In the Path of Totality
I first saw a total eclipse in 1991, in Cabo San Lucas Mexico, and while I remember specific details of the event (it got cold; stars came out; the horizon in all directions seemed to be on fire), my most intense memory was not an image but a feeling: that I was witnessing the most incredible thing I'd ever seen.
One quarter century later, I mostly just wanted to stay home. I'd seen one eclipse already, after all, and a 900 mile drive plus crushing crowds didn't much inspire me to get after it.
But that feeling remained.
Had it really been so spectacular? And, too, I've got kids now, and I thought, even if only on their behalf, we ought to do it. So off the beaten path, to Weiser, Idaho we went, hoping we'd find the right mix of good weather, good viewing, and light crowds.
What's it like watching a total eclipse?
It's kind of...indescribable. There is something elemental about the experience; something cosmic that can't be captured in images alone. Remarkably, you don't notice much of anything, at first.
When the sun is somewhere right around 50% eclipsed or so, maybe then you might notice something seems a little off‐but it's hard to say. Maybe just the power of suggestion? (and here you should read SlateStarCodex's hilarious but oh-so-true take on an explorer and a tribe of savages facing a partial eclipse).
Really, the sun has to get deeply eclipsed—let's say well past 70%—before things start looking different, and even here, what you notice isn't so much a change in brightness (the sun is really, really bright no matter how little of it is showing) as a change in texture.
Colors start looking deeper, richer. Shadows grow more intense.
And maybe about then you start noticing that one side of the sky is getting A WHOLE LOT BLUER. And then you get this giddy but also nervous sense of oh my goodness, this is really happening!
It stays bright even as the sun reduces to a sliver. But now you can actually perceive the world changing, moment by moment, and getting darker. And then, after all this protracted prelude, totality comes fast and furious: it just suddenly gets really, really dark.
How did this 2017 eclipse compare to 1991?
It was glorious. The experience was in some ways similar and in some ways different, but just like all those years ago, what most struck me was the feeling of it—just as hard to describe today as it was then.
In contrast to 1991, I had a camera with me—two cameras, in fact, one for telephoto shots and one for wide-angle. That let me capture images this time, for obvious reasons, but I have to say on the whole I was sorry to spend even a minute shooting pictures, as every minute was precious, far better spent in the moment, appreciating the spectacle of sun and moon and Earth synchronized together.
I can tell you, even though a total eclipse takes around two hours, start to finish, the whole thing happens much too quickly, and ends much too soon.
I couldn't believe how quickly the world seemed to return to normal. In the immediate aftermath, I felt both a profound sense of wonder and of loss. I found myself reflecting on how ephemeral it all is: Life, The Universe, Everything. I wished I could rewind and do it all over again. Alas, just one more time!
I was so glad to be there this time with family, my own children included, instead of alone on a beach in Mexico, as I was in 1991.
I hope you got a chance to see this one yourself; if not, check your NASA maps, there are more eclipses coming. And let me also offer a very special thank you to the people of Weiser, a very small town that opened its doors to a whole bunch of us visitors and made us all feel very welcome.
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
Brian August 24, 2017 at 9:59 pm
I saw the eclipse with my family at Grand Targhee, in Wyoming. I also found it impossible to describe. I have never seen anything like it. The impact was visceral. The experience of the eclipse exceeded the hype.
Joseph Gregory August 28, 2017 at 9:53 pm
Beautiful words. I wish I could have been on the PoT. Enjoyed a 65% view in SoCal