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.


Lydia Dehn said...

Great post, Brian! Loved the pictures and the writing ("we hit the road with alacrity" yeah!) David and I are planning our trip for 2024 too. Hope to see you there, best, Lydia (Nathaniel's W.'s mom)

Brian Fies said...

Thank you for commenting! It looks like Nat's doing well; so are our daughters. Yes, I'm sure we'll bump into each other in 2024.