Prologue

Humans have an interesting relationship with the natural environment we live in. For thousands of years, our ancestors were beholden to its sway; they lived and died by the blessing of calm seas, or mild winters, or a chance encounter with a migrating herd of game. We invented agriculture, and even then were subject to the whims of the Earth: enough sunlight to grow the crops, enough rain to replenish the irrigation reservoirs, hiatuses between floods or earthquakes or volcanic eruptions long enough to build and re-build the infrastructure of civilization.

In the present day, we find ourselves largely disconnected from these natural rhythms, flooded by the blue melatonin-disrupting light of our screens at all hours, with roofs and walls to keep out the elements, and food never more than a few taps away.[1]Assuming, of course, one finds themselves lucky enough to afford these luxuries of late-stage capitalism, unlike almost a fifth of all Canadians who were food-insecure in 2022 (including me, hi 🙋‍♀️), and almost a third of all Indigenous people who will experience homelessness at some point in their lives. Yet despite this sensory deadening, there are still a few phenomena so rare and unusual that they can shake us out of our stupor, reconnecting us with those long-forgotten feelings written into our bones.

Just over a week ago, along with over 2 million other people, three friends and I set out on a journey to catch one of these miraculous experiences. The April 8, 2024 eclipse was one I’d been quietly anticipating ever since my first encounter with this marvel of nature back in 2017. In August of that year, just before starting my Masters degree, I’d been fortunate enough to be invited to a team meeting for the spacecraft instrument[2]yep, good ol’ Diviner I would be working with for my thesis project, which was held at a time and place to coincide with this otherworldly occasion.

image-center

On the road north from Bend, Oregon at 6:30 AM the morning of August 21, 2017. Totality T-minus 3 hours.

The story of that day is long and slightly hilarious in its near-failure, but briefly, the group I was with got lost on our way to meet the rest of the team at our previously scouted eclipse viewing location, and after much struggle ended up hitting a dead end on the backcountry fire road we were taking. So we made the best of a bad situation, whipped out a bluetooth speaker, and set up camp:

Our accidental 2017 eclipse-viewing location at the dead-end of a fire road in Oregon. Panorama showing trees and low hills in all directions, surrounding the grassy clearing at the top of a hill we got stuck on.

Me sitting on the hood of the pitiful rental car that was _definitely_ not meant to drive on completely un-maintained forest roads

I’d gone into this adventure almost completely unprepared, sort of just following along with my supervisor on the trip, so I had no idea what to expect other than “everything goes dark and you can look at the Sun for a couple minutes”. Sure, I’d seen pictures of eclipses online, the classic pitch-black disk like a pool of ink surrounded by the angelic glow of the solar corona. But the experience on the ground, as a person witnessing this profound transformation of your entire visible environment first-hand? To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it.

And then totality hit.

image-center

I’ve since recounted it many times as the closest I’ve ever felt to the divine, a dozen fast-forwarding tapes of a lifetime spent marvelling at the natural world playing simultaneously in my mind, as everything collapsed and was reborn again in that instant of the Sun’s annihilation. It’s impossible to describe in a way that conveys its true impact and awe; the only word I can think of that even approaches it is “transcendent”. And so it becomes all the more frustrating when this feeling, this closeness and unity with creation, this moment when the holy sparks present in every human are laid bare before the glory of one of the great cosmic Wonders, gets shrugged off as “oh cool, that must have looked neat” and ascribed to your peculiar specialist interests when you try to explain it afterwards. I can’t claim to have escaped this ignorance—like I said, going into it I had no idea the effect it would have on me, so I don’t blame people for being somewhat incurious in response. But the internal division it created between before and after, warranted or not, has occasionally been a little difficult to bear.

Thankfully, there are always a few nerds I can count on to share the enthusiasm over these miraculously improbable coincidences of nature, even if they don’t always connect with the more spiritual and mystical aspects I did. So six and a half years later, satellite cloud cover maps in hand and trunk loaded with deli goods, our little fellowship of four set off for the next great North American eclipse.

And of course we made a playlist for it (read titles in order for maximum narrative journey).

The Big Day

It’d been all sun and clear blue skies the weekend before, so we were hopeful the weather would hold despite the pessimistic forecast. Unfortunately, this is what I woke up to the morning of:

image-center

Undeterred, we pressed on, praying the predictions that the clouds would clear up by the afternoon would bear out. We left London around 10 am, well before even the partial was scheduled to start, in case we hit traffic on the nominally 1.5-hour journey to the site. Our early planning paid off, and the drive was mostly uneventful,[3]with the bonus that the playlist turned out to be almost exactly the right length for it 😌👌 leaving us plenty of time to stop for lunch at a diner in Tillsonburg before heading down to the lake.

image-center

We also somehow passed by my usual drugstore even though we were several cities away!

Our final destination was Sand Hill Park, a privately-owned trailer park and campsite near Long Point on the north shore of Lake Erie. We’d chosen this place after a couple weeks of research, scouting for areas that had the best combination of proximity to the center of the path of totality, ease of access to the lake, and elevation above the surrounding terrain for maximum eclipse-phenomena visibility. Sand Hill Park ticked all the boxes: it’s an incredibly unique and unusual feature, a series of giant natural sand dunes right along the shore of the lake, formed by eons of southwesterly winds eroding and transporting material to this spot. The scale of these dunes is difficult to convey: they stand over 100 meters (350 feet) tall, the height of a ten-story building(!!)

The week before the eclipse, Andrew and Jess went to scout out the site and see if, despite the park normally being closed until May 1, we could obtain entry for that one afternoon. The owners, to their indelible credit, said that as long as it was just our small group coming they’d let us in for free (daytime admission is normally $12/person), and as we found out later even allowed several other local groups to join as well. In all of the country that day I think we had the best seats in the house:

image-center

Now that we’d beaten the traffic, had some lunch, and secured our spot, there was nothing left to do but wait. Here’s a few shots over the course of the next hour, as the Sun sloooowly started to be swallowed up…

A few minutes before totality we saw the Moon’s shadow creep over the horizon, darkening the already ominous clouds whisking across the south shore. This is why we’d wanted to stay elevated: during my first encounter with the vanishing sun, totality practically pounced on us without warning, as the surrounding hills made it difficult to see any distance away. This time, hundreds of feet above a flat body of water over which the umbra approached, we couldn’t miss it. It got closer, and the light got dimmer, and dimmer, until—


Once again I was awe-struck by the moment far more than I expected to be, and this time I knew I wasn’t alone in that feeling. We all whooped and hollared and “wow“-ed and started frantically commenting on every unbelievable thing we were witnessing. When something this powerful happens, try as you might to apply your intellectual faculties and take it all in as a natural consequence of Newtonian mechanics, something inside you breaks, and you can do nothing but surrender to the incomparable beauty of creation.

Andrew managed to capture the “diamond ring” just before totality, and some spectacular views of the 360-degree shadow-induced sunset:

image-center

Of course, amongst this astronomical ecstasy we also had to get in a very important group pose:

Check the time-lapse for the behind-the-scenes of this once-in-a-lifetime snap, lol

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The sky brightened, shouts of “glasses!” were called out as people scrambled to put their filtering eye shields back on, and the world returned to the same warm sunny day it’d been only minutes before.[4]well, almost—the Sun was still 99% covered, of course, so it was a little chilly!

image-center

Checking the time lapse footage afterwards—it worked! :D

We stayed for a while at the park to wait out the rush of visitors who immediately left, feeling like those geeks in the theater watching the credits roll on a (non-Marvel) film.[5]She says affectionately, as one of said geeks The delay gave us a chance to finish the food we’d brought, make sure everyone had a chance to relieve themselves after the long wait up on the sand, and then get moving at a comfortable pace—and, for me at least, some time to decompress and shake off the electricity still coursing through my nerves.

We would’ve had a leisurely drive back after that, except that I, fool that I am, had booked a bus leaving only a few short hours from then out of Toronto, taking me overnight all the way to Rochester where I was originally supposed to be observing the eclipse[6]Sorry Ashka! :( at a workshop I’d registered for months before. So, along with thousands of others, we hit[7]Read: crawled along the highway, and managed to scrape into Union Station with only minutes to spare.

Andrew, Jess, Zhenya: thank you, thank you, a million times thank you so much. ♡

It was a long, cold, sleepless ride on the bus that night, but I couldn’t stop smiling the whole way, burning with joy from everything that’d transpired that day. I really can’t count myself lucky enough to have witnessed such a miracle of time and space more than once now, this time getting to share it with some of the people on this planet I love the most. This will probably be the last total eclipse I see for quite a while, if not for the rest of my life—and I couldn’t have imagined it being any more perfect.

Till next moon,

-xoxo gossip grad ☾⋆⁺₊⋆

Tags:

Categories:

Updated: