The Eclipse Seeker’s Journey–How It All Happened
August 21 2017 is a date that will eventually fade from the popular media. It is the date of the Great American Eclipse, so dubbed by the group that set out to popularize this display of nature. The media frenzy was predicted to draw swarms of gawkers, hoards of curiosity seekers, to small towns in Oregon and Idaho and Tennessee ill equipped to host them. From about mid July up through August 21, the eclipse hit social media with the impact of a rock concert. I began to wonder if this effect would swell the numbers in the small town I had chosen in Idaho as my viewing spot into something resembling Woodstock, the rock concert that went from an expected crowd of 50,000 to a reality of nearly 500,000 on some farmland in upstate New York.
The path of this eclipse is coast to coast, a narrow 63 mile or so wide swath of totality nearly 3000 miles long. One would think there was plenty of roadside to park along, a good many campgrounds and motels, roadside attractions along the highways and byways of America to handily accommodate all who cared to journey to the darkening of the sun. However, little Driggs and Victor Idaho were named in article after article as ideal viewing spots. The resort through which I had made our reservations well over a year in advance was predicting first the 50,000 number in their little valley, and then as the spotlight turned upon them, they wondered if 500,000 would be the real number, a descent of locusts all of whom needed water and bathrooms. Gasoline and groceries. We were advised to bring gasoline and food along with us.
This was to to be my fourth eclipse. True, no eclipse I attended before this one had gotten this hype, but still. Every eclipse I ever attended had a paucity of viewers. The last one was an annular eclipse. We journeyed from Hawaii Island to the shores of Sand Harbor Beach on Lake Tahoe, one of the most gloriously beautiful places on this planet. I had invited all my friends. Yes, pretty much everyone. That is, everyone who reads whatever I post on Facebook. About 20 of us gathered from as far away as Louisiana and Hawaii to witness one of the most elemental sights nature has to offer. No one else on the beach had any idea this eclipse was about to happen. I had brought along plenty of eclipse glasses, and passed them out to the handful of other people who had any interest in what lay ahead. In town, we stopped for sushi afterwards. The people in the sushi bar were unaware anything unusual had just happened right outside their door. I was reminded of the painting by Bruegel, Landscape and the Fall of Icarus and the poem that followed by William Carlos Williams; and the poem by Auden. Here, not an unobserved disaster of a boy falling out of the sky, but the phenomenon of the sun visually becoming a black hole in the sky, while people below continue on with their grocery shopping.
My first eclipse was darkness at noon on July 11, 1991. I flew from Los Angeles to Mazatlan, Mexico. When I asked for the time off work, my boss Kathleen in her normal friendly way wanted to know what I was up to. When I told her, she immediately asked if I would mind if she came along. So the two of us set off on the adventure of a lifetime, or so we thought. I know my attitude at the time was that this would be my one and only total eclipse of the sun.
On eclipse morning we wandered out to the pool area on the edge of the ocean, where we would await the darkening. To our surprise, there were telescopes lined up all along the border between the pool and the ocean. Maybe eight telescopes of all shapes and sizes, some with 35mm cameras affixed. The dozen or so people attending the eclipse deliberately at our resort were all veteran eclipse watchers, mostly men with scientific toys. The weather was overcast. Everyone was trying to put a happy face on the matter, and everyone was pissed off. I wandered up and down the beach, viewing the jewelry hawked by the sand vendors, their silver earrings and bracelets not exactly shimmering in the non-existent sunlight.
Back at the pool, my boss was expressing the overall optimism I had grown to expect from her, and produced a wand from her beach bag. In those days we did not refer to each other as goddesses, but I would happily have bestowed that honorary title upon her if her wand describing circles around the bright spot in the sky where we knew the sun lurked produced a break in the clouds.
The July 11 eclipse was to be the longest of our lifetime- almost seven minutes. Its magnitude was to be greater than any eclipse since the sixth century. It was inconceivable that we would have traveled this far to this expected place of sunshine only to be shut out of the spectacle. During the phases of the eclipse from first touch of the shadow of the moon up until totality, we had had occasional glimpses of the moon shadow through one the solar scopes set up along the pool side. Kathy waved her wand in circles as the moment of the beginning of totality came upon us and the audible sighs were close to heart breaking. The wind had come up, and the shadow of the eclipse had rushed toward us across the ocean. The sunset stretched in an orange red glow all across the horizon. Animals and people on the beach were howling. Then, the clouds parted. The fully eclipsed sun was revealed surrounded by the glorious chrysanthemum of the corona, white and shimmering as if the fire of creation itself had turned white. We were transported to the era of the beginning of all time. The sighs became shouting and gasping. The name of God was invoked over and over. We were running from telescope to telescope, then back to our lounges, transfixed by a sight we had only imagined. I for one had imagined a ring of fire, not this black blackness with long lashing white petals reaching in degrees across the sky, an announcement to the universe that things are absolutely not at all as they seem. The earth and the sky were transformed and took my soul right along with them.
About 15 years later, my path crossed with a goal setting internet site called 43Things. This was quite possibly the best social networking site ever conceived. Like the eclipse, it did not last, but it did have an impact on those of us who used it to help shape our lives. There were certain goals on there that were very popular. “See the Northern Lights” was one of them. “Build a treehouse” was my most shared goal. I had already completed “see a total eclipse of the sun” but few others had, and many many wished to. It was during the time frame that the idea of the “bucket list” entered the vernacular in a big way. People everywhere were concocting ideas of those things they wanted to get done before they died. I never quite thought of it that way – more that there were certain experiences I wanted to repeat as often as possible, and others I hoped for. I really really did want a treehouse. This was the same sort of urge that led me to the eclipse in the years back, a desire to fill my cup to the brim with life itself. As is the nature of social media, 43Things produced friendships. People who shared similar fascinations crossed paths over and over on their shared goals, where we posted our progress and cheered each other on. Romances happened. Meet-ups happened. My husband Robert and I wanted to take the train the City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Our 43things friends near Chicago all convened to send us off. It seemed sometimes like the goal setting piece was incidental to the social aspect, but I watched my friend Ruth become a rabbi. Stacey left behind a life that did not suit her and became a world class potter. And I became best of friends with the adorable eccentric artist Amanda who tastes words and describes the flavors to us. Merry Lu was our social beacon, organizing birthday parties for each of our friends. Those were the precursors to the birthday greetings sent on Facebook today. But we would throw virtual parties, and show up with photos of the food and drink, then have streaming group conversations at the virtual party. 43Things also changed my life.
In preparation for the eclipse of August 21 2017, I set out to choose a place where I believed clouds were least likely. This time my research began about 2 years out. I also wanted a place where we would be happy to have invested our precious time away even if it rained. I studied a map of the path of the eclipse. It would have been easy to choose Oregon, fly in to Portland, and rent a car and find a beach cottage. Then Grand Teton National Park caught my eye. What could be finer? I sent in my request for a cabin reservation. Several days later, my friend Peter, who incidentally had also attended the Tahoe eclipse, told me to take a closer look. The park would not accept normal reservations for the date of the eclipse. I would have to call in from Hawaii at 8 am mountain time and hope to get through for one of the very very few cabins available. I was crushed. But not deterred, I began to look for a house. The gathering on the beach at Tahoe had absolutely heightened the eclipse experience. There was little doubt in my mind that enough friends would want to meet up for this to warrant renting a large house and staying on several days. I floated the idea and quickly my friends on Facebook were eager to climb aboard. My collection of friends are from almost every place I have ever lived, and from every era of my life. It was almost too delicious to contemplate this fabulous array of fascinating people all in one place for this most awe inspiring event nature presents on a predictable calendar.
The next several months brought about a sucession of found and then lost houses as people who owned them became aware of the eclipse and cancelled our reservations so they could charge ten times as much, or else be there themselves. The house we finally snagged was under the auspices of the Grand Targhee resort in Wyoming, adjacent to Grand Teton National Park. When the owners of that house sold it and cancelled our eclipse stay, the resort stepped up with replacement condos. And then wonder of wonders the park granted my reservation request for the cabin. We still had a group with more people who wanted in than we had rooms, and I was able to find another condo through another resort in Driggs, a town pretty much just down the road. Our group continued to undergo changes in who would attend, right up to mid August. There was more than one couple who wanted in, then dropped out, then wanted back in. That worked for one, but not the other. One couple thought they would have a condo all to themselves and were busily adding family members to their nest. Luckily I found out and suggested they would need to find their own condo as all the rooms in theirs were already spoken for. My dear 43Things friend Mollie who had attended the Chicago get together had to drop out. Amanda and her son could not come. Jill the fabulous photographer suggested Bill and his wife in her place, from Singapore, and Bill organized a memorable dinner the Saturday night before the grand eclipse at the Snake River Grill in Jackson.
Peter from the Tahoe eclipse joined our online group but booked in Yellowstone with the plan to drive down and join us on the 21st. And I plotted out our National Parks road trip, from Zion to Bryce to Yellowstone to Grand Teton. My road trips have no more than 6 hours of road time per day, leaving ample opportunity for roadside attractions. I did not document all these on Facebook, like the rock stands with the piles of minerals on rickety tables, but I did include the stop along the Snake River with our friend Judi where we gathered river rocks. There was a brilliant blue lake where it turned out Bill and Mee Leng glamped the night after we came upon it. There was the little town of Paris where Robert and Judi bought power ball tickets in the hopes of splitting 700 million dollars. But there were the parks. There are reasons for the parks. The National Parks are nature’s finest works of art.
At Zion we walked beneath and behind a waterfall (43Things goal of hundreds of people: Kiss behind a waterfall) that moved along the ledge at a great height over us and sometimes dropped directly upon us but otherwise splashed in an exuberant water play all around us, glistening upon the iron rich red rock and encouraging the mosses and ferns. We stayed in the lodge where there was no internet (“It was an electric storm a few days back that seems to have knocked something out, but you can call our provider” – OK, but no cell phone service either) with a luxuriant view of the red walled canyon and green meadow upon which deer grazed deep into the night. I sat out on the lanai in the darkness looking into the oceanic universe when something caught the edge of my eye down near my feet. A creature had climbed up to join me, a shy creature nonetheless who just as quickly made off for the neighboring deck. I called after it softly, “Who is there? Who has come to see me?” There was a swish of a ringed tail, a tail too long for a raccoon. I called softly again, and she showed her elegant face made up for a masquerade party, then once again, waved her elegant ringed tail at me, a good 20 inches of perfection. A lemur! Dinner at the lodge was very nice, and I expected it to be, even though it was the only place to eat in the park. It turned out there is a gateway town there with plenty of places to eat and stay, but there is something uniquely pleasurable about a National Park stay in a lodge that is somehow venerable. The Zion lodge had burned down and been rebuilt, and as this was out first time there, we had nothing before it to compare it to. It was a little perfection.
It seemed impossible anything in the area could surpass the beauty of Zion with its sheer red rock walls, hollowed out here and carved up there, as though a master sculptor had spent many a season perfecting a unique vision. We drove into Bryce Canyon National Park, and the lodge where we stayed immediately seemed so much less grand, but it was a road trip. When we checked in, they asked if we had seen the canyon yet, and as we had not, they pulled out a map and directed us to it. We could walk down this or that trail. Evidently the lodge sat on its border, but not such that there was any view of it. Sunset was late, so after dinner we wandered down a path through the woods to take it all in. A few solitary Lodgepole pines framed the drop off, and the silhouettes of a few other visitors stood out in the late day light. As we approached, an other worldly sight greeted us. Hundreds of spires with the name hoodoos stretched from the base of the canyon into the air, their tips just below our eye level. A rock spire city spread out in the canyon below us, knobbed and arched, great pillars of another master sculptor. It was as if there had been a contest between giants to see who could apply the tools of wind and ice, rain and time, to create this masterpiece on a scale so massive you had to compare it to a city of sky scrapers and catwalks. People use the word breathtaking, and awesome. There need to be more words for landscapes such as this that knock your sensibilities into the stratosphere.
I wish now we had included all the Utah parks in our journey, but life is all about the grand journey and Utah is calling us back very loudly. There will be another Utah parks road trip, soon and very soon.
Our next stop was Yellowstone. Such a vast place. You do not drive into Yellowstone, stop a couple places, and then have dinner and bed down. You enter Yellowstone as Jonah entered the whale. It swallows you and you let yourself be devoured. We live at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and in a way that may make us park people and it certainly makes us volcano people. We live where the earth is alive, breathing visibly and audibly, where you can smell Pele the volcano goddess’s breath, where you can see her tantrums as she exudes lava and steam and causes the earth to tremble and melt. Even at that, the steaming sulphur pools and brown living sediments of fumaroles and earth split open not like a wound but in a stage of becoming are startling and mind expanding. The puny problems of mere humans fade and melt away.
All this grandeur and expression of the living planet was our lead up to the grand show of the moon blocking the disc of the sun, and thus revealing her veils of power. This was all I knew of the eclipse already, that and the racing shadow across the land. Here we were, at our chosen destination to view the greatest show on earth, a show that happens in the sky. I have had dreams from time to time of giant spaceships projecting scenes across the sky, connecting the stars in messages from unimaginably far, and those dreams are pale shadows in the mist compared to the emotional cataclysm of a full solar eclipse.
I have known many people who tell me that have witnessed a full solar eclipse. When I ask them more about it, they talk about pin hole devices used to project the bitten sun image upon the ground, about the odd shadows the leaves of the trees make when the sun is a fingernail of brilliance. And many of them, most of them, stop there, as unless you take it upon yourself to go visit a total eclipse of the sun, chances are you will never see one. Even if it was a total solar eclipse elsewhere, it is not that for you. That is the first thing you must know. You must GO to the eclipse, to the band of totality, to experience it. Otherwise, it is simply not that. It is time also to differentiate between an annular eclipse and a total eclipse. In both cases, the sun is covered by the moon. But in an annular eclipse, the moon is a bit farther from the earth, and therefore a small circle of sunlight remains around the blackness that is the moon in front of the sun. You must continue to observe this type of eclipse through special solar glasses that block so much light all you can see is the sun itself, in a fiery ring around the moon. The total eclipse of the sun means the sun is fully covered by the moon. When you look at it, you do not see any sun at all. So you can look without eye covering. It is so different than the sun itself that something inside you responds in a primitive atavistic way. We will get to all that. But know this. A total eclipse of the sun is as different from the annular eclipse as a pinhole projection of the sun is from a view through a solar telescope equipped with filters. It is the difference between a bungee jump and a parachute jump. Both are fun but one is mind blowing.
At this point we had located ourselves along midline for the event. Now our job was to figure out where we would be. The resort had a chair lift to the top of the mountain but had long since sold out tickets to ride at $100 each. Pretty stiff tariff that. So we divided our time into two segments – one a day in Grand Teton National Park with our friends Cindy and Randy. Cindy and I have been friends since before kindergarten, having met at church and found we shared a passion for playing pencil and paper games during the sermon. The Grand Teton park is lake upon lake set into crags, the Tetons, mountains shaped by ice into tortured peaks where even today glaciers persist. The boys skipped stones while we girls played with our image making equipment. By this time, the mania of the approaching eclipse was all consuming. Every place we went was seen in terms of whether that was to be our viewing position.
Then we arrived at Grand Targhee. We had been told the resort was hosting astronomers and alumni from Pomona and another university as well. I expected telescopes galore, and what we found was a white tent with seating for 200, and 40 attendees at a lecture. That was fine. We joined in and heard Ed Krupp give us a moment by moment anticipatory lead up to what would be the grand two and half minutes of totality. Next, we hopped on the Dreamcatcher chair lift to the crest of the ski mountain, where the Tetons spread out in front of us in the grandest possible tableau. They would be behind us during the eclipse lead up, with the shadow approaching across the basin opposite.
This was as they say a no brainer. To attempt to ascend from 7000 feet to nearly 10,000 on foot was a daunting prospect, but not beyond capability, However, riding the chair gave us the information we needed that at 8000 feet the basin would spread below us, and we would watch the shadow with its still lit edges outside the 63 miles of totality on either side.
We arose in the morning before sunrise to make certain not to get stuck in the horrific traffic expected. Our reward was a lovely sunrise over the Tetons and an empty road. We did see cars parked along the road in the pull outs, people who may have spent the night, or arisen at 3 am. At the resort, our parking pass allowed us into the resort guest parking, where it was an easy walk up to where we hoped to have breakfast. Alas, the resort dining room was serving the Pomona reunion and we waited round for the beer bar to offer us barely edible fare wrapped in a tortilla, but it didn’t make a whole lot of difference to us one way or another. After two sleepless nights with weather predictions of clouds overhead for miles and miles, we had awakened to clear skies over head and clouds on the horizon, but not the sort that rise up. So after breakfast we commenced the climb.
Age has given me the gift of countless bone spurs and knees that protest more loudly than demonstrators at a no nukes rally. Gamely I swallowed aspirin and gripped my Bryce Canyon walking stick and headed for the plateau of great viewing. We arrived significantly before the first flea bite out of the sun. My compassionate friends who might really have ascended all the way to the top stopped at the 8000 foot level and there we continued to gather a small crowd of others who agreed that we were at an optimum place to view the shadow. The eclipse would be overhead and appear the same no matter where we were in the band of totality in these parts.
We were equipped with multiple viewers and cameras, and binoculars, all outfitted with solar filters. The flea bite is the first nibble of moon across the face of the sun. With binoculars, sunspots were also visible. I was content with some solar glasses that looked like sunglasses that I found at Lowes. They wrapped nicely around my eyes so no stray rays would impede my experience. Robert used the Orion binoculars with their slip on shades. We collected people and a dog as the moment of the beginning of the shadow’s traverse approached, and bemoaned the fact that none of us had thought to bring the champagne we had stashed in the refrigerator to celebrate. We were so extremely excited and happy to have totally clear skies overhead. And no hoards of people after all. We were a motley crew of perhaps 20 on the first plateau with a full view of the valley when the moon began its transit across the face of the sun.
There were shouts of joy and exhilaration as the sun began to take on a crescent shape, first as a fat disc with a round nip out of it and eventually as a fingernail of yellow in our viewers. Then I turned to capture a few seconds of the shadow rushing towards us across the valley. All around the periphery, sunset happened. The sky turned deeper and deeper blue and bands of orange and pink appeared along the horizon all around us. The shadow began, first as a darkening along the mid horizon, then an all enveloping shadow. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees. As darkness fell upon us, I pivoted and looked through the viewer at the sun as the diamond ring effect happened. The last sliver of sun spread fiery rays into the universe as the moon slid over it and the corona sprang into view in its silkiness, its white fire, tendrils of the sun reaching out in ghostly fingers, glowing and undulating like a thousand ephemeral serpents. Everyone was screaming in pure joy. Robert yelled “Venus! I see Venus!” The wind was wrapping us up in its wavering arms, and the arms of the sun were like a bridal veil shimmering in the now night sky.
For two and a half minutes we soaked in this spectacle, as if the elements of being had conspired to bestow an infinite blessing upon us.
Life is an ephemeral thing. We all know someday it comes to an end, and we all wonder what that means. In the total eclipse of the sun, we glimpse the truth of all being. It is worth pondering. It is worth flying thousands of miles and making difficult plans to experience. It is a truly cosmic perspective.
I listened to the words spoken by my friends as we descended. “That was the most outstanding experience of my entire life”. It is pretty impossible to pick out a single experience and call it the best. It was Robert’s first totality. I have tried to get him to come to Indonesia for one earlier, and the full impact of what it would be did not penetrate deeply enough to cause him to be wiling to sacrifice all else to make that journey. But now, he will never balk. There are certainly peak experiences in life, and a total eclipse of the sun is simply one. For many, The One. Our friends who missed out, I hope you are able to make one the next few dates. I lay them out here.
Fate willing, I will go again. Perhaps Chile July 2, 2019. Kiribati December 14 2020. April 8, 2024, Toronto to San Antonio. I will find a spot then, certainly, if my eyes still see.
Gail is the Goddess of All Things (this is Karen saying this, because she didn’t send me a bio). She lives on a volcano in the middle of the rainforest and rents out an incredible treehouse. I want her to be my mother. However, I’m a hand full and she already has her hands full. xoxo