Bay Area, nation unite — briefly — to share eclipse

As the sun, moon and Earth briefly aligned on Monday, casting a dark shadow across the nation, a wide corridor of America came together to share the mystery and splendor.

Those directly along the path of “totality” — from portions of Oregon to South Carolina, where the sun was completely blocked — witnessed an eerie and beautiful twilight. Jupiter and Venus glowed. Stars twinkled. Birds quieted. Crickets chirped.

For those on the margins, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, the light turned a sweet butterscotch. But along parts of the central California coast, enveloped in dense fog, people had to content themselves by watching online.

San Jose software engineer Sirish Darbha, 30, made a last-minute odyssey to see the total eclipse in Salem, Oregon, where about 1,000 people on the Capitol Mall faced to the east, watching through their dark glasses.

Charlie Tran, Tanner Lea, and Dennis Tran experience the total eclipse in Salem, Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. The three friends traveled from Seattle Washington to see the event. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group) 

“A camera just can’t do it justice,” he said. “Those two minutes were the most amazing thing I’ve seen in my entire life.”

Watching with friends from a wild meadow in Wyoming’s Elk National Preserve, photographer Charlotte Hamilton Gibb of Lafayette was startled by vibrating waves of shadows — “like snakes” — racing across the ground, as the eclipse approached.

“It was primal. Nothing prepares you,” she said. The temperature plummeted. A small bird, confused, danced around their feet. “Then the sun’s corona stretched out in peaks. We could see the stars. My heart started beating really, really fast. Some people started crying.”

In the high prairie of central Oregon’s Ochoco National Forest, “the moon’s shadow came towards us, in the clouds, with Mt. Jefferson in the distance,” said William Phelps of Palo Alto, who camped with fellow astronomers.

“Then we all turned and looked, and there it was,” he said. “Spectacular.”

Sunnyvale’s Brad Templeton, a software architect and civil rights advocate with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, watched the eclipse — his sixth — with five family members near Idaho’s Snake River.

“Photos don’t capture it,” he said. “It the most spectacular natural phenomenon you can see on Earth.  The Grand Canyon and Yosemite pale compared to it.  You get a sense of the geometry of the solar system — these giant celestial bodies lining up — that you don’t feel when you’re walking around.”

The line of totality first touched the United States at foggy Depoe Bay, Oregon.

In Salem, where skies were clear, the temperature dropped noticeably as the sky began to dim. A Native American group on the mall started drumming faster and louder, as helicopters whizzed ahead. A flock of birds took off suddenly from trees near the Capitol as the last sliver of sun disappeared.

A huge cheer went up from the crowd as darkness fell, as people took off their glasses to experience the black circle of the moon hanging in the sky, framed by flaring white light from the sun. People tried to take iPhone photos — it was difficult to get a good one — while more serious photographers snapped from their tripods. An astronomer announced on a loudspeaker what people should be noticing, such as the corona and visible planets.

eclipse photo composite by William Phelps and Jeff Crawford
A composite of five images from Monday’s eclipse. (Courtesy of Jeff Crawford & William Phelps) 

In many places, the weather cooperated only briefly — or not at all.

In Beatrice, Nebraska, the New York Times reported, the crowd chanted, “Go away, clouds,” and cheered loudly when the sun’s rays poked through a gap. There was a brief sighting in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Nashville, Tennessee. Charleston, South Carolina — the last city on the eclipse route — was shrouded in clouds.

Clear skies ruled in Washington, D.C., where the sun was about 80 percent obscured by the moon. President Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, took in the partial eclipse from the Truman Balcony overlooking the White House’s South Lawn.

But then Trump took off the glasses and, for a moment, stared upward at the sun — doing what scientists and optometrists have warned against for weeks. Social media exploded with mockery.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 21: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump looks up toward the Solar Eclipse while standing with his wife first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron, on the Truman Balcony at the White House on August 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Millions of people have flocked to areas of the U.S. that are in the "path of totality" in order to experience a total solar eclipse. (Photo by Mark Wilson/)
WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 21: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump looks up toward the Solar Eclipse while standing with his wife first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron, on the Truman Balcony at the White House. (Photo by Mark Wilson/) 

For scientists, the eclipse offered invaluable opportunities to learn more about the sun’s corona, that thin plasma veil that encases the star and is visible only during “totality.” They also hope to learn more about how the Earth’s ionosphere, the upper atmosphere through which radio signals move, is affected by sudden darkening.

Gazing skyward from a spot near San Jose’s Rosicrucian Museum, Jim Keene, of San Jose, said, “I wanted to be here and see the power of science — to ‘see’ with the mind, beyond our five senses. With science, we can save ourselves.”

For others, it was educational. In the East Bay, more than 200 visitors flocked to Big Break Regional Park in Oakley to watch. Some viewed the eclipse through pinholes in paper plates and others took selfies.

“First day of school, and it’s a field trip for us,” said Angie Warren, who brought her three children. “It looks like cheese,” Luke Warren, 9, said shortly after the eclipse began. “This is fun.”

Even motorists took a moment to pause, pulling over to the sides of roads to point their cellphones towards cloud-covered skies. California Highway Patrol took to social media to post a photo and scold drivers along Contra Costa County’s Highway 24: “Unsafe stop along the freeway for a nonemergency reason.”

Yet some saw it as a profoundly spiritual experience.

At the Peace Garden of San Jose’s Rosicrucian Park, Ethan Spanier, of San Jose, lit incense and opened his palms toward the sun and moon in silent meditation.  “I was trying to ‘deconstruct,’ ” he said, “So my atoms, and my energy, could resonate at the same frequency as everything around us.”

Nearby, Rosicrucians — members of a centuries-old, philosophical order that seeks a deeper understanding of the natural world — and their guests gathered at the labyrinth to meditate, chant and share historic readings.

“We celebrate the world around us,” said Julie Scott, grandmaster of the Rosicrucian order. “It helps us see how we’re part of something so huge and so magnificent.”

At the moment of totality, to honor the sun and moon, they chanted “rah” and “mah” seven times, inhaling and exhaling in unison. Scott urged: “Share your glasses!”

Then the sun brightened. Everyone celebrated. And — connected to the cosmos — they hurried back for the familiarity of home.

Staff writers Sam Richards, Craig Lazzeretti and Rick Hurd contributed to this report.


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