© 2022 Robert Sickles
In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard wrote of her witnessing of a total eclipse of the sun in 1997. She saw the shadow of the moon race across the Yakima Valley at over 1500 mph, at such an alarming speed that the breath was pulled out of her, and that the totality phase provoked a sense of awakening in her. It was disorienting, spiritual, terrifying, revelatory and unearthly. So well written, the essay has been acclaimed as one of America’s greatest pieces of nonfiction literature. Reading it many years ago, I really was inspired, and believed I would someday experience an eclipse as she did!
Total eclipses are not as rare as one would think—they occur about every 18 months. Trouble is, they often happen over an ocean or inaccessible region, so for most of us it’s a singular lifetime event. In my fantasy, where I have loads of free time and money, I would travel to some sacred place or an Ancient Wonder of the World—Machu Picchu, Nepal, Stonehenge, Easter Island or the Great Pyramids—just to make the eclipse seem even more profound.
On Aug. 21, 2017, I was delighted to learn, the “Great American Eclipse” would cross our continent from west coast to east, nicely saving me from having to plan a trip halfway around the globe. The “path of totality” was to be so close to us, I envisioned an easy drive to a vantage point in Oregon about 150 miles south. We could be among the early viewers.
My planning began well over a year in advance. I wanted to gather my friends and family for a couple of days of camping somewhere on the centerline, such as near Salem, Oregon. Gatherings for eclipses have always been good excuses for parties, resembling “Burning Man” crossed with “Circle of the Druid Priests.” I sent out an invitation with quotes from the Dillard essay. I ended with “Aug. 2017, It’s a party, everybody come!”
I next began looking for a suitable campground. I discovered that not only were none willing to book reservations so far in advance, but that no one realized they were to be near the centerline of this astronomical wonder. I tried to convince one campground manager, saying “This event is going to be a huge celebration. People will come from all over the world, everyone from jetsetters to backpackers, followers of Doomsday prophets and New Age gurus! If you’re not aware of it now, you certainly will be in a few months. It would be smart to get ahead of it. Expand your campsites. Get your food trucks and porta-potties lined up. Think BIG!” I was met with a deadpan response, or a click and a dial tone.
“No sir, we haven’t heard about that in these parts. And you called it a total what? Anyhoo, you can check back with us in late December, just like everybody else, when our reservation book for 2017 is open.” It was like that everywhere I called. And ditto with State Parks campgrounds. GRRRR!
I discovered that the little town of Madras, Oregon, dead center on the totality path, was fully into planning for the event. They had a field for campers, food vendors, astronomy lectures and entertainment lined up. But… Madras was already booked solid. Motels, B&B’s—all sold out. I couldn’t even find a hayfield of some nice farmer who wanted to make a few bucks from a bunch of campers. There simply was no place to stay. FOILED!
[At this point, I know I’m going to hear from my friends and relatives who were able to view the total eclipse easily, reclining on their patios and smugly sipping bourbon.]
Then, my people started dropping out. I heard “we’ll see…no… maybe… not sure” from the gang I wanted to come. Come on guys, how many times does a once-in-a-lifetime thing come? ONCE, right? SHEESH!
My big idea was turning into a little meh! Everywhere, I was blocked. The Spirits of the Cosmos seemed to have conspired to keep me away. I sadly watched the calendar pages flip as August 2017 approached.
After all that, we wound up waiting for the eclipse event at our neighbor’s house, far from the path of totality. Clear sky willing, we’d get to see a bit of it. We were prepared with a pin-hole cardboard thingy that failed to work. FOILED AGAIN!
Miraculously though, we noticed a reflection of the sun shining on their living room window wall, and we actually watched a little slice of it disappear for a few minutes and turn the sky amber. To our surprise, a faceted glass bowl on the coffee table refracted the sun’s image and projected it nicely for us! Nothing close to a total eclipse, and no wild celebration, and certainly no transformative experience. Just coffee and conversation with two dear friends.
Later I heard a news report that the worst traffic jams in recorded history were near the Oregon town of Madras as several thousand eclipse viewers tried to go home afterwards. Ha! I should have known it! Thank you, Spirits of the Cosmos, for keeping me away from that horrible place! HA!
How did Annie Dillard make out so well? All she did was drive up to a hillside, walk to a small gathering of onlookers, and have a rare, beautiful vision to write about. GRRRR!