Big Eclipse Day

The first wish-list I ever made for OBD, ten years ago, included this candidate item: “chase a solar eclipse.” I even wrote the date in the calendar: April 8, 2024.

That’s today.

Alas, two factors have conspired to dilute the dream. One, I’m in Vancouver, which is not in the so-called “path of totality.” And two, it’s pounding down rain.

So to plan B: to stay in close touch with family who are in prime spots to witness the celestial hookup, and feel the goosebumps vicariously. On a day when things are lining up in the sky, we’d line things up down here on Earth, via the lesser miracle of telecommunications.


I check in with Maddy in her apartment in Montreal. It’s 7 AM there. She’s just waking up. Her mail-order eclipse glasses are ready to go. Looks like she’s going to need them: sunlight is streaming in through her bedroom window. It’s the clearest, brightest day they’ve had in months.

Until yesterday her plan was to work in the eclipsing around her schoolwork, deking out of class just in time to catch totality. But her roommate convinced her to to skip it so they can get a beachhead on the lower athletic field. That’s where they’ll be heading shortly.

For me, here live on the West Coast, there’s no sign of a break in the clouds. The eclipse will be a total washout. But it feels lame to just stay home. So…


I drive to Simon Fraser University, where the astronomy dept is hosting an “eclipse-watching event” at the Trottier Observatory. When I arrive, more than a hundred people are lined up in the freezing rain to get in. It’s not exactly clear what’s on offer in there. Presumably knowledgeable people to tell us about what we’re missing.

The little chamber holds about a dozen people. The mighty telescope sleeps.

On a wall screen, live NASA footage shows Dallas, Texas passing into totality, the shimmering “Baily’s Beads”—little pearls of light from sunlight sneaking around the stubble of the moon’s cratered face — giving way to the full monty. Whoa.

This is what my nephew Mike, in New Brunswick, is going to be treated to in a couple of hours. When I reach him, he’s just preparing to leave work. He’s already too late to beat the rush: eclipse-chasers flooding up over the border have slowed traffic on the 106 to a crawl.

12 PM (PACIFIC) From his car, Mike can see other people’s plans unfolding. The shawarma guy has set up his cart by the ice rink and a few people have gathered there. Kids are out in force. (Across the maritimes, classes are cancelled today. I think the school boards don’t want the liability of having some kid fry their retina on a teacher’s watch.) Mike’s aim is to make it to nearby Dieppe, to watch the eclipse with his girlfriend at her mom’s place there.

Meanwhile, Maddy texts from Montreal: “It’s getting busy.”

The field is filling up. And not just with McGill students. Tourists and families are piling in from every direction — strangers coming together to bask in what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” a mind-altering cocktail of communion, a wild army of hearts and minds falling into sync.

12:16 PM (PACIFIC)

I arrive home just in time to establish a live feed with Mad. It’s twelve minutes to totality.

She pans her camera around the scene. I doubt there have ever been this many people on this field at the same time. It’s like one of those ‘70s-era mass Moonie weddings.

Fairly abruptly the sky darkens. Mad points her phone at the sun. But the lens isn’t up to the job. The only way I can tell totality is coming is the sound. From the crowd, a low primal roar, getting stronger now, a sound beyond language, no doubt repeated in every group of gazers along the band of totality as the shadow-cone of the moon passes over them.

Most people have taken off their glasses. NASA says you can raw-dog it for the duration of totality – after the Baily’s Beads have winked out. It’s the only time humans can ever safely cast an eye on the source of their continuing existence.

Lights blaze in the surrounding towers. Venus and Jupiter are visible in the sky.

And then, signaling the beginning of the end of this, bright white light spears around the corona, and everyone jerks their unprotected faces away from the sky, a hot-stove reflex.

A thousand kilometres to the east, Mike has fetched up at his girlfriend’s mom’s place, and they stand at the bottom of the driveway in the changing light. The birds have been raucous all day. But now, as the moon starts rolling across the sun, they go silent. The temperature plunges ten degrees in minutes. Danielle goes inside to get a jacket. The eclipse hits 99.97 percent totality. “So close!” Mike says.


I’ve had the afternoon to think about why I have become obsessed with this event. Eclipses come and go, after all, and whether or not we see them makes no material difference. It’s the paradox that’s intriguing. An eclipse cuts against our instincts. Humans crave unpredictability. “We actually enjoy not knowing,” the evolutionary biologist David Krakauer told my friend Christine Aschwanden recently. “As soon as we know things, we’re not interested in them.” And yet an eclipse is the epitome of a predictable event. We know exactly how this is going to go … and yet we’re still beguiled. People travel great distances to experience it … even though there’s nothing new to learn!

But there’s the rub. People haven’t come her to learn something. They’ve come here to feel something; they don’t know what. They suspect it’ll change them somehow; they don’t know how. Possibly it will break their heart.

I check in with Maddy.

“When the corona appeared and the crowd roared, how did you feel?”

“Hm,” she says. “It was cool, for sure. My heart was beating really fast. But you know … think I was hyped up mostly because everyone else was hyped up.”

“Was it … a spiritual moment?”

“Honestly, I was a little bit distracted,” she says. “I was messing with the camera, trying to give you the experience, too.”

Shame on me. That’s what I’d asked for. Why couldn’t I have let my daughter, so fortuitously poised there in space and time, just have her moment, alone in her crowd under the aspect of eternity. “We may call it wonder, we may call it mystery, “Maria Popova wrote. Yet “we fall silent before its brutal beauty, the way it presses consciousness against the gun barrel of time.”

I call Mike, hoping to catch him before he goes to bed, and the events of this day inevitably fade, and his nerve endings spring back to their default settings.

“As you reflect on it, my man, what stands out for you?”

“I remember I was afraid I was going to get caught in traffic and miss it,” he says.

Some folks no doubt did. The highway was a parking lot. A couple of drivers tried to skirt the line by beetling down the shoulder. You probably you could have gotten away with any illegal maneuver – what cop is going to pull you over when it’s showtime in the sky? For two minutes, it was as if the world – at least the slice of it in the path of totality – pushed pause on all messy human affairs. There was no score-settling, no debt collecting. Nobody started a fight, or ripped someone off, or ratted someone out, or accused someone of plagiarism, or filed a complaint, or checked references, or pulled rank, or fanned a flame-war online. For those two minutes everyone was just staring up at the same sky, as if we all got along – always have and always will.

On the hem of Lake Eerie, Jen’s friend Susan watched the moon occlude the sun, and she texted back one word: “Amazing.” No, actually: AMAZING. Describing full totality requires the caps-lock key.

And this is something I hadn’t appreciated. 99.97 percent totality is awesome. But 100 percent is something else entirely. The difference between perfectly airtight celestial alignment and near-perfect is huge. It’s like the difference between the jar of pickles you packed in your suitcase (wrapped in your best suit for cushioning) with its lid tightly closed, versus the same jar of pickles with its lid a little bit loose. Very different outcome there.

At the SFU observatory, the young grad student running the event tried to buoy the spirits of all of us who’d been skunked by the rain. “Now’s the time to start thinking ahead to the next one.” In the coming years, the path of totality will pass through some places you don’t really need an excuse to be: Iceland 2026. Australia 2028.

I passed this info on to Mike.

“I think I hear a plan forming,” he said.

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