By Bobbie Harvey
What they say: that the shadow of the moon races toward you faster than the fastest rocket; and that the moon, which you never see, slides across the sun like the lid over a long lens. It is at that moment people scream. And then, eclipse glasses off, it’s dark, and cold. The wind blows. Birds return to their nests.
The stars appear. Events as we know them occur backwards: the sun, encircled by a silver wedding band, becomes a diamond ring as it begins to reappear. Glasses back on, the crescent sun appears on the other side, becoming larger, larger, till it’s what we know again.
I wonder: will we be bored at that point, more than an hour in? Will we leave, as at a concert people crowd the doorways even before the applause?
I am on an airplane, flying to see my first — and most likely last — total solar eclipse.
We have a daughter and granddaughter in Portland, Oregon, and it took me awhile to realize that the eclipse there would not be total. I’ve seen a partial eclipse but, as Annie Dillard wrote in her essay Total Eclipse:
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of one. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it.”
To reach the narrow, 70 mile band of totality we’d have to drive about an hour south to Salem, or northwest or southeast from there. And we’d have to leave on Sunday, the day before, to beat the traffic from the million people expected to flood into Oregon for the event. But, as of late last spring, there was nowhere to stay.
Finally, our daughter Phoebe sent me an article from People Magazine of all places. A woman who owned a 43-acre wedding venue in Lebanon, about another hour southeast of Salem, was selling tickets to camp on her property. Her daughter needed fertility treatment. A worthy cause. And so, tomorrow, that’s where we’re headed.
Phoebe is freaking out about the traffic. She tried to convince me to sit in her back yard and watch the partial. It’s going to be 95% here, she argued. No wedding ring, no moon shadow — no, I said. If the traffic is too bad, we agreed, we’ll stop in Salem. Phoebe, an oncologist with Kaiser Permanente, used to work at the clinic there — but I really don’t imagine we’d be able to sleep in the parking lot!
Crazy no traffic. Phoebe had never gotten to Salem so fast. Just an hour and a half to Lebanon and the campground: tall pines, blue sky, the smell of sun-warmed needles. Cows and goats in the field next to our tents. Chicken dinner, s’mores over the campfire, “Summer of ‘69” from the band. Now, soon, bed.
The sun looks like the waxing crescent, and there’s a strange metallic haze in the air. It looks like evening, but not quite. The phones in this field keep buzzing with emergency alerts: Do not look directly at the sun! Beware of falling rocks – rescue teams will be in short supply. Wildfire danger!
Now it’s a golden crescent moon lying on its side. The air is noticeably cooler. Though the people in this field are talking, there’s an odd stillness in the air.
Now the sun is a smile . . .
And that was all I recorded.
What I remember: That the sun-smile looked carved on a great black jack-o’-lantern of sky, its corners gradually disappearing. And then — boom! The moon-lid snapped shut. We were cold. We took our glasses off and screamed. A luminous ring surrounded the black hole of the sun; broad bands of light shot out. We saw Venus, high in the sky. An airplane crossed the sun. A bright white nub of brilliant light shot out just where the moon took its first tiny bite from the sun, and then it was over. A minute and a half in what felt like a few seconds. In retrospect, it felt as if I wasn’t really there.
We did leave then. Four hours back to Portland. Real life resumed.
Now I understand the eclipse-chasers. I might be one, if I were younger. I wish I could see again what I forgot to remember.