Friday, May 10, 2024

The Curious Case of Total Solar Eclipses

"If you're outside the path of totality, if there's any way you can get into the path of totality for the eclipse, do it. Take the day off. Take the kids out of school. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people to see a total eclipse, and it is one of the grandest sights in all of nature. It's something you'll always remember, and you'll pass stories of it onto your grandchildren." - Fred Espenak

A strange phenomenon happens at eclipses.  It's not what happens in the sky but rather, what happens in the community.  Eclipses have a strange way of bringing together reams of random people, from all walks of life, from all over the world and uniting them together - despite their differences.

At the most recent eclipse that occurred on April 8th, 2024 I stumbled across the Los Rios campground in Camp Wood, Texas and found myself amongst the following notable characters among many others:  A retired billionaire from Australia who currently lives on a sailboat in the Bahamas.  A French lady.  A retired engineer and hobbyist deep space photographer.  A guy from Italy.  A high school astronomy teacher.  Families from all across the US.  Motorcyclist from California.  Family from Mexico.  Then there's me.

This is a very eclectic group of people from sea to shining sea whom would never ever find themselves in the same place at the same time, especially not in a very small town in Texas that currently has a population of five hundred and forty-four, except for one phenomenon:  A Total Solar Eclipse.

It's a beautiful thing, instead of letting our vast differences divide us, we all set that aside and let our excitement for the eclipse unite us.  It was the most kumbaya experience I've had in a while.  It was peaceful.  It was enjoyable.  It was fun.  It gave us all hope for humanity.

The residents of Camp Wood also seemed mesmerized by the people that had amassed in their town.  In one shop I walked into I was promptly asked by the lady working there how I had stumbled across their small town.  We proceeded to have quite the in-depth conversation.  Her oldest son was a lineman and passed away just the other year at the age of 22 in a car wreck.  Her next oldest son is going to follow in his footsteps and become a lineman.  Her younger kids go to school in Uvalde.

Not everyone was equally excited for the eclipse.  A day or two before I asked one of the teenagers at the campground if he was excited for the eclipse.  I was promptly met with a blank stare and the surly response of, "My parents dragged me here."  That was the end of that conversation.

The morning of the eclipse we awoke to clear skies which was a surprise given the forecast for clouds.  Off in the distance to the south there were oodles of clouds built up, it seemed we had gotten lucky.  Shortly after a layer of low clouds quickly blew in, directly on-top of us.  The clouds were moving fast and furious - faster than an avalanche going down a mountain; as the morning went on the sun started burning off the clouds.  Nobody knew what would happen.

When the partial eclipse started, the clouds were covering about 3/4ths of the sky with the sun being in the more cloudless part of the sky, the outlook was looking good.  As totality approached the sun was covered by a cloud then a minute or two before totality, the clouds parted in the exact spot where the sun was and we got to see the first 45 seconds of totality before the sun was covered up again - which is fine by me, the first part of totality is the best part anyways.

As the partial eclipse progresses and totality approaches, the environment slowly gets darker then at about 10 minutes before totality you feel like you're in a zombie movie, everything around you is in grayscale - nothing is vibrant, everything is dull, even colors that should be bright have a sadness to them.  The birds and crickets stop chirping.  Everything slowly and eerily gets silent.  Then suddenly, BAM, the moon covers the sun, someone flips the light switch off and you are standing in a twilight darkness.  The roosters start crowing.  Thru the clouds you can see the planets and stars poking through as a sunrise / sunset starts forming.  As you stare at the fully covered sun you watch the suns rays dance around the moon.  They truly appear to dance to the music of the universe.  The sight of this is so beautiful it instantly brings you to tears and fills you with mass amounts of happiness, wonder, intrigue, and awe.  Then poof, a cloud covers up the sun again and a few minutes later the light switch gets turned back on and the light slowly returns.

This experience was totally different from the 2017 eclipse.  For that eclipse, myself and a few friends found ourselves in a random field just outside of Glendo, Wyoming with a bunch of NASA scientists that we just so happened to stumble across.  They all had a boatload of telescopes and they were so happy that a few people who did not know anything about eclipses happened to stumble across them.  Having NASA scientists nerd out on you while they generously let you look through their insane telescopes was humbling to say the least.  For that eclipse, it was a bluebird day, not a cloud in sight, we got to see totality for the whole time.  When totality rolled around, the temperature dropped by about 20 degrees - all of a sudden.  The animals were royally freaking out - bats started flying around.  The stars came out en masse.  Then before we knew it the lights came back on, it was over and we proceeded to get stuck in the worst traffic of the century.  It took us 4 hours just to get back on the highway.  The interstate was jam packed with bumper to bumper traffic and it took us a total of 12 hours to get back home.  In normal times this would just take about two and a half hours.

After this eclipse in Texas, we were all awe-struck.  I ran into the same teenager again directly after and asked him how the eclipse was.  His father had a huge grin on his face.  When I asked the question, his eyes lit up, an ear to ear smile appeared and he said, "It was beautiful, I want to go to the next one, I would walk across all of Mexico to see that again."  When was the last time you heard a teenager talk like that?  That's the power of eclipses.

Eclipses are magical phenomenon's.  They succeed in doing what we all fail to do in normal times.  Letting our similarities unite us and setting our differences aside.  If only we as a society could figure out how to do that all of the time and not just when an eclipse rolls around.

As the astronomy teacher pointed out to me, eclipses won't always be around.  The moon is ever so slowly moving away from the earth so at some point in the future, total solar eclipses will stop occurring.  When that happens (or stops happening), you'll have to travel to the moon to watch the earth eclipse the sun.  The earth is bigger than the moon so eclipses will still happen there for a bit longer.  I guess the future generations have space tourism to look forward to.

Until then, if you get an opportunity to go to a total solar eclipse, DO IT!  It will be a memorable experience no matter what happens.  If the weather ends up not cooperating, the people you're surrounded with will make it memorable.  Make it a trip that you want to do regardless, the eclipse is just the cherry on top if it works out.  If not, it's still a great trip.

Go, travel, explore, have fun.  You won't regret it!

Starry Night Sky
Starry night sky view from Los Rios campground - Camp Wood, TX - April 2024

Pro Tip:  Download the "Totality" app on your phone.  It'll give you detailed information on future eclipses, such as the exact path of totality and exact start and stop times, making planning much easier.  You can also look at the paths of past eclipses if that's your jam.

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