastsabout 3 minutes. It seemed like 20 seconds. Where did the time go? The strange unearthly light returned along with the dim shadows which make everything look metallic. The screams began to fade. The cows and geese settled down. Did they think their mooing and honking brought back the sun?
Our son declared, “That was so cool. I want to see it again.” We agreed. But the experience had passed - an ephemeral shared few moments - like no other.
We watched the sun's return and enjoyed the renewed warmth of the expanding sun. We watched the light in the field revert to a familiar spectrum. The eclipse was over.
Moments are like chunks of time that go together. The anticipation at breakfast and the poodle with the purple ears. The honking of the geese and the mooing of the cows. The light of a familiar sun shining unfamiliar light. The instant night. For the remainder of the day our minds swirled. These shared fleeting moments were now part of our shared experience. .
If you missed the 2017 eclipse, don't despair. According to rockstar astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, "Total Solar Eclipses occur somewhere on Earth every two years, or so. So just calm yourself when people tell you they're rare." But start planning now!
We spent our final days enjoying the beauty that the Jackson area offers. We hiked in the Tetons, floated down the Snake River and danced in the Cowboy Bar. We highly recommend a visit. However, the natural beauty of the area pales when compared to totality.
Some people see beauty in the world as proof of divine creation and intelligent design. Not me. My education taught me to view the universe as a combination of natural forces. Physics, chemistry, biology and evolution - all working together over millennia to create our world. It is almost impossible for me to “believe” in a divine creator. Except, when looking at the totality of the eclipse. Is it simply a coincidence that the sun and the moon are exactly the same size when viewed from earth? The moon fits neatly over the sun to block out all the direct light allowing us to see solar flares and the corona. What are the odds of this? If the moon was a little smaller - just a little, or a little bigger - just a little, we would never experience this moment. Or if the moon’s orbit was a little different we would never experience totality. For me, there is nothing in the world that hints of “intelligent design” like the cosmic coincidence that the moon and the sun are exactly the same size when viewed from earth. Is this merely a moment of chance or perhaps a moment caused by planning and design. Who can say?
Thanks to Rick Whitacre for the use of his fantastic eclipse photos. Rick is an award winning talented photographer with a focus on astronomy and nature photography. His work has been featured in several magazines and displayed in art galleries around the world (including the gallery in Yosemite). We knew Rick would take great photos, so we didn't even try. Please visit Rick's photography site.