Eclipsed

For most people, the word vacation conjures up visions of tanned carcasses parked on comfy lounge chairs in the Caribbean, sipping tropical drinks bristling with paper umbrellas and colorful straws.

I don’t buy into that illusion. The way I see it, vacation is something that should leave you exhausted, causing you to pine for the minute you return to work so that you can get some much-needed rest. After all, why pay good money to sit in chairs and drink when you can do that at home? For me, vacations are for seeing and doing amazing things. So it was fitting that as I sat down to plan my late-summer vacation, I was looking to make this trip productive, crossing off some items on my bucket list.

Should I visit Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska — an exact replica of Britain’s Stonehenge, rendered completely in vintage cars? Or the creepy island of the dolls south of Mexico City? How about the Mutter Museum in Pennsylvania containing hundreds of medical anomalies? They all sounded so good.

I was nearing a decision when a conspiracy of newscasters and rah-rah scientists threw a monkey wrench into my well-oiled, vacation-planning machinery. Out of nowhere, the total solar eclipse was starting to sound like a bigger event than the Second Coming.

“The first in the U.S. in 40 years!”

“The first coast-to-coast eclipse since 1776!”

“The biggest and best solar eclipse in American History!”

I was tempted because I love anything to do with the he cosmos, but I’m not stupid. It was one thing if all you had to do to was step out into your back yard in your bathrobe and slippers, look up into the sky and there it was. But to drive over 1,000 miles to Oregon just to see something that didn’t last as long as a commercial break on Modern Family was asking a lot. That wasn’t even taking into consideration the cost of the entire slog.

When it came down to it on a cost-reward analysis, a Rolling Stones concert I attended back in the 1978 for $20 seemed like a better deal — even when you factored in the cost of cocaine freely snorted that night. At least the Stones played for an hour and a half and you got to see Mick Jagger strut on stage like a chicken and perform vocal fellatio on a microphone.

This eclipse would last for approximately one minute and 50 seconds at most. The idea of going all that way for something that short was pretty much a hard sell.

I did some digging and found more reasons to bolster my resolve. It turns out, total solar eclipses are as rare as glass. The next ones in the U.S. would be in 2024, 2044, 2045 and 2078. If I could find a rich boyfriend, I wouldn’t even have to wait seven years. I could jet down to Argentina in 2019 or again in 2020. Turns out, there’s a total eclipse somewhere in the world almost every year. It’s not like this was the last one on earth.

But there was another force breaking down my resistance, one that warps your mind once you start closing in on your 60th birthday. Every time someone dares you to do something you wouldn’t normally do if you were in your right mind, you find yourself thinking: Why die wondering? Defy death hiking the Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park? Sure! Jump out of a perfectly good airplane with little more than a bunch of folded nylon strapped to your back? Yeah, I’m game! Eat steak tartare even though it’s nothing more than raw hamburger mixed with spices and E. coli? I’m up for that!

Okay, okay. I would go see the eclipse, telling myself that as an additional bonus, I could probably write off the trip on my taxes. “Research,” I would say to the stony-faced, skeptical IRS agent going over my 1040 return.

I put in for vacation time, roped in my friend Bob who conveniently lived in the Portland area, loaded up my SUV and began the drive northward, telling myself that this was something I would remember the rest of my life.

But as the miles passed, my bubbly enthusiasm was shaken under the onslaught of dire news stories about the Great American Eclipse. Reporters, once sunny and gleefully optimistic about the cosmic event, had now gone turncoat and adopted a new and more sinister tone, promising that the eclipse would be nothing short of a crowded apocalypse. Titanic traffic jams would swell to hundreds of miles. Porta-Potties not filled to the brim would be worth their weight in gold. Food, water and gasoline would run out, causing people to turn savage. Some emergency preparedness agencies feared that the titanic traffic jams would force motorists to pull over onto grassy highway shoulders, igniting the tinder-dry grass with their cars’s catalytic converters. Oregon would look like Sodom and Gomorrah.

As I crossed the border into Oregon, my darkest fears were proved right. The skies were filled with smoke for miles around. Granted, the smoke was from several large wildfires that had been burning for weeks, but seeing the ash-filled skies only made me angry. As people’s homes and livelihoods were being reduced to carbon, I wondered how people could be so careless with their cigarette butts and fireworks? Didn’t they realize I had an eclipse to see?

I made it to Bob’s house, but for the two days preceding the eclipse, I nervously scanned the skies and worried as clouds made an unwelcome appearance, completely obscuring the normally cloudless skies of Oregon in late August.

But clear skies did prevail on the morning of August the 21st. Bob and I set out before dawn, hoping to beat the traffic, but as soon as we pulled off the I-205 to drive down what we hoped were deserted country roads, we ran into a line of cars that snaked as far as the eye could see. We crawled to a woefully overwhelmed McDonald’s where we washed down an Egg McMuffin with some coffee and quickly set out again, finally making it to the cemetery I had scouted out days earlier. Forty people were already sitting in folding lawn chairs, waiting for the big event. No matter. Plenty of room and plenty of time before the moon began to cover the solar disk.

We claimed a little patch of ground above the grave of Marguerite Danielson, feeling that she wouldn’t mind too much. A half-hour later, the moon was moving into position. I secretly pleaded that the event would be amazing, not just for me, but so that Bob wouldn’t hate me for dragging him through this ordeal. This had to be big.

We put on our professional-looking solar eclipse glasses and were treated to an underwhelming view of a round black circle overtaking an orange one with the speed of a petulant glacier. I expected to see a flaming ball of hydrogen being covered by a sinister orb … but it was more like a third-grade teacher demonstrating a cosmic event by covering an orange circle of construction paper with a black one.

Not impressive.

Slowly, the light began to dim, draining the very color from the vegetation all around us. I put on some Buddhist meditation music to add some drama — which helped — but I still wasn’t becoming one with the cosmos. I held my breath, hoping to see something that would blow my socks off.

Bob and I and our fellow cemetery campers looked up as the last sliver of the sun’s rays were snuffed out like a candle flame.

We took off our solar eclipse glasses and were treated to the most unearthly thing I have ever seen. It wasn’t possibly real, was it? The sky turned a deep blue-black, like it does 45 minutes after sunset. Crickets started chirping. Some people standing near their cars turned on their headlights, it was that dark.

The corona, the halo of light that surrounds the sun burst into view, a freeze-frame of utter majesty. I couldn’t get over how unreal it looked, like some kind of CGI simulation. As the precious seconds ticked by, I noticed that hugging the surface of the sun were tiny strands of red-orange colors and I squandered a few more seconds before I realized what it was I was seeing. From 93 million miles away, I was watching huge eruptions of solar prominences soaring hundreds of thousands of miles off the surface of the Sun, only to be sucked back down by the star’s tremendous gravity. Okay, I was impressed. I quickly snapped two quick photos of the event with my iPhone, but they later came out looking like my camera lens had developed cataracts.

And before you know it, it was over. The sun began to blaze around the edge of the lunar disk and light came flooding back into the sky.

It was over.

In retrospect, even though it was way too fast, the event has made a bigger impression on me afterwards. I wish I could relive and stretch it out, but you can’t any more than you can those first few seconds you experience upon seeing the Grand Canyon the very first time. Or seeing a speeding semi unexpectedly swerve off the interstate and flip over in the median in a cloud of dust like I did years ago. An amazing event unfolds for a brief second, then the thrill is gone.

Would I do it again? The next total solar eclipse is in 2024. But I doubt that I’m going to drive (or fly) halfway across this country even though it promises to be over four minutes long. No way.

As I shook my head, I did, however, open up Google maps and took a quick look at the U.S. and wondered what areas of the country could guarantee a cloudless day on April 8.

Dallas, Texas wasn’t that far away, was it?

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