At 4AM our Apple Watch alarms went off. But I had been awake since 3AM. It was eclipse day and we didn’t want to get stuck in traffic on the drive north from Sun River, Oregon, to somewhere near the town of Madras which was close to the center of the path of totality for the 2017 total solar eclipse. We had driven 500 miles to see it and we didn’t want to miss it!
There was no significant traffic on Hwy 97 north, and by 6AM we were parked on a remote dirt road, eating breakfast, anticipating an extraordinary event that neither of us had ever experienced. Rosemary tried to nap in the back seat but without success. A couple appeared down the road, walking towards us. Turned out they were parked nearby and invited us to join them.
We had lots in common: they had a Telsa Model 3 reservation, she worked for a contractor doing business at the Tesla Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada, they had seen a red Model X towing a luxury camper trailer and I knew who they were referring to, and they had done hut-to-hut hiking in Iceland! They also had a very cool telescope with the appropriate filter that allowed viewing the sun directly.
Our little group was joined by a father and his two sons, and their grandfather, from Chico, California, with an even bigger telescope!
And then it started. We could see a tiny section of the sun at the upper right disappear. At first it seemed to move quite slowly, and then it seemed to accelerate when the majority of the sun’s disk was obscured. The air grew noticeably cooler and the light became subdued, but just slightly (photo credit: NASA).
In the final few seconds before totality, things started to happen quite quickly: the sky darkened, a flare of sunlight erupted along the lower left edge of the moon, and the air temperature dropped again (photo credit: NASA).
And then suddenly everything went black and I whipped off my eclipse glasses: the sun was a black ball with the solar corona astonishingly visible all around it . Everyone involuntarily gasped or said something: “Wow!”, “Awesome!”, “Incredible!”. Despite having seen many photos of what I was looking at, I was not prepared for seeing it with my own eyes. It was not unnerving, or scary, or disturbing in any way, it was simply astonishing. This photo does not begin to do justice to what I saw (photo credit: NASA).
I didn’t want to stop staring at it but I also wanted to look away for just a moment to see how dark it was around me. To my surprise I discovered that it was about the same light level as a full moon, but a completely different kind of light: it was warmer and softer. The air temperature had changed little from 30 seconds earlier. I took a quick photo of the group (the camera exposure makes the scene appear brighter than it actually was) and then went back to staring at the totality.
All too quickly it was over. It was supposed to last very close to two minutes, and I’m sure it did, but it was the fastest two minutes of my life. I gasped as the first streaks of sunlight appeared at the upper right of the black disk and in just a second had to put my eclipse glasses back on so I could continue to watch it.
In less than 5 seconds the light level was nearly back to a normal morning under a cloudless sky. We were so glad we made the trip.
This photo by Jay Pasachoff of Williams College was featured on the PBS NOVA episode about the eclipse and is a highly processed image designed to bring out the detail in the corona. In fact it shows more detail than I could see by eye, but it is closer to what I saw than the NASA photo I show above.
Meanwhile, back home, our rooftop 9.8kW solar system data showed a predictable dip in output during the eclipse.