After the experience, everyone who watched from home has first asked, “Was it worth it?”
Without hesitation, I’ve said yes.
To be honest, I was worried I would not make it to Madras, Oregon in time to see the eclipse Monday morning, although I had tickets to a viewing event. My boyfriend, serving as (car) co-pilot on the trip, worked on Sunday, so we didn’t get out of town until 9 p.m. that night. Nearly every news article I read in advance warned of bumper-to-bumper traffic and possible gas shortages, with state officials urging travelers to get to a viewing location as early as possible over the weekend and stay put.
We were lucky that the other one million people followed those suggestions. Cruising the whole way there, powered by “Hamilton” the musical soundtrack and strong coffee, we made it in less than seven hours with a few stops along the way — and no gas shortages to speak of. Initially planning for an all-nighter, we were overjoyed to squeeze in a few hours of sleep in the car before events started in the morning.
I was interested in going to Madras because it was pretty much smack dab in the middle of the path of totality, where it is possible to see a total eclipse of the sun. It was also supposed to be one of the places with the best chance of seeing the phenomenon.
There were over 2,000 people at the viewing party hosted by the Lowell Observatory at Madras High School, an event organizer told me. Most people were strewn out over the lawn, which was dotted with telescopes. Some of the instruments were available for anyone to use, with people from NASA and the local observatory there to explain what we were seeing and answer questions.
In one of the telescopes, I saw the sun a burning tomato red color while in another, it was pure white. That was because of the filters, the sun shining red with a hydrogen-alpha filter, I learned. The sun became a smaller and smaller sliver as the eclipse neared totality, when the moon, passing between Earth and the sun, would completely block the sun.
The anticipation built, with the scoreboard on the field normally reserved for football games or track meets counting down to the beginning of the total eclipse. Starting at 10, thousands of people counted down out loud and cheered. It grew as dark as an ending sunset on the field.
We all took off our special glasses with solar filters that we needed in order to look at the sun before the total eclipse and during the partial eclipse — going without can cause extreme eye damage — and it sort of felt like everyone was holding their breath. It was mostly quiet with sporadic “wows” as we feasted our eyes on what we had traveled to see. Many seemed in disbelief — including myself, although we knew what to expect, a full dark moon surrounded by glowing rays of the sun.
It lasted a total of two minutes and two seconds before moving out of our view and southeast across the United States. When the sun was about to come back, we were instructed to put back on our glasses and then the main attraction was over. The sun reemerged. At that point, some felt the show was over and left — “I’ve seen this already,” one man said as he packed up his things — but many stayed to see the sun appear whole again and caught lectures in the school’s auditorium hosted by astronomers with the Lowell Observatory.
Around noon, we headed to visit my cousins who live in Beaverton, a suburban town near Portland. The drive took about three times as long as it normally would, they told me, with stop-and-go traffic. The first two hours, trying to get out of Madras, I am not sure that we drove a single mile. It was so bad that they called in the National Guard.
It was still worth it. There is something beautiful about the fact that millions of people with an appreciation for science traveled from across the world to look up at the sky for a fleeting moment.
I thought the Great American Eclipse may be the only eclipse I would see in my lifetime, but I learned at the event there will be another eclipse visible in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2024: The Great North American Eclipse.
Before I left for Oregon, I heard a segment about the eclipse on NPR. The guest on the show had seen several in different parts of the world and the interviewer asked him something like, “Once you’ve seen one, aren’t they all the same?” In response, the man said it was a sort of an addiction.
Let’s just say April 8, 2024 will be on my calendar.