So, you know when your friends or neighbors invite you to dinner and you get there only to find out it was a pretense to show you their vacation photos? Well, this is my blog version of that, and if that’s not your deal, here’s your warning to scroll past this lengthy post to get to your next cat meme. But I think I can tell a pretty good story, so maybe you’ll stay and read.
Husby and I went to see the total solar eclipse and we had an amazing time. We had loosely planned to go for some time, but because my life isn’t terribly predictable because of my mom care duties, we knew we might have to pull the plug (on the trip, not Mom). As luck had it, Mom’s health was good enough that I could put her in respite care at the local memory care home, and we knew the trip was ON!!! I almost had a change of heart when stupid Amazon sent me that email telling me the certified eclipse glasses I’d purchased MONTHS ago maybe weren’t actually certified at all, and I was warned not to use them. I’m kinda big on “omens” and I thought the universe was telling me we shouldn’t go. But my friends cyber-bitchslapped me, telling us to “JUST GO”. So we finally committed.
We took off early Sunday morning in Husby's AdventureWagen (a high top Volkswagen camper van that’s the apple of his eye). We were totally self-contained and we even have a porta potty so we were prepared for anything especially since news reports were saying it would be crazy down in Oregon with the influx of people and cars overwhelming mostly small communities. We carried extra gas just in case gas stations would run out (and some did). We had no particular destination in mind, we just knew that we would head as far south and east as we could possibly get in the time we had to drive. Since we live right on Admiralty Inlet, we knew that if you’re serious about seeing an eclipse, staying on the coast would be super risky, given that August mornings typically start out with a marine layer of clouds that don’t burn off until after noon. Going east meant better weather chances.
Our trip started out with a minor blip when we miscommunicated to each other about the route we would take over the Cascades. Our disagreement started when I asked Husby why he was going north and it went south from there. We got it all figured out though, and finally got our asses over the Pass. Snoqualmie to be exact.
The heavy traffic and nightmare conditions the news went on about never materialized and it was smooth sailing and bare roads all throughout Eastern Washington and Oregon. What luck! We made good time and as we neared the path of totality, I, being the Official Navigator™, started scoping out a place for us to land. Baker City, Oregon was one of the first places we stopped at the northern edge of the path. We went to get gas, and the the harried overworked gas jockey (can’t fill your own tank in Oregon), told us there was zero parking spots in town. Booked and oversold. I consulted my rest stop app on my phone, and told Husby there was a rest area 30 miles south, and even closer to the centerline of the path, which is where you want to be, ideally. So we headed south, hoping that the rest area wouldn’t be completely packed and that we would even be allowed to stay because rest areas do have rules about how long you can park there.
We finally pull into the rest area south of Baker City at milepost 335. There were people there, but it wasn’t packed by a longshot. Husby pulled the van into a level parking space and announced “this is it!”. But I had doubts. The rest area was really nice, but the problem that I could see was that we were flanked on both sides by mountainous hills. I was concerned that we were so deep in the valley, the sun wouldn’t be high enough to come over the tops of the mountains by eclipse time. I didn’t think we’d be able to view it there, and we’d have to move either north or south in the morning to find a spot. Husby thought my concerns were unfounded and I disagreed.
So we hop out of the van, and right next to where we were parked was a median type of island filled with decorative rock and we saw a couple of people working on what looked like a pretty sophisticated photography/telescope setup. One of the tri-pods (if you could call it that) was huge and had a big NASA logo on it. We approached them and I asked if they thought the sun would be high enough the next morning. They told us for sure it would be and they had been there since Friday and this rest area is the spot they chose, of all places. Turns out……..they were husband and wife retired astronomers from JPL!!! I don’t think there’s any better seal of approval in regard to eclipse viewing spots than THAT! Husby flashed the obligatory “I told you so” look and I wasn’t even upset. Ha ha. Mr. and Mrs. Astronomer were very nice to us and all the other people that approached them asking about their set-up. They were the rock stars there and you could tell they were loving it. Mr. Astronomer was personable and funny and made lots of jokes, like, “it’ll start snowing when the temperature drops during totality” and he had a blast giving out info to curious onlookers and especially the kids. He held their attention with fun facts about astronomy and how cool science is.
Soon, a lot of other people came with their camera/telescope/binocular set-ups and I dubbed it “Tri-pod Island”. Turns out, where we were in that deep valley in the middle of nowheresville, there was no cell service. For most people anyway. Those with Verizon still had service though. This is no plug for Verizon, but on many occasions where Husby and I have lost service (we have AT&T) people with Verizon did not, which is why we will be switching carriers soon. But not having cell service was actually a blessing, because people had to actually, you know, TALK to each other. I’m a major introvert with my nose in my phone constantly and this was a good thing for me. I put my now useless phone down and went to Tri-pod Island to take in the activity and bask in the good vibes that were coming at me from all directions. More people started coming into the rest area as the evening went on. Even as it got more crowded, everyone was happy and excited and we were all mingling and talking and wondering if those clouds that were present all day would clear by morning. I was pretty concerned about that myself.
In addition to meeting Mr. and Mrs. Astronomer, we met a lot of other really cool people on Tri-pod Island. A guy in a white van pulled in behind us shortly after we had gotten there. After he kind of got himself situated he came up to us and said hello. We said hello and asked “where are you from?” He said……Port Townsend! I laughed so hard and he looked at me quizzically. I said, “We’re from Port Townsend too!” I mean, of all the places we both could have ended up, here we all are in this little rest area and he even pulled up directly behind us. I just love coincidences like that. So of course, we engage in PT stories and gossip because that’s what we do in PT. We just made another friend for life!
Then, we met “The Brothers”. Jim and Dave. Two guys in their 70’s, small in stature, but big on personality, and they almost looked like twins. They travel together in what looks like a nondescript small white boxtruck. Something you wouldn’t look at twice in a parking lot. But Jim is an engineer, and he built out the box to make it into a completely soundproof, self contained living space. Bunks, a toilet, a shower, A/C, and a little cooking area. Freaking genius! They can travel anywhere and park anywhere and no one would ever guess there’s two guys living very comfortably in the back of that boxtruck. They named it their “Stealth Camper”. The other brother, Dave, is a traumatic brain injury survivor. He had gotten into a really bad accident when he was 18 and crashed his hot rod Chevy. He was in a coma for 5 weeks and he was clinically dead. To this day, his voice is soft and raspy from having a tracheotomy after the accident. He was adamant that I know that being dead was awesome and that I shouldn’t fear it. He wanted everyone on Tri-pod Island to know that. I could tell his spirit was free and he was one of the most happy people I’ve ever come across. I don’t think anybody could be in a bad mood around Dave. Especially when you find out that death is awesome. Boy, what a load off my mind. What really struck me is that it seemed that although Jim and Dave were there for the eclipse, they were more interested in the people around them.
What really amazed me, was this rest area was full of people and more people were coming as the day wore on. Everyone was considerate and never once was there a problem. People offered to help each other, provide food and drink or some comfort, such as a blanket when they saw someone might need it. That sense of community among strangers was so uplifting and I really felt it. There was no police presence although a few National Guardsmen did a pass-through just to make sure there weren’t any eclipse riots about to break out I guess. During the night, it was quiet as everyone slept in their cars. No loud partying or trouble ever happened. This event unified us. If ONLY what I felt there could be felt by our whole country. There were no divisions there….we were all united for one event and if you could feel the vibes coming off that rest area like I did, maybe you would feel the incredible hope that I had for our country that I felt. If we could all get our noses out of our devices and TALK to each other………I think you see what I’m trying to say here.
I saw a total solar eclipse in 1979 and it was a life experience that I’ll never forget. I was a junior in high school, geek extraordinaire, and a total astronomy buff. Our astronomy teacher helped facilitate our Eclipse Trip with my friends and other astronomy students and not only excused us from class, but gave us extra credits for going. He also ordered us sheets of mylar for us to look through so we wouldn’t have to make pinhole projectors. There were no “eclipse glasses” then! And you know what……our vision is FINE. I find it somewhat comical that there was so much hype over the eclipse glasses (and I even bought into it…..I mean, I knew the mylar was perfectly OK for this, but all the media coverage made me somewhat paranoid.) Anyway, that eclipse experience in ’79 had its miracles as well. It was in February and the weather was really dicey. The cloud cover was such that we really thought our trip to The Dalles was for naught. We pitched tents in what I call The World’s Worst Campground™. It was literally right next to train tracks. The campsites were really really close to the train tracks. And they were busy train tracks. A train came blasting through about every 30 minutes on average and in our tents it felt like the locomotives were running right over us. Of course none of us got any sleep. The next morning we groggily and grumpily decided to find the highest ground possible to view the eclipse if the weather decided to cooperate, and it didn’t look like it would. We managed to find a place overlooking the Columbia Gorge and we could see the town below us. Excellent spot. The clouds persisted though so we were pretty bummed out. But then……as the moon started taking it’s first “bite” out of the sun, the clouds parted like a curtain opening up on a movie show. We were treated to the most spectacular show and as totality neared, we could see the shadow come across the town below us and the street lights come on. And as I tell everyone ad nauseam, no photograph, no matter how good a photographer you are or what kind of equipment you have, EVER does a solar eclipse justice. This is one thing you must witness with your own eyes to appreciate the amazingness of it all. I’ve told Husby my eclipse story many times, but even he didn’t quite see why I was so enamored with the whole experience, and why totality is so important. Truthfully, partial eclipses, even the ones where 99% of the sun gets blocked out, are nothing compared to totality. Totality is a whole different thing and definitely worth seeing. Husby had never seen a total, and after his experience with it yesterday, he admitted to me that NOW he sees what I’m talking about. It’s a big deal.
Anyway, back to 2017. What really made me laugh is that rest area was next to train tracks. Not as close as in ’79, as we had a freeway in between us and the tracks, but nevertheless, the trains blasted through all night and I really didn’t get much sleep. The next morning I groggily and grumpily exited the van with my morning coffee and a blanket and made my way to my chair that I’d set up on Tri-pod Island. And yay, the sky was clear!!!! No doubt we were gonna see this thing! We offered coffee to our friends and we chatted all morning. You could feel the anticipation and excitement all through the rest area. Overnight, many other people came and we were amazed at how packed it had become. It was all orderly and calm though and no one caused any sort of problem. Well except one lady. She was yelling at people with cameras and at Husby directly, “You can’t take my picture! Don’t you dare take my picture! I know the law! I’ll call the police!” Geez, lady, unless you’ve changed your name to Moon Pie and you plan on blocking out the sun yourself, NO ONE WANTS TO TAKE YOUR PICTURE. I guess every crowd needs its psycho.
As I’m sitting and sipping my coffee, my ears caught the sound of bagpipes in the distance. Bagpipes? I love bagpipes! Someone is going to serenade us all on eclipse day! Cool! But then…….I made out the tune these bagpipes were playing……the theme to Star Wars……and I KNEW at that moment that the UNIPIPER was there! I couldn’t believe it. I LOVE THE UNIPIPER! If you’re not familiar with him, he rides on a unicycle in a kilt and a Darth Vader helmet playing the bagpipes, and often they are flaming bagpipes. He’s kind of the unofficial mascot for “Keep Portland Weird” and he was recently on the revived version of the Gong Show.
So let’s recap.
Smooth sailing and bare roads for our trip down
Clear warm weather
Great spot for viewing, approved by retired astronomers
Amazing fun people
AND THE UNIPIPER!
Of all the places the Unipiper could have appeared in Oregon, he appeared at our rest area in Nowheresville. How cool is THAT???? I couldn’t believe our good fortune.
And now for the part you’ve all been waiting for, the eclipse. Mr. and Mrs. Astronomer were stationed at their high tech setup and gave us all the play-by-play as it started to commence. “First bite!” he yelled out as the moon started to enter our field of view. It took quite a while for the moon to completely cover up the sun, and I carefully observed things around me as more and more of the sun got blocked out. It was interesting to note that even at 50% you really couldn’t discern any absence or dimming of sunlight at that point. Even at 75%. When it got to around 90%, the light started to dim noticeably, and it was a really eerie hue. Nothing like you would ever see at dawn or dusk really…..it was really cool. As totality neared the rest area quieted down significantly. As the sun finally got to barely a sliver, everybody started to whoop and holler. Then at totality, Mr. Astronomer yelled “Glasses off!”. We snatched off our eclipse glasses and the whole rest area erupted in a big cheer. We marveled at the spectacle before us and I made sure I absorbed every second of that minute and a half of totality. We saw the shadowbands on the ground, the parking lot lights come on, the stars come out and the temperature dropped 6 degrees. That minute and a half was way too short. Mr. Astronomer yelled “Glasses on!” and we saw the Diamond Ring Effect and totality was over. Everyone came away energized and excited and uplifted. To those that would say “What’s the big deal about an eclipse?”, well, if you were there at the rest area at milepost 335, you would know what the big deal was.
The moment of totality!!
There were people who got in their cars the SECOND after totality ended. You know, the same kind of people who leave a ballgame at the top of the ninth inning. Gotta beat the traffic! In hindsight, they were the smart ones, because the traffic hell we endured on the trip home was not fun at all and the price we had to pay for the perfection we experienced leading up to the eclipse. But it was a price we would gladly pay again for the experience we had.
I made us breakfast on our van cooktop, and we exchanged contact information with our new found friends before we parted ways around 11 am. Unforgettable. As Husby quipped to me this morning, “although the traffic was HELL and it took us 15 hours to get home, it was “TOTALITY” worth it.