The last time a total eclipse was visible in my part of the world was February 26, 1979. I was a junior in high school, living in a small logging town in the western foothills of Oregon's Cascade mountains. Because Oregon has a reputation for rain most months of the year, our enlightened school administrators decided to transport a school-bus load of science-minded young people to eastern Washington. There, in the rain shadow of the Cascade mountains, the odds of clear skies would be better.
I was one of the lucky teenagers selected. Not having fancy eclipse glasses to view the phenomenon, my classmates and I converted old boxes into pinhole viewers. Light from the sun would pass through a pinhole, and then project an image of the sun on a white card at the rear of the device. These homemade instruments were notoriously difficult to hold steadily trained on the sun, and the view when correctly aligned was less than optimal. Nevertheless, optimism was high, and we boarded our school bus shortly after midnight to begin our trip east.
Those who knew about these things had decided that Goldendale, Washington would be an ideal eclipse-viewing site. Totality would occur at 8:14 AM, local time. We had to travel far enough east to get into the desert, and Goldendale stood at about the maximum distance we could reasonably hope to achieve, factoring in potential traffic jams, travel sickness, students wandering away from the pack at rest stops, and all the other misfortunes that might slow our plucky bus.
It was a grueling trip, a long, early morning ride through the Columbia River Gorge, bouncing around in the back of a sweaty, hormone-soaked bus. Adrenaline gave way to somnolence and irritability. It was a churlish crew that tumbled out of the bus in Goldendale. Our mood did not brighten when we discovered that a thick blanket of clouds covered the sky. Not a star to be seen, nor the sun, when it rose over the eastern mountains.
The moment arrived. At 8:14 the sky grew dark. Two minutes later, light returned. The eclipse had passed us by, absorbed by the persistent clouds. We beat each other over the head with our shadow boxes, climbed aboard the bus, and rode glumly home.
Our foul mood was amplified upon our return. Those who had remained behind took great delight in informing us that, minutes before totality, there had been a break in the clouds. The entire school had marched out onto the football field and watched the eclipse.
There was little joy among the bus riders. As you might imagine, this experience might have put me off eclipses for life. The scars of youth are the longest lasting.
Nevertheless, like much of the rest of the United States, I became caught up in a desire to see and photograph this year's eclipse. Once again the shadow would past over Oregon, and with some judicious driving, I could place myself in the path of totality. The time of year was better ― August ― and, apart from forest fire smoke, the skies were likely to be clear.
For weeks the newspaper had been warning of massive traffic jams on the designated day. The desert would fill with cars; even a minor accident would create tailbacks stretching for miles. Gas stations would run out of petrol, grocery stores would be emptied, water would dry up like the available hotel rooms which had been booked years in advance by savvy astronomers. Armageddon ― or more accurately, Eclip-sogeddon ― awaited those foolish enough to advance into the catastrophe.
We elected to advance. Contrary to popular wisdom, we were able to find a motel room in Hermiston, Oregon, about 80 miles north of the path of totality. Yes, the price was about double what one would normally pay, but we were probably lucky to get a place to lay our heads. Having established our base of operations, the other problem was getting into the path of the eclipse in the morning. The indirect route, Interstate 84, made a long, slow curve to the southeast that gradually intercepted the track. It had the advantage of being a four lane highway with a speed limit of 70 mph. It was a longer drive, but speeds would be faster, and there were two lanes to use if an accident blocked the road. The obvious disadvantage is that it would be the first choice of most, and thus would have a high traffic volume, creating more chances for accidents, traffic jams, and other unfortunate diversions.
The other option was to plunge south on a small desert road that appeared to spend as much time meandering east and west as it did going south. Nevertheless the route was shorter, although the speed limits would be much lower. The road would also be the one less-taken, which could mitigate the danger of traffic jams.
There truly was no obvious choice. At 4:45 AM, when we loaded our equipment into our expeditionary vehicle, the choice of route basically came down to a coin flip. We weren't the only people leaving early: cars were pulling out of the truck stop next door to the motel. We joined the queue and headed south on the back road. Headlights made a line of beads in the darkness behind us; red tail lights strung out ahead.
The light came up slowly, and by sunrise, we were climbing the switch backs of the Umatilla National Forest. Traffic had been increasing as we headed south, and as we neared the John Day River, we found ourselves in a long convoy of cars and trucks. Despite the fact that this little highway probably was seeing more traffic than at any time since the road was laid, traffic flowed smoothly. Those who had chosen this back country route drove with calm and good humor, not, I imagined, like it might have been over on the busier interstate highway. We came down from the mountains and rolled into the high desert around the river.
It is a barren land. The John Day River flows through a relentlessly harsh, arid climate, framed by basalt cliffs, yellow-grassed hills, and dessicated sagebrush. Stone monoliths rise in element-worn splendor like monuments erected to the pioneers who first settled this hardscrabble land. It is difficult to imagine making a life here in a place so tough that even the lizards wear canteens.
We set up in a turnout beside the river. I had brought a reflector telescope ― an old Celestron 4.5 inch model ― and a Nikon DSLR to hook to the eyepiece. I set a second camera on a tripod nearby to shoot a time-lapse video of the landscape during the eclipse.
Within the hour, the eclipse began. It started small, as the gentlest of dents in the luminous golden sphere of the sun. I initiated the time-lapse recording, and then began to take shots through the telescope at two minute intervals. Over the next hour, the sky darkened imperceptibly as the crescent of blackness over the sun increased in size.
Finally, in a dramatic moment, the last sliver of sunlight vanished. I popped the solar filter off the front of my telescope and fired away madly, trying to capture photos of the silvery corona.
The wind that had been rustling the bushes around the river dropped off. The ripples on the water grew calm. Overhead, the corona blazed around the edge of the moon like a celestial arc welder. It was a stunning sight. I can see why the ancients regarded this phenomenon with such terror. It certainly appeared to be a portent of doom, a presage of the end of the earth.
For two minutes we gazed upon one of the most magnificent astronomical displays an earthbound observer can witness. And then, far too soon, a pulse of bright light, a diamond on the edge of the moon, and the return of the sun's heavenly domination as the moon slid aside.
To complete my sequence of shots, I kept the cameras rolling for the next hour. Within five minutes of totality, cars began to roll past on the road. Soon there was a constant flow as drivers tried to get a jump on everyone else.
I sat by my telescope, photographing the sun at two minute intervals as the sky brightened and the wind began to ripple the water. It was an amazing experience, well worth the hard trip down and the long drive back home. Clouds had robbed me of my previous opportunity to view this spectacle, but today had redeemed the disappointment of my youth.