Solar Eclipse

In May of 2012 I trundled my family down to southern Utah to see an annular eclipse. It was a fun experience, but what really got me excited was knowing that is was just a prelude to a full solar eclipse that was predicted to occur in August 2017.

“There’s going to be a solar eclipse just after my fortieth birthday!” I remember telling my mother-in-law, Kathryn. “I want to find the perfect viewing location and have all my family there!” I said this more as wish — I knew that coordinating plans with extended family was always tricky.

“Oh, gee, who knows where I’ll be then?” was her response.

“You don’t know where you’re going to be five years from now?” I replied.

And Kathryn was struck silent for a moment, mostly from the shock of realizing that Brian and I were only five years away from 40.

“I’m flattered that you still mentally think I’m in my 20s,” I teased.

But the funny thing is that after five years of waiting and nervous anticipation, I got what I wished for — and it wasn’t even something I planned.

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Brian and I didn’t initially plan to spend any time in Utah this summer — it was supposed to be the trip to Glacier, and nothing else — but then we ended up going to Utah anyway. (Such is the pull of the grandparents.)

Brian and I had made reservations at a hotel in Oregon just outside the eclipse path, so our plan was to drive straight from Utah to Oregon, see the eclipse, then drive home. None of our parents really had eclipse plans at all.

But then my dad revealed that all employees of LDS Welfare Services were invited to camp on one of the stake farms in eastern Idaho that happened to lie in the path of totality. My parents decided to wake up early on the 21st and drive up. Wouldn’t we like to join them?

At first, Brian and I decided to keep Idaho as a backup plan, but then decided to cancel the Oregon reservations. Eastern Idaho was chosen by NASA to be one of the best eclipse viewing locations in the country. Why would we want to go anywhere else?

Then Randy and Kathryn decided to go to Idaho as well (they stayed with some distant cousins the evening before the eclipse). Why not invite them to join us on the farm, too?

So even though I had given up on my birthday wish, it happened anyway.

The farm was one dedicated to growing wheat, but there was a pasture that was used for YW summer camps. We woke up in the middle of the night and drove to beat the traffic (turns out that the traffic predictions were overblown). We stopped at a gas station in Pocatello, ID and found it filled with excited eclipse-chasers from all over the country (we met people from Minnesota and Texas).

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There weren’t many people at the farm. A group of BYU students had camped there overnight, and they invited us to eat breakfast with them. Brian, who had been driving all morning long (and would be driving to Seattle afterwards) crashed for a few hours on an inflatable mattress my parents had put in the back of their SUV.

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We were all a little jittery, waiting for the eclipse to start. I spent time knitting more squares for a blanket I planned to donate to refugees, and my mom read some of the stories from her Neil Gaiman Norse Myths anthology.

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William is holding the Pringles-can eclipse viewer he made at Cub Scout Day Camp

Finally, it began — a little tiny bite taken out of the sun. William, Eleanor, and Katie began jumping up and down and cheering. We immediately began trying out all the eclipse experiments we’d read about (or done before with the annular eclipse).

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Kathryn was concerned about Katie taking off her eclipse glasses, so she made this paper-plate mask thing for her
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My parents strike a pose
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The little holes in my hat show the bitten-sun shape
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Seeing the eclipse through a colander
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One of the BYU students brought a telescope with a sun filter, and allowed us to use it
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Eleanor made models of the eclipse with Oreos

As the time for totality drew near, everyone in the camp drove out into the wheat fields and up on top of a ridge where sat some farm equipment and water tanks. It provided a marvellously unhindered view of the entire 360-degree horizon. The light began to grow dim and metallic, just as with the annular eclipse, and soon our shadows began to warp.

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Warped shadows at the bottoms of my fingers

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You can see crescent shapes in the “holes” we made with our fingers

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See how the light is beginning to dim? The temperature dropped as well. It was already windy on that hilltop, so I couldn’t say if the eclipse increased the wind.
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Behind us were a line of windmills. The dim light tricked them into thinking it was night, and all of their nighttime safety lights began to blink
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Even dimmer . . . almost there . . . 

Suddenly the light went from dim to dusk, very suddenly . . . it reminded me of someone turning down a dimmer switch for an electric light. And then . . . totality! None of my pictures — or any of the published photos I saw of this event — truly captured what it looked like. The moon seemed enormous in the sky. William and I started jumping up and down and squealing “oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh!” Brian came over and kissed me. Jeffrey did the same thing. We saw the shadow snakes on the poster board I brought.

The sky was the most beautiful shade of indigo, and the moon looked flat, like a smooth-sided coin or a button over the sun, with a thick band of light radiating from its edge – -starlight writ large. The entire horizon became sunset; with the rolling wheat field horizon it looked uncanny, like cover art from a 60s sci-fi paperback.

Katie came to me for some reason, and I knelt down next to her and asked her questions about what she saw. “Look, just look look look,” I urged her, hoping that it would be something she’d remember her whole life.

When the sun began to reemerge, I understood why people called that moment the “diamond ring” of an eclipse — in the split second before slipping my eclipse glasses back on, one edge of the moon held a burst of the most pure white light I’ve ever seen in my life. Both Brian and I remarked about it on the drive home.

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Speaking of which . . . as soon as totality was over (the dimmer switch brough the lights back on, and the temperature rose again) Brian hustled us straight back to the car for the drive home. We had to get all the way back to Seattle that day, and he was anxious to avoid traffic! But truthfully, Idaho invested so much resources into traffic management that we didn’t have any problems until we hit road construction in Montana. (And then more road construction in Snoqualmie Pass, ugh. We didn’t get home until midnight, but overall wasn’t as bad as we’d feared.)

Jeff stayed with my parents; he’d been invited to stay a week with friends in Ogden, then fly home as an unaccompanied minor.  So it was just the five of us for the drive home.

For the first hour of the drive, we kept gazing at the sun with our eclipse glasses on, watching the “bite” grow smaller and smaller until the sun was a whole circle again. Out of all my kids, William was the most enthralled by the experience, his whole little body vibrating with excitement. After a few minutes in the car, he begged for paper and pens, and then began to draw pictures of the eclipse, trying to process it all. I don’t blame him. I haven’t fully processed it myself, and I’m not sure I want to. Even though I know every single scientific explanation for what happens during totality, I want to preserve some element of mystery. Kings of old were struck dead from eclipses. Part of me should keep that same kind of awesome wonder.

Sometime during the breakfast at the camp, someone remarked to Randy that he was impressed that my kids had both sets of grandparents together for the eclipse. “Of course,” Randy replied. “We’re a celestial family.”

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