In the very early hours of February 26, 1979, I was on the road with some friends, heading north from Eugene, Oregon, in a driving rain, hoping to see a total solar eclipse. We had our maps and I had my nice little 4-inch refracting telescope in the car, but the odds seemed against us. It was really pouring, and the forecast was not good. We pulled into the little town of Goldendale, Washington, around four or five and found a nice little all-night diner, and sat around eating bacon and eggs and swilling coffee and smoking cigarettes and watching the rain pour down outside. When the sun started to lighten things up a little outside we headed north on US 97, seeking out the centerline of totality.
Back then we didn’t have the resources of the Internet, and didn’t really understand that you didn’t have to be right on the line to see the thing. Actually, totality stretched from Olympia, WA, to Albany, OR. The closer you were to the center the more time you would get, but it might not vary all that much. So we ended up parking by the side of the road about five miles north of Goldendale with hundreds and hundreds of other hopeful people, and prayed for the rain to stop.
(Actually it would have been a lot cooler to have headed south for five miles, because there we could have observed it from … Stonehenge! Yes, there is a life-size replica of Stonehenge there in Maryhill. It is made of concrete and not of huge slabs of stone like the original, and it is not in a state of partial collapse, but it’s lovely. It was built by a wonderfully crazy man named Sam Hill. He was a Quaker pacifist who built it from 1919 to 1929 as a memorial to the dead of World War I. It is a part of the Maryhill Museum, and is situated a few miles east of the main building.
(Where we were, we got 2 minutes and 18 seconds of totality. At Stonehenge it would have been 2:16. We only would have lost two seconds! Information like this we take for granted these days, but only dedicated astronomers or “umbraphiles” (a word I have just learned) would have known it in 1979. We were neither. But how cool would that have been? Totality at Stonehenge? Awesome!)
(Maryhill Museum of Art, by the way, is one of the strangest and most delightful museums in the world. It sits out there on the north bank of the Columbia River, all by itself on a windswept hill, a stone mansion turned into a museum. The closest town of any size is The Dalles, 25 miles to the west, and let’s face it, The Dalles ain’t all that big. Maryhill is 80 miles south of Yakima, 112 miles west of Kennewick, 105 miles east of Portland. I mean, it is isolated!
(But no less a personage than Maria, Queen of Romania, was there at the dedication. She was a friend of Sam Hill, and the museum has a ton of her stuff. It also has a world-class collection of the works of Rodin, 300 amazing chess sets, a respectable lot of paintings and sculptures, lots of Native American artifacts, and a charming set of 1/3-sized fashion mannequins from the Théâtre de la Mode, a traveling show created to revive the French fashion industry after the War. Look it up. And if you ever should find yourself in the area, you really should visit.)
We began to be a little more optimistic as the morning went on, and as the time neared, the clouds opened up and we saw the sun. Or part of it, anyway. The eclipse had already begun. With our eclipse glasses or through the sun filter on my scope you could see a big bite was missing. I set up my scope to angle the light down onto a white plate, and we could actually see some sunspots.
Totality arrived with an almost audible swoosh, as the shadow came rushing at us (it moves at about 1500 mph!) over the yellow hills to the west. And there it was, the most amazing thing you will ever see in the sky. I felt a sense of awe I had never experienced before. It was … almost impossible to describe. One of the most fantastic things I had ever seen, or hoped to see again …
So I was determined to see the next one, in the far, far future of 2017. Hell, maybe I could watch it from the Moon, see the shadow creep across North America from inside my spacesuit …
* * *
Okay, we seem to have abandoned our dreams of living on the Moon, but this one was going to pass only 25 miles south of our house, and I was not going to miss it, traffic jams be damned!
We packed food and water and bedding and anything else we could think of. Part of that gear was stuff sent to us by our wonderfully crazy umbraphile friend Dan Prall, from Texas (a man who is a dead ringer for John Goodman playing Walter Sobchek in The Big Lebowski) (And proud of it. He’s won prizes!). That included two sets of excellent Celestron binoculars, a whole stack of paper eclipse glasses, sun filters for the binocs, another pair of binocs with built-in filters (good only for observing the sun), and even two collapsible lawn lounges, perfect for lying back and looking at the sky. Thanks so much, Dan! The Dude rules!
We left at about midnight, drove to Woodburn without any trouble, saw that the sites we had scouted earlier were deserted, as were the roads, so we went on to Salem. I don’t know that town all that well, so we wandered for an hour or so. Totally deserted, saw no one that seemed to be waiting for the eclipse. Finally found a gravel parking lot by the State Fairgrounds with two cars in it. Pulled in and spent the next nine hours in the car. During the night the lot filled up. We weren’t supposed to be parked there, it was a lot reserved for people setting up the fair, which was to start in three days. But no one was going to kick us all out.
One really cool thing about the lot was that there were two Honey Bucket plastic toilets within about 50 feet of our car. Restroom breaks were a big concern for us, and many others. We brought along two hospital-type plastic urinals, including an untested female version that looked damn tough to use without making a mess … but we didn’t have to use them.
Later, when the sun came up, we saw a lot of people making their way to the Fairgrounds, so we walked down there. Turns out it was an eclipse party thrown by Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). Thought about going in, but admission was $10, so we didn’t.
The day was absolutely perfect. The sky was totally blue, not a cloud to be seen. Not a hint of smoke from the forest fires to the east, which dimmed the light for some friends who went there. Eventually we could see the first bite taken out of the sun, and over the next hour it gradually got dimmer. Then totality swooped over us.
They tell you it’s as black as night, but that’s not quite true. It is quite dark, but some light seeps in from the land around that is still in sunlight. It was dark enough to see Venus, though, quite bright and almost overhead.
It is one of the most stunning things you will ever see, that black hole in the sky with the blazing corona around it. There just seems to be something fundamentally wrong about it. It shouldn’t be up there. I got goosebumps, and a feeling of awe mixed with a certain amount of fear. That’s right, actual fear of the strangeness of it all. It’s easy to understand how people who knew nothing of astronomy feared that the world was coming to an end.
Then it was over. A lot of effort for two minutes … but totally (so to speak) worth it, even though the real ordeal was yet to come. My family who remained in Portland got 99% coverage, and they were impressed, particularly by how the light filtering through the leaves of the trees made little crescents on a sheet they spread on the ground. But I’m sorry, the difference between 99% and 100% is literally the difference between day and night. As for 90%, 80%, 60% … forget about it. The best thing you can say about a partial eclipse is that it’s … interesting.
And if someone hadn’t told you it was happening, you probably would never have noticed it.
No one has to tell you a total eclipse is happening. It gets dark with totality. You can look at the eclipse with your bare eyes. Even 99% dimness will burn your eyes out if you look at it.
(There must have been 90,000 public service announcements in every medium you can mention: DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN!!! Never look directly at the sun, EVER! Get a cheap pair of eclipse glasses. Repeat, DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN!!!! Only a shit-for-brains idiot could have managed to miss these warnings. They were even on Fox News, for cryin’ out loud!
(So President Turdbrain and the First Trophy Wife step out onto the White House balcony and what is the first thing they do? Why, look directly at the sun, of course, with little Barron standing right there. Way to set an example for the country, dipshit! We have elected a moron to be our leader.)
Now for the downside …
We knew traffic was going to be bad leaving the area. We didn’t get on the road immediately, we visited a couple local Goodwill stores first. As we drove around we saw a lot of lawn parties, people out in their yards, looking up at the sun, all of them safely using their eclipse glasses (are you listening, President Shit-For-Brains?). The partial eclipse was still going on. I thought, wow, these people didn’t have to go anywhere to see it. Just step out their front door as it passed over their house. How cool would that be?
We decided to skip the I-5, which everyone agreed would be a parking lot, and try to find a less-traveled back road. State Route 213 looked promising, on the map, through the little towns of Silverton, Marquam, Molalla, Mulino and then into Oregon City, south of the Portland Metro area. And it worked well … for about five miles. Then we joined the tail end of a line that crept along at around 3 miles per hour. I mean that literally. Possibly even 2 mph. Possibly .5 mph.
We looked at our road atlas and found a turn-off … only to get at the back of another line. We tried that two more times, and every turn made it worse, not better. I gave up, and we resigned ourselves to stalled traffic.
But eventually we came to the Rogers Wayside County Park, a nice place with large shelters a lot of shady trees, quite a few picnic tables, and rest rooms. There were several families there already, but plenty of room for us to take the swell new picnic basket Lee had just found at Goodwill ($10, plus 10% off for seniors!) and unload our cold chicken and pea salad. While we ate I could look at the line of cars a few yards away through the trees. I selected one, and after a timed five minutes, it had not moved one inch. Not one inch. So we didn’t hurry.
But back in line we realized that we were very close to Silverton’s main tourist attraction: The Oregon Gardens. We had been there twice before, but not in a long time. So we pulled in and drove past hundreds and hundreds of tents. I hadn’t realized so many people still camped out in tents. I thought everybody had a giant RV these days. The people seemed happy enough with their colorful rayon, or whatever it is.
The Oregon Gardens is a wonderful place. If you’re ever in the region, don’t miss it. It has a dozen areas devoted to different kinds of plants and gardens, including a conifer forest that has some trees that have to be seen to be believed. Really, really odd stuff with branches that trail on the ground, and others a hundred feet tall and three feet wide.
We wandered for two hours, and in the Children’s Garden we ran into Anne Richardson, an old friend from Portland. She was there with her grandchildren: Samuel Thelonious, Theadora Joy, and Bartholomew John Cake Pterodactyl. Isn’t it amazing how that can happen, given the 325,000,000 Americans, and around 2,000,000 in the Portland Metro Area? Here we both were, sixty miles from home, and you turn the corner, and there she is. I once ran into my good friend Charles N. Brown, founder and publisher of Locus Magazine, in the subway beneath Rockefeller Center. I was from Portland and he was from Oakland, California, and there we were. How likely is that?
Eventually we had to get back on the road, and it was still as horrible as it had been when we got off. We decided that I-5 could not be any worse than this, that all roads leading north were going to be impossible. So the first chance we got we headed west, and the traffic was easy.
Not so when we got on the Interstate … but at least it was moving. It seldom came to a complete stop. The Highway Department has helpfully laid out a “speedometer test section” on the highway. I sort of had to laugh. It would take quite a while to time ourselves along the five-mile course. But what the hell, it’s not like we were real busy with something else. So we timed each mile, and determined that we were blazing along at 6 mph. Apparently everyone in the Portland area had gone to Salem that day.
But eventually, and pretty much all at once, as these things tend to do, it all opened up, and I was doodling along at my usual 75 mph to I-205, and then home! By that time I had been driving for around six hours.
And I’ll say it once more. It was worth every minute of it! The only thing I would have done differently was to have set out for Salem around 5 or 6, instead of midnight. And maybe have stuck around in the Salem area for another three or four hours. Maybe take in a movie.
And now, on to 2024 …
* * *
That’s right, there will be another epic North American eclipse in only 7 years, on April 8, 2024. It’s going to be a doozy, lasting up to 4 minutes and 30 seconds. And get a load of this:
It will come ashore almost dead center at Mazatlán. Then it will pass over the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Coahuila, before reaching the border at Piedras Negras. It will cross first the Rio Grande and then President Shithead’s Magnificent, Tremendous, Beautiful Border Wall, which should be finished by then. I envision it as two strands of rusty barbed wire, built at a cost to you and me of around $20 billion by Trump Associates.
Moving on, it will cover half of San Antonio, and most of Austin, the city of my birth. At 5:17:06 an airplane could start its takeoff from the north end of the runway at Austin Airport, and roll out of totality in a few seconds. In the suburb of Colorado Crossing people living on the south side of Autumn Bay Drive will be at .99999 of totality … but will be able to cross the street into darkness!
It will completely cover Waco (and Corsicana, the town where I spent a lot of my youth with my grandparents), then Fort Worth and Dallas, Texarkana, Little Rock, Bloomington, Terre Haute, Indianapolis, Dayton, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, Erie, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse, and Burlington before heading out to sea at New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
Cities partially covered or within a ridiculously easy drive of totality include Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, and Shreveport.
A bit further away but not horribly far are Houston (if it is dried out by then, poor Houston), Nashville, Kansas City, Chicago, Pittsburg, and that urban corridor that reaches from D.C. to Boston.
Traffic? I have a feeling that what we went through will be nothing compared to this one.
I would be 77 years old. Frankly, I don’t expect to be alive then. But I have to remember that I never planned on living to 2017. I might make it …
August 30, 2017