As Eclipse Day (August 21) approaches and eclipse mania builds, some of you are wondering: “What’s all the excitement about?” Indeed, it seems, from afar, kind of crazy: Why do some people travel long distances at great expense just to see an event that only lasts a couple of minutes? More peculiarly, why do some eclipse chasers travel all over the world to experience these things?
For those of us who have experienced solar totality — in my case, 16 times — no other natural event has the visual, mental and emotional impact that an eclipse evokes. It is an unequaled thrill that beckons us to pursue it. Watching the sun diminish until its blazing glory is masked and we can stare at its emanating, life-giving energy is simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating. The rarity and brief duration of this celestial union amplifies its mystery and appeal.
The eclipse of Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, will be the first total eclipse of the sun to occur in the contiguous 49 states since 1979. The path of totality — meaning, the line along which the moon completely occludes the sun — perfectly bisects the nation, cutting right through the heart of the country and offering about 11 million people a view of the spectacle without leaving home. The last total solar eclipse seen in the continental U.S. merely passed through a small area of a handful of states before the path moved into Canada. This wonderful show is going to completely stun and mesmerize millions of eclipse virgins who have no idea what they are in for.
The experience of a total solar eclipse is not just delightful for its beauty; eclipses work on the eyes, mind and body and confound our every expectation of how a day should proceed and how the world as we know it operates. Buddhist spiritual guru Ram Dass once said of taking LSD, “It is definitely a before and after experience.” I feel the same is true for those who experience totality. My first view of the black sun and the corona changed the course of my life. After staring at that energy of creation and feeling a sense of exultant elation, I just wanted to do so again and again and again.
On eclipse days, even though I know what the math and the experts say, I am still apprehensive that it’s really going to happen until I see first contact — the moment when the moon first encroaches upon the sun and it appears as a tiny irregularity in the sun’s circumference. That irregularity becomes a nibble and then grows into a black bite. The partial phases leading into and out of totality usually last for about an hour to an hour and a half. Nothing too noticeable happens, except the bite in the sun grows larger, until about 30 or 40 minutes before totality, depending on the clarity of the skies.
As most of the sun is obscured, the quality of the light begins to change, illuminating the landscape in a manner unlike any you have ever seen. Color drains from plants. Shadows appear sharp and distinct, an effect that makes buildings in the distance look artificial, like architecture models. The dappled patches of sunlight beneath trees become strangely uniform crescent patterns as gaps in the overlapping leaves function as pinhole projectors.
As the sunlight further diminishes, the lighting begins to take on a bizarre metallic quality. Last year on a ship at sea near Borneo, just before totality, I looked down at the crew gathered on the deck below us and they looked like they had been sprayed with a fine film of platinum mist.
As the crescent of sunlight shrinks down, if you have a clear view to the west, glance at the horizon. Between earth and sky an edge of dusty indigo blue will appear and rise up into a wall of silent darkness. This is the shadow of the moon traveling across the earth faster than the speed of sound, but there is no sonic boom — just a rising chorus of awestruck wailing as the mundane day surrenders to the transcendent moment.
The last arc of sunlight breaks up into sparkling beads of light that appear and wink out in seconds. These are called Baily’s beads, after the astronomer who first described them. As the deepest lunar valley passes across the face of the sun, the last ray of light flares out through it, creating what is called the diamond ring effect. At that moment, the moon’s shadow sweeps over, plunging viewers into an eerie daytime twilight.
The total phase of a solar eclipse is not as dark as night. Hanging in the sky above is the black sun surrounded by the corona, the emanating waves of plasma. The corona is a bit brighter than the full moon. Another source of illumination is the strange 360-degree sunset effect ringing the horizon. Because the eclipse is caused by a shadow cone cast by the moon, light from outside the shadow bleeds in at the horizon, which creates the appearance of an encircling sunset, with jaundiced yellow, peach or faint rose colorations.
During the August eclipse, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury and Mars should be visible. Some stars might be visible, too, but I prefer to stare at the corona and the bright red prominences extending out from the surface into the corona. These are thousand-mile-high jets of gas. As the period of totality draws to an end, the area of first contact will brighten and, for a short moment, the neon-scarlet chromosphere is visible in its breathtaking beauty. All too soon, another gorgeous diamond ring blooms forth and totality ends. You can watch the shadow rush away and disappear into the eastern horizon, taking totality to other expectant viewers.
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Total solar eclipses are uncommon. There is about one a year somewhere on Earth, and the path of totality moves in a band across the landscape that is usually about 50 miles in width. The longest totalities provide about six minutes of being in the complete shadow of the moon. If you miss it due to cloudy weather, bad timing or a travel disaster, you'll have to wait another year — or more.
My first successful eclipse experience was my second eclipse trip. My spouse Donald and I were in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. The central town in the area was quite a scene, with traditional Andean locals in their serapes and little bowler hats mingling with dreadlocked eclipse-chasers from around the planet.
Prior to totality, our local tour guide assured us that he had seen a solar eclipse before. After totality he could hardly speak or stand. “I th-th-thought I had seen one but I-I never saw nothing like that! I thought the mother ship was coming down!” he stammered.
Donald and I had been dating for six months when we traveled to that eclipse, and the shared experience seemed to bond us together for life. We immediately knew we wanted to see the next one. Where was it? Thailand? Awesome!
Our Thai experience, in contrast to the Chilean eclipse in the sparsely-populated desert, occurred on the side of a five-lane highway that was choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was nonetheless completely thrilling. Most Thais were eager to see the moment of totality, but our driver succumbed to old superstitions and fled indoors at a café during the eclipse.
The next eclipse occurred in Mongolia. We were in a terrible blizzard, and all hope seemed lost. I joined the local Shamanic-minded villagers in a crow ritual that cleared the sky around the eclipse just in time for totality. That was a cross-cultural peak experience.
After snowy Mongolia, we sure were not going to miss the next year’s eclipse through the Caribbean. That was the real start of my eclipse evangelism. In 1996, Donald and I cornered the president of RSVP, a company that organizes cruise ship trips for LGBT passengers, and urged him to put together the first lesbian and gay total solar eclipse cruise. To his credit, he looked into the possibility and booked a ship with an itinerary that would put us in totality on the island of Aruba. That cruise sold out in record time, and we were gifted our cabin for having inspired the trip.
We had a glorious view of a gorgeous totality in Aruba, and at the end of the cruise Donald and I were brought on stage, where all of our fellow passengers cheered and clapped for us for making the experience possible. Many people thanked us for giving them the most profound experience of their lives. It was one of the best moments of my life. I think I became nearly as addicted to the feeling of helping people find totality as I am to totality itself.
For eclipses over the sea, such “eclipse cruises” are actually fairly common. These special eclipse cruises put a ship in the part of the ocean with the best prospects for clear skies. We have done a few since our RSVP eclipse cruise and enjoy the ease and lack of stress.
For the 1999 eclipse, I wanted to be someplace quintessentially European, as it was the only total solar eclipse that would pass through the heart of the continent in our lifetimes. I recruited a group of friends and a few strangers and, in the ruins of a 13th-century castle, high on a hill overlooking Lake Balaton, Hungary, surrounded by thatched-roof villages and vineyards, we reveled in totality. Everyone deserves at least one perfect day, and that was mine.
Eclipse chasing became a necessity. It was unimaginable to miss seeing the corona during those rare and brief moments when it is possible.
We experienced one of our (thankfully few) eclipse-viewing failures in 2002 in Australia, thanks to what we call the C-word. It was a short totality — a mere 30 seconds — and one ill-timed puff of cloud blocked our view. My advice, should such a disastrous scenario ever unfold for you, is to watch for the arrival of the shadow and take in the rapid change in lighting.
In 2003, a total solar eclipse occurred that passed over only one continent: Antarctica. I feared we would miss that one because the weather prospects were dismal and I hate cold. When we learned of a flight out of Australia to intercept the shadow and fly with it, thus extending totality by nearly a minute, while assuring we would be above the clouds, we signed on.
The flight left Melbourne and returned 18 hours later, setting a Guinness World Record for the longest domestic flight. The moon’s shadow crept up from behind us rather than rushing over us and the diamond ring seemed to bloom for a little longer time. Above the atmospheric haze, the corona was stunning, quicksilver bright like platinum plasma.
In 2008 we took another eclipse flight, this time over the Arctic Circle; one of the travelers, who had been on both flights with us, made and distributed shirts that read, “Now I’m Bipolar.”
Solar eclipse totality is an experience that is so removed from the ordinary and mundane, so visually beautiful, so mentally flummoxing and so evocative of something greater than ourselves that it generates an unequaled perception of overwhelming awe. German theologian Rudolf Otto had a word for this type of majestic and slightly fearsome sense of being awestruck: the numinous. Famed psychiatrist and author Carl Jung wrote that experiencing the numinous is healing because “it frees you from the curse of pathology.”
Recent research seems to bear this out. Studies conducted by Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. and Lani Shiota, Ph.D. found that experiencing awe enhances both mental and physical health. The data also indicates that experiencing awe can benefit the health of a community by generating a sense of altruism and deflecting self-absorption.
It is my sincere hope that this eclipse, with a path of totality that cuts right across the U.S. during a time of great division and anger, can generate a millions-strong experience of wonder, awe and gratitude that can help us see our commonality and that these brief lives we have are precious gifts to be cherished.