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Why I’m totally into totality

Later this month, the path of a total solar eclipse will pass from Oregon to South Carolina.

A total solar eclipse is visible in Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, March 20, 2015.
Jon Olav Nesvold/NTB Scanpix/Reuters
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  • Patricia Totten Espenak

Do you know where you were Oct. 24, 1995? Or March 29, 2006? Right away, I do: India and Libya.

If you are a total solar eclipse chaser, you certainly recall where you were on those dates. And this year, Aug. 21 should be memorable: That’s when parts of the United States will experience a total solar eclipse.

Many have found it difficult to describe a total solar eclipse. I have seen countless beautiful eclipse photographs, but no photo would have ever persuaded me that I must see one in person.

What sparked my obsession with totality was something I read many years ago: A professional astronomer described his first trip into the moon’s shadow, going into great detail about his preparations to witness a total eclipse. 

When the moment came, however, he took not a single photo or measurement. He was simply unprepared for the spectacle of totality. I was captivated by his account. If a professional astronomer could be so overcome, then I had to see one.

A total eclipse is more than visual; one is immersed in the sounds of it as well. I don’t mean you can hear the eclipse, but when I show a video of an eclipse and the audience sees people of all ages screaming and yelling, jumping up and down, or perhaps just sitting in stunned silence with tears running down their cheeks, the sounds are what seem to captivate everyone. At the end of totality, with the moon creeping away from the sun’s disk, I heard a little girl say, “I don’t want it to be shiny again!” Me, neither. This is what “hearing” an eclipse is all about.

It was no different for me in Aruba on Feb. 26, 1998. It was so cloudy that it was difficult to keep our cameras aligned with the sun. We had nearly given up hope when, with just minutes to spare, the sky cleared and a black hole surrounded by a shimmering halo appeared in the sky.

My son had accompanied me to report back to his friends about this “eclipse thing” his mother was always talking about. His friends wanted a second opinion – thinking perhaps I was too excitable to give an accurate account. It couldn’t be that incredible, they wondered – could it? (I had shown them some pictures. They’d expressed mild appreciation.)

After the eclipse, my son didn’t have much to say, perhaps feeling that he would be preaching to the converted. But a few days later we watched the video he had shot during totality. The eclipsed sun moved in and out of the frame as the camera swung wildly about. His excitement was palpable. When totality began, he exclaimed, “What is that? What is happening?” Maybe his mom wasn’t crazy after all.

So what about Aug. 21? That’s when the 70-mile-wide path of totality will stretch from Oregon to South Carolina. The “total” part will last about two minutes at each location.

There hasn’t been a total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States since 1979, and that one only passed over a bit of Washington and Montana. There hasn’t been a total eclipse where I live in Arizona for more than a thousand years! 

This time, all of North America will see at least a partial eclipse, but you’ll have to travel into the path of totality to see the big show. And take it from one who has witnessed a few eclipses: If a partial solar eclipse rates a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, a total eclipse is a million.