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Eyes on the Skies!!

I don’t know about all of you, but I’ve had today marked on my calendar for well over a year now!

More than 30 years ago, I read Annie Dillard’s fabulously beautiful essay Total Eclipse (which The Atlantic has made available online until tomorrow…seriously, check it out!!!). Dillard’s description of the otherwordly, mindblowing experience of viewing a total eclipse struck a chord with me way back then, and seeing one with my own eyes has been on my bucket list ever since.

The part I’ve been most excited to see? The scariest part. Not the dark disc of the moon slowly eating the sun. Not the sky going dark in mid-morning.

What I want to see is the shadow of the moon as it races along the earth. 

You only get to see it if you’re in the path of totality. Even a 99.9% eclipse won’t do this for you.

Here’s how Annie Dillard describes it:

“The deepest, and most terrifying part, was this: I have said that I heard screams. (I have since read that screaming, with hysteria, is a common reaction even to expected total eclipses.) People on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.

The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, ‘Soon it will hit my brain.’ You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.”

Wow!! The very idea of something that “language can give no sense of”….that’s something a writer really ought to see!!

I always swore that I would, whenever I got the chance. Something like that, something that shakes us loose from the everyday certainty of our lives, speaks to an ancient and powerful part of the mind–the place where dreams and imagination and stories come from. Writers talk about needing to “fill the well,” and a cosmic moment like that will fill it wide and deep.

But….sadly….with this particular cosmic moment, I’m going to miss out, after all. I went as far as reserving a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, only an hour’s drive from totality. But as the eclipse grew nearer, traffic reports became ominous, saying that even a short drive like that might not be possible with all roads through the area at a standstill because of all the travellers pouring into the state. We could miss totality, and then spend days on the highway trying to make the nine hour drive home…which would make us miss our flight east to take our daughter for her freshman year in college. 

Sigh.

Sometimes a mom just has to be practical.

So we cancelled our plans.

I promised my girl we’d save our money and fly somewhere someday–maybe China, maybe Australia, maybe Switzerland–and experience totality. Total solar eclipses happen about once every eighteen months, and you can see them if you’re willing to travel. And we will. One day.

What about you? Are you in the path of totality? If the eclipse has already happened, what did you see????? What did it do for your Writer Brain?

25 responses to “Eyes on the Skies!!”

  1. jbrayweber says:

    Wow. Ms. Dillard description sounds eerie, if not fascinating!

    I will not be in the path and there is a good chance it will be cloudy, too. *sigh* Maybe in 7 years I will get a better chance. I live in Houston and on April 8, 2024, the path will pass through Dallas.

    Great post, Elisa!

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  2. Beautifully written, and reading it adds to my excitement to witness the eclipse, but also inspires me to write something powerful today. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Julia Day says:

    I think we’ll be at 92% in Raleigh. I have friends who are driving down to South Carolina today to see it–and they expect 2 million people will try to cram themselves into the Columbia. I can’t imagine!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      There are going to be some crazy crowds all along the path of totality!

      The weather report shows it sunny and clear in Oregon today…I’m sure I’m going to be having some regrets, especially if traffic doesn’t turn out to be as awful as predicted.

      Though, honestly, we couldn’t have been on the road all weekend; my daughter is still finishing all her laundry and packing her bags for school.

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  4. Hope Ramsay says:

    In 1970 I experienced a 98% total eclipse. I wasn’t in a high place so even if it had been total, I wouldn’t have seen the shadow. It will be about 82% complete here in Virginia. And I’m going to an eclipse-watching party. But, you’re right. The think about experiencing an eclipse is not watching the moon cross the sun. It’s the experience of being in the moon’s shadow that’s just. . . different, and yes, kind of scary. Because the eclipse in 1970 was not complete, we still had enough sun to cast shadows. But the shadows looked like nothing I’d ever seen before. They were just WRONG. Instead of falling in just one direction, they fell in multiple directions. It was the eeriest thing I’ve ever experienced. In 2024 the “path of totality” will be a little closer to home. I really want to experience that. It’s definitely on the bucket list.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Yes! The shadows!

      My kids and I went high up on a mountain for the last partial solar eclipse, and those dancing, distorted, crescent-shaped shadows were definitely the weirdest and eeriest part.

      We took lots of video of our shadows as we danced around. Eldritch stuff.

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    • Julia Day says:

      I remember the 1970 eclipse as well. I was in my driveway with my back to the sun, watching the eclipse thru a pinhole camera. It was weird and a little creepy. But the memory is sharp.

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      • Elisa Beatty says:

        Yup…I remember that one. I was in elementary school, and we made those cardboard pinhole cameras. I was terrified the whole time. What if I accidentally looked up and went blind????

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  5. Rita Henuber says:

    Been close but not total. Yes I’ve seen the weird shadows. I’ve also heard about wind shifts and it being quiet.

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  6. Tracy Brody says:

    I’m at 97.96% totality. Thought about driving down but the idea of joining a million other people on the roads getting to those areas (usually 1 1/2 hour from me) and then sitting in traffic to get back made me decide the 98% was close enough for me. Got my glasses (had to buy bulk of 25 since I waited until last week, but my neighbors were happy to buy the rest. Next eclipse I may order way ahead of time and gouge people but I was a nice neighbor and sold at my cost. 😉
    I’m with you on traveling to one someday. Hubby talked about it doing this year, but practical me was like “what if it’s cloudy?” Maybe someday we’ll fly our Lear jet up to Nova Scotia to see a total eclipse of the sun.” (ha, ha) Today, we’ll enjoy the 98% from our yard with neighbors.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Ooh!! I hope you stop back and tell us what it was like!!

      And how awesome of you to have extra glasses handy! It’s amazing how many people just didn’t think about it until the last minute (or who made the mistake of buying from Amazon and then not being sure theirs would be safe)!

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  7. Darynda Jones says:

    I swore I was going to do it this year, too. I would kill to see a total eclipse, but what you’ve said here and that excerpt has set me on a new path. Next time, baby. I want the to witness the shadow!

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  8. Not too dramatic in Nova Scotia this year but next time, oh boy!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Let’s all pinkie swear we’re really gonna do it!!

      I ended up watching the livestream via NASA, and it looked pretty amazing. And the huge grins on everbody afterward…it’s clear they had a great experience!

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  9. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    It was about 81% here…unfortunately a lot of clouds but during its height but it was still decidedly eerie during that time. Just an aside, it is also a new moon. 2024, here I come….98% cover in Ohio where I am now & intend to in 2024 as well:)

    Mother Nature never ceases to amaze me daily!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Mother Nature is definitely amazing!!

      I think solar eclipses can only happen during the new moon phase…has something to do with the relative positions of the two bodies. The science teachers were explaining it at school today…I can’t remember all the details, but I remember the basic fact.

      Yes, I really can’t wait for 2024!!

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  10. Vivi Andrews says:

    Totality in Anderson, SC was awesome! The traffic trying to get back to Atlanta afterward? Terrifying. But we’ll always have that memory! 🙂

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Vivi, I should have known you’d be one of the brave souls who travelled to see totality, traffic or no traffic!

      Glad to hear it was awesome!

      BTW, it was cloudy here where I was…though I caught a glimpse of the sun through the clouds at about the height of the eclipse (78% here), and the gathered crowd did let out a little scream! So I got that at least.

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  11. Elisa Beatty says:

    Just had to share this Facebook comment from a friend who travelled FAR to see totality:

    “Watching this eclipse was one of the most powerful experiences without question. We had 2.5 minutes of totality in Gallatin Tennessee, and when semi-darkness fell everything else was stripped away but a crazy need to both laugh and cry. People shouted in awe, a dog barked, cicadas ramped up their buzzing drone. A star appeared in the sky! I am so grateful.”

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    • Darynda Jones says:

      This is amazing!!!! You can definitely understand why primitive cultures took an eclipse as a sign from the gods. It truly must be spiritual. 2024! I am in!

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