Eastern Oregon is not like any land I’ve known. In August it’s hot, dusty and unforgiving. From the north, upon leaving behind the lush pine forests that line the Columbia River Gorge, we climb up onto the prairie, crowned with rank after rank of whirling wind turbines with distant, ghostly, snow-capped Mount Hood keeping watch.
In time we reach the frontier towns: Condon, Mayfield and, descending into the ancient fossil-beds, the town of Fossil itself. Places where you just know everyone will know everyone else, with courthouse, mercantile store, church and school. Now the town is readying for the throng, for people drawn from far and wide, from the great western cities of Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and beyond, all of whom will come to witness the Event.
We push further south. Hawks ride the thermals over the rocky escarpments that line the winding highway. There are fields of cattle, creeks, but few trees to provide shelter from the scorching sun. As we near Mitchell, population 130, we leave the road to marvel at the polychrome Painted Hills, their bands of oxidised iron and manganese hinting at the ancient history of the land, when tropical rainforest gave way to gentler, deciduous climes.
Finally we reach our viewing site, a lonely farmhouse dropped alongside Thompson Creek, among the slopes. As the sun sets, a herd of elk drops down from the ridge, driven onto the grassy pasture by a pair of mighty bulls with giant antlers. The farmers watch and tell hunting stories of day-long stalkings before finally felling the giant beasts. Bob talks of adding another great trophy to his farmhouse this season.
There is to be no campfire. The horizon is laced with wildfire smoke. The farmers worry about their livestock that roam the parched land, where each summer a lightning fork, a careless camper or even a hot car on a dry verge can torch thousands of acres. The newspaper says a million people have come to the land and the risk is even higher.
In the morning, the sun shines brightly over the hills. There is some high cloud making for early haze, but as the sun climbs and warms the land, any lingering doubts dissipate with it. The scene is set as our group gathers on the farmers’ lawn that slopes away from the house. The view is perfect. With eyes protected, we see first contact as the moon starts to eat away at the sun’s yellow disk.
As the hour passes, the sun seems to lose her power. Gradually the bright, warming morning sunlight gives way to an eerie dimness and sharpening shadows. The air turns cool. In time, we will need a sweater, even blowing on our fingers. Our anticipation builds. The farmers’ dogs get restless, perhaps sensing our excitement, perhaps from some primeval knowledge of their own. Then the sun’s crescent narrows to a slither, and as darkness finally descends, at last it’s safe to look.
The spectacle of totality is truly other-worldly, unreal, almost beyond description. No partial eclipse I’ve witnessed can approximate, nor come anywhere near the display we are seeing. The sky is a deep purple overhead, dotted with the brightest stars. We see Regulus nearby as expected and higher, Venus overlooks the scene. It’s now cold, but to the north, distant slopes are still bathed in sunlight. For us it’s less a like a sunset and more like a dark shroud has been drawn over land and sky.
The moon itself is a black jewel set at the heart of the shimmering silver-white crown that has been revealed to us. We see three distinct coronal spikes, two on one side and one on the other, as if the moon were superimposed upon a glowing white arrowhead, with a ring of white fire in between. Through my field glasses I look for flecks of red around the moon’s edge and I find two solar prominences at twelve o’clock and at three, with signs of others here and there.
The feeling is one of great elation, an overwhelming sense of well-being, that gives way to the emotion and relief that comes with arrival at the end of the journey. We just can’t resist the compulsion to express the sheer joy of it. And then, after what was only a couple of minutes, it ends with a burst of the purest, brightest, whitest light that we have ever seen. It is the greatest finale of them all. My daughter says it’s like seeing God.
The returning warmth brings with it renewed hope for the future. We say sad goodbyes and turn northward, back the way we came. Our visit has been all too brief. Eyes protected again, Alice watches the moon’s dark disk leave the sun, and as they part, and we enjoy the afternoon sunlight on the Columbia river flowing out to the Pacific, she speaks of her sense of loss and of her compelling need to regain that overwhelming feeling once again.