To begin with, I did not intend to make a journey – a pilgrimage – to see the May 20 annular solar eclipse. The reason is not that I am indifferent to such a spectacle, but that for a long time, I have operated under the principle that if seeing the wonders of the sky – or any other wonders – involves expense or training or any significant break in the daily work routine, then I am not entitled to it. I suspect this attitude – what my husband teasingly refers to as my “poverty consciousness,” stems from being the child of working class parents who came of age in the Great Depression, and who as a young person myself rarely had much disposable income. What I did not understand then, and am coming to understand as I get older, is that life is an adventure to be lived, not scrimped through.
Studying astronomy had been somewhere on my list. I call it a “wistful list,” or maybe a “wishful list,” not a “bucket list.” The litany went, Someday when I have time…but the nearest community college is a 45 minute drive away… but the classes are at night and night-time driving in the mountains is exhausting… but… but…” Then last spring I saw an announcement for Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, a one-week intensive course for science fiction writers held at University of Wyoming Laramie, created and directed by astronomer/sf writer Mike Brotherton, and funded by NSF. “They’ll never take me,” I thought, “I write fantasy these days.” But it’s just as important for fantasy (and horror, and Romance, and thriller, and mystery writers) to get the science right. So I applied.
They accepted me. I danced around the house, whooping with delight. That summer, I proceeded to get my brains stuffed with amazing facts and ways of looking at the universe; I met fantastic writers and scientists, and shared their passion for exploring – by telescope, space shuttle or imagination – beyond the borders of our home planet. Every day,
my mind was filled to overflowing with story ideas and incredibly nifty data; at night, we gazed at the stars for ourselves. If I had not been willing to take that chance, to say, “Hey, what about me?” then I would have missed out on so much.
Fast forward a year, and there will be an annual eclipse of the sun (one in which the occlusion is incomplete, so there remains a “ring of fire” around a dark central shadow), visible not too far away (but too far to drive and then return home easily in the same day). The old “poverty consciousness” voices began their murmuring. Never mind that this is the closest I’d be able to see a solar eclipse from (or that it doesn’t involve staying up until 3 am, another bugaboo that assumes more importance as the decades pass). My neighbor and walking partner said, “I’ve booked a motel room near Lassen so I can go up and see the eclipse, and I’m looking for someone to share the room.”
And the world stopped.
I thought, “I’m 65 years old and I’ve never seen a solar eclipse. Chances are, I will never have another opportunity, at least not one so close and so convenient. Not to mention the congenial company. It would be an awful shame – no, an outright crime – to let a couple of hundred dollars become an insurmountable obstacle. If the credit card bill isn’t paid off by the time I die, at least I will have seen an eclipse.”
She arranged for the motel room. I obtained the solar eclipse shades. We shared the driving.
All the information we had been given was that the best place to view the annular solar eclipse was from Lassen Volcanic National Park from either of two parking lots, plus there would be an educational presentation at the Information Center auditorium. Life, however, does not always follow what is given out in magazine articles and websites. When, after a morning of hiking around Lake Almador, we arrived at the park entrance, a long line of cars awaited us. The time for the presentation approached, with almost no forward progress. At last, when the entrance kiosk came into view, a Park Ranger informed us that not only was the parking lot full, or about to become so, but that we would not be able to view the entire eclipse from the park. She advised driving to Redding, about 90 miles away. She suggested the Mineral Vista Point, considerably closer, but thought that the parking area might already be full.
When we arrived at the Vista Point, some 10 miles down the road, the formal parking areas were full, but we found a shady spot off the road. I suspected that we would be only the first of many to park there, and I was right. We found an astronomer setting up a telescope and camera with special solar lenses. Before long, we’d struck up conversations not only with him, but his physicist friend and wife, and a family from San Jose. (I confess, I broke the ice here when I noticed the teen wearing a shirt saying, “Bow Ties Are Cool,” and began a Whovian conversation, during which my friend Chris – who is an ardent Trekkie – entered into a spirited debate with the young man on the relative merits of DS9 and TNG, therefore imbuing the viewing with some of the flavor of a gathering of fans.) That family had brought a welding visor, and father and son busily figured out how to take photos of the eclipse through the visor glass plus the eclipse glasses.
Quite a number of people arrived without eye protection, most of whom had counted on being able to buy the glasses at the park. (The park, of course, had been sold out days before.) I’d brought 3 pairs, one for each of us plus a spare, and we passed them around, making sure that everyone got a chance to safely view the progress of the eclipse from time to time. There was a party at the end of the parking lot, older people who’d set up lawn chairs and tables, and were drinking wine and chatting, with not a single pair of shades in sight. As the Moon began to move across the Sun (taking a “bite” out of the golden cookie, as it were), I went over to offer a peek through my shades. “Oh, is it starting?” one of the women asked. “Look and see,” I said. So she did, exclaiming in delight. I went over a couple of times more, but they’d gotten some shades from another group who had extras.
There was fun and there was awe. The fun was being with people who quickly ceased to be strangers. Some were very
knowledgeable, like the physicist, who not only set up a pinhole viewer but demonstrated how to create an image through the ventilation holes in his hat. I think the most moving sight of the viewers was a woman quadriplegic on a gurney, and the attentions of her husband in making sure she could see safely. (He also took the best photographs of any of us, except for the astronomer.)
Once we’d established ourselves in a suitable viewing area, hoping fervently that the clouds we’d seen earlier would remain cooperatively absent, the countdown began. Solar eclipse shades are very cool things, if a bit hokey. They’re cheaply made, like glasses used for 3-D movies, but the film has to cut out all the harmful rays from the Sun in order to allow direct viewing, so everything else looks utterly black. I’ve spent my lifetime Not Looking Directly At The Sun, so at first it was odd (to say the least) to put on these black-out shades and do just that. The Sun appeared as the single luminous object in a field of black.
And then…a tiny dimple appeared in the orange disk. At first, I wasn’t sure I hadn’t hallucinated it. Or that it was an effect of what happens when I blink wearing my contact lenses (which ride very high on my corneas, so there’s a moment of distortion until they settle back into their proper position). But no, there it was. And a few minutes later, there it was-with-attitude. To say I’d never seen anything like it is an understatement. I’d seen movies in which eclipses were portrayed via special effects. I’d seen pictures and photos and diagrams. But this…I was seeing this with my own eyes and it was happening right now. It wasn’t in a book or a film, it was the actual real event. Instead of looking at a two-dimensional image, I was intensely aware of the vast spaces, of stars and planets and moons in their orbits, of the physics of light (what little I understand of it). The cosmos isn’t just something on a television program, it’s out there for real. Most of the time, my scope of vision (physical vision, not imagination) is so limited. This was a glimpse of how big (and how amazing) our tiny corner of the universe really is.
So we watched as the nibble in the Sun grew larger. Jokes about the Cookie Monster abounded, as well as discussions about whether that was two-thirds or three-quarters. As the Moon covered more of the Sun, the quality of the light changed. Although the Sun was still quite high in the sky, it felt like twilight approaching. The temperature fell and a breeze sprang up. We speculated on how the birds would react to the full eclipse. People who did not have solar shades used various methods to observe the eclipse. The most fun of these were variations on the pinhole method (you hold up a piece of paper or similar materials with a tiny hole punched in it, and the sunlight coming through will cast an image on the surface of a screen (or sidewalk). You can also create a “pinhole” using the ventilation holes in a hat – or your hands. We made quite a lot of shadow puppets with crescent sun-images.
The Sun had become a fat crescent and then a thin one, and finally we could see the shape of the Moon as a complete
circle. A hush fell over our little group as the place where the Moon had first impinged on the Sun began to glow. A complete ring appeared, and through the solar shades, both the central Moon and the surrounding sky were utterly black. People cheered and then hushed.
The full eclipse lasted about four minutes. I spent almost all that time looking at it (as opposed to checking every few minutes during the occlusion). At one point, perhaps a minute into the fullness, it appeared to me like the One Ring from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, hanging there above us all. No flaming eye made its appearance, thank goodness. The few times I lowered my shades, I noticed that even that thin ring of Sun was enough to make it day. Our shadows had doubled edges, though.
The four minutes passed all too quickly, and then the ring at the far side of where the Moon had first appeared began to thin and then to disappear, and the Sun became a thin crescent, and then a fat one. The “reveal” was much less momentous than the occlusion and seemed to go faster. I think the effect was psychological rather than astronomical, and perhaps we were all still in a state of awe from viewing the Ring of Fire.
We shared solar shades, we shared snacks, we shared knowledge and geekery. We shared kindness and wonder. And then, after a couple of hours, we all went away.
The next morning, my co-conspirator Chris and I drove up to Lassen Volcanic National Park, as she had never been there before and it seemed a shame to drive all the way and not see any of it. The road was closed by snow only a few miles past the entrance, but we stopped to goggle at the snow-draped mountains and sulfur vents. As the perfect ending to our adventure, we met a trio of avid cross-country skiers, preparing for the day’s outing. We swapped eclipse stories and theirs topped ours, hands down. They’d made the ascent to the top of Lassen, broken open a bottle of champagne while they watched the eclipse, and then skied back down.
An expanded version of this diary will appear on my blog in installments. http://deborahjross.blogspot.com/