It was a last-minute invitation, and I said yes. My friend Linette and her sister Luanne were driving up to Oregon to see the total eclipse. There would be one overnight stop in Gilroy, where Linette’s sister-in-law lives, onward to Bend the next morning, and from Bend to a ranch-turned-campground in Mitchell, a small Oregon town (population 130) eighty miles from Bend and directly in the path of totality. There would be five of us in the cab of a Ford truck, and we had all heard the dire warnings about crowds, gas shortages, and traffic in gridlock. Camping would be involved too, an activity that I had long ago filed under the heading of “never again.” I looked up the distance between Buellton and Mitchell: 850 miles.
I had already decided that this glorified total eclipse was not in the cards for me, and I was fine with that, so it’s hard to say what compelled me to that yes. All I know is that Linette’s enthusiastic invitation was remarkably well timed. I’d been feeling stuck, and I needed to be dislodged, and now a magic carpet had landed at my house. All the planning had been done; I need only step on board. So I glossed over the discomforts and challenges of the excursion and focused on the opportunity to glimpse a wondrous celestial event. I wanted to leave myself behind and stand in the shadow of the moon. I wanted to see the shimmer of the solar corona and the color of the sky.
And so I said yes, and I joined the eclipse chasers, and now I was in the backseat wedged between two women I had never met before. We traveled northbound along highways and side roads, past rivers and lakes and a national forest, through small towns with diners and convenience stores and vacant motels and streets lined with American flags, with junkyards and gravel pits at their outskirts, and refineries and lumber mills, and barns that said Jesus Saves, and a bright purple Victorian house perched on a rise under muffled hazy skies. We stayed in a cabin with rough wood walls, and orange and yellow window coverings that gave everything a 1970s glow, and our host that night recited haiku poetry about hope and alignment, and I remembered when I went to Oregon from New York via Greyhound bus at the age of twenty-four, how little I knew. How little I know.
I bolted awake each morning at the cusp of daylight, feeling chilly and unrested, craving coffee, a dull headache hovering at the edge of my skull. Camping was the part I liked least, and I’ll never understand the appeal of sleeping on the ground and stumbling around in the dark, every mundane act transformed into a veritable expedition, but I suppose it’s a means to an end, as it was in this case. I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful with things like setting up the tent or lighting the stove, but I became adept at getting out of the way, and I tried to be pleasant and unobtrusive, although I was always looking for something, sorting through my stuff, rustling like a mouse. I’m probably annoying.
The camping area was a thousand-acre cattle ranch dotted by pine trees. We chose a site in a flat open field of blonde grass, with a narrow stream burbling through, and a sparkling reservoir in the distance. There were very few people there when we first arrived, but by Saturday night, campers were closer and more numerous. Three little boys, one named Arlo, were playing by the stream, setting twig boats to sail. A hippie-esque young mother with long yellow hair was overseeing an impromptu lemonade business run by her enterprising daughters. There were scents of pot and propane in the air, and the sounds of laughter and conversation and cattle nearby expressing their noisy bewilderment. Everyone was there for the same reason, and a festive atmosphere prevailed.
We ventured out and explored the Painted Hills and John Day Fossil Beds, hiking amidst weirdly beautiful rock formations in glaring sunlight, and we walked on a path through tall rushes to a river, where everyone but me went in. Most important, we scoped out the site where we would view the eclipse Monday morning, ascending a hill to a high meadow area with a wide view, where we could observe the whole progression of the shadow crossing.
The long-awaited morning broke still and clear. We dismantled our camp, packed the truck, drove a mile or two along a dirt road, parked, and climbed the hill. A few other eclipse chasers had begun to gather and wait, and friendly words were exchanged, but there was never a sense of crowding. People mostly stood in quiet expectation, looking east, spread out in a vaguely circular way, a human Stonehenge. There was something very ancient about it, and surreal. The air was warm, bright, and fragrant with sweet pine and dry grass. It was a golden kind of place, a golden passage into a primeval dream. We put on our cardboard-framed eclipse glasses, and watched as the astronomical spectacle began.
How strange and astonishing it was to see an expanding bite taken from the orange sun, looking like a picture book illustration of a solar eclipse! I found it unexpectedly moving, inexplicably poignant. The blackness widened slowly until the narrowest crescent of light remained, and then…totality. Glasses off. I was staring directly at the sun, and the sun was blackness, both a presence and an absence, encircled by a gleaming corona. There was something shocking about it. It was like a hole in the heavens, an opening to infinity.
But the sky around it asserted itself with new vividness, and bright Venus appeared, shining like a torch. I scanned the firmament, and it was never wholly dark, and never daylight, never even dusk, but somehow blue with undertones of mauve or violet, and at the edges of the hillside there was a band of muted pink-gold light, reminiscent of dawn, but not-dawn, of here, but somewhere else. The temperature abruptly dropped, and the air was tangibly and deliciously cool, moving gently across the field like a blessing.
We were suspended in a state of enchantment. Two minutes is longer than I thought, and so I wandered, and I gazed upon the ground, where the grass had turned silvery, oddly bleached of its color, and the pine trees were ghostly, and my own familiar shadow seemed elongated and sharply etched and weirdly disconnected from my body. But maybe that’s because I was weirdly disconnected from my body, and if this begins to sound like a hallucinogenic experience, that’s probably a good way of thinking about it, because it truly was mind-altering. Even as the moon passed and the sun reclaimed its dominion, and light and color returned to what we know, nothing seemed ordinary.
And nothing ever is. People ask me what I learned, what I felt, and it has to do with how stunningly extraordinary it is to be present to bear witness, to be alive even briefly in the fathomless universe, adrift on this beautiful and terrible planet where everything–even the commonplace–is implausible.
My first reaction as the shadow passed was pure awe, quickly followed by a profound sense of humility and gratitude, and those feelings have lingered. I am a pilgrim passing through, although I am not sure what I seek, and I have no illusions about my own significance, only an old impulse to leave things a little better, if possible, or at least try not to add to the world’s collective misery. I’m still inclined to write and document too, to think out loud in search of sense, hence blog posts such as this one, ephemeral though they are. But the universe is dancing whether we see it or not, and we can look up in wonder or miss it entirely.
I am now a woman who has seen a total eclipse, and that’s something to have done in a lifetime. As we drove home, we finally encountered the traffic that had been predicted. We came to a dead stop on a dusty road alongside a forest, the air still ashy from recent fire, and temperatures miserably hot. But people were cheerful. We had all converged in this moment in time, a moment that would never occur again, an alignment for an alignment. A driver with cables did a u-turn in the middle of the road to give a stalled car a jump start, a woman from Australia walked alongside the traffic beneath an open umbrella, a little girl was jogging with her puppy on a leash. A gentleman in a neighboring vehicle offered us a joint, and most memorably, a man with a butterfly net cavorted in the woods at the edge of the road. I don’t know what he was hoping to catch, but he seemed to be having fun.