Column and photos by Patti Isaacs
My future husband, Gauss, and I backpacked the Colorado and Canadian Rockies and canoed northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters in the summers, then camped and cross-country skied there in the winter.
Although we were both in liberal arts—he studied Chinese and linguistics and I double-majored in art and geography—we shared a love of science, and the natural world was where we wanted to be.
Since his childhood, when his father had taken him up to the roof to experience a partial solar eclipse, Gauss hoped to someday see a total one. I recalled two partial eclipses from my youth as well, and was fascinated by their mystery and rarity.
So when a total solar eclipse was predicted for February 1979, in Winnipeg, Canada—nearly four decades before this past week’s Great American Total Solar Eclipse—we had to go.
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My First Total Solar Eclipse
It was driving distance from Minneapolis, where we lived, even if that drive had to be in my 1968 VW Bug—not the most reliable means of transportation, and a model notorious for inadequate heating.
Gauss had bought number 14 welding glass so we could safely view the disk of the sun as the moon began to cover it.
We set out the morning before the eclipse.
It was a long, cold ride, the little engine laboring to maintain freeway speeds. We were crestfallen when, well after dark and just north of the Canadian border, a snow squall blew in. Cloudy skies would prevent us from seeing the rare event. Had we driven 400 miles for nothing?
We checked into a motel and hoped that the skies would be clear the next day.
Fate was with us, and the sun appeared the next morning. We drove another hundred miles to a spot on a remote prairie road within the path of totality, that narrow band where the sun’s disk would be blocked completely by the moon.
As the moon began to cover the sun, the midmorning light took on a silvery quality. The sky, although blue, looked almost overcast.
We had read repeated warnings not to look directly at the sun. Instead, we viewed it through the greenish tint of the welding glass until it dwindled to a sliver of light and then to a single beam—the “diamond ring effect”—as the sun’s last ray shone through a gap in the moon’s mountains.
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The Path of Totality
I lowered the glass and looked around just as totality hit.
The effect was sudden and stunning, as if someone had flipped off a light switch. Under the dome of darkness, the sunny morning now looked like an evening at twilight.
Birds flitted to nearby shrubs to roost, quieting down as if to rest for the night.
We could now look directly at the eclipse.
Above us, the sun’s gossamer white corona burst from behind the black disk of the moon. Stars twinkled.
Pivoting around, I noticed a sunset palette of pink, purple, and orange in all directions, marking the distant edge of the moon’s shadow against the prairie.
Totality lasted less than three minutes.
I hadn’t brought a camera, only my senses. Under the dusky sky pinpricked with stars and planets, I drank in the 360-degree sunset; the black hole in the sky where the sun should be, surrounded by its wispy corona; the dark outlines of the roosting juncos in bare branches.
I was scarcely aware of the chilly air, instead taking in the sudden darkness, the silence and rare beauty of the moment, unlike anything I had experienced before. Gauss and I glanced at each other, mouths agape, euphoric and overwhelmed. We jumped in the air and yelled in celebration.
Then suddenly the light switched back on.
If we wanted to look, it would have to be through the murky welding glass again. The birds twittered and roused from their perches as if dawn were breaking.
We lingered a few more minutes at the edge of the snowy field, cementing in our memories the wonder we had just witnessed.
Eclipses are the crack cocaine of the natural world. As soon as we experienced totality, we wanted it again.
Some people climb mountains; some take drugs.
We would chase eclipses.
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