total solar eclipse
The heat and the exhaustion of travel make it so the only thing to do is wait.
There is a gentle breeze from the north, the direction of the fairgrounds…the corndogs and cover bands, the overpriced t-shirts and bathroom lines. Twenty hours until we will witness the total solar eclipse, the likes of which hasn’t been visible in the continental U.S. since 1979, and won’t be visible again until 2024. Still, all there is to do is sit and wait. The sky is pale blue and feathered thinly with clouds high above, higher than I’ve ever seen. They recede into the heavens, leaving a vastness of empty space, making way for what’s to come.
We sleep six in our yurt, with four cots and two air mattresses. It’s too cold at night and too hot during the day, so we lay out a blanket on the grass. To our right is a family of four from Japan and to our left is a family from Rhode Island. The Japanese mother explains her husband doesn’t speak a word of English, but as his love of photography is apparent in his gear Ross still manages to communicate in the universal tongue of F-stops and ISOs.
As I wait in the grass and shade beside our yurt, I read the Wilderness Essays of John Muir. I don’t know if he ever witnessed a solar eclipse, much less a TOTAL solar eclipse, but as I learn about his childhood and life, his deep appreciation for the wonder of the natural world, and his religious upbringing and spiritual inclinations, I come to believe he would experience nothing less than mesmeric awe. I can only hope to appreciate it in the way he would. I come across a quote where he describes his first visit to California.
Plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in these spirit-beams… Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence; you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature.
Maybe that’s what he would say about the eclipse. We can only wait and see.
The wait is over. I wake up and my feet are freezing…warm days and cool nights in the tiny desert town of Madras. I leave the tent and our city of yurts is buzzing with life. It’s 7:30am, still over an hour before first contact at 9:07am. After a hot shower and a black coffee, I sit in the end chair in our row of six, all facing east. People are gathering, some even packing up their gear for a speedy getaway. The traffic later will be treacherous in all directions, even minutes after the eclipse. First contact hits, our group puts on our protective glasses and remark at the slowly bending rim of the sun. The top right crest pulls inward, more and more, until it’s a dull yellow projector-slide Pacman. The vibe is a calm anticipation... some of our neighbors aren’t even aware first contact has occurred. The porta-potties are still in use and people with wet shower hair and damp towels migrate back toward their tents.
“One minute,” we hear from the tent next to us. The air is crisp, hazy, charged. Our shadows look dark and alive. “Ten, nine, eight… I peek under my protective glasses. Seven, six, five, four… the lion’s eye of sun gleams over the lunar curve. Three, two, … one … the gathering of humanity weaves together in awe, in despair and exhilaration, both forebodingly silent and palpably alive. It is not as I expected. The lawn goes black and the moon is aflame in a shimmering blue glow. Totality exists outside of time, away from the restless burden of life itself. We are given a few moments of perfect and complete stillness to make peace. And then the eternal sun shines through, gently ushering in the return of Present, the same one we always knew but somehow sharper, clearer, renewed. Some cried, others stood as still as the desert horizon. We were all changed in some way or another, the ways of which we may struggle to fully understand.
photo by Ross Hauswirth