If you don’t understand the fervor and fever over Solar Eclipse 2017, I get it. Twenty-four hours ago, I was with you on this. But that was before I made it to the Path of Totality to see a TOTAL 100% solar eclipse.
Last month, when I heard that people were traveling from around the world to see it, I thought they were a little crazy. I was wrong.
Two days ago, I believed that a 95% eclipse or a 99% eclipse would be almost as cool as a total eclipse. I was wrong.
Because yesterday morning, during those precious seconds when the sun was in 100% TOTAL ECLIPSE, I was able to remove my glasses and view the corona moving about the sun with my naked eyes and it was mind-blowing.
I thought that an eclipse would look like what I’d seen in photos -the moon blacking out the sun until there was only a slight glow around the edges. And then I figured that totality meant total darkness, right? I was wrong again. The total eclipse was not like anything I’d ever seen in photographs or videos (which cannot even come close to capturing what a total eclipse looks like in person).
Let me back up to the beginning of this journey though. I live in the Pacific NW, and the Seattle area was going to witness an eclipse of about 92%. That seemed pretty good to me! In school, 100% is perfect, but 92% is almost an A. Decent, eh?
However, less than 200 miles south of us was the Path of Totality, which would mean that at shortly after 10AM on Monday August 21, 2017, the moon would perfectly align in front of the sun, blocking it out in totality from our view here on Earth. So a few weeks ago, there was a brief moment in time when my husband Eric and I discussed going down to Oregon to see the full eclipse. But upon hearing that the traffic jams would be impossible and that hotel rooms would be $1,000 a night, we didn’t seriously consider it.
Then a week ago, Eric announced that he really, really wanted to get up early on the morning of the eclipse and drive down there. A once-in-a-lifetime experience and an adventure, he said. So of course I agreed that we should go. I was down for an adventure, and even more importantly, he was excited.
So on Sunday, Eric and I went to my childhood home where my parents still live, which got us closer to the eclipse so the Monday morning drive wouldn’t be as terrible. My parents live on wide-open acreage where the eclipse would be over 95%. To me, it seemed almost silly to get up before the sun even rose to get stuck in traffic to get only 5% better. The only reason I was doing it was because Eric wanted to. My mom decided to join us for basically the same reason: to go on the “adventure” with us. But truth be told, had it just been my mom and me, we would have stood with the cows in our field and watched it from home. And my dad, who had been up late attending the Seattle Sounders’ Sunday night game, had decided not to go with us to Oregon.
So yesterday morning, Eric, my mom, and I pulled ourselves out of bed and hit the road at 6AM. We filled the gas tank as we left town because the news reports had warned everyone that gas stations were running out of gas. We planned to drive the back highways as far into Oregon as we could get. With the anticipated traffic, we had little to no expectation that we would reach the Path of Totality where we’d see a 100% eclipse. We just wanted to get as far south as we could.
But here’s thing: There was no traffic. We jumped on Interstate-5 South and cruised south of Portland during what should have been morning rush hour without even slowing down. I assume that people must have been afraid of getting caught up in the eclipse craziness because the roads were strangely empty. So much to our delight, we crossed into the Path of Totality shortly before 9AM. Where to go? We were headed in the direction of McMinnville, a small tourist destination in Oregon wine country that had been advertising eclipse activities. But because we were cutting it close on time and we weren’t sure if we’d have trouble parking in McMinnville, we decided to stop at a small town shortly before McMinnville:
Dayton, Oregon. Population: 2,534. We drove past the park in the center of town where around seventy or eighty people were milling about. There was available street parking, but we didn’t like that the power lines took away from the aesthetics of our view, so we continued down the road until we came to a baseball field. Several dozen people were setting up chairs in the outfield. No power lines. A wide open view. Perfect!
After the long drive that morning, the three of us were giddy to have made it at all, and we were laughing loudly and carrying on a bit upon arriving. Eric had brought his tripod and camera, because naturally as a filmmaker, he hoped to get a really amazing photo of the eclipse. We settled in with our gear and folding chairs only minutes before the eclipse event began. Between the three of us, we had two solar eclipse glasses, but that seemed fine. The eclipse viewing event was to last about two hours (with totality lasting only 47 seconds in our area). None of us were planning to stare at the sun the entire time. We’d just pass them back and forth. Besides, even though we had carefully checked out the legitimacy of our glasses, we all wanted to be really cautious about not looking at the sun too long even with the glasses on. My mom and I would even close one eye each time we looked through the glasses. That way if our glasses malfunctioned, we would burn only the one retina and keep our vision in the other eye.
Everyone at the baseball field appeared to have eclipse glasses. Like us, they would put them on for a moment to check how far the moon had eclipsed the sun and then they’d go back to talking, reading, taking photos, etc.
I thought it was pretty interesting to view the eclipse through the glasses. I would describe it like this: Slowly, the black circle of the moon moved in front of the sun. At first, it was kind of like it was taking a bite out of the sun, but eventually the round black moon covered up the sun enough that it turned it into a crescent shape. In a cool role reversal, it was almost as if they were shape-shifting. Watching the partial eclipse was like looking at a two-dimensional flat, orange crescent slowly get smaller and smaller until eventually it was a sliver.
So at this point, did it seem worth the long drive? Sure, it was an experience in life, and I liked that we were there to see this natural phenomenon. As the eclipse got bigger, it started to get darker around us. The decreasing light wasn’t anything like the waning light at dusk. It was more like a dimmer switch was being used to turn down the lights of the world, and then it started to get cooler in temperature. So that was pretty interesting. We were lucky to have absolutely no clouds in our area. I understand that some cities had obstructed views and that is really unfortunate, especially for people that traveled great distances. So I’m very grateful that the weather was on our side.
As it got really close to totality, we started passing the glasses back and forth more quickly, because it was turning into just an orange sliver… And then it was barely a sliver at all… And then I held the glasses to my eyes and realized that all I could see was complete black. Nothingness. (Note: with certified eclipse glasses, the only thing you should be able to see through them is the sun).
For a moment, I was confused. I hadn’t really done much research into the eclipse, so I actually didn’t realize that during totality, the only way to view it is with your naked eyes. I had assumed we would view the entire eclipse through the glasses. As it dawned on me that I couldn’t see anything anymore through my glasses, I began to hear the sounds around me in the baseball field. It was the other people, and they were gasping and screaming and shouting, “Oh My God!” and “Look at it!” I lowered my glasses and I looked at the eclipse with my bare eyes and I was in complete shock. The total eclipse was like nothing I’d ever seen or imagined. It was nothing like the photographs and videos you see, not even the high tech NASA telescope ones. In person, the eclipse was a breathtaking wonder to behold. I will do my best to describe it to you:
First, you need to know that the sun is surrounded by a hot, gaseous atmosphere, and that atmosphere gives off a crown of light (called a “corona”) around the sun. A Time magazine article defined the corona as “the veil of luminous plasma streaming millions of miles into space.”
Second, you need to know that videos and photographs can’t do the corona justice. I’ve looked at some of the videos of the eclipse yesterday from the biggest news stations and they don’t even come close to capturing what the corona looks like in person. On video or in photographs, it looks like a primarily static, slightly pulsing glow of yellow around the black sphere. Sure, that image is still kind of neat. But it’s not something awe-inspiring. (So I can understand why many people watch these news videos and wonder why the heck the audio seems so overly dramatic in comparison to the visual spectacle. In the videos where you can hear the audience reaction, it seems comical that people are shouting, cheering, crying, and caterwauling over the eclipse).
But in person, it was something else. It was not just a glowing black sphere. You could see the corona moving, like a gauzy veil of gas and light. Magnetic lines would loop in and out of the eclipse. It was a living, breathing orb. And it looked enormous. Where there had previously been a tiny orange sliver, there was suddenly a huge and beautiful shape of light. Being able to witness that energy in motion like that really underscored how deeply powerful the sun is. All our lives we live under the sun, but we are never able to look at it directly. We are aware of its presence in that we feel its warmth on our skin and its brightness in our eyes, but we have no first-hand experience of what it looks like. And now I do. I stared right at the sun and its billowing powerful corona. It felt alive, and so did I.
Eric and my mom also were in shock. None of us were prepared for the image in front of us. It truly felt as though we’d been transported into a fantastical world. We weren’t on Earth anymore. We were in Lord of the Rings. It was so beautiful and alive that it seemed unreal. The nearby street light came on and suddenly, we also realized that you could see the stars in the sky. But our eyes kept being pulled back to the living, breathing orb. And as the beauty and power of it overwhelmed us, it was like we lost our minds a little bit. We started jumping around and grabbing a hold of each other. And then Eric scrambled to get a photograph of the eclipse before realizing that was a lost cause. It just looked like a yellow blob through a camera. So then he turned on the video to try to capture it that way. That was also a lost cause, but he left the video running for the remainder of the eclipse. While the viewfinder is pointed mostly at the grass during the eclipse, the audio of it is priceless. My mother shouts “I CANNOT BELIEVE IT!” and then keeps repeating “It’s awesome!” (and at one point, she ran in a circle around me and Eric), and I can be heard laughing incredibly loud. My laugh is the sound of pure disbelief and joy. In the background, you can hear the sounds of the other people in the field. Children are screaming in excitement and adults are gasping and exclaiming things. And as the sun started to peek out from behind the moon again, obliterating our view of the magical eclipse, you can hear me shouting, “No! It’s leaving!! It’s leaving already!!!”
Those 47 seconds were so fast. But they were so amazing.
And then people in the outfield started to clap.
And to think, my mom and I had thought it would have been just as good to stand in the field at home and watch a 95% eclipse. We were so wrong! The entire drive home, the three of us kept reliving our memories and feelings about the eclipse.
So here I am now, telling you, that if you ever have the opportunity to get into the Path of Totality, you must go. First, do your research so you can select a city that is typically less cloudy. (For some reason with this eclipse, many people went to the Oregon coast, but the Oregon coast is notoriously cloudy and foggy, and some cities had issues with that). And once you pick yourself a great destination, go, go, go!
I’m still marveling over yesterday’s eclipse. Therefore, we want to travel in 2024 to get into the Path of Totality for that solar eclipse, which will remain in totality for much longer. Locations in USA that fall within the path will experience totality for approximately two minutes to over four minutes. WOW. Now that I’ve seen what I’ve seen, I know that is worth the plane ticket. Those people that flew across the world to see it yesterday? Not so crazy after all.
Did you get to see the eclipse in part or in full? If so, please share your experience in the comments.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.