Brain on Parks Special Report: 2017 Eclipse, ‘The Eclipsining’

“TURN AROUND, BRIGHT EYES…”

Eclipse-mania was in full swing from coast to coast in the days leading up to Monday, August 21, 2017, otherwise known as ‘Eclipse Day’.

Having planned the details of my trip route long before I became aware of the eclipse, I had originally thought of visiting Mt. Rainier National Park during this time, following my excursions in Glacier National Park.  My brother-in-law and week-long travel partner Andy, however, had other plans.  As a Middle School Science Teacher, witnessing the totality of a solar eclipse was apparently a ‘bucket-list’ item for my sister’s geeked-out husband, and we thus made haste for Baker City, OR after three days in Glacier.  Online reports listed Madras, OR as expecting over 100,000 visitors, and I quickly made an executive decision that we would NOT be heading in that direction.

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As someone whose interest in the total solar eclipse was, in a word, tepid, I found a great degree of humor in the fervor surrounding the event.  I had both read and heard reports that the next solar eclipse would not take place in the continental United States “in our lifetimes,” “for 76 years,” or even, “ever again.”  The fact of the matter is that the next total solar eclipse in the United States will indeed occur on April 8, 2024 (just in time for President Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s reelection campaign), and major cities such as Dallas, Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Buffalo will be along the path of totality.  Ok, ok, ‘major’ might be a bit of a stretch for the latter two, but each has at least two major pro sports teams, so they count…  I am preemptively dubbing this event, “Eclipse 2:  Revenge of the Moon – Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the sunlight!”

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We arrived at our destination roughly two hours prior to totality, and the sun was shining as brightly as could be expected for 8-something in the morning on a summer day in Eastern Oregon.  Without prior astronomical knowledge, a casual observer would have been puzzled as to the impetus for hundreds of out-of-town visitors descending on this hitherto unknown and unpopular region of the country.  After demolishing a quick, cheap breakfast of McGriddles sandwiches and hash browns at the adjacent McDonald’s (certain cost-cutting measures must be implemented in the name of cheap travel, and on this morning, the Golden Arches were an unfortunate necessity), we set up folding chairs in a grassy area off of the highway exit and awaited the event.  Andy and I were not the only onlookers with this idea, and soon the lawn was filled with spectators eagerly awaiting the brief moments of impending darkness.  A quick scan of the license plates in the parking lots revealed travels from across the country, and, in fact, a great many from the Great White North.  British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and even Ontario plates were all on display, and it became clear that this phenomenon was not contained within our borders.

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Two peculiar side-effects of the eclipse occurred just before totality.  The first was the sudden drop in temperature.  I had expected it to cool off slightly, but was unprepared for the sheer plummet that would correspond with just a few moments of obscured sunlight.  Andy had been wearing shorts and a t-shirt and quickly grabbed his sweatshirt out of the car as I rolled down my sleeves and shivered slightly.  The second notable side-effect of the eclipse was the sudden brightening of the street lights, which everyone in the crowd learned, are not set on timers, but are indeed photosensitive.  These lights flickered on about five minutes before totality occurred, and remained on for a few minutes longer after the eclipse.  It may seem a small thing, but the idiosyncrasy of watching street lights blink on at 10:00 a.m. is a fascinating sight to behold indeed.

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The moment finally arrived, and hundreds of pairs of eyes gazing up at our burning star, waiting for it to be momentarily snuffed and relit, as if by a divine hand.  Andy watched through his darkened eclipse glasses while I took shot after shot of the tango of the two celestial bodies on my slightly busted camera (see Day 3 of the Glacier National Park post for the detailed account of my camera’s misfortune).  Totality lasted just over a minute, but in the moment, it seemed just seconds.  As quickly as the sun had been cast aside, it burst forth with renewed vigor, brightening the fields, faces, and freeways for miles around.

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All-told, I believe the drive four hours out of the way to view an uncommon, but by no means ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event such as this was likely worth it, though until I endeavor to visit Mt. Rainier National Park again in the future, I will ponder what earthly beauty I forewent in favor of celestial happenstance…

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