Publisher's Note

Separate but one, magnified by the Great American Eclipse

By Paul Archipley | Aug 24, 2017
Courtesy of: Jim Kyes The total solar eclipse, as seen from the zone of totality in Oregon.

Bill McAulay was in high school when his mother made him get up in the middle of the night to look at a comet that was streaking across the dark sky.

This week, in Madras, Oregon, he said he couldn’t remember what comet it was (A Google search suggests it was Ikeya-Seki in 1965, the brightest comet in the 20th century.), but it sparked an interest in all things celestial, and Bill became an amateur astronomer.

That was fortunate for a group of us who converged on Madras for the big eclipse Monday. Bill and his wife Jo started planning their visit to the rural, mid-Oregon town more than a couple of years ago, their second trip to see a total eclipse. Their first was to Curacao, an island in the southern Caribbean, in 1998 (more on that later).

And, Bill thought, perhaps some friends would like to join them. He booked a bunch of rooms at a Madras hotel (the confusingly named Econo Lodge Inn & Suites Madras Chateau Inn), sent out a blast email invitation, and my wife Cate and I jumped at the opportunity.

By now, most readers have already read or watched stories about the communal aspect of the Great American Eclipse experience, and that’s a theme that resonated with many of us who were lucky enough to be in the path of totality.

From the mysterious infinity of the universe to the tiny no-see-ums that dined on my legs in dry, central Oregon, the eclipse served as a reminder that we are all separate and one at the same time.

Interestingly, Bill is a third generation funeral director, a very successful enterprise (Yeah, yeah, people are dying to get in. He’s heard them all.). But that means he sees first-hand that separateness/oneness aspect of existence on a daily basis.

Many of his friends who raised their hands for the Madras trip were meeting for the first time, but we were all friends by the end of the adventure.

Most of us had seen partial eclipses, but never a full one before this. Bill and Jo, among the few “veterans,” had booked the Curacao trip specifically for that purpose. When they changed flights in Miami, and an airport attendant asked them where they were headed, she was aghast that they were going to that tiny island.

“There’s nothing there but cactus, goats and wind,” she told them. Bill asked if she was going to watch the eclipse, but she said, “Oh no, I’m pregnant.” Ah yes, a modern-day superstition that may go back to the cave dwellers, when Fred looked out the cave entrance, saw the disappearing sun and warned his wife Wilma, “Hey honey, don’t go out today, me no want no Neanderthal kid.”

Merritt and Linné, another couple we met in Madras, also were witnessing their second full eclipse. They had seen their first in Uganda in 2013. But the eclipse was a fortunate byproduct; they had gone to that eastern African country to see the wildlife.

Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni, who declared himself “the chief viewer of the eclipse,” seized on the event to market the country’s tourism industry.

Merritt said some Japanese scientists had made the long trip from their homeland with a pile of instruments to witness the event. But, uncomfortable with the unrest that follows Museveni wherever he goes, they went several miles out of town of Pakwach where the president was presiding over the festivities.

Bad move. There was no violence, but clear skies, in Pakwach; it rained on the Japanese team.

There was neither violence nor unrest in Madras, either, just a good-time party scene, with an ongoing exchange of entertaining factoids. Bill found a website that affirmed or debunked many stories. Among them:

• Bigfoot was expected to make an appearance. The website said this rumor was “most likely false.” (Hope springs eternal.)

• Teens were expected to engage in a sex party at Madras High School. This one was deemed possible, but it didn’t matter if there was an eclipse or not. But there was no truth to the rumor that their mascot was a Trojan.

Bill had provided high-end glasses for everyone, and brought several pairs of binoculars with filters, including a massive pair set on a tripod that was so powerful you could see sunspots.

When the eclipse reached totality, a cheer went up across greater Madras, followed by two minutes of awe. Staring at the Diamond ring effect, known as Baily’s beads, all agreed it lived up to expectations and beyond.

You could feel that connection with the untold thousands who traveled there to be a part of an unfathomable experience.

The scientists can explain the hows and whats, but no one can answer why. The sun is 400 times bigger than the moon, but the moon is 400 times closer to earth than the sun, a perfect fit. Divine providence? Coincidence? We can only wonder.

As we thousands packed up our RVs, tents and ice chests, and went our separate ways, that feeling of wonder, awe and community went with us. As Joni Mitchell reminded us: “We are stardust. We are golden.”


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