About 31 years ago, in October of 1986, I saw my first solar eclipse. I was in tenth grade. There had been one in 1984 also, but it happened in the middle of the school day — close to lunchtime — and I was inside. That day in 1984 was already cloudy and rainy and it just looked like a severe storm was moving in, the sky darkening outside the tall windows of the auditorium at my junior high school. The 1986 eclipse was a very strange one that kind of looped around the southeastern coast of Greenland for forty minutes. Not many people knew about it because it was a minor eclipse, not even total until two tenths of a second from the very end, and even then, just in Greenland.
It was enough for me. The shadow of the moon swept across Canada and the United States, the partly covered sun's crescent gracing my October afternoon and filling my young mind with wonder and delight. And I looked forward to the next one, which I knew about thanks to a list I found in some reference book at the library. I also knew — yes, even that long ago — there would be an eclipse crossing the United States in 2017. And — yes, even then — I started making plans to see it.
And I did see it. Everyone in the country did, in some form, with it being one of the big news items of the week. But with this one, I was outside, under a clear sky, in the path of totality for the first time.
The words I know feel insufficient to describe this phenomenon in all its glory. From the moment of first contact all the way up to maybe half an hour before totality, there wasn't much to speak of, and in that sense, it wasn't too dissimilar from any of the numerous partial eclipses I've seen in my life. But from that point forward, things got simultaneously quiet, dim, and unsettled. The temperature dropped, the surroundings took on an orange hue, the shrinking sun losing its August intensity and wearing instead the frailty of December. Shadowy crescents danced in the shade of trees and the sky deepened through blue stretching toward cobalt. The light dimmed more and more, paler and paler as the sun vanished from the sky.
And finally, a very slim crescent, and then a thin line, and then a ghostly ring of fire in the sky with a dark gray hole in the center; sky the dark blue of eternal evening, and pink and orange sunset dislocated around the entire horizon, no way to tell where to find west or east or even north. Totality. Streetlights winked on and katydids chirped in confusion, birds flew around in lost winding circles. Somewhere, someone set off fireworks. They were unnecessary — the spectacle was in the sky.
Two short minutes later, a thin blinding line appeared in the sky again, and the light returned as quickly as it vanished. August resumed, the dim pall of the moon retreated, and within a couple of hours, it was as if nothing had even happened.
I tried to get a picture of the eclipsed sun, but with my only available camera being my Motorola phone (plus the fact that my photography skills are about as good as my basketball skills), I'm almost ashamed to post it here. But I will anyway.
Meanwhile, this is closer to what I actually saw. Best leave the photos to the professionals, I guess.
This was a spectacular event, and with the next one in 2024, I am — of course — already making plans for it. If, for whatever reason, you didn't (or couldn't) see totality, it's really worth the trip to see it. The good news is the 2024 eclipse passes a lot closer to me, and it's going to last twice as long. Who knows... maybe I'll even pick up a photography class or two in the next seven years.