When I was growing up, I was obsessed with astronomy. By the time I reached 9 years of age, I’d probably read every book in the astronomy section at my local library and pored over the amazing facts of our solar system and the universe. One of my childhood dreams back then was to work for NASA Mission Control. The other was to experience a total solar eclipse.
I ended up not pursuing astronomy in college, but my enthusiasm for the subject stayed with me. So in 2015 when I found out that Oregon would be under the path of totality, I started looking for travel buddies to see the “Great American Eclipse”. It only took one-and-a-half years of asking around, and eventually it would be my family and I, driving down to Oregon to see this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
Fast forward to August 19, 2017, and we’re driving down to Corvallis from Seattle. The news media had made a huge deal about “apocalyptic” traffic jams that would put entire highways in gridlock, and we had expected to be stuck in hours-long backups. That wasn’t the case. Aside from the usual slowdowns on I-5 S, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. That wasn’t to say there was no congestion in Oregon at all. Drivers going to the small towns of Prineville and Madras in eastern Oregon experienced miles-long backups with vehicles at a standstill. After reaching Corvallis with almost no traffic delay, I was thankful not to have chosen to go east.
The night before the eclipse, I scouted out viewing locations on Google Maps and by foot. Chip Ross Park, just a mile from where we were staying, was very promising, with its panoramic view of Corvallis to the east, and the Cardwell Hills to the north and west. Using the Stellarium mobile app, I determined that we would see the eclipse once the Sun reached 38 degrees above the horizon. There would be no obstruction from trees, hills, or any structures natural or man-made. I raced down from the hill, elated, ready to get a good night’s sleep for tomorrow.
Eclipse day finally arrived, after two long years of anticipation. I woke at 6:30 AM to check the weather. No clouds! I rejoiced. By 8 AM, we were headed to Chip Ross Park in Corvallis, where we would be for the next two-and-a-half hours. There was already a long line of cars parked outside, and many people were walking up the steep, narrow trails. We weren’t even close to being the first ones on the hill. About a hundred people had already made their way up, with their dogs, telescopes, cameras, and even drones, eager for the celestial event that was about to unfold. As more and more people ascended the hill, we found a prime viewing spot near the very top, 800 feet above sea level and 300 feet above the surrounding terrain. All we had to do now was to wait and watch.
The hour before first contact seemed an eternity. But at 9:06, through my solar viewing glasses, I saw the Moon barely nick the outer limb of the Sun. First contact had happened, and the eclipse was in progress. By this time, over 500 had gathered on the hill. Some cheered for the start of the eclipse, others exclaimed “I don’t see anything!” Whatever they saw, it was only a shadow of what was to come.
With each passing minute, the Moon would blot out 1.3% more of the Sun. For the first fifteen or so minutes after first contact, the day was just like any other sunny, cloudless August day in Oregon. At 30% obscuration, I started feeling a very slight temperature drop accompanied by cooler winds. At 40%, the pale yellow grass around me started becoming a deeper and darker tone. A plane took off from somewhere south of the park, presumably to chase the shadow. I kept checking the Sun through my solar filter glasses every two minutes or so. What started as a minuscule black spot on the north-east edge of the Sun became a dent, then a cookie bite, and then a sizable hole.
According to past observations from eclipse chasers and scientists, animals act as if the oncoming darkness was the result of the Sun setting. Diurnal animals would sleep, and nocturnal animals would come out. At Chip Ross Park, the only animals I saw were a few annoying mosquitoes the night before, but even they did not respond to the darkening shadow.
As the minutes passed, the sky above us continued to darken while the horizon remained light, the wheat-colored grass took on a pastel, burnt-yellow color, and our shadows began to sharpen. I felt my eyes strain, not from looking directly at the Sun, but rather from constantly adjusting to the decreasing lighting and contrast. But I knew it wasn’t sunset, and the colors on the ground seemed too fake to suggest sunset. By this time, about 700-1000 people had already settled in, and very few were still on their way up. Chip Ross Park was ready for the spectacle.
At 80% obscuration, weather balloons appeared high in the sky, so high that many of us mistook them for stars. On the ground, I stuck my right hand out to see its shadow on my friend’s white wool blanket. And I saw something truly horrifying — I was starting to grow extra fingers!
Just kidding. This is a common phenomenon during an eclipse, where sunlight streaming through small gaps and holes will show the crescent portion of the Sun not yet covered by the Moon. It’s the basis of how pinhole projectors work.
From 90% obscuration to the seconds before totality, the sky grew increasingly dark, the contrast on the ground became ever shallower, with the wheat grass almost blending into the color of our shadows. The air had become noticeably chiller by about 7 degrees. I refused to put on a jacket. The dip in temperature was something to embrace, not hide from.
At 95% and as the landscape became increasingly surreal, I looked toward the ground and saw an incredibly rare phenomenon, even by total eclipse standards. Wisps of darkness flowed swiftly up the hill on the path that we walked, rippling past our feet like dust blown by the wind. Shadow snakes as they’re nicknamed, have been observed since at least 1842 but to this day, scientists aren’t exactly sure what causes them. On video, shadow snakes seem almost like a glitch with the recording equipment. In person, the effect is ethereal, almost too strange to behold.
Minutes before totality became seconds before totality. Shadows seemed to melt into the grass, uniting with the increasingly dim light around them. I looked up at the Sun through my filter glasses one last time. Only a sliver of orange light remained. After two years of watching hundreds of simulations, photographs, and videos, the last speck of sunlight receded behind the Moon’s outer limb as second contact came. All around me, the crowd cheered. I screamed in joy.
The moment I saw the million-degree-hot corona shooting out in all directions from the sun was the moment I knew this trip was worth it. It wasn’t just the sun that changed character between 99% and 100%. With the Moon sliding slowly into the sun, the sky as I knew gave way to a dusky atmosphere of sheer beauty, something so alien and yet familiar. Sure, I knew what was coming. But to actually be in the Moon’s shadow with the deep blue sky above and the pale blue around the horizon, there was no comparison. To see just how black the Moon appeared in the sky, no image can capture. To see the dark void of where the sun was in the sky, orange flares dotting its edge and the whole thing enveloped in filaments of light with two prominent wispy tails jetting out millions of miles from the sun’s surface — no simulation, no video, no second-hand account prepared me for that sight.
I scrambled to document the moment and in the process, did everything I told friends not to do during totality. I took a video of my reaction and the crowd’s. I took a picture of the sun’s corona. I even took a self-portrait with the 100% eclipsed Sun in the background. The excitement of being directly under the Moon’s shadow was too much for me to bear.
When totality started, I thought I knew exactly how long the one minute and forty-five seconds would last. I was counting down the seconds in my head. During the last ten seconds of totality, one of the spectators next to me pointed to the sky and asked “What is that bright orange spot on the top left of the Moon?” My heart sank, as I realized I had way overestimated the duration of totality. It didn’t help that I tried to capture the moment on a smartphone when I should have just looked straight into the sky. I knew right away that the orange spot was sunlight poking through one of the numerous valleys and craters on the Moon. The eclipse was about to be over, and third contact was seconds away. Sure enough, it took only five seconds before that orange spot became an orb of increasingly bright light, pushing the darkness out of its way and illuminating the ground below. Shadows began to appear, and the drop of sunlight restored the deep shade of yellow to the grass. Sunlight once again streamed through to the park, like a dimmer switch slowly being pushed up.
When all of totality was over, the crowd gathered clapped. I clapped with my mouth wide open, out of words to say or shout. We stayed on the hill for about 15 more minutes, peeking at the Sun occasionally through our special glasses. As the world around us slowly returned to normal, we hiked down the mountain and saw a final reminder of what had happened.
Looking at those shadows, I smiled. All my life I had waited to see this phenomenon. Over two years ago, I first found out about this eclipse. Two weeks ago I finally knew we were headed to Corvallis to chase the umbra. Two days ago we left Seattle for the experience of a lifetime. And two hours ago? That’s when I knew we were in the right place, at the right time.
Like the millions who came to Oregon to witness this historic event, we were ready to head home. The traffic on the highways was like nothing I had ever seen. As the Moon and Sun set together and light turned to dark, we were still crawling along I-5. At 3 AM the next day, we finally reached home. I jumped into bed, my childhood dream fulfilled. The two minutes of totality was worth the tripled commute time home. I saw with my eyes a sight so fleeting, yet profound. Ephemeral, yet unforgettable. I stood under the shadow of the Moon.