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What to expect when you’re eclipsing

Sections: Columns Published

Based on personal experience by Emily Bruell

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90 minutes before totality: After days of planning and an eight-hour drive, you pull off the highway into a dirt parking lot by a bluff overlooking the river. You exchange pleasantries (and snacks) with the other groups parked near you, and unwrap your cardboard and plastic eclipse safety glasses. The sky above you is a sunbleached blue, clear of clouds, and you feel excitement mounting.

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60 minutes before totality: You think back to the time you spent at Yellowstone yesterday, watching the eruption of the Old Faithful Geyser.

“Isn’t that something,” the lady next to you marvelled as the geyser spouted and steamed and generally astounded its audience with massive subterranean force. “No one tells it to do that — it’s doing it all on it’s own.”

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It struck you as a strangely unremarkable observation; what need would a buildup of superheated water have for human command, and what attention would it pay? Still, you realize that most of the environment you surround yourself with on a daily basis is under your control. You tell your car to drive, tell your AC to cool the house, tell the stove burner to light, tell your lamp to illuminate your room after dark. You remind yourself that this trip is different. While you’re here, the universe calls the shots.

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45 minutes before totality: You look at the sky through eclipse glasses and see that the sun — bobbing in the artificially darkened sky like a peach — is already partially blocked out by the silhouette of the moon. This reminds you of something you read in your pre-eclipse googling marathon about a pinhole camera, so you attempt to Macgyver one using a pocket-knife corkscrew to poke holes in an old box of Wheat Thins. When you hold the cardboard so the shadow falls on the paper, the sun shines through the holes and paints little crescents.

30 minutes before totality: The sun doesn’t look like the the Cheshire cat’s grin anymore; it’s more of a sliver, like the glowing orange hook of a live wire. You notice the light is subtly changing. Shadows are sharper; blades of grass look hyper-defined; the hillside and distant rocky mountains look almost fake, like the photoshopped background of a cheesy selfie. Things feel quieter, somehow, and you’re not sure if it’s your imagination or if the raucous chirps and cries of birds and insects are subdued in recognition of the sky’s strangeness.

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10 minutes before totality: It’s definitely getting darker now; the sky is dimmed except for a slight ring of light blue along the horizon. You check the sun through your eclipse glasses and feel a slight plummeting sensation in your stomach when you see that it’s all but vanished, with only a candle wick’s width still exposed. The breeze picks up, and your T-shirt and shorts suddenly feel insufficient. You pull the towel that served as your picnic blanket around your shoulders to combat the unexpected chill.

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5 minutes before totality: If you didn’t know the time, you’d swear it was after sunset. The grass is covered in shadow and the distant mountains flush with the same pink tint that lines the horizon now. A chorus of whoops from the eclipse chasers across the parking lot brings your attention to the scattered stars that have appeared in the sky.

1 minute before totality: You squint through your glasses as the last remaining thread of sunlight grows shorter — shorter — and disappears.  The sun is gone, you think, and you drop your glasses.

Totality: You stare up at the black hole covering the place where the sun should be, and then at the line of white that rings it. Sheets of light stream out from behind the blackness, and your brain dimly categorizes them as the outer atmosphere of the sun: the corona. At a glance, they look like glowing clouds, but when you look more carefully you can see them shifting along with the thin strands of radiating light that form them. You’re hit with a jolt of cosmic awe.

1 minute into totality: You fumble for your camera, and feel a second jolt hit you, this one more physical, and right in the eye. A small bug seems to have careened directly into your right eye, causing considerable pain. Caught between an urgent need to extract the insect from your eye and an unwillingness to miss any more of totality, you force your right eye open and fish the unwelcome visitor out while keeping your left eye fixed on the corona fanning out from the moon’s silhouette. Success! You flick the bug away and snap a few pictures with your camera before letting your watering eyes absorb the final half minute of totality.  Even now, you can see that one side of the halo around the moon is growing brighter.

2 minutes into totality: A glance through the eclipse glasses confirms what you’re afraid of: the sun is already starting to emerge. The next five minutes are like a sunrise in triple time as light floods back into the landscape. Soon, you’d need your eclipse glasses — revealing a still partially obscured sun — to prove that there’s anything different about the day. Cars that had pulled over to witness the event start up again and continue down the highway.

You probe your slightly tender eye with your fingertips and still see the ring of white around the moon behind your eyelids. You flash back to the thought you had before the eclipse — that the universe is calling the shots — and have to smile. It strikes you that emerging from your controlled environment  means getting the package deal: day stars and eclipses and bugs in your eye. You don’t have to consider to know it’s worth it.

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