I totally missed this week’s total eclipse, while still recuperating in a Wenatchee hospital room with one narrow window facing the wrong direction. But from still-vivid memories I knew what was going on out there, and what an amazing and deeply affecting phenomenon an eclipse can be.
Nearly four decades ago, I gazed (through protective glasses) at the most-recent total eclipse that was visible in the Pacific Northwest. All these years later, I recall with absolute clarity those strange, wondrous and mystical few moments of totality.
An eclipse is just an astronomical coincidence of the regular and predictable movements of our sun and moon. But it is also a reminder of the immutability and constancy of nature and the greater universe, which we minor beings on this wee planet have the privilege to experience.
On an overcast morning — Monday, Feb. 26, 1979 — a total eclipse swept in a shallow arc over parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota.
I was a young reporter for the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, hunkered down smack in the middle of the path of totality. I was stationed near Goldendale, Washington, which was eclipse central for thousands of observers because of its location and its observatory.
I volunteered for the assignment because it sounded like a great adventure, and it was a chance to get out of the office and go somewhere on a meager expense account. Newspapering involves a lot of routine — planning commission meetings and civic festivals — and ruthless deadlines. But on occasion, it provides a front-row seat to life’s grand moments.
The night before the event, I joined several hundred other eclipse fans at a school gymnasium in Goldendale, where the community put on a free meal. It was a happy crowd, and people were eager to share stories about why they were there. Some had an elaborate plan, others showed up on pure whimsy.
Early the next morning, I joined them to witness the blotting of the sun from the nearby Stonehenge replica built on a bluff overlooking the Columbia River. Afterwards, I found a pay phone off the freeway. From scribbled notes, I dictated my story to someone back at the Register-Guard. The story appeared in that afternoon’s paper. Here are a few excerpts from my account:
“Like a curtain rising on an outdoor stage, the clouds over the Columbia River Gorge parted long enough today to allow a clear view of nature’s most spectacular show.
“A total eclipse of the sun suddenly plunged the land into an early twilight at 8:15 this morning.
“It was over in just two minutes. But for thousands of eclipse watchers who took a chance on February’s fickle weather, the gamble paid off.
“At nearby Stonehenge, a replica of the ancient Druid monument in England, hundreds gathered around the pillars to witness what neo-pagan celebrants at the site called a ‘rebirth of light.’
“Shortly after 8 a.m., it began to grow noticeably darker as but a sliver of sun shone behind the face of the crossing moon.
“Seconds before totality, shadows grew deeper and longer and the remaining light was strangely subdued. The temperature dropped.
“At last the shadow of the moon passed over. … The eastern and southern horizons turned dark. To the west and north, the sky was still light. A few stars were visible.”
Maybe it was luck that day. Or maybe it was the aura of Stonehenge. But the skies above us provided an unobscured view, while much of the region lay under a stubborn mid-winter cloud cover that hindered or prevented viewing the eclipse. For many, the eclipse was a disappointment if not a total bust.
The 1979 eclipse drew what, for the time, was a lot of media attention. I had written several stories for the newspaper leading up to the event, including one about safe viewing.
But coverage then was nothing compared to the hype leading up to this week’s eclipse. In 1979, there was no Internet, no social media, no cell phones, no non-stop information stream, no memes or Twitter or instantaneous sharing. The eclipse was something of interest, an unusual adventure, not a monumental event that inspired a massive pilgrimage.
With all the technological changes of the last half-century, I wonder if the eclipse has become more of a mob spectacle than a rare and profound moment of natural wonder.