What I learned from my trip to the solar eclipse

eclipse-iris-stars.jpgPhotos by Iris Schneider.


Failing to plan is planning to fail (thank you, John Wooden).

Carpe Diem.

Don't hurry home.

Buddy up with a good researcher.

Savor the moment (Carpe Diem in English).

Don't multitask when totality hits--two minutes is just as long, or short, as it sounds.

Find a campsite that cleans their porta-potties daily and serves cowboy breakfasts, ideally not at the same time.

Bring provisions.

Find the road less-traveled. We couldn't.

Keep a sense of wonder and a sense of adventure. And a sense of humor.

Know when to give up.

Be grateful you made the effort.

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As the coming eclipse began to dominate the news, I realized that I would really regret not trying to get to the path of totality if I could. When writer after writer says, basically, if you can get there, you must, it will be a life-changer, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something you will never forget, they got me. I tried to see who I knew in one of those cities--Jackson, Wyoming, Madras, Oregon, Idaho Falls, Idaho--that I could ask of for a couch or a yard to camp in. Finally, my friend Tamar said she was thinking of driving to Madras, a mere 14-hour drive, and I signed on. The fact that we had not planned a year in advance and that we could not leave until Saturday actually freed us from worrying, because whatever happened we'd know that at least we had tried. And friends who had planned a year ahead had as little certainty as we did that they would actually be able to reach their destination and see the eclipse. Traffic would be crazy and a total crapshoot. One report said "like twenty Woodstocks!" Of course, they added, who knew what twenty Woodstocks would be like? One could only imagine. Or hope for the best.

Tamar researched extensively the camping options and there were many. Our standards: camping on grass with a view of the Cascade Mountains, where the chances of clouds were smaller; some amenities like food and clean bathrooms; and fees that would not break the bank. We chose Sunset Solar Campground, run by a family of farmers who opened their carrot fields to campers but seemed really thoughtful about their customers' happiness: porta-potties cleaned daily and abundant, a food tent and a cowboy family equipped with oil drum grills to turn out hotcakes, eggs, sausage and burgers, campsites on grass in view of Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood, even a water truck that sprayed the dirt to keep the dust down. Because the news reports had scared some people off, they had ample campsites available and the price was reduced to $245 for the four days.

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The ride north on Saturday was easy. We reached Redding and our Motel 6 (at $79.99 only $20 more than their sign advertised) in about 9 hours. The second leg, which we began at about 9 am on Sunday, was also pretty smooth. Not much traffic, and although rest stops and gas stations were busy we only encountered one in Weed, California that was out of gas. We made sure to fill our gas tank often so we would not get stuck in Madras with an empty tank. We made it to Sunset Solar Campground by about 4:30, in time to set up our tent and jump on the shuttles provided for a 5-minute ride towards town and Solarfest, a disappointing campsite and music festival at the local fairground. Madras was busy but not overrun by eclipsers--we managed to find a restaurant serving dinner with only a 5-minute wait for a table, and prices were kept at a reasonable rate. Apparently the city of 6,000 had made a decision to welcome visitors and not raise their prices. But residents were excited about their big event. We encountered one older gentleman standing on a street corner in his suit jacket asking everyone where they were from. He could barely contain his joy as visitors from all over the world named their hometowns.

The stars that night were amazing. The Big Dipper ruled the sky, hanging low over the rows of tents, camper vans and airstreams arrayed in neat rows throughout the fields. I woke up early to roam around and take in the beautiful sunrise illuminating Mount Jefferson in the distance. Walking around as people woke up, I met travelers from all over the world: a family from Vancouver, a man from Florida whose goal when he started chemotherapy 5 years ago was to come to the eclipse if he made it through treatment, a grandfather and his son from Riverside, an Indian family who came up from San Diego, an astronomy enthusiast who had set up his huge telescope and invited everyone to take a look. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and despite the cold night temperatures, as the morning unfolded the only chill in the air was the mood of the crowd.

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As 10:19 am approached, gaggles of eclipse watchers sat scattered around the huge campground watching the moon take bigger and bigger bites out of the sun. When we had walked into town and stopped at the Madras Chamber of Commerce last night, a ranger had told us to look away from the sun just before totality for the shadow that would approach at over 2,000 mph to darken the sky. It happened just as he predicted. I watched with my back to the sun to see the shape of Mount Jefferson, which was clouded in a sunny haze, come into sharpness as the sky quickly darkened, stars appeared and whoops, howls and cheers filled the cold, damp darkness. Looking up as glasses came off, the sun's corona shimmered around the darkness of the moon, a huge shimmering oreo cookie above us.

The two minutes flew by. Next time, I will just sit and take it in, although I can still call up the image in my mind. It was awe-inspiring and humbling to revel in nature's enormity, and realize how small we all are in the greater scheme of things.

Although we planned on staying one more night at our campsite, immediately after totality the sites emptied as campers hit the road, trying to avoid what everyone had predicted would be the real nightmare. While people had arrived over two or three days, as soon as the eclipse ended, everyone wanted to go home. We stayed until around 3 pm, then went into town for lunch and a last walk around. Most traffic through Madras seemed to be headed north and we would be heading south so we hit the road to see how far we could get. We made it south to Bend, Oregon by about 5 pm and stopped for a break by the river. If we were smart, we would have stayed over, but without reservations I'm not even sure there were rooms available. Once we hit highway 97, the two lane road in and out of Madras that leads to the 5 freeway, our troubles began.

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What we faced can't even qualify as traffic. It can better be described as the Long Island Expressway on its worst day, Carmageddon on steroids, or basically parking on the highway. The ribbon of red lights stretched ahead as far as we could see. Over the next 8 hours, we drove 47 miles. We thought there must be a terrible accident up ahead. Finally at about midnight I called my husband in LA and begged him to contact the Oregon Highway Patrol and ask if something horrible had happened to cause this massive traffic. How naive. No, they said, it's just all you Californians trying to get home. We wondered why the Oregon Highway Patrol didn't turn the two lane road into two lanes going south to ease the traffic when they did their advance planning. We only saw occasional cars heading north and thought with advance warning, they could have made other plans. But at that point there was nothing else to do but pull off onto the shoulder, put our seats back and try to sleep.

We woke up around 5:30 am. Most of the cars that had pulled off around us were gone by then and so was the traffic. We hit the road and encountered no more traffic for the 14 hours it took us to get home. At every rest stop, during long bathroom lines we communed with other travelers who had stories of their own about their crazy ride home.

But each one could only talk about what they had seen on August 21 at 10:19 am. Some said they cried. Some reaffirmed their belief in God. All were surprised at how momentous an event it was. No one regretted making the pilgrimage, despite the nightmare going home. Neither did I, although I'm not sure it changed my life. The image of that glowing deep black oreo cookie will stay with me. And how the power of the sun's heat was so diminished by the moon's shadow and so strong just two minutes later. Maybe I'll plan a little better for the next one. 2019 in Argentina. I've always wanted to visit Buenos Aires.

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