WEBSITE UPDATE: ECLIPSE REDUX

WEBSITE UPDATE: ECLIPSE REDUX

“When suddenly, and without warning, there was this total eclipse
of the sun…”
Little Shop of Horrors

Witnessing a total eclipse is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, and that’s definitely what I thought it would be when I set off for Lewistown, Montana with my husband, daughter, and our friend, science-fiction writer Ed Bryant in 1979.

It seems foolhardy now to have driven across the wilds of Wyoming and Montana, famous for their blizzards, in the dead of winter, but we were blessed with great weather all the way, and when we arrived in Lewistown, we found what Ed described as a “Woodstock for geeks,” hundreds of people with cameras and eye patches (to help your eyes adjust to the darkness) and telescopes, all talking about pinhole cameras and shielded lenses and telescope settings and Baily’s beads. And the weather.

ESPECIALLY the weather. Eclipse-viewing is fraught with the anxiety that comes with having no control over what happens. Just because you’ve driven 750 miles, there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually get to see the eclipse. All you can do is show up at the right place at the right time and hope the sky’s clear.

Which it wasn’t when we got up at five a.m. the morning of the eclipse. It was completely overcast, and we had to decide whether to head to Helena (which a number of people did) or stay where we were.

We stayed put, which turned out to be the right thing to do–Helena was completely fogged in. (Though we can’t claim any credit for making a smart decision. It could just as easily have turned out the other way around, and we’d have missed the eclipse altogether.)

But, whatever, as the partial eclipse started, the clouds began to thin, and half an hour before totality, they parted altogether, and we got to see everything: Baily’s beads, the diamond ring effect, and, best of all, the shadow bands. I’d read about the other things, but not them. They happen because the eclipse is already total west of you and the ground under it in shadow, so if you’re in an open area, you can see the darkness rush toward you across the fields like the wings of some huge bird. Except that there’s no accompanying rush of wind, no sound, and watching it swoop down on me across the snow, I could see why early humans were terrified by eclipses.

The eclipse itself was amazing. The blur of the corona flickered pinkly around the blacked-out sun, and an orange-red solar flare lashed out on one side as we stared transfixed at it. Afterward, people clapped, Ed shouted, “Encore, encore!” and a group of college kids stuck a tape of “Here Comes the Sun!” into their car’s tape player.
“One of us should write a story about this,” I said.
“Well, we can’t both write one,” Ed said. “They’d be too much alike. The first one to finish theirs gets dibs on the eclipse.”

 

I don’t believe for a minute that our stories would have been anything alike, but nevertheless, I wrote mine in the back seat of the car on the way home. It was called “And Come from Miles Around” and explained why the weather cleared up so miraculously. Now I’m sorry–I’d have loved to read Ed’s eclipse story. And I’d have loved to have him with us at this year’s eclipse, which was even total in Wheatland, his hometown.

We didn’t go there–or anywhere in Wyoming. The word was that the state’s population was going to triple on August twenty-first, and they were predicting bumper-to-bumper traffic north on I-25. (Sadly, that turned out to be true, and I read several accounts of people who were stuck in their cars and who ran out of gas–in short supply–or who couldn’t make it up to the area of totality in time, and missed the eclipse altogether.)

We also knew I-25 was pretty much the only route north for people from Denver, Colorado Springs, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and points south, so we decided to go to Nebraska instead. We picked Kearney because 1) August weather in Nebraska is usually sunny in the morning, with the thunderstorms not usually building up till late afternoon and 2) there were still hotels available there when we tried to get reservations in January.

We made our daughter get plane reservations at the same time, and last Sunday set out for the eclipse, taking back roads to avoid the mess on I-80. Once in Kearney, we connected with my husband’s cousin (who’d gone to Minden), a college friend of my daughter’s, and a science-fiction friend, who’d all convened for the big event, and congratulated ourselves on the fact that the weather forecast said sunny.

 

Not so fast, Mother Nature said. That afternoon the forecast abruptly changed from sunny to “intermittent clouds” and then “cloudy,” and when we got back to our hotel a group of seventy-two Minnesotans staying there were anxiously consulting their computers and talking about going back to Alliance (four hours away) to try to get west of the front. Should we?

We fretted (and/or dreamed) about it all night long, woke up to cirrus clouds that looked like they might get thicker, and sat through an anxious breakfast, looking out the window and trying to decide what to do. In the end, we decided to stay where we were, just like we had in Montana, except for going thirty miles north to the little town of Ravenna, which was on the center line, to gain an extra thirty seconds of totality.

On our way there, we passed people parking along the road with binoculars and picnic lunches, and Ravenna itself was full of signs directing you to eclipse T-shirts (already sold out) and viewing locations. We settled on a big green field in city park because 1) there was room for my husband to set up his telescopes, cameras, and pinhole-camera viewing devices, and 2) there was plenty of shade, though we weren’t going to need it if the clouds got thicker.

They didn’t. By ten a.m. the clouds had dwindled to wisps, and by 10:30, they’d disappeared altogether, and I’d stopped worrying. In the field with us were people from Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Texas, and even Ravenna, though they pointed out that they could sit in their own front yards and watch it. The atmosphere was less Woodstock than Picnic, with lots of kids running around, people sharing watermelon, pears, homemade cookies, and viewing tips.

 

Everyone was really well-informed, except for one guy who said, “Once it gets to 95% total, you can look at it with the naked eye.”
“No, you can’t!” everyone else, even the kids, shouted, and kept their glasses on as the moon kept taking bite after bite out of the sun.

It began to get noticeably cooler, the colors of the sky and field and surrounding trees seemed to grow sharper and clearer, a rooster crowed, and the kids called me over to look at the road through the park, where the trees were acting as a pinhole camera and making dozens and dozens of crescent-shaped shadows on the white gravel.

It got even cooler, the light began to dim (oddly, not in a smooth progression, but in abrupt steps, like what happens when you switch a lamp from bright to medium to dim), and the rooster got more hysterical. He sounded like he was shouting, “WHAT is going ON?” and continued to crow right through the eclipse to the very end of the partial.

The sky turned sapphire and then dark, dark blue, and, to the east and west, you could see the sunset, all pink and yellow. Venus came out, bats began circling, and everyone got out their cameras.

I actually missed the start of the total eclipse. I was scanning the ground to the west, looking for the shadow bands, someone shouted, “There it is!” there was a collective gasp, and I looked up.
And there it was.

It looked completely different than it had been in Montana, where there must have been some haze obscuring it. This time the outline was sharp and defined and the sun coal black, jet black, pitch black. It looked like a hole had literally been punched in the sky. Around it, the corona was ghostly white, feathery, and just as sharply defined against the navy-blue sky in which Venus glittered and the stars could be seen if you really looked. At one o’clock in the afternoon.

Words can’t really describe how beautiful it was. I’ve seen lots of pictures and videos of eclipses, but they’re pale and flat compared to the real thing, and, as I learned in Ravenna, each one is completely different. I can see why people become eclipse chasers.

Afterward, giddy with delight, we said goodbye to everybody, had lunch at the local Creamery, and went back to Kearney to try to track down T-shirts of the occasion, finally succeeding at the T-shirt screening place, which printed out a new batch just for us. While we waited, we chatted with a family who’d come all the way from Plymouth, England, to see the show. “There won’t be one in Europe during our lifetime, so we decided to come here,” they said, and they were really glad they had. Just like we were.

That night we toasted Ed Bryant, the sun, the moon, and eclipses in general, and started making plans to go to the next one. Which you should definitely go to. There’s one on April 8, 2024, which goes north from Texas through Missouri, Chicago, Indiana, and New York, and then another on August 12, 2045, which starts a little south of where this one was and goes all across the U.S., ending in Florida. And I won’t have to go farther than Colorado Springs to see it. If I’m still here. But even if I’m not, I’ve gotten to see two total eclipses in the United States in my lifetime. To say nothing of a bunch of partial eclipses and lunar eclipses, the aurora borealis, Comet Kohoutek , the Perseids, and Halley’s Comet. But I have to say this was the best!

Connie Willis

P.S. Just in case you were worrying about those people who went to Alliance, we at first heard they were clouded over, then that they’d seen it just fine. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Lancaster, Kansas, Nashville, and parts of Charleston, South Carolina. I’m so sorry you didn’t get to see it!

P.P.S. My story “And Come from Miles Around” can be found in my short story collection, FIRE WATCH.

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