Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Eclipse 2017: Roadtrip to Infinity!

My hand-marked map for our journey. Dashed green line is approximately the south edge of totality; solid green line is the eclipse path's midpoint.

Interstate 5 is a (mostly) four-lane ribbon of pavement that runs from San Diego to Vancouver, right up the spine of the West Coast. A few friends told me my plan to drive I-5 from the San Francisco Bay Area to Oregon for the August 21 total solar eclipse was mad. Millions of others would be making the same trip. Better a rutted gravel trail in Wyoming than I-5!

Nevertheless, my daughters Laura and Robin and I made our plans and hit the road.

This was my girls' first total solar eclipse and my second. In February 1979, some college friends and I hopped aboard Amtrak's Coast Starlight (by "hopped" I mean in the non-fare-paying sense), slept overnight in the lounge car and got off in Portland, which turned out to be the only spot in the eclipse path completely covered in clouds. It was still awesome. Night fell in the morning, and I sensed in my bones a bit of the terror my ancestors must have felt when dragons devoured the Sun. This time I aimed to stare the dragon in the eye.

I have relatives and friends along I-5 in Oregon but didn't want to impose on them, especially when we rolled through town at 5 a.m. Ours was a commando raid requiring speed and stealth. My contingency plans had contingency plans. "If we get stopped by traffic here, then we'll detour to there or there." For weeks ahead I lost sleep driving the backroads of the Willamette Valley in my mind.

I needn't have worried. Going up I-5 was a dream. Traffic was occasionally dense but rarely dipped below the speed limit. We even relaxed enough to stop and take in some sights. Photos below by me and my girls.

Mt. Shasta floated like a spectre through the smoky air. Nearby wildfires produced a choking haze through northern California and southern Oregon, but cleared completely as we drove north.

I chose the town of Jefferson, Oregon because it was near I-5 and just south of the eclipse path's centerline. I figured that if I went north of the centerline I'd be jockeying with mobs coming down from Seattle and Portland. I also wanted to be east of I-5 in case I needed to flee coastal clouds. We rolled into Jefferson about two hours before the eclipse began around 9 a.m.

I'd scouted out Jefferson on Google Maps' satellite view and found three possible viewing sites: a cemetery on a hill that'd have great views to the east, a junior high school, and a high school. I also had visions of offering random homeowners $20 to let us sit in their front yard. Unfortunately, Google Maps couldn't tell me that the Jefferson cemetery's gate was locked until 8 a.m., nor whether the local schools had opened for fall classes. A sign on the high school read "School pictures and orientation August 24." They were still on summer vacation! Lucky break! But the school's parking lot gates were locked. Bad break! But around the corner next to the junior high school was a city park I hadn't noticed.

Best break of all.

I'd run through a lot of scenarios when I planned our eclipse trip, but in none of those scenarios did I imagine I'd find an empty picnic table in a beautiful 20-acre park I'd be sharing with only a few dozen other people.

Our park companions were an almost stereotypical cross-section of folks you'd expect to turn out for an eclipse. Families with kids and lawn chairs and a solar pinhole projector made from a Pringles can. A group of amateur scientists who set out a fleet of telescopes and cameras. A hippie waiting to dance in the energy of a cosmic convergence. If we'd wanted to be alone there was plenty of space to move to another corner of the park, but these people were good company.

We set out our little buffet breakfast on the picnic table and waited.

At our picnic table for breakfast, including a bag of little chocolate donuts, the Official Waxy Snack Cake of the 2017 Eclipse. That's the Science Gang behind us, and Jefferson High School in the far background. Lots of empty open space and blue skies!

A good overview of our set-up. We took the picnic table to the left, another group grabbed the one on the right, with the Science Gang at back right. The exact latitude and longitude of our bench is 44.730696 by -123.011945 if you wanna look it up.

The Science Gang brought some nifty equipment, including a telescope with a hydrogen-alpha filter, which reveals details in the Sun's surface, and another that projected an image of the Sun onto a white screen.

This projected image shows a nice string of sunspots and, at upper left, the very beginning of the Moon taking a bite out of the Sun.

Laura and Robin and me. Also the hippie in the background limbering up to dance.

I'd brought only modest equipment. Mostly I just wanted to watch. I set up an old digital camera on a tripod to record video of the entire eclipse--"old" because I wasn't sure whether staring at the Sun for five minutes would destroy it, and didn't mind taking the chance. (It didn't.) I set up another camera on a tripod to take snapshots. I brought binoculars, with firm instructions that they only come out during totality. And I brought a piece of pegboard I found in my garage, which turned out to be the most fun and useful of all.

The hundreds of holes in a sheet of ordinary pegboard (or colander or anything with hundreds of little holes in it) act like pinhole camera lenses to project an upside-down image of the Sun. Here Laura holds the board while Robin finds a nice focal length with a paper plate screen.

I asked my girls to take some pictures of me lit up by crescent Suns with the idea it'd make a neat Facebook profile pic, and maybe a future author's photo for a book jacket. I think this one's my favorite.

Once everyone saw me do it, they all wanted to be photographed aglow with crescent Suns. Here I'm holding the pegboard for a couple of women who might have been visiting from Sweden (not sure, their English wasn't good and conversation was irrelevant). 

Eclipse. First contact. "Diamond ring" effect. Totality.

It didn't get as dark as I expected. In 1979, Portland fell into midnight blackness. This time, the sky felt like dusk an hour after sunset, with an orange-pink glow all around.

Photographs don't do a total eclipse justice. There's a richness of color and an almost three-dimensional effect impossible to capture except live with the eye.

The solar corona--the white hairy wisps of energy sweeping outward from the Sun--is achingly beautiful.

The disk of the Moon itself may be the blackest black I've ever seen.

I tried to take some still photos that, with one exception, failed. I shouldn't have bothered.

I forgot to use the binoculars, but my daughters both did.

A photocell-controlled street light at the nearby swimming pool turned on.

Two minutes went by really fast.

My daughters noticed these wavelike clouds, called Kelvin-Helmholzt clouds, which I don't think had anything to do with the eclipse but lent it a little artistic flourish.

The same clouds appear here near totality. As my daughter Robin noted, compare these two photos to get a feel for how the quality of light changed as the Sun shrank to a sliver. It's neat and eerie. 
As totality approached, everyone's smart phones throughout the park began to chirp and bleat as officials broadcast emergency alerts. The last one is interesting: exactly how many rock climbers did the authorities expect to need rescuing during a two-minute eclipse?

Totality. The iPhone automatically adjusted its exposure to make the image look brighter than it was. You can't tell in this picture that the Sun was blocked, but it was. Notice the 360-degree "sunrise" on the horizon and the street light that clicked on at lower left.

My one good picture. The three prongs of light coming off of it were real--that was the solar corona, which to the eye was a wispy web of light. There's also one small spot of light to the lower left of the eclipse. I assumed it was a speck of dust on my lens until my friend Teri told me her pictures had the same speck. Turns out it's Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo!

We packed up and hit the road with alacrity, and joined a pretty bad traffic jam going south on I-5. Still, it wasn't intolerable--we all compared it to a typical Bay Area rush hour backup, and settled in as patiently as we could. Thirty or forty miles later the jam was largely broken up, though knots and slowdowns persisted for another couple hundred miles. Still better than reports I heard from friends who took many hours to drive a few miles out of remoter spots.

All in all, I-5 served us very well. The two minutes were worth two and a half days on the road. We got home exhausted but glad we went (at least Laura and Robin said they were glad, but they may have just been humoring their old man).

I hear the next U.S. eclipse in 2024 will cast a larger shadow, which means it'll last twice as long and make the sky much darker. That's only seven years from now. Time to start making some plans.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Schulz Museum's 15th. I Got More Than A Rock.

Cartoonists, Schulz Museum staff, and Schulz Studio staff gathered for a group photo at the end of the day. Somewhere in this photo are Svetlana Chmakova, Donna Almendrala, Maia Kobabe,Tom Beland, Denis St. John, Paige Braddock, Lex Fajardo, Andy Runton, museum education director Jessica Ruskin, Andrew Farago, Nathan Hale, Jeff Smith, Jeannie Schulz, Raina Telgemeier, and a lot of other fine people. Also me. Matching names with faces is left as an exercise for the reader.

Saturday was a good day. I got to help the Charles M. Schulz Museum celebrate its 15th anniversary. One of the museum's secret weapons is the impressive amount of cartooning talent within an hour's drive (which includes San Francisco), both working for the Schulz Studio and doing their own things. Virtually all of them grew up loving and influenced by Peanuts, so when the museum calls they answer.

The celebration began with a talk by Jarrett Krosoczka, creator of the bestselling Jedi Academy and Lunch Lady series. Honestly, I missed that part because I was setting up for immediately after, when folks got to meet more than a dozen cartoonists, including me, in the museum's Great Hall. A lot of these photos were shot by my daughters Laura and Robin, who are much better tablers and salespeople than I am.

An overview of the Schulz Museum's Great Hall packed with cartoonists. I'm at center right in a black t-shirt with silver (sigh) hair.

I loved that woman's dress and hair ribbon with the Charlie Brown stripes. Hard to see here, but her skirt was all Peanuts characters, too.

Lots of great people in this shot. In the foreground is Rosie McDaniel, talking to author and Cartoon Art Museum curator Andrew Farago. Rosie is a very special lady whose important role in local comics is hard to describe: her late husband Mark Cohen was a comics collector and agent, Rosie has published a couple of books about comics, and she's on the board of the Schulz Museum. But mostly she's just Rosie, who knows and is loved by almost everybody. In the red shirt/black cap is Tom Beland, from whom I later bought a drawing. The woman sitting next to Tom is bestselling author Svetlana Chmakova, and beside her, just visible under Rosie's nose, is my pal Alexis Fajardo. In the background behind Tom Beland is "Prince Valiant" artist Tom Yeates, whom I'd never met but spent quite a lot of time talking with because I was sitting next to him, where my daughter Robin (purple dress) is filling my seat. Tom Yeates brought some original Valiant pages and I was impressed by how clean his artwork is--very little penciling or corrections. Very confident. To Robin's right is "Atomic Bear Press" creator Brian Kolm.
I added this charming drawing by Tom Beland to my small collection of original comics art. I think Iron Man is sad because the Hulk smashed his Lego town. I admire how elegantly Tom conveys form and line. It's hard to make it look that easy.

From my perspective, I enjoy three benefits of doing events like this: I get to hang out with my cartoonist friends. I get to meet cartoonists I don't know. And I get to talk to nice people, especially kids, who really like comics and cartooning. Also, I get to sell a few books, though that's really not my main motivation. Let's call that another half a benefit. Three and a half.

The Museum hadn't announced that bestselling graphic novelist and my comics buddy Raina Telgemeier would be appearing, so it was a surprise to most of us if not to her. She signed books for several dozen people whose days were made when they found her there. On my other side is cartoonist Andy Runton, whom I'd only met very briefly when he won an Eisner Award in 2006 for his series Owly. I really enjoyed talking with both of them.

My friend Denis St. John from the Schulz Studio peddled his own work, promoted with his dazzling smile. Behind Denis in the hat is Astro City artist Brent Anderson. It's always nice to catch up with Brent and his wife Shirley, whom I usually run into at a local Farmers' Market because we live about six miles from each other.

The event's guest of honor was Jeff Smith, creator of the hugely popular Bone series, now available in more than 30 languages worldwide. Jeff did an interview-style panel with the Schulz Studio's Paige Braddock and Lex Fajardo that covered pretty much all of his origin and career. Lex and Paige approached the job from different angles and managed to elicit answers Jeff probably hasn't given a hundred times before. It was a good panel, topped by Jeff being given the Cartoon Art Museum's "Sparky Award," named after Schulz for services to comics above and beyond the call of duty. Jeff seemed genuinely surprised and moved. It was a great moment.

Lex, Jeff and Paige talking in the museum's little auditorium. 

After Jeff's talk, he signed books in the Great Hall, which was cleared of all the cartoonists' tables during his panel. That took him more than an hour.

After the official event, all the participants were invited to walk across the baseball diamond and past the pumpkin patch to Mr. Schulz's studio, which is still the nerve center of Peanuts creative work and product licensing, for a pizza dinner.

That's where I had a chance to talk with Nathan Hale, who does young-adult historical graphic novels for my publisher Abrams. We compared notes. The irony of a guy actually named "Nathan Hale" writing about Revolutionary-era America did not go unremarked, though I'm sure he's bone-tired of it.

It took a lot of guts to ask Jeff Smith to pose for a selfie. He had many people vying for his attention, but we managed to talk about our mutual artistic hero, cartoonist Walt Kelly, and what it's like to scrap a project and start over from scratch after you've already completed 100 pages of it, which we've both done.

In the corner of the studio where Mr. Schulz used to work, his widow Jeannie set up his drawing table and chair from home (his original studio furniture is now exhibited in the museum). All studio tours for cartoonists end in this corner. Timidly, in hushed tones, they ask if they can sit in the chair. Yes they can. I've visited the studio a few times, and a couple of years ago even posted some pictures of me sitting in the chair, but I hope I never get so cool that I don't feel a little jolt of electricity when I get to do it again.

I asked one of my friends who works at the studio whether that feeling ever wears off. They said they feel it fresh every time someone who's never been there before enters the room and their eyes go wide. In my friend's experience, only cartoonists really get it: sitting at that board is like walking into Camelot and grasping Excalibur.

If you angle the light just right, you can see Mr. Schulz's lines and letters impressed into the soft wood of his drawing board. In fact, I think that reads "Schulz."

In addition to a variety of freshly fired pizzas and salads, the museum generously provided beverages, including bottles of "Museum Merlot" blended by Jeannie Schulz herself, according to the label on the back. I helped empty one and seized my opportunity, taking home what I'm pretty sure is the only wine bottle in the universe signed by (top to bottom) Raina Telgemeier, Andy Runton, Jeff Smith, Brent Anderson, Paige Braddock, Jeannie Schulz, Tom Beland and, sideways at lower right, Nathan Hale. I'm embarrassed to say how much I'll treasure this.

There's a big part of me that'll always be 15 years old and amazed that not only do I know people who make comics professionally--some incredibly successfully--but that I get to do it, too. It's a lonely business and there aren't a lot of people you can talk shop with. Events like these are great fun and the public seems to get a lot out of them, too. Thanks to the Schulz Museum for letting me come play with my friends.