The Schism In the Sky: How the Eclipse Divided America
Another great divide surfaced in America this week: In an era of “us vs. them” and “Red States vs. Blue States” we now have the “partials vs. the totals.”
During the Great American Eclipse, the partials were content to slap on a pair of ISO-approved glasses and enjoy the sight of the Pacman-shaped sun in the sky. Meanwhile, the totals went to any and every extreme to see the moon block out the sun for a mere matter of seconds.
I’m in the totals camp. My husband, daughter, and I traveled 12 hours by car from Santa Cruz, California, to a town near Madras, Oregon to see the totality. We stayed on an organic sheep farm where we endured hot, windy days, cold nights sleeping on a freshly mown hay lawn, and the indignity of using composting buckets in lieu of toilets—although I admit that I snuck out once a day to a nearby park to enjoy the use of a flush toilet and shower, like a true City Girl.
Before we went, we were warned about what could happen because of the hordes of totals—including traffic nightmares, possible Bigfoot encounters, and the threat of triggering a Bend earthquake with our collective mass. “The National Guard is here,” the visitor bureau’s spokesman in Bend told us. “There’s the real possibility that the area may run out of gas.”
Before our extended camp-out on the farm, my husband wanted to hunker down and fill up our car as if it were a nuclear fallout shelter. But I refused to panic. Besides, after a week on the road,our car already looked like it was owned by the Joads, with coolers and boxes of dry goods blotting out the windows. I couldn’t open one of the back doors without fear of a cooler or a half-empty water bottles falling out in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, the national and local hysteria kept on building. A tip jar at a nearby coffee house in Terrebonne asked us to vote on what level of chaos the eclipse would bring to the town: A zombie apocalypse or a nuclear apocalypse. Judging from the number of dollar bills, the zombies seemed to be winning.
Still, we decided to take our chances and stay up in Central Oregon. Strikingly, many of the people who lived within easy driving distance of Madras did not share our sense of adventure. Lots of people in Portland and Bend, alarmed by news reports of huge traffic jams in Prineville, decided to stay put.
Many of those people would grumble, bitterly, about their “subpar” 99.4 percent totality.
Under normal circumstances I am, by nature, a partial—a person who would rather shirk physical and emotional discomfort of any kind. I will often refuse offers of free vacation lodging with family and friends just because I can’t sharing a living space, even with people I love. But I have always loved astronomy and, quite honestly, I was almost physically sick from current events. Most of the big news in 2017 has been dreadful–terrorism, North Korean missile launches, white power marches. If some celestial drama was taking place, I had to rush out and see it, whether it was a meteor-shower or a cornea-searing eclipse.
I also wanted my eight-year old to learn to go for things, to sometimes avoid the path of least resistance.
And so my family and I headed to the isolated goat and sheep farm a few miles south of Madras early on Friday, more than three full days before the eclipse.
Families started trickling in, until there were dozens of adults and children milling around. There was no traffic, so we went hiking a few miles away at Smith Rock State Park and had a sit-down hot lunch at a nearby restaurant. We even went to the local rec center to get in a swim and a much-needed shower. Back at the farm, the kids killed time by hitting each other with extra pool noodles, which the farmers were passing out so we could use them as makeshift toilet seats for our composting buckets.
The day before the eclipse, a three-piece all-female band came down from Portland for a hootenanny. The meat lovers gorged on roasted lamb and goat, which had been raised right there on the farm. After sundown, Game of Thrones fanatics streamed the latest episode and projected it onto a sheet hung from the back of the hay barn. The sounds of battles blended with the noise of passing trucks and RVs.
The day of the eclipse we woke, had breakfast, and struck camp quickly, hoping to bolt out of there as soon as the totality ended and the southbound traffic nightmare began.
When the time came, we put on our dark and flimsy sunglasses and gazed up at the sky. Every time the moon took a bigger bite out of the sun, the crowd screamed.
Someone passed out celebratory Corona beers. “Oh, I get it,” said one reveler, accepting a brew. “It’s a reference to the corona of the sun!” We watched the moon’s shadow turn from a small chomp into an expanding sphere. The temperatures dipped so low that we were scrounging around for layers, even though it was 10 a.m. The Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson had a pink glow on the horizon. The sheep bedded down. The kids started getting sleepy. Then the last sliver of the sun’s glint remained, lighting the bottom of the moon.
When totality hit, the band members turned for what was for many of us a private moment of awe into a public performance. “Oh my God, oh my God,” they yelled. A few woman began loudly crying.
Then the camp grew silent, and everyone just sat there, awestruck, trying to ignore the cramping in their necks and the strain in their eyeballs. The scientists promised the totality would last about two minutes, but it seemed more like two seconds. After all that effort to get there, all the driving and logistics, all that scheming and plotting and stocking up at Walmart, I found myself unable to process what I was seeing.
“Bring it back, bring back the moon,” my daughter said, vocalizing my own frustration with the ephemeral quality of what we’d just experienced.
Before we embarked on our totality mission, an astronomer explained to my husband that seeing a 99% eclipse vs. a total was like the difference between sitting in the parking lot during a rock concert and having front row seats.
Before 10:21 a.m.on August 21, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Now I do. “We can never tell them what they missed out on,” I told my husband, referring to the self-denying partials. “They will hate us.” Many in my hometown of Santa Cruz were forced to watch the eclipse on their phones because coastal fog had blotted out the sun completely.
I was unaware of the venomous backlash the partials would inflict on us totals until after the eclipse, when my Facebook feed erupted with pleas from partials to stop posting amateurish, low-resolution photos of the big moment that they missed.
Even though the totals were privileged to experience something special, I think we’re also a little smug because we suffered to see it. That created an instant bond with the other totals, just as fraternity-initiation rituals are supposed to create lasting alliances. While we pitied the partials, we also, somehow, resented them because they did not have to withstand 10-hour traffic jams. They did not have to drive past a nasty hand-painted billboard in Klamath Falls saying, “DRIVE SAFELY. NEVER COME BACK.”
I don’t think I can ever explain to the partials the full extent of my eclipse experience.The moment was more than just a giant orb blotting out another giant orb in the sky. It was about a feeling of community, personal sacrifice, spontaneity, and happenstance. It was an existential sense of being part of something larger than oneself and at the same time insignificant.
The totals’ attempts to shed light on what the partials missed, is like a Dead Head trying to describe the magic of a three-hour concert you were too young to even know about. There are some things you just have to experience.
It’s never been a harder time in America to see something from another’s eyes. But it’s still important that we keep trying.
Amy Ettinger is the author of Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America (Dutton/2017). She has written for the New York Times, New York magazine, The Washington Post, Salon, and the Huffington Post. Learn more at her website, www.amyettinger.com.