Experiencing Totality

Oregon eclipse is an awe-inspiring adventure of a lifetime for two local astronomy enthusiasts.
Above, the eclipse approaches totality. Photo by Ann Dittmer

Our goal was seemingly simple: experience the total eclipse. Research revealed that eastern Oregon had the best chance of clarity during the event, so I began calling hotels to make reservations more than a year in advance. Shocked, I quickly found that every hotel was booked by tour companies as much as five years in advance of the eclipse. The more calls I made and the more I talked to Oregon locals, the more I understood that a sea of humanity had the same plans as I did.  

Once understood, our goals changed. We wanted to experience an environmental eclipse—not a humanity eclipse. No parties, no crowds, no blaring music:  just the awe of something entirely natural and much bigger than the specks of our own shadows.

So, we found Corncob Ranch, outside of Spray, Oregon: a working cattle ranch in central-eastern Oregon that has a small, primitive campground designed for equestrians. We had found the remote observation spot we were seeking: black night skies filled with stars by the thousands; one-gas-pump towns; houses separated by miles; full grocery stores more than a two-hour drive away—and who knows where the doctors and dentists were.  

Our survival rules were these: Go early. Go simple. Go light. Leave late. As a result, we never saw a single traffic jam and were surrounded by the exquisite beauty of juniper-dominated high desert. For eight days, we endured mosquitoes, 95-100ºF temperatures in the shade, no showers, walking half a mile to get fresh water to carry back to camp, saltines and cans of kippers for dinner, classic moon-door outhouses, and packrats that moved into our truck’s engine compartment and shredded the insulation for bedding. The guests were live-trapped and carried five miles away by the kind ranch owners.  

We loved every minute of it (except maybe the packrats) because our reward was a clear morning on August 21. Up to this point, skies had been filled with thick smoke from wildfires and/or unusually persistent high clouds and occasional thunderstorms. We were immensely lucky. As the moon passed slowly over the sun, the light grew muted. The heat of the day started to waver. A greyish pallor made the landscape lighting look “wrong” as the eclipse moved beyond 70 percent coverage, but the skies remained blue and clear, and shadows were still pronounced as if nothing was amiss.  

Even with 98 percent coverage—moments before totality—the sun still gave no hint of what was to come, other than the oddly subdued light. And then it hit: in less time than it takes to slide the kitchen dimmer switch from full illumination to off, the sun was blotted out. It was surreal, otherworldly, a highly unnatural experience derived from a very natural event. It was all so different and so incredibly “not normal.” The disappearance of the sun made you feel almost panicky, but in an excited sort of way.  

In the one minute and 40 seconds of totality, the air was refreshingly cool and drained downslope as it would at night. Darkness prevailed overhead with bright stars shining vividly. Venus was out. Best of all, was the large dark circle with a fiery white halo surrounding it: the moon with the sun’s corona bursting out from behind. Safe to use binoculars without protection, I could see phenomenal detail and structure within the corona: arcs of prominences (“flames” coming off the sun’s surface), and dots of bright sunlight passing through mountain valleys on the moon (called “Bailey’s beads”). I waited for any animal reaction, but was disappointed with silence. No mooing, no birds going crazy, no one went to bed. We hypothesized that the decided lack of interest in the animal kingdom was due to the 360º twilight glow that laid across the horizon. It was as if we were in a jar with a dark lid and light was seeping in from the bottom edges of the sky. Maybe it wasn’t dark enough to convince the animals that something more than a dark cloud had passed over the sun?

Regardless, the experience was thrilling and a high point in my life’s accomplishments.  My only complaint was that it didn’t last nearly long enough. But then, that’s how all of life’s best moments are.


By Ann Dittmer, traveling with Robert Provin


No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.