“Sometime in your life, be sure you see a total solar eclipse.” I received this advice years ago from a couple who regularly traveled to exotic corners of the globe—places like Turkey and Mongolia—to witness solar eclipses. It was earnest advice, and I never forgot it.
You have probably heard the expression, “It’s not the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there.” Portions of eastern Oregon are in the middle of nowhere; dead center. If you suspect I am dabbling in hyperbole, visit Frenchglen, Prairie City, and the town of Andrews by the Alvord Desert. Standing in this silent and immense landscape, you will tremble with a troubling sense of vulnerability and meek insignificance. My friend, Dan Merrick, and I came to eastern Oregon to feel a bit of that, but also to see the eclipse.
A right turn at Redding onto Highway 299 took us up the Pit River to Alturas where we turned north onto Highway 395 and the entrance to the middle of nowhere. Many miles of sagebrush and juniper trees later, we reached the town of John Day where we realized we were not the only people who had come to see the eclipse. The roads were busy, restaurants bustled, and every merchant in town had t-shirts or some article of eclipse memorabilia. The townspeople had subdivided every football field, park, and vacant lot into tiny camping and eclipse viewing parcels available for rent.
All we wanted in John Day was a meal and a coffee pot. Those things accomplished, we continued north on Highway 395 to a forest road just south of Long Creek, Oregon. By now, we knew that solitude was out of the question, but seven miles up a dirt road, we found a 6,000-foot high perch with the expansive setting we hoped for.
Eclipse morning, just after 8am, I saw the moon first touch the disk of the sun through my camera viewfinder. While the entire eclipse would take two and a half hours, the total eclipse would last a scant two minutes. We set up our tripods and cameras mindful of the advice of every expert I consulted about photographing a solar eclipse: don’t let picture taking distract you from the main event.
As the remaining slice of sun thinned toward totality, the air chilled. Sunsets have edges—shafts of light here, shadows there—but this was an eerie uniform dusk that evenly dimmed the hundreds of square miles we could see. Going, going, gone. People nearby gasped and called out, and I felt a stirring I checked with a deep swallow and several rapid blinks. High above, an astounding jewel radiated needles of pure white light alone in the near total darkness.
Two hours later, Dan and I sat with no regrets in a seven-mile long string of stop-and-go traffic waiting to pass the one crossroad in the lonely outpost of Long Creek. My world-traveling eclipse-chasing friends had given me good advice.