Beth Binnard: The Solar Eclipse 2017 – Appreciating the Unexpected

This summer I generously received a travel grant to join my family in the Portland, Oregon area to see the total solar eclipse. My extended family all live in California: my brother, sister-in-law and two nephews live in the Bay Area, and my parents live in Southern California. We all met in the Bay Area and then flew to Portland, where we stayed in a cabin near Mt. Hood, before driving east for the eclipse on August 21st. As a family, we spend much time together, despite being far away from one another. My brother and mother are the “planners” of our family adventures, all of which involve extensively discussed travel and food. The rest of us follow their lead, and we always have a great time together.

Before going on the trip, I was convinced I would write not about the actual eclipse, but about the people we would see and meet, out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon. In preparation for “the event,” we read many articles and stories about the path of totality, what safety precautions are needed, and the significance of it all, and to be honest, I wasn’t that excited about seeing the actual eclipse. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I understood what was going to happen, but I thought talking to all the “eclipse chasers” would be more interesting. Hearing their stories, seeing their various and elaborate viewing equipment, learning where they were from, these were all things that I was expecting to be the memorable part of the journey. I was wrong.

My mom had been stressing to me the significance of seeing the total eclipse, not just a partial one. I read that in New York, it would be about 70% totality. So while I was cursing the lines, crowds and endless hallways of Terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport on our journey out west, I said to her, “I could have stayed at home and seen 70%!” She replied, “But not 100%!” Well, after seeing totality, now I know what all the fuss was about.

But before heading over to Oregon, there was some work to do: plotting our driving route; doing menu planning and food shopping (we take this very seriously); and gathering cameras, telescopes, tripods, safety glasses, power cords, batteries, adapters and my knitting.

On the day of the eclipse, we woke up in the cabin at 3:00am, and were on the road by 3:30am. The goal was to beat the traffic from people driving west where the weather is clearer. We drove for about two and a half hours, keeping clear of the Madras, Oregon area where festivals and traffic abounded.
We stopped about 6:00am in time to watch the sunrise along the side of a highway where a few other people were already set up. Not the throngs of eclipse chasers that I had been expecting; just several cars parked on the side of the road and some cameras on tripods. There were people from Amsterdam, London, Germany and the east coast, but we were mostly surrounded by prickly bushes, some cows, and a 360 degree view of the horizon.
We had breakfast in the car, and then we waited. My dad played the theme song to the movie “2001” to get us all in the celestial mood. My daughter played with her cousins. I did some knitting. My brother texted with his fellow engineering co-workers who were stationed in various states along the path of totality. My sister-in-law slept. My mom checked in with everyone.  

My parents and brother set up the telescope, which projected images of the sun onto a white cardboard screen, thereby avoiding long periods of time looking up at the sun. As we watched the moon slowly start to cover the sun, I thought about how definitive the event was. There are lots of unknowns in life and in the world, and lately I’ve felt like I never know what’s going to happen next. But we knew the eclipse was happening. That was one thing I didn’t have to worry about.

Aside from setting up the telescope, we had decided to forego putting much effort into photographing totality – we wanted to experience what was happening without fussing with filters and camera settings. (This was a bold decision for my family, as my mom singlehandedly keeps Shutterfly in business, my dad is a technology fanatic, and both my brother and sister-in-law are engineers. I, on the other hand, can barely use Google Docs to write this.)  We were not disappointed in the decision to forgo photographing obsessively – there would be many great photos of the eclipse, but ours would not be among them!

As the time passed, it gradually started to become a little darker – not like night time, but more like when a very dark cloud arrives before a rainstorm. It did get cooler out, yet the cows across the road from us just went on with their usual business. By 10:15am, there was only a very tiny portion of the sun remaining, yet it still wasn’t dark out yet.

Then around 10:20am, we watched the last sliver of sun disappear behind the moon. We took off our goggles (safe to do during totality) and saw a totally black moon and the sun’s corona. There were gasps and shouts of amazement. And it was suddenly dark out, as if someone had switched off the lights. We looked around at the horizon and saw a sunset all around us. We could see Venus and the star Regulus (I only know this because my brother and dad pointed it out to us). I did take out my phone to try and get a picture, but it really doesn’t do it justice.

After about two minutes of totality, the tiniest sliver of sun reappeared, and it was suddenly completely bright again. Even the littlest bit of sun made the whole area look like daylight again. That’s how bright the sun is, and something I hadn’t recognized until then. Once it was light out again, people started packing up their gear and getting in their cars.

Earlier that morning, we had watched lots of traffic go by on the road, headed into Madras. And then a short time after totality ended, cars started coming by in the other direction. These were people hoping to avoid the traffic jams that would surely await.


But I spent some more time looking at the sun gradually become whole again as the moon slowly passed it by. I felt sorry for that part of the eclipse, that no one seemed to care about it. It’s sort of a silly idea to feel badly for the sun and moon, but I did, and I thought of LREI and how much empathy is valued. I thought about how I had been wrong about the eclipse, how it wasn’t at all what I expected. Life is full of unknowns and unexpected happenings, and the eclipse, something that was totally known, reminded me of that. I look forward to further appreciating the unknown and unexpected happenings that await in the Fours classroom.