Totality Is Just as Intoxicating As They Said It Would Be

Scenes from a solar eclipse.

We were joking, the day before the sun went black, that the weather forecast looked sunny and clear: Mostly sunny, that is, with a 100 percent chance of a moonstorm. The storm would start a little after 9 a.m.

How does one prepare for such a storm? “Does anyone have any moonscreen? I’m afraid I’ll get a moon burn,” joked a friend. “Gotta watch out for those moon rays,” another intoned. “They’ll burn your soul!”

Moonstorm. For a while afterward, it was the only word that made any sense.

We had all gotten up early and climbed to the rock-studded top of a 9,100-foot peak in eastern Oregon in search of “totality,” that magical couple of minutes so beloved by solar eclipse chasers. We grinned at each other, we seekers of wonder who had pilgrimaged here from all over the region expressly for this show. As it began, we put on our solar shades, and watched that great maw of nothingness cut into the shining orb, bit by bit.

There were so many words for the disc of the moon and the peach crescent of the sun. Everyone was calling out metaphors, similes, images from pop culture and food and the trappings of everyday life: “It’s the Death Star! It’s Pac-Man! It’s like an apricot with a bite taken out of it!” I began writing them down. It was also a slice of cantaloupe, a cookie, a cheese wheel, a visor, an earring, a fingernail, and, among many other free associations: “This eclipse is brought to you by the letter ‘C’!”

But then it got cold. And it got dim. And a deep, weird purple began to thicken on the far mountains to the west, and the rest of the world was cast in an eerie color—a papery silver, tinny and airless and metallic. In the middle of the morning in the middle of summer in the middle of a scalding east-Oregon desert, we all put on sweaters and puffy jackets and wool hats. The temperature plunged and the night dropped. We all jumped to our feet. No one was sitting anymore. No one was speaking. And like a howling wind, like a noiseless, deep-space whoosh, snuffing out everything I knew to be true and turning it all backwards and upside down and inside out, a monstrous, icy indigo curtain swallowed up the sky. It swept from the horizon to the heavens and whipped itself into a blanket of darkness thrown over the sun, and we dropped our eclipse glasses and stared at it with our naked eyes, some of them weeping. And a giant black eyeball stared back at us, an impossible eyeball, surrounded by long, white wisps stretching and swirling and curling around it, plastered against a vast dark wall, fading to violet and studded with a sprinkling of stars.

We gaped, we whooped, we laughed. But there were no words. All the words had tumbled to the ground by then and rolled off the mountain. They had disappeared into the mist that suddenly filled the valleys in the two-minute night. The hair on our necks stood up and the curtain sped across us and through us.

It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, and like nothing I can effectively describe, because so much of description—made up of these small, fallible words—is metaphor, is comparison. I had nothing to compare it to. Language fell off like the bottom of my stomach.

I couldn’t have predicted that, either, despite all the warnings from all those die-hard eclipse chasers, that I would, in fact, feel it in my body: It was like a drug. I was staring at a wild-haired black ball that roared without sound, and something shot through me—it was like an electric current, an explosion, hurtling through my body like the black curtain that was hurtling across the sky. I could barely breathe and couldn’t stop trembling for the next 20 minutes.

This, from my notes at the time: It shot through my body. I can’t stop shaking. I can’t stop shaking.

If I’m being rational about it, it was a couple big shots of adrenaline and endorphins. I was on a 9,100-foot peak in a glorious stretch of eastern Oregon with about 30 other people who had gathered in reverence for something spectacularly beautiful and terrifying and exhilarating. Other people were shaking, too, and crying and gasping. When it was all over, as the diamond ring became a sliver and then a crescent and then a half-eaten apricot, we began shed our layers and remember that it was a hot summer morning. We all hugged each other, flushed and quivering, trying and failing to find words that fit. Strangers continued to high-five each other throughout the day. It was a feat we’d accomplished together. We’d been through something and something had been through us.

But everyone’s words felt hollow, even as we said exactly what we meant, exactly and only what we could have said:

“That was amazing. That was amazing.”

“That was everything I hoped for and so much more.”

“Now I can see how people get hooked on it.”

I had already told my friends that I was going to try to write about this. And afterward, that was everyone’s question, everyone who, like me, had felt words melt to gibberish as the sun went black: “How are you going to write about this?”

I don’t know, I said. Just ellipses, maybe, I joked: Eclipse ellipses.

Of course, Annie Dillard, who published “Total Eclipse” in 1982, and who has since been invoked so frequently as a true poet of the eclipse like no one else in American literature, already said a lot of what I want to say. But I couldn’t have known how close she’d gotten with those words until I felt them in my body, too.

“The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us,” she wrote. “We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, ‘Soon it will hit my brain.’ You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.”

It was a moonstorm.

After the sun had come out again, even as the disc of the moon kept sliding across it, people were already done. They began piling down the mountain, heading back to camp, and back to normality, something we could grasp, something that had words, that made sense. “One turns at last even from glory itself,” Dillard wrote, “with a sigh of relief.”

And, I’d add, one of regret. With such awe came nostalgia, almost immediately. Whooooosh. Slam. Gasp. There was that electric jolt, and then there was laughter and longing. And as soon as it was over, the audience cried at the sky with the sun beginning to slide back into view: “Encore! Encore!” And with the light again came the words: A diamond ring, a fingernail, a crescent, a cheese wheel, an apricot, a cantaloupe, a cookie, and again, a sphere, and it was hot, and we were sweating, and it was a sunny day.

A handful of us stayed until the final stolen crumb of sun had been returned to it. The moonstorm had passed. At the end, we applauded. And I continued to tremble and struggle to breathe for a long while afterward, even as we hiked down. We were above 9,000 feet, after all, and maybe my legs were just trembling because of how quickly they’d pounded up this same mountain a few hours before, and how steep the decline, scattered in scree. But I know that’s not true. Something shot through me, I wrote down at the time, and kept writing, to remember: It shot through me like a cannon. Something exploded in my body. I had no idea—I could never have known, unless I were to take Dillard at her word—that the curtain that swept across the sky would sweep through me, too, at 1,800 miles an hour.

On the ride home, in the car, stuck in gridlock crossing the Columbia River, I discovered that the next total solar eclipse that crosses a major landmass is in 2019, a wide stripe across southern Chile and Argentina.

I think I’ll go.