On the spur of the moment last Sunday I decided to drive south to meet the total eclipse of the sun. Despite messages of horrific traffic, no gas or camping places, I threw a futon in my wagon, packed a small ice chest, and tossed my ISO eclipse glasses prominently on the dash.
After a quick stop at the Blue Scorcher for a couple pieces of pizza (a great portable meal) and with co-pilot Jackson asleep in the passenger’s seat, I headed down highway 30. I planned to sneak up on the sun by taking Route 47 to Vernonia and on to the totality zone just south of Carlton, Oregon. I googled the corner of Donnelly Lane and NW Hill Road as a likely place to spend the night.
Newly blacktopped and perfectly engineered Route 47 provides a roarin’ great drive that must be thrilling on a motorcycle. (Here it’s described as “a gnarly little highway, with tight curves:” roadsnw.com/rnw/54. I saw only three cars before reaching Mist, downright somnambulant, and charming Vernonia, with its classic main street.
Soon our forests transitioned into rolling hills of farmland studded with big barns, warehouses, and country homes. When I reached that corner I’d noted earlier — just off Donnelly Lane — I parked on a gravel road with a long view to the east over open fields. I wanted to watch the moon’s shadow barreling down on me at 2,000 mph.
After a quick dinner — yes, pizza — I checked my google map again. I found that although I was just inside the totality band because of eclipse geometry I would have only 34 seconds of darkness. I decided to drive further south.
It was true that many of the smaller gas stations had locked their pumps; so I filled my tank in McMinnville, then drove on to Amity, Oregon where a sign for the Brigittine Monastery caught my eye. That seemed like a safe place for a lone woman traveler to sleep in her car.
As the sun fell past the horizon, I turned into Monastery Lane, and stopped under a grove or enormous oak trees — there were empty acorn shells littering the ground — and beside a half acre of beehives. The bees were tucked in for the night. I liked the notion of being on monastery grounds, outside the city of Amity. (As a friend wrote later, “Lots of symbolism!”) It seemed a perfect spot for a poet on the loose. I found that here the totality would be one minute 34 seconds.
Before I hit the sack, I researched a bit about Brigittine Monastery. The Brigittine’s are a religious order founded by a remarkable woman, Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373, tinyurl.com/n3qa98y ), and, at this location, the monks are known for making fudge and truffles. Hence the bees and the acres of hazelnut trees I would see in the morning.
I tucked in for the night just as twilight faded.
Next morning I woke before 6 a.m. wondering what the monks were doing. I moved my car away from the now-waking bees just as another car of eclipsers pulled up. Steve and Randi from Portland, with mom and two dogs in the backseat, joined me, but decided they had time to go into town before the event. 20 minutes later, they returned bearing coffee — my caffeine angels completed the pre-eclipse scene.
As the witching hour of 9:05:20.02 approached — the start of the eclipse — I took a chair, walked through a gate and into the fields below to wait. I imagined what it might have been like for ancient peoples to have the sun suddenly eaten, bite-by-bite, in the middle of day. It must have been terrifying, other worldly.
For a long time nothing changed. Then I saw the first miniscule bite being nibbled from the upper right corner of the sun. I tried to imagine how the moon, 400 times smaller than our sun, was positioned to shadow its planetary colossus; how they’d partnered to do this dance so many times over the millennia. I was mesmerized; while up under the oaks another car had arrived and a couple kids laughed and threw sticks onto the dusty road.
Little by little the light changed — everything became bronzed, less vibrant. As I pondered that, the temperature suddenly and dramatically dropped. I was glad I’d brought an extra shirt. A mouse, normally asleep during the day, ran across the dirt road in front of me. Above my head, close in, a huge crow flew over agitatedly cawing, a messenger for the coming dark. On the highway one last vehicle — a blue truck — whizzed by as if racing the moon’s shadow.
I looked at my watch, 10:15. Two minutes until totality. I stood up — it seemed a natural thing to do, as if shaking hands with a respected friend — and walked forward. I looked back for a moment where I’d left my chair by deep tractor treads pressed into the mud and dried at the crossroads, their shadows oddly highlighted. Then, as Annie Dillard wrote, “The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover” (tinyurl.com/y7u9l9vk). Boom.
I stood in the twilight, again, but this time every horizon was a strange indigo, as if the earth were underwater or in an enormous glacial crevasse. I dropped my ISO glasses and stared at the stunning corona, counting four flares of light from its dark center. The field of green had turned eerily dark though luminous silver. The planets appeared. All around me trees were silhouetted against the glowing 360-degree horizon.
The world was silent. There was no comment to be made. No words were sufficient.
Then, much too soon — and there is really no other way to describe it — on that circle of fire a diamond flashed in the upper right corner. (I was told some newlyweds had planned their ceremony to coordinate their rings with the sun’s diamond-ring burst.) The supernatural color incrementally changed. The chill began to subside. I thought, how amazing that we live on our planet so exactly placed to catch the sun’s light; to have precisely the correct amount of energy to create and sustain life — not too much, not too little. The darkness was spectacular, but only in contrast to our life-giving sun.
This darkening seemed a call to whatever is larger in us, drawing us from our minute places on the earth into a vastness we so rarely think about — to the planets, the whirling stars, the galactic dust and swirling systems of a universe we are so blessed to be part of. The stellar elements that created us allow stars to be conscious of themselves. We are part of a miracle.
After I caught my breath, I drove down Monastery Lane to find the monks laughing with their families. I purchased their delicious fudge for the road home. It was a perfect totality.