Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eclipse Diary, Part 2 – A Community of Sun-Gazers

Mt. Lassen from Lake Almador
This is the second part of my solar eclipse adventures, accompanied by my intrepid neighbor and walking buddy, Chris.

Today’s lesson, young grasshopper, is that things turn out the way they do, no matter how different that is from how you expect them to be. All the information we had been given was that the best place to view the annular solar eclipse was from Lassen Volcanic National Park, plus there would be an educational presentation at the Information Center auditorium. Life, however, does not always follow what is given out in magazine articles and websites. When, after a morning of hiking around Lake Almador, we arrived at the park entrance, a long line of cars awaited us. The time for the presentation approached, with almost no forward progress. At last, when the entrance kiosk came into view, a Park Ranger informed us that not only was the parking lot full, or about to become so, but that we would not be able to view the entire eclipse from the park. She advised driving to Redding, about 90 miles away. She mentioned the Mineral Vista Point, considerably closer, but thought that the parking area might already be full.

In the tiny town of Mineral, we stopped to chat with the proprietors of the all-purpose lodge/market/general store. A number of people who’d turned back at Lassen had clearly decided that the way to view the eclipse was from the café patio, a cold beer in hand. They didn’t seem to mind that there were some rather large hills to the west. We, on the other hand, decided to try the Vista Point, reserving the lodge parking lot as a backup plan.

Eclipse Tailgate Party
When we arrived at the Vista Point, some 10 miles down the road, the formal parking areas were full, but we nabbed a shady spot off the road. I suspected that we would be only the first of many to park there, and I was right. We found an astronomer setting up a telescope and camera with special solar lenses. Before long, we’d struck up conversations not only with him, but his physicist friend and wife, and a family from San Jose. (I confess, I broke the ice here when I noticed the teen wearing a shirt saying, “Bow Ties Are Cool,” and began a Whovian conversation, during which Chris – who is an ardent Trekkie – entered into a spirited debate with the young man on the relative merits of DS9 and TNG, therefore imbuing the viewing with the flavor of a gathering of fans.) That family had brought a welding visor, and father and son busily figured out how to take photos of the eclipse through the visor glass plus the eclipse glasses.

I’d had quite a time getting solar eclipse shades for Chris and me. I’d ordered them online from an outfit that shall remain nameless about two weeks before we needed them. After one week, they still had not been shipped, so I emailed them to cancel the order and called Edmund Scientific. A real person was not only able to make sure what I wanted was in stock, but a shipping method that would ensure they arrived before we left. (This is a plug for Edmund Scientific – they delivered on their promise!) As it turns out, the first order arrived the day after we left, making it useless to us but very convenient for the members of the Quaker meeting of which my husband is a member, for he freely distributed them – the eclipse in that area was partial, but at least they could watch it safely.

Astronomer Charts A Course
After that, it should come as no surprise the number of people who’d arrived without eye protection or who had counted on being able to buy the glasses at the park. (The park, of course, had been sold out days before.) I’d brought 3 pairs, one for each of us plus a spare, and we passed them around, making sure that everyone got a chance to safely view the progress of the eclipse from time to time. There was a party at the end of the parking lot, older people who’d set up lawn chairs and tables, and were drinking wine and chatting, with not a single pair of shades in sight. As the Moon began to move across the Sun (taking a “bite” out of the golden cookie, as it were), I went over to offer a peek through my shades. “Oh, is it starting?” one of the women asked. “Look and see,” I said. So she did, exclaiming in delight.

Using A Hat For A Pinhole Camera (note the crescent sun!)
There was fun and there was awe. The awe part goes in the next chapter of the diary, but the fun was being with people who quickly ceased to be strangers. Some were very knowledgeable, like the physicist, who not only set up a pinhole viewer but demonstrated how to create an image through the ventilation holes in his hat. I think the most moving sight of the viewers was a woman quadriplegic on a gurney, and the attentions of her husband in making sure she could see safely. (He also took the best photographs of any of us, except for the astronomer.)

We shared solar shades, we shared snacks, we shared knowledge and geekery. We shared kindness and wonder. And then, after a couple of hours, we all went away.


  1. We do love our tribes, even the most impermanent of them ... looking forward to the rest of the story.

  2. It's amazing how people can come together, create something magical, and then disperse.

    Or sometimes stay in touch. I still correspond with a woman I met during my time as a Federal Grand Juror (1985-86).

  3. I am loving these posts! I'm so happy that you were able to have this adventure, and to share the experience with a good friend. Thank you for in turn sharing it with us!