The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Eclipse Report

My encounter with totality.


What a day!  After two solid weeks of typical Vermont early spring weather—rain and snow and heavy cloud cover—Monday dawned bright and beautiful: blue skies, no humidity, and not a cloud in the sky. Along with a couple of old friends, we headed north from our house in southern Vermont in the early morning. We had originally planned to meet other friends in Burlington, but the weather reports were talking about clouds rolling in from the west, so we decided to find a spot up in Vermont's "Northeast Kingdom," near St. Johnsbury. We ended up in a great spot for viewing—a little local bar in the tiny town of East Burke, with a big grassy picnic area behind it with a great view, and maybe 40 or 50 so other folks, including lots of kids, hanging out and waiting for the Big Event.

The first hour leading up to totality was fabulous. With the glasses on, watching the moon—which was itself completely invisible—take a little chunk out of the sun, and then a bigger chunk, then a bigger chunk, … A gorgeous sight—the deep black of the moon's shadow against the intense gold of the sun, and the sharpness of the line between them, like it had been cut out with an Exacto knife.  It occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever seen a crescent sun. And when your neck got tired and you took off the glasses and looked around, the light was getting all weird and soft, and it was getting ominously colder and colder. It was like being outside during a sunset, but all in much speeded-up time—and with the sun, oddly, still high in the sky.

It was breath-taking, sort of in the way that your first view of the Grand Canyon, or Niagara Falls, is breath-taking. But then the last sliver of the sun gets smaller and smaller and finally disappears, and everyone whips off their glasses to look, and people start yelling and laughing hysterically and jumping up and down and hugging each other … Like shipwrecked sailors who finally spy rescue ships heading their way, to borrow a phrase from John Banville. Me included. It is, to begin with, stunningly beautiful. Suddenly, it is night. In the sky is this big black disk—blacker than any black you'll ever see—lit from behind and shooting out rays of white light across the suddenly-deep-black sky. And with one little spot of pure intense gold—the "ring" of the diamond ring—hanging off of its bottom edge. No description (or photo) can do it justice.

But it's not just that the sight is incredibly beautiful—it is that you literally cannot believe what you're seeing. We've all got a zillion images stored in our brains of what "the sky" looks like. But this!?

It doesn't compute; how can the sky look like this? When it has never looked anything like it before? It's as though all of the dogs in the neighborhood, at some pre-defined instant, sprouted wings and began to fly. This can't really be happening. But there it is—right before your eyes.

And then, having started at around high noon, and having passed through sunset and then darkest night, suddenly it's dawn, as the sun starts to come out from the shadow—a kind of reverse dawn, not with the sun "rising in the east" but emerging out of the west. And then it's around high noon again. All in the space of two hours. It's as though the whole astronomical clock on which we base everything we do had gone completely haywire.

Having been desperate to see an eclipse for the last 50 years, I was a little afraid beforehand that my expectations were so high that it would all turn out to be a bit of a bummer. Uh-uh.

The Tour de France has a grading system for the difficulty level for climbing—1 to 5, I think, with 5 being the highest. But then there are some climbs that are so steep that they get a special category—"hors categorie," in "the category that is beyond category."  Unclassifiably steep, so steep it would be insulting to call it even a "5." That's what totality was like—hors categorie.

I will spare you a description of the drive back home. Turns out northeastern Vermont cannot handle 100,000 cars, all going south at the same time.

It does make you think: What the cavemen and cavewomen thought was going on if they ever happened to witness this display God only knows, but it must've scared the bejeesus out of them. It practically scared the bejeesus out of me, to be honest, and I knew what was happening (and, unlike the cavepeople, I knew it would be over soon).

And when you think that there's only one place in the universe (as far as we know) that has intelligent life on it, and that ours is the only planet in the universe (as far as we know) whose satellite moon, when viewed from the planet's surface, is precisely the right size and distance away from the planet to fit exactly over the (much larger and much more distant) star around which that planet is revolving … Like I said, it makes you think.