One of the first things I did when I moved west in ’72 was to visit the planetarium at a local community college. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” played as the apparatus rose from the floor and the room darkened. It thrilled me. I was also watching a lot of Star Trek reruns at that time, something that served me well when I was published years later in Star Trek short story anthologies. I was a Girl Geek long before it was considered remotely cool.
But I was a good worker as well. At first, I resisted the idea of working for a living, of trudging to a job the way that my dad did. I’d just graduated from college and was way too smart for my own good. The conversations in a liberal arts college during liberal times included derisive comments about “working for the man” or getting caught up in the rat race. Unfortunately, during those conversations no one suggested a better way for me to feed and clothe myself and pay college loans and bills, so off to work I went. I found out I was good at it. I could cut through crap and not over-fuss and get a lot of work done in a relatively short amount of time. I was rewarded and promoted and forgot about my love of stars and space. I was on an earthbound orbit, one that I once believed I would shun.
In February, 1979 there was a total eclipse that rolled across the bottom of the state and headed North/Northeast, and I was reminded of my love of astronomy. It was a three and a half hour drive over two snowy mountain passes to get to Goldendale, Washington, which had a planetarium and unobstructed views and considered itself Eclipse Central. Seattle would not see the total eclipse. By percentage, it was 99+% totality, and given it was February, a 99+% probability of rain and overcast skies. Goldendale was east of the mountains, where the totality percentage rose and the rain percentage dropped.
But I worked for a boss who was a taskmaster, someone who admitted he hired German Midwestern Catholics because they would “work themselves to death.” I certainly fit the bill. He was the first boss to mentor me and recognize my talents. Later in my career we parted, and not well, but that’s another story. I broached the idea of taking the day off, but he frowned on those kinds of days. This was a different time and a different company in a very seasonal business, where one took one’s vacation in summer chunks that people could see on the calendar months and months ahead of time. I was suggesting a single day for – in his opinion – a frivolous reason. It offended his Teutonic sensibilities. So I stewed and envied my hippie friends as they drove southeast while I stayed at my desk.
In 2017, I decided that I would get that Total Eclipse Monkey off my back. This time, totality was further away by miles but closer by inclination. It was occurring in areas that we loved, visited often, and could easily reach. Now time and money were on our side. What could stop us?
In June we made reservations in Bend at a hotel where we’d stayed many times before. The rate was triple the usual, and they said they would charge us whether we showed up or not. That kind of gouging became prevalent as the summer heated up, and the path didn’t even go through Bend. Totality was about 15 miles north of there. We began hearing eclipse-ageddon warnings and stories: Expect 50,000 to 100,000 people passing through that area to get to Madras, this event’s Eclipse Central, which was north of where we were headed. The closer we got to August 21st, the louder the drumbeat: Fill your tank! Take lots of cash! Take water with you! Expect long delays on the road! Don’t expect road help to reach you! A million+ people are expected to head to these normally unpeopled seaside and high desert areas in Oregon alone! Expect that it will take a long time to get there and a longer time to get out of there, wherever “there” may be.
I’m not a fan of crowds, and I’m not patient when it comes to lines, and I hate the feeling of being trapped, so after consulting with Fred – who was really just along for the ride – I canceled the reservations. I knew that the next coast-to-coast eclipse wasn’t until 2045, so I was saddened. It’s hard to make plans for something that’s going to happen when you’re 95. I don’t think there’s trip insurance for that.
Two weeks beforehand, a friend gave me an eclipse-related section of New York Times believing we were still headed there. The lead story was written by a guy who also hated crowds, but who waxed poetic about the shared experience. I was angry at myself when I read it. I was a weenie! Shame on me! I needed to do this! So I went back to the drawing board. Where could we go that was NOT in Madras or along the I-5 corridor? Now that we were closer to the event, there were reports that the East/central area, southwest of Pendleton, wouldn’t be as crowded. So we drove to Kennewick and stayed the night, planning to rise in the morning and head south. On the timing, I knew I was cutting it close, but I’d seen 90%+ partial eclipses before. I didn’t need to watch the process of the moon crawling across the sun or it moving away afterwards. I was looking for my two minutes of totality, period, pure and simple, so I had it down to a science. Most people were headed for towns in the middle of the totality, but the path was 70 miles wide. So using an eclipse map, I fed the coordinates for the edge of that line into our geocaching GPS unit. We were going to be on remote roads that would not have a sign saying “Hey! Totality Begins Here!”
Thus armed, we headed outSouth over the Columbia River, then southwest in the general direction of Spray, Oregon, and in Lexington, 40 miles short of our goal, we made a bathroom stop at a gas pump/mini-mart, the only one in town. As we pulled into the parking lot, I heard the motor whine. “What’s that sound?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Fred said, “but the battery light just went on.”
We had cellphone service, so Fred called our mechanic while I looked at the manual and got online. All avenues brought us to the same intersection: These are the signs of an alternator getting ready to die. The proprietors there couldn’t help us, but suggested the town of Heppner, 10 or so miles on. It was on our route.
When we pulled into that valley burg of 1300, it was clear that we were closer to our goal. At the city park there were two large garbage bins, one marked “Hunters” and the other “Eclipse” which made me idly wonder what the differences in garbage might be. Deer parts and beer cans vs. broken eclipse glasses or failed cardboard pinhole experiments?
There was a Les Schwab there. Les Schwab is a tire chain founded in Oregon with deep roots in the Pacific Northwest. As we pulled in, I pictured us being featured in one of their television ads. Ubiquitous, corny, and effective, they feature the still picture heads of real people on top of cartoon bodies as the real people’s voices tell the animated tale of having their asses saved by Les Schwab: They saved my wedding day, they made sure I got to my graduation, Les Schwab got us to grandma’s funeral, all of this because they did things other than just change tires. I decided our commercial would be: How Les Schwab got us to the total eclipse.
They hooked equipment to the car and ran tests. Here’s the thing I learned about alternators: You could drive another 300 miles on one that is giving you death rattle warnings, or the next time you put the key in the ignition, it will smoke and blow and then you’re screwed. Like Ultrasound Technicians, they could check on us, but couldn’t tell us anything definitive, but they pointed across the street at Heppner Auto Parts. “Maybe Jack can tell you more.”
Jack was on the phone with QuickBooks trying to get technical help. I chatted with his wife while Fred waited. She walked outside with me, and I mentioned the beautiful building at the end of the street. It was the County Courthouse, she said, and it had been spared in the big flood of ’09, the most devastating flood not precipitated by a dam failure. I told her I was amazed that I’d never read anything about it. Only later did I realize she mean 1909, not 2009. No matter the century, Kathy was about as disinterested in what was going on in the heavens above us as one could possibly be. I let her try my glasses. Months ago I’d purchased two of the safest, most expensive, and most stylish pairs that I could find, thinking that we could wear them post-eclipse. When the package arrived at the house, I put them on and realized that although I may have looked cool, I was effectively rendered blind. They are good only for staring directly at the sun for long periods of time, or as an affectation if you’re in a retro, Devo-like band.
After her turn, I put them on and looked upward. We were already well into it. The sun was around 60% obscured.
Jack came out, did the tests, and basically told us what we already knew: It could get us where we wanted, or it could blow when we turned the key in the ignition. So we might be able to get to the edge of totality, and it might be fine and it might blow the next time we started it, in which case whoever came to tow us away would be fighting upstream against the thousands of cars leaving the area. And then we’d need the part. I asked how long it would take to get it since they didn’t have it there, and Kathy proudly responded, “We could have it tomorrow.”
We decided to watch the rest of the eclipse where we were and head for home afterward on the chance that we’d make it. Jack cautioned us to not use the air conditioning (too much drain on the battery) and Kathy directed us to the city park where we could finally put our sunglasses to use. We sat on a park bench facing a concrete dam rising in front of us a hundred yards away. We’d been told by several people that the top of the dam would give the most unobstructed view, and we could see people standing up there, but I felt defeated, deflated, moving in molasses. What was the point?
Kids heedlessly continued to play in the park and were admonished by parents to not stare at the sun. Residents came out of nearby homes bringing iced drinks and folding chairs, and we all looked up at the sky. The sun reduced to a thin sliver. The street lights came on and the dogs howled, but there was no totality, no corona. It was dusk, not night, close but no cigar, and I felt my well-protected eyes fill with tears. I took a picture, a huge disappointment without the proper preparation or accouterments. It was just the sun. Besides the heavens, we also looked at the dam. Kathy had told us that 238 people had died in that flood, so having a wall of water above us was disquieting. When the birds began to chirp again, we got back in the car and headed home. It was blisteringly hot, so we used good, old-fashioned 470 air conditioning: 4 windows open, 70 miles an hour. The sounds of tires on the road and massive truck motors were deafening, and our arm hairs stood at attention as they were blown backwards. But the silence was welcome. It gave me time to think.
I thought about the nature of planning and how I’d promised myself post-heart attack that I would suppress my need to sit at the head of every planning table I encounter. I cursed myself again for quitting the earlier Bend option, but then remembered that there were people who had planned everything perfectly, years and years advance, folks who had made reservations in Sisters, Oregon only to be kept from getting there by forest fires, people who thought to charter a private plane that crashed into a cliff short of the Madras runway and killed everyone on board. I thought about the 238 people of Heppner who went to bed one night with plans for tomorrow and with no idea that a quarter of them would die the next day. And then I considered myself and how I’d planned to meet my high school girlfriends last year but had a heart attack instead. There are no guarantees. It’s so random, I thought. Really, why plan anything, ever?
I sighed and looked at my phone, rechecking the date of the next total eclipse. 2044. A long time from now. But wait … What was this? 2044 was the next coast-to-coast eclipse. There was another total in the contiguous US in 2024, a mere 7 years away! And it was passing through places where we’ve been and where there are people we could visit and things we want to do: Austin, San Antonio, Paducah! My mood brightened. This was so doable!
It was great, I decided, to have something to plan.