The eclipse was an exercise creative anxiety. Not the eclipse itself, but planning to go there, and not knowing what to expect. Gas shortages. An estimated million extra people visiting the state. Projections of the “biggest traffic event in Oregon history”. Not to mention, the weather.
Months before the eclipse, I looked at maps. The eclipse would be in the morning. West of the Cascades, August is usually good weather, but there can be morning fog. So I looked to the east side.
All across the interior West, the path of totality crossed remote roads, built for a handful of vehicles per minute. In normal circumstances, you would have no trouble going there, pulling off on the shoulder, and watching the show in the sky. But with a zillion other people who have the same idea, it could be a disaster. One breakdown, and everybody’s plans are for nothing. Even finding shoulder space could be a jumble. Every summer a flash mob congeals to watch Fourth-of-July fireworks over remote Lake Crowley, Hwy 395 north of Bishop, California. This was going to be a lot bigger than Fourth-of-July.
Most of the central Oregon high desert is rugged and mountainous, with only a spiderweb of roads There was one place, though, that stood out. North of one little town, the path of totality rolled across a V-shaped triangle of flat agricultural land, gridded with farm roads. Surely in there would be lots of space, and road shoulders. The little town, at the bottom point of the “V”, was named “Madras”.
So, it would be a matter of being there on that Monday morning. Maybe you could just get up early, and drive across the mountains. But again, a zillion other people with the same idea. Better to be there ahead of time.
Motel rooms in Madras sold out two years in advance. But Madras did a logical thing. They set up a campground a couple miles north, at the intersection of Highway 26, which forms the west side of the agricultural triangle, and a road going east into the triangle named “Dogwood Lane”. They called it “Solartown”. A bunch of us went in on five of these campsites. So that’s where I would be for the eclipse. On Google Maps, Solartown showed as an alfalfa field.
I tried to plan ahead. I reserved my rental car months in advance. When I picked it up, I stocked it with twelve gallons of water and ten gallons of gas. I colluded with Chris to carry food we could eat without cooking. I pictured the whole thing as a dry run for a natural disaster. No way to get anywhere. No way to get anything. No way to find out what’s going on.
Chris works nights, so with one thing and another we could not leave till at least Saturday. I kept checking the traffic. There were reports of jams in central Oregon. But, miraculously, the route to there seemed clear. I pictured everything becoming bumper-to-bumper on a moment’s notice. Again, whatever I might think of doing, everybody else might also. I considered driving over during the night, but the hundred miles over the mountain passes are nice scenery, not to be missed. We took a chance and slept the night, home in Portland. We got going about 7am on Sunday.
Heading out out of town, there was no significant traffic. Less even than a ski weekend! About halfway, on Mt. Hood, we relaxed and took a break at Timberline Lodge. Then on down the east side.
At Warm Springs, the air was full of smoke. Would it obscure the sun? But we continued on mile after mile. The smoke cleared out. The road stayed open. Only as we came to the agricultural triangle did the traffic get thick.
Right away, it was evident that, at least if money were no object, you could find a place to stay. Campgrounds and festivals were springing up all over. We plowed ahead down Highway 26, towards the intersection of Dogwood Lane.
The acres of tents and RVs came in view. But when we got there, the turn in to Dogwood Lane was blocked off, closed. Seriously closed. Barricades. National Guard. We rolled on south to the outskirts of Madras.
In hindsight it was obvious. Of course it would not make sense to have everybody turn in directly off the highway. Half the people turning would be making left turns. Instead, you’d come in from the east, through the grid of farm roads.
I won’t go into all the details, but it was a zoo. Cars were lined up stopped on the asphalt. Inching ahead a little every ten minutes. We got to know individual juniper trees and tumbleweeds. A guy driving from the other way slowed down to say you could get in quicker on this other route. Driving miles around, to try the other road. Getting lost. Getting directions from people in orange vests at the intersections. Finding out their directions were wrong. Maybe even they didn’t have current information.
Eventually, we were in a line of stopped traffic again, but at least the Solartown entrance was in the distance. We sat with the engine turned off most of the time. The sun was getting hot. People walked like refugees along the road shoulder. There were lots of bicycles. Bicycles would have been a good idea.
We inched along. We made the last turn. With stops and starts, we were getting close. I got out and walked ahead. The directions emailed from our co-campers a few days before didn’t seem to fit. Things change fast in Solartown. Sometimes I was able to reach people by phone. But the connection was bad, and kept dropping. I walked ahead.
A drone hovered over the creeping line of cars. A guy was talking into a microphone. “Are you the news?” I asked. They were doing a story on this, the traffic, the scene. That’s what it’s all about, I realized, the scene. No matter if we never get to the campsite, the eclipse will happen, and we’ll see it. But equally memorable is the scene.
Now we were in the thick of Solartown, not knowing quite where to go. Trucks rumbled past, sprinkling water to keep the dust down. Trucks rumbled past to pump out the porta-potties. There was the shower trailer, as per the directions, but now where do we go? I got through to someone by phone. Oh, we should have turned right. We convinced the cars behind us to back up till we could wedge through the intersection. Down this lane. Now go in here.
Finally, we were to the campsites. There was a parking space for us. Slip the car in. Turn off the engine. A lot of the guys there, I had known from California years ago. We had really only been stuck in traffic about three hours. Nineteen hours till the eclipse. I lay down under the shade canopy and caught up on sleep.
There were various things to do the rest of the day. One RV had a wall with displays and information about eclipses. People had telescopes with solar filters. Across the fence was the the alfalfa field from the aerial photo.
Being as I am a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, I was impressed by some of the behind-the-scenes planning, namely the land prep. Someone had thought ahead. They used the agricultural technology as for planting wheat, and had drill-seeded the site with a turfgrass called “tall fescue”. How do I know what it was? I’m a grass botanist. In the supermarket you see strawberries. You know they’re strawberries, not raspberries, because you’ve worked with strawberries. It was a good choice. Tall fescue is rather coarse, but very tough.
There were mysterious bare-dirt swatches a couple feet wide curving through. On investigation, these suggested wheel tracks of center-pivot irrigation. This was desert land. The grass seed would not have grown without added water. The dirt tracks continued on into the carrot-seed field fenced off adjacent to the campground. There was the center-pivot pipe, parked out of the way.
To make it easy for people to see the campsite boundaries, they were tidily gridded off by foot-wide brown stripes in the grass. Similar with the driving lanes. What had browned the grass? At first I thought maybe heat-kill, but how would you do that? I talked to a turfgrass guy I met, and he pointed out some of the overspray stipple. They had used standard weed-spray technology, glyphosate, to “paint” the brown.
The “lawn” was a bit bumpy for bicycling, but fine for walking barefoot. Surely, most campers never gave it a thought. It was just there. But they would certainly have noticed if it were still an alfalfa field, or grain stubble. Every step would have been torture.
I was impressed by the farming artistry. If you want to grow wheat, you do this. If you want to grow carrots, you do that. If you want to grow a campground, you do like so. Tall fescue can be tricky to get a good stand of, but Solartown was fine. Probably two weeks after the eclipse, they were going to plow it all up and plant something else.
Night came and we bedded down. Morning came, and the eclipse began. There was the first bite out of the corner of the sun. Guys played with the crescent-shaped sun images coming through tiny holes. The daylight didn’t seem a lot less bright, but the temperature started to feel cold. Chris asked for a sweater. By then we were about a quarter mile away in a farm field. “Sorry, you’re going to have to tough it out.”
The darkness came on, and then there was totality. The land was dark, like night. But all around the horizon was a distant glow, like sunrise or sunset. If the usual figure of the sun is a shining face, totality is the face of the dark sleeping moon, ringed round with wild white Einstein hair of the solar corona.
As soon as light returned, “Bye, I’ve got to get Chris back for work tonight.” The campground was gridlock, but we made all the right choices. We cut through the farm roads to the east edge of the triangle, Highway 97. On the way, we could see Highway 26 a mile or so over to the west, a line of vehicles glittering in the returned sun, scarcely moving. An ambulance wailed as it worked up along side them. Oh, God forbid!
On the farm roads, scattered cars were parked along the shoulders. Sure enough, it looked like people had done exactly what I’d first thought of, drive in early that morning. Now, those day trippers were sitting in lawn chairs reading books, waiting for the tens of thousands of visitors ahead of them to get out of the way.
On our route, we were maybe two hours inching along the highway, then things opened out and it was fine. We drove over the scenic high plateaus east of the Deschutes River, got to Interstate 84 at The Dalles, and were home in Portland by 4 o’clock.
In the pre-eclipse anticipation, I recognized a long-forgotten feeling. It felt like High School days, when the world is full of lots of thing where you don’t know what to expect. Someone scoffed at High School being “the best years of our lives”. Yes, a lot’s awful, but it fills your sails. I’m going to put myself in more situations where I don’t know what to expect