In the movie “The Dark Crystal,” there is an event that occurs every 999 years (“The Great Conjunction”) in which the three suns converge and create a powerful beam of light. The light tore a rift in the earth, revealing the Dark Crystal. It also allowed the creation of the evil Skekses and burned up one of astronomer Aughra’s eyes when she looked at it. A prophecy was made that another creature, a gelfling, must travel far across the land and heal the crystal in order to get rid of the Skekses. While my journey to the Great American Eclipse was no such great pilgrimage, and contained no mystical creatures, good or evil, it was still worth writing home about. I probably could’ve even gotten a crystal from some hippie at SolarFest.
As I was driving, I wondered how many other people on the road were going to the same place I was (likely), and how many had taken the same exact path (not as likely, as I made several loop-de-loop detours). I visualized all the paths taken to and from the Path of Totality through the heart of Oregon, and for some reason this visualization manifested itself in the form of slug trails, and I began imagining all those shiny lines of slime heading to Madras, where all we slugs would ultimately shrivel up in the 90 degree heat (it was a long boring drive, okay?)
I had anticipated more of a to-do (an apocalypse, really; anyone else read the Oregonian?) and brought a 5-gallon gas can, a big water jug, enough Kind cranberry-chocolate-almond bars to last a year, even cds (real cds!) to listen to so I wouldn’t run my phone battery down playing iTunes. As it was, I could count the number of folks on 197/97 into Madras without even using my toes. I left Portland (my first waypoint) at 5:30am on Saturday, and rolled into Madras just before 9am. My aunts weren’t even awake yet by the time I hauled all my stuff into the trailer.
“You’re just like your mother,” they said. She’d left from Eastern Oregon about that time the day before, too.
I spent the weekend alternately exploring the hillside near the trailer park and hiding out in the air conditioning watching Anne of Green Gables on VHS and making jewelry with my crafty aunt Shirley. There is a neat trail that goes through the gully out Willow Creek Road in Madras. It passes under the “new” train trestle, past a few meager waterfalls, through a gauntlet of towering rock formations, and winds its way down from there. It used to be a railroad to Metolius, apparently, and you can see piles of rubble where they dynamited the old train tunnels along the way. Some of the rock faces now have bolts in them for climbing, but other than that they were untouched. It seemed odd (sadly) to me that no one had tagged them, yet. Mom and I talked about the proclivity of people to value history over current events — how differently graffiti and homeless camp trash are viewed in comparison with ancient cave paintings and piles of discarded shells or animal bones. How humans have never been particularly bothered to “leave no trace,” and wondering when our “trash” will turn to “treasure.”
The night before the eclipse, we all watched “Dolores Claiborne” and decorated our eclipse glasses with leftover holiday stickers one of my aunts wanted to get rid of. Not that one needs an excuse to watch it (who doesn’t need to hear the line “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to” regularly?) but the fact that the climax of the plot takes place during a total solar eclipse made it particularly poignant for this weekend. We were miffed that Kathy Bates got a 6+ minute eclipse and we were only going to get a little over two minutes – that’s hardly time to murder someone and cover it up!
The two minutes was worth it, though. After breakfast on the day of the eclipse, I packed up all my camera gear and we headed to the field next to the trailer park. People were hiking their way up the hillside to the plateau for a better view. I could’ve done, but I was there to spend the eclipse with family. We all had our decorated eclipse glasses, each a unique blend of cleverly cut foam Halloween stickers and feathers, and when the new moon took its first bite out of the sun shortly after 9am, we all put them on and turned our faces to the sky.
Then we got bored. As amazing as the total eclipse part is, the 2+ hours while the sun and moon converge and split gets old. I got a crick in my neck. My face grew hot. I had a headache from focusing my eyes so intensely for so long. We chatted. We drank water. We took silly pictures. We tried to take photos of the eclipse with our phones through our eclipse glasses. I’d have given anything for a selfie with a Skesis right about then.
Around 10, there was a noticeable change in light. It wasn’t like sunset, or rise, because the light was coming from high up in the sky, but it had a strange, “watered down” quality. The landscape around us appeared 2D. My uncle reported that the mourning doves across the field had started setting up to roost. I switched lenses on my camera and set it on the tripod.
At 10:15 we were all fixated on the sun with our glasses on, and the last sliver was disappearing. People up in the hills and all around the field started whooping and hollering. I thought it was funny for people to be cheering for the sun’s disappearance. A thousand years ago we would have been cowering in fright and thinking about our impending doom (and probably burning out our retinas, too).
I watched until the last tiny bead of sunlight disappeared behind the moon, then whipped my glasses off. I wasn’t wasting any of my two minutes and ten seconds wearing those, no matter how awesomely decorated they were. The cheering grew louder, even as the people doing it disappeared into the temporary dusk. The ring of the eclipse was faint at first, then it bled out farther, pretty suddenly. I watched it for a few seconds, then remembered: photo! All my best-laid plans of taking a long exposure went out the window as I grabbed the camera and zoomed in as close as I could and shot as fast as I could. I wanted to get a good photo, but I also didn’t want to fiddle around with the camera and waste the experience. I took a couple dozen quick photos, then put the camera down.
I looked around the field and the hillsides, trying to decide what time of night it reminded me of, wondering if the bats were out and the bees had gone to bed. I wondered what the doves would be thinking in a few minutes’ time (probably “WTF??”) and going back to thinking about pre-industrial people. They wouldn’t be on autopilot like the bats and the bees, simply going back in their huts to eat and go to sleep. They’d recognise the abnormality of it. But neither would they have enough knowledge to put them at ease so they could enjoy the view and ride it all out until it got light again. Add to that a superstitious mind-set and I’m sure they’d be freaking out, dreading all sorts of vengeful gods scenarios.
I took my last couple of photos just as the beads started reappearing on the other side. We all reluctantly replaced our eclipse glasses as the crowds started cheering again at the sun’s return. The Great Conjunction was over. Shortly after, people were trickling down from their vantage points on the hill, photographers in the field around us were packing up their gear. We stuck it out, clear until last contact. All that was left were the tacky eclipse shirts we were wearing, and the goatshead to pluck out of our shoes. Or so we thought.
But the sun wasn’t done with us yet. Besides leaving us with a tinge of red on our cheeks, later that night it made a spectacular exit behind the hill, hiding itself for the second time that day. I abandoned dinner to chase it, all the way to the train trestle, where it was swallowed up in the haze coming from the fires at Sisters.
I managed to avoid all the apocalyptic traffic scenarios this weekend by leaving at a time normal humans consider to be barbaric – 4:45am. My mom and I stole out of the trailer park before dawn and tailed each other up to Biggs. We sat in the empty diner, me still wearing my corny eclipse t-shirt. I ordered horrible diner coffee and had a breakfast burrito. Then, as the sun re-emerged in a shroud of smoke, we went our separate ways, east and north.