By 7am, people abandoned their camps — some trudging, others skipping, depending on the nights they’d had. Most of them hadn’t gone to bed and it showed. Dust clung to their hair and clothes. The glowing lights stitched into their faux fur coats flickered, the batteries in need of a recharge. Nine out of ten pairs of gold leggings had lost their sheen.
But they were buzzing. You could hear the excitement trilling in their voices as they filed out of tightly packed camps. This was it — a celestial event rare enough to bring 30,000 people to a dusty plot of land in Eastern Oregon. The vibe was high. Friends high fived while waiting for the Port-O-Potties. Strangers wished one another “happy eclipse.” Crystals were in abundance.
As one massive mob, we headed past stages and art installations, vacant for the first time since the Oregon Eclipse Festival began. All but a few rebels wanted to watch the big show together — atop a rocky field. Considering how awful humans generally behave in crowds, this gathering was defined by a pervading sense of kindness. People apologized with they bumped one another. They laughed freely and introduced themselves with overlong, soul-warming hugs. It was all enough to make you roll your eyes if it didn’t 1) seem so damn genuine and 2) seem impossibly lame to pop anyone’s first-US-eclipse-in-38-years-so-just-let-me-hug-you bubble.
Picking our way up the stony path, we arrived at the sprawling field. Our group of ten laid blankets down on the dirt while the two photographers in our crew started to set up their cameras. Behind us, a sea of people crowded around a massive “sun temple.” In front of us was another half-mile of open space, with at least five thousand souls loafing in the patchy grass.
A few minutes later, a wild howl went up from the back of the field and washed forward like a tidal wave. Thousands of people imitating wolves to celebrate the moon slipping partially in front of the sun. It was just a sliver at first, but by looking through cardboard eclipse glasses it was easy to see.
For the next half-hour, the sun ceded ground to the moon. Every few minutes, the wolf howl went up again. When the sun was finally whittled down to a crescent, the sky darkened. The temperature dropped and a breeze rippled through the huddled masses. There was an undeniable eeriness to this artificial dusk.
It wouldn’t be long now. The energy heightened. People slipped on sweatshirts and their conversations went soft.
“How does the sun get a haircut?” a friend asked in a campy voice, catching the attention of the groups nearby.
“Eclipse it!” the rest of us answered.
It was a dumb joke, but dumb jokes are funny when you’ve slept for two hours.
Another howl burst up from the crowd — this one truly wild — then the sun went black. The eclipse had entered “totality.” The moon looked like a giant obsidian disk, with ring of red filaments extending around it. Thirty thousand pairs of flimsy eclipse glasses were taken off. The howls peaked, then faded away. So did the hung over banter. For just a minute, it was quiet — as 30,000 people stared up at the vanished sun. There was a certain solemnity to the moment. People who had been cracking jokes or singing knew to shut up.
A day earlier I’d felt embarrassed when interviewing an eclipse chaser. He and his family had traveled around the world following eclipses, but when I learned that he was an M.D., I assumed he was interested in the astronomy aspect, rather than any vague mysticism.
“Do you come for the science… or do you feel it’s… spiritual?” I asked.
He gave me a look that made me wilt. “It’s all of it. It has to be. Community, nature, spirituality — you shouldn’t ignore any of it.”
As the sun’s corona glowed around the blacked-out moon, I tried to not ignore any of it. I tried to make an intention for the next year — which isn’t as hippy-ish as it might sound, considering that the 21st was also my 38th birthday (interestingly the last solar eclipse passed over my parents’ house in Oregon 38 years ago. My mother was days away from discovering that she was pregnant with me.)
After two minutes, it was over. The sun re-emerged — just a sliver — and the eclipse glasses went back on. A band on a rolling pirate ship struck up “Here Comes the Sun.” Second and third hugs. Laughing. It was — for everyone in our group — more significant, more inspiring, more stunning than we’d expected. Somehow, this enormous event managed to exceed our expectations.
As we walked back towards camp, people peeled off to swim. Others stayed on the field staring at the sky. Soon we’d be off in our own worlds again — on the dance floor, or the port-a-potty line, or (please, God) napping. But for a few minutes we’d been swallowed up by one shared experience. It’s corny to write, but there’s no real way around it.
It would be easy (and arguably true) to say that “for once, people in this fractured nation came together” but for me, the eclipse was simpler than that. It was people quieting themselves and slowing down to be awed by nature: An act that is both habitually ignored and deeply important.