The total solar eclipse: 55 seconds I will never, ever forget

Commentary: The breathtaking sight lasted less than a minute, but my sense of wonder will stay with me for a lifetime. Totality is just that: the total experience.

Jim Hoffman Copy Editor / Reviews
An inveterate fan of power pop, British invasion, garage rock, old school R&B, and one-hit wonders (among other things), disguised as a mild-mannered copy editor. Champion of truth and the serial comma.
Expertise An inveterate fan of power pop, British Invasion, garage rock, old school R&B, and one-hit wonders (among other musical minutiae). Also a font of information about cheese.
Jim Hoffman
5 min read

It should have been a national holiday.

That was the mood when my wife Sarah and I arrived at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum a little before 8 a.m. Monday. The museum, known primarily as the home of Howard Hughes' legendary Spruce Goose, is located in McMinnville, Oregon, which to its good fortune is a couple of miles inside the shadow of totality for what's become known as the "Great American Total Eclipse 2017." The town we live in, Dundee, lays about a mile outsidethat zone, so we decided it would be well worth the effort to get ourselves underneath that shadow.

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"This is the most incredible thing I've seen since the Cretaceous Period."

Jim Hoffman/CNET

Turns out it would have been worth it even if we'd been forced to trek across a barren desert or frozen tundra via arthritic sled dogs. I'd read in days leading up to the eclipse that totality is 10,000 times more spectacular than just seeing 99 percent, and now I know why. Totality is just that: the total experience. It's the difference between "on" and "off." Viewing the sun's corona with the naked eye is one of those incredible sensations that has to be experienced to be understood.

Even the run-up to totality was one of those "you had to be there" experiences. Half an hour before it really got started, you noticed changes in the light -- it wasn't as intense, but somehow shadows seemed sharper and more clear. Fifteen minutes later, we experienced a distinct drop in temperature. It wasn't cold, but it certainly felt cooler than it had when we arrived to find a good percentage of the 7,000-plus people expected to take part already there. 

I found myself going back and forth between looking through my eclipse glasses, seeing how much of the sun was left, and checking out the jovial surroundings. There had still been a surprising amount of light from a relatively small percentage of the sun, but with about three minutes until totality, I suddenly realized it was getting unnaturally dark for 10 in the morning. From that point on, I mostly put down my camera and just focused on watching the progression of the moon.

The last couple of minutes leading up to totality flew, and it became tough to stay focused on watching the sun. I kept alternating between checking out the progress of the moon and taking in what was going on around me.

Solar eclipse 2017: Here's what people saw

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Then totality hit, and so did a sudden collective gasp. Off came the glasses and everyone could actually look at the sun unguarded and see the corona in all its glory. There's nothing that can prepare you for that. Those were the 55 most breathtaking seconds I can remember. 

As I alternated between staring at the sun and marveling at how different the world looked, the experience became an exercise in time management. Then, before we knew it, our little chunk of shadow had passed, the sun started to emerge from the upper left side of the moon and the effect was over. There was still a lingering feeling of "dawn" for the next few minutes, but it paled in comparison with the rush of totality. I now see why people travel across the globe to experience a total eclipse.

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An enthusiastic astronomer projects a good image.

Jim Hoffman/CNET

But upon arriving, we just needed to get our bearings.

Once we established a base of operations no more than 100 feet or so in front of the museum, we got acquainted with some of the other attendees. One of the first people we happened on was standing next to an imposing dual-telescope. David Fiey, an architect and active member of the Space Station Museum in Novato, California, had come north with his teenage son and about $10,000 worth of equipment for viewing the heavens, and was allowing anyone to take a peek. 

He set up one telescope to view the sun's photosphere, the visible light given off by the sun. The other was focused on the sun's chromosphere, a narrow wavelength of light generated by a gaseous layer near the corona. He busily fielded questions and rode herd on the passing multitudes, especially when a T. Rex came by and wanted a look.

Quite a few people traveled far to join this little party. Claudia Osterheld and Carol Murphy, who live in Northern California, primarily consider themselves birders, but the lure of a total eclipse inspired them to use their fancy camera gear for something else. The two set up shop under a pair of umbrellas and set timers to go off every three minutes so they could get time-lapse images of the eclipse from beginning to end. I checked back in with them following totality, and they were still shooting. 

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These two sisters exercise amazing patience while showing off their nifty eclipse glasses.

Jim Hoffman/CNET

Some people had come up with some pretty cool workarounds to watch or photograph the proceedings without having to lay out the big bucks. Sean, who came up from San Francisco, created his own lens filter by putting a piece of shielded glass between two pieces of foam, supergluing them together and affixing the finished product to the front of his camera.

Another guy came up with a decidedly home-brewed but very functional projector that shone the image of the sun onto a piece of paper on the ground, sort of a maxed-out pinhole projector. It did need to be refocused periodically as the sun moved across the sky, but once focused it gave a fine image of the progress of the eclipse.

Then, in the Too Cute for Words category, there were the two sisters who decorated their eclipse glasses using Chinet dinnerware and became known throughout the grounds as fashion plates. (See what I did there?)

But the best thing about this phenomenon is that millions of other people were having similar experiences all across the US, each unique to them but no less profound.

And that in itself should be worthy of a holiday. 

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