The event was going to be mind-blowing. I was completely prepared for it weeks ahead. And then the day was there. I clocked out of the office, went outside, and watched it, totally stunned. It was incredible and unforgettable. Well, in a way, it isn’t a lie.
August 11, 1999 was a day everybody in Germany had been waiting for. The last total solar eclipse had happened in 1961 – whole generations, mine included, had never experienced one. “SoFi”, as the event of “Sonnenfinsternis” (i.e. “dark sun”) was abbreviated affectionately, was the cause for parties that had been planned a year ahead. Some people even booked solar eclipse flights. The entire German market was sold out of eclipse glasses. But I had managed to purchase some.
I clocked out of my office at noon. Along with my colleagues, I walked to a nearby open field where we stood watching the sky. A thickly clouded sky. It got duskier by the minute. Street lamps and neon signs on commercial buildings sprang on. The birds stopped singing, dogs started howling. And then the skies broke open, and instead of my solar eclipse glasses I was very much in need of my umbrella. I never saw the sun at 12:32 pm that remarkable day. It was totally eclipsed by fat, dark, low-hanging clouds.
Almost 20 years later, I’ve had my second chance to watch a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. This time half a world away. My husband and I decided to make it real special. We didn’t want the “only 94 percent” eclipse in Olympia. We wanted to get the entire 100 percent down at the coast in Oregon. We were even contemplating to go camping there just to be in time for the watching. But, of course, camping sites were all booked way ahead of time, and hotel room prices sky-rocketed from between 400 dollars near Long Beach, WA, up to 1,000 dollars near Portland, OR, months before the eclipse. Through some infinite stroke of luck, I was able to find a decent motel room at an almost bizarrely normal rate in Astoria, Oregon, only a week ahead.
We set off way early the day before the eclipse, anticipating terrible traffic. The scenic route we had chosen took us to our motel destination in a smooth 3-hour-ride. Sunny summer Astoria was crowded with people, as they had a Farmers Market going, a huge river boat had landed, and quite a few people like us were spending their time there until the eclipse. At an hourly rate we checked the weather forecast. We needed to make a decision. It was not easy, but once we had given each other a quiet nod, we resumed our program even more relaxed.
The day of the total solar eclipse was here. We rose at six and had breakfast on the boardwalk, while watching the busy quiet of the Columbia River. Thick banks of clouds and fog were hovering over the Pacific, moving towards the bar and the mouth of the river to cover the entire coast in a white, impenetrable shroud. Then we headed … north.
We didn’t chase for a spot that might not be clouded or foggy in Oregon. We didn’t search for a parking lot in an over-crowded area. We didn’t wait it out till the last of the observers would have headed homeward so we could have a smooth ride.
Instead, we found a sunny, quiet spot outside a cozy hamlet somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Washington. We had some tailgate snacks. We watched the eclipse as the moon started slipping into the sun until it left only a fiery circle segment that traveled clockwise. We listened to the birds singing the first of their two evening songs that day. We watched the twilight with the planet high up in the sky. We felt the air getting chillier. We listened to the silence. We were alone and stunned.
I don’t know whether we will ever have another chance of catching a total solar eclipse. But it doesn’t seem to be that important either. We made memories that day, just the two of us. And insofar my solar eclipse was total. Maybe a 100 percent would even have been too much. Because sometimes a mere 97 percent is all you need, and less is often a lot more.