(Under construction; more photos to come soon)
As I watched the Sun disappear behind the Moon, I made a promise to myself. My wife, Sherri, and I were young and had two small children and just couldn't afford to travel to the total solar eclipse of March 7, 1970. Even though we lived in Southern California and the Moon's shadow would cross Mexico to our south, it just wasn't practical to go. Clouds hid the spectacle for observers along some of the United States' southeast and eastern seaboard but predictably clear skies were enjoyed by friends who traveled to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. As I watched a tantalizing but ultimately unsatisfying live black-and-white television image, I promised that we would be there almost eight years hence as the Moon's shadow crossed the continental United States for the last time for 47 years. Eight years isn't too long to plan but it's a long time to wait!
I worked part-time at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles in the months leading up to the eclipse of February 26, 1979. Since I operated the observatory's 12-inch Zeiss refractor for public viewing, I was the focal point for those curious about the upcoming eclipse. I knew all about eclipses so I could explain to everyone what to expect if they were lucky enough to see a total solar eclipse. At least, I thought I knew all about them. That changed when I experienced it for myself, though. So much for book learning about awesome natural phenomena.
The Pacific Northwest is the cloudiest and rainiest part of the United States. It isn't where you'd choose to have a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event. And certainly not in the middle of winter. But there was no choice in the matter so we pondered the best way to travel north some 1000 miles from sunny Southern California to the eclipse path. Poor weather could be expected over much of the area so mobility seemed important. We might need to chase clear skies. Planning an observing location was difficult for the same reason. We finally decided to rent a motor home that would give our three children (we added one since the 1970 eclipse) room for activities rather than just sitting in the back seat of the family station wagon. The cost was offset by eliminating the need for motel rooms, and the flexibility and mobility it provided seemed to make it worth it. This turned out to be a very good choice!
We set out under clear, sunny skies early in February for an exciting family vacation, with extra time allotted for a lot of sightseeing along the way. We encountered rain just as we crossed the California / Oregon border, an omen for the next two weeks in the rainy Northwest. It was still a beautiful drive up the spectacular Oregon coast and the excitement built as we entered the path of the eclipse in northern Oregon. We planned on viewing the eclipse from eastern Washington, though, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains if the local weather forecast was favorable. We were prepared to drive to Idaho and even into Montana if necessary to escape the clouds but we hoped a long-distance last-minute dash wouldn't be necessary. The west side of the Olympic Mountains on the Olympic Peninsula -- facing the Pacific Ocean -- takes the brunt of the storms that roll out of the Gulf of Alaska but there is usually plenty of rain left for the Seattle area to the east. Much of that moisture is squeezed out of the clouds as they cross the Cascade Range, leaving the "desert" of eastern Washington. I put the word "desert" in quotes because, while the area may be dry compared to Seattle, it isn't like the desert I'm used to in Southern California. The Mojave doesn't support farming like you'll see in eastern Washington. The drier it was the better on eclipse day, though, and east looked more promising than west.
It felt odd to keep moving northward right out of the eclipse path but there was plenty of time. Sherri and the kids had a great time building a snowman in the Olympic Mountains as I photographed Puget Sound far below with the glaciated North Cascades beyond. And on a ferry across the Strait San Juan de Fuca to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada we actually saw the Sun again! Alas, it disappeared behind the clouds when we returned to Washington several days before the eclipse. As we traveled southward toward the Columbia River and the eclipse path once again, the relentless rain and clouds showed no sign of breaking. The weather forecasts weren't promising, either. We drove eastward in fog through the Columbia River Gorge, journeying upstream and inland. The fog lifted and the rain stopped on the east side of the mountains but the clouds hung on. It was a relief for us Sun-worshiping Southlanders to get out and enjoy the open spaces on the north shore of the Columbia and we thoroughly enjoyed camping there for a few days. Now that the eclipse was near, though, I worried that we'd never see the Sun. Our only hope was to be in a very short break that might occur between two cold fronts crossing the area but it was a very narrow window and we couldn't be sure where it would be. As eclipse chasers started pouring into the area and modern-day Druids gathered at a reproduction of Stonehenge at nearby Marysville, we could only wait and see. Now the value of being mobile at a moment's notice became clear. I was prepared to drive through the night for several hundred miles if need be. I was NOT going to miss this eclipse!
There was no break in the clouds on the night before the eclipse but after calls to local weather forecast offices (these were the days before the World Wide Web) in three states it seemed we were in as good a place as any. The eclipse would take place early in the morning and we planned to rise early, head out of the Columbia River valley northward and get into whatever clear sky there might be. The morning sky was actually somewhat promising as there were breaks in the clouds here and there. We stopped along the highway on a ridge with a view towards the west of a valley through which the shadow would approach. It looked promising -- scattered clouds overhead but patches of blue appearing in the west! The foothills of the Cascades could be seen at the far end of the valley with the peaks covered in thick clouds but the clouds thinned as they moved over the valley before us. The Sun wasn't visible at first contact but the clouds continued to pass over us and it now seemed that the hoped-for clear sky between the two fronts was starting to move over us. The problem was that it wasn't moving fast enough! The clear sky to the west beckoned as the clouds above us seemed to take forever to clear. Finally, with about 20 minutes to go before second contact and the main event of totality, and not trusting the clouds to separate in time, we piled into the motor home to chase the clear sky to the west. The two-lane country roads were clear and straight so I raced toward the blue sky while Sherri ran around the interior to each window to report on the changing sky condition. She had trouble staying on her feet as the motor home bounced down the rural roads at an unnatural speed but the kids' squealing suggested they were enjoying the ride. I was frantic but after a few miles of driving we were getting into the clear! We finally passed the last remnants of the trailing edge of the front and stopped before running into the next one. We scrambled out of the motor home like it was on fire and were thrilled to see that Sherri had guided us to a perfectly clear spot. This was the first time we had been in sunlight since we arrived in the Northwest and the Sun was almost gone behind the Moon -- 10 minutes to totality! I marveled not only at the failing light around us but also that I was really, finally, going to see a total eclipse.
There were so many aspects of eclipses that I'd told others about but now I was going to get to see it all for myself. Holding our homemade mylar eclipse shades in place, we watched for the last gasp of the Sun as the Moon covered it -- the Diamond Ring, when the final bit of sunlight flares through a lunar valley while the inner corona appears around the Moon. Would we see Bailey's Beads as light shines through several lunar valleys just before the Diamond Ring? Sherri tried to get my attention, tapping my shoulder and asking about something but I didn't want to be distracted. Whatever it was, it would have to wait. Excitement was building as the Sun disappeared but there was more going on than I had expected. Looking west, a darkness swept across the peak-shrouding clouds and slid into the valley. And there were many small lights suddenly visible in the air in front of the mountains. Then I realized that we were seeing the shadow of the Moon sweeping towards us, with the clouds making it easily visible. The lights came from a fleet of small airplanes carrying eclipse chasers who were following the shadow hoping to stay in clear sky -- the ultimate in last-minute mobility. I had always thought of a solar eclipse as something to see, something that happens to the Sun. Now I was overwhelmed as I watched the darkness move to overtake us. Birds that we had heard during our nights in the campground were active again. As the familiar turned upside down, I even felt fear from some primal part of me that wasn't listening to any scientific explanations. The shadow seemed to leap up from the valley and fill the sky above as it passed over, the Diamond Ring flashed for an instant and everything was suddenly changed. I gawked at the black hole in the sky where the Sun had just been, surrounded by a structure and light I'd never seen. This didn't look at all like the photographs I was so familiar with! It didn't seem, well, real! And the horizon -- every direction was lit by sunlight falling outside of the Moon's shadow. It was all so different than what I'd expected. This wasn't a solar event to see, it was an overwhelming experience. It wasn't happening in front of me, it was happening to me. Sherri was just as overcome as she started hitting me on the shoulder (tapping was no longer sufficient) saying, "Take a picture! Take a picture!" I had purposely left behind equipment for taking closeups of the eclipse, preferring to see it all myself and leave the photography to others who were better qualified. I didn't want to spend any of those precious two minutes working with instruments. I had a 35mm camera and 50mm lens loaded with Kodachrome 64 film hanging around my neck. What could I do with that? And I had no idea what exposure to use. It wouldn't hurt to try, though, so I twirled the exposure controls to something that seemed reasonable and took a picture of the Sun and the foreground. Then I turned in every direction to take pictures of the "360- degree sunset." To my surprise and delight, the pictures came out very well and I was happy to document the surroundings instead of only the Sun since that was what had really surprised and amazed me. I even got a passable photo of the Diamond Ring at third contact as the Sun re- emerged.
The shadow passed over all too quickly and moved on. Day and the familiar returned. We heard whoops of joy from people we hadn't even realized were in the area. The night birds went back to roost and we were left somewhat stunned by what had just happened. I tried to stay interested in the rest of the now-partial eclipse but it was anti-climactic after what we'd just experienced. Clouds from the next storm moved in quickly anyway and 20 minutes after totality the sky was again solid gray. Within an hour it was raining. We were in the Northwest for two weeks and we saw the Sun for less than one hour, centered on a total eclipse! I hadn't imagined how important our mobility would be.
One more surprise awaited, though. Sherri mentioned why she had been trying to get my attention just before totality. She and the kids were seeing some sort of odd, squiggly shadows moving across the road and white motor home, and she wondered what they could be. Oh, no! Shadow bands! I'd forgotten about one of the most elusive of eclipse phenomena. Caused by turbulence in the atmosphere, shadow bands are sometimes -- but not always -- seen when the Sun is a very small crescent just before and after totality. Observers lay out white sheets to increase contrast in hopes of seeing them. And they had been all over -- so obvious that they had attracted everyone else's attention -- and I had refused to look down from the Sun to see them. It would be 20 years of listening to the non-astronomers in the family describe their first-hand observations of shadow bands -- and three more total eclipses -- before I would finally see them for myself. And then it was only because I had learned to listen to my wife, who again saw them first and yelled out, "Shadow bands!" this time instead of, "What's that?" (link to 1999 Iran eclipse trip).
There were more great sights to see before returning home but the eclipse surpassed them all in my mind. I felt I had "seen the light (darkness?)." Now I realized how badly I had been misinforming all those people who looked to me as an expert on what to expect. It wasn't really my fault, though. It isn't possible to explain the experience of a total eclipse. But I had learned that it is an experience, not just an interesting sight. Strangers shook hands and congratulated each other and there were shouts of, "See you in Mexico" or "See you in Hawaii." This was in reference to the next solar eclipse to come near the west coast of the US -- the July 11, 1991 eclipse that would cross over Hawaii, make landfall again in Mexico and move on to South America. Twelve years didn't seem too long to wait. I promised myself I would be there.
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Updated January 5, 2003