Playing in the Painted Hills of Oregon…and the Total Solar Eclipse!
During the days leading to the solar eclipse we kept getting updates of more highway closures, increased traffic, and tourists from all over the world entering our western playground. We were ready to join the crowd and head down to Oregon for the long-awaited total solar eclipse. Being the most accessible total solar eclipse in history, we couldn’t miss this. Afterwards, Netflix even commented that they had a 10% drop in views, way to go moon!
We must have timed it well because we barely hit any traffic. As the sun was setting on our drive we decided to pull over and fully enjoy the setting. We were surrounded by fields of wind turbines, and 180 degrees of mountain views. There was even a plaque that had arrows pointing out which mountains we were looking at. We got to watch the sun set over the major peaks of the northwest (Mt.Rainier, Mt.St.Helens, Mt.Hood, Mt.Adams) with fields of wind turbines between us and the majestic mountains. As the light grew more and more faint we noticed red lights on each of the turbines. It began to turn into a scifi film, with fields of wind turbines at sunset turned flashing red robot eyes.
“Viewpoint that laid out all of the peaks: adams, helens, rainier, & hood”
We drove the rest of the way in the dark, and decided to set up camp wherever we could find a spot, pulling over just a few miles outside of Mitchell. Energized by the millions of stars, and the clear view of the milky way, we weren’t ready for bed. Nick was patient enough to teach Angelina how to take her own shot of the milky way! If you want to learn to take your own Milky Way shots, checkout this post!
The plan was to meet up with an old coworker from Chicago who recently quit to travel. He beat us there and told us a few locations he might be, but without cell service we had no other contact. We spent a few hours Sunday morning searching, but we were searching for a camper van in vast sea of camper vans, sadly, we failed.
“Mitchell, a town with no stoplights and a population of less than 150, swelled to more than 50,000 visitors.”
With our tails between our legs we headed into the big city of Mitchell, Oregon. It’s not big. It’s actually tiny. It’s a street off the main road. The town was taken over by eclipse chasers from all over the world. An anstromy club from San Fran filled the entire town park with tents and telescopes. On a side note, the town happens to be a stop on an Oregon Scenic Bikeway so the town church has been converted into a bike friendly donation based hostel, Spoke’n Hostel.
“Stripes of red, tan, orange and black give the illusion of walking on Mars.”
We hiked (if you can call it that) the 1.6 mile trail to the Painted Hills overlook. The Painted Hills, 1 of 3 distinct units in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, is otherworldly. The stripes of red, tan, orange and black give the illusion of walking on Mars. The hues change drastically throughout a single day due to changing light, and moisture levels. It’s a geological wonderland that was formed over 35 million years ago by different volcanic eruptions, and changing climate patterns. A park ranger that also happened to be a geologist told us that the area had once been a lush forest, but overtime had transformed due to the powerful forces of nature.
Once it got dark, we headed over to Dave and Darrin (the Westfalia owners). It was the start of an incredible night. Nick and Darrin were geeking out taking Milky Way photos while Dave and another were strumming some classics on the guitar. This was all happening around the VW van so we felt like we had transported to the 70s.
We made friends with another fella in our camp area who was packing a canon. It was a telescope, but that’s really what it looked like. It was taller than Angelina, and for the astronomy geeks out there, it was a 15″ scope. As we all gathered around the scope in the dark of night, us being the youngest by at least 20 years, you’d think we were a bunch of 5 year olds. Everybody was giddy with excitement and smiling from ear to ear. We saw Saturn’s rings for the first time. Gazed upon our sister galaxy, Andromeda. Saw dozens of shooting stars, and learned a lot of the constellations, although we still can’t identify them 😑.
The “noise” of all of the illuminated stars made it difficult for the astronomers to point out the galaxies and constellations to us total amateurs. Thankfully, Telescope Man was also a wizard. He busted out his ultra high power laser pointer that allowed us to see exactly what star he was talking about.
Day of the total solar eclipse
We got an early start and parked a mile away from the entrance. So many people had ridiculous equipment. Cameras, lenses, telescopes, other things we didn’t even recognize. We were gawking at all the sprinter vans, and daydreaming about our life as travel bloggers out on the open road! We got into position about an hour before the eclipse to setup the camera to ensure Nick wouldn’t have to fuss with it during totality and miss the experience.
Naturally, we posted up next to a talkative Tom loaded with information on the solar eclipse and shooting through a telescope. He was a semi-professional astronomer, with a very detailed background, which showed because he had no shortage of stories. We felt like we knew him by the end, and were comfortable enough to recommend a surgical procedure for him to get done 😐. Along with that entertainment, just seeing all the people lining the path anticipating the solar eclipse was a fun experience. The distance people traveled for this was remarkable. We met people from all over the west coast, Canada, Germany, and Italy!
At 9:08, the moon started eating away at the sun, the show was under way. Every few minutes people would pop on their solar glasses, take another look, and then say how much longer till totality. There were constant updates coming from everybody around.
“As it was starting the temperature dropped about 20 degrees, wind picked up, and it looked like everything had a strange glow about it.”
We were warned to look for specific phenomena: shadow bands, diamond ring effect, pearl necklace, prominence, etc. We had all the knowledge we needed, we were ready to see it all. As it was starting the temperature dropped about 20 degrees, wind picked up, and it looked like everything had a strange glow about it. Like a chrome filter had been applied to our vision. Leading up to totality with your glasses on watching the moon take nibbles out of the sun until it just overthrows sunlight.
10:22:30 am. Totality began.
Everything goes dark & you remove your glasses. The first glimpse with your glasses off is beyond describable. Everything people had told us to look for was there, but until you see that fiery white ring yourself it is just, wow. The thousands of us gathered along the painted hill trail had been chatting all morning and it fell completely silent. Time stood still, yet it all happened so fast. We felt like children in amazement of experiencing a phenomenon for the first time. For a moment the world stops around you; you look into a black hole and are completely in the moment.
As totality peaked it was hard to process what was transpiring. The sun was fiery white surrounded by a deep black, dark enough that Mercury was visible to the eye. Closer to the horizon, the gradient from black to orange began where it eventually looked like a sunset. The little slivers of light that reached the surface cast a surreal golden metallic hue that produced an unusual clarity and detail. Just looking at your hand was an alien experience.
10:24:31 am and totality was over.
Just as quickly as the effect began, the surreal vision faded and the temperature returned to the desert heat. Immediately people started packing up and calling it a day. We hung around for the whole dang thing as the crowd dispersed. With nowhere to be but sitting in traffic, we sat and enjoyed the remainder of the experience and tried to process and verbalize what we had just seen. We realized that neither of us had even thought to look for the shadow bands on the ground. Our minds kind of went blank.
Many people we know, who were within a 5 hour drive of totality didn’t make the trip because they didn’t think it’d be worth the time. The experience is inexplicable. No pictures or words can ever compare to that experience. The solar eclipse is just that, an experience, not an event or object that can be captured entirely in a photo. Many photos tell great stories, but not many people live those stories themselves. For an adult to be in total amazement as if a child…like when you’re a child and you believe wholeheartedly in the magic of Christmas. You are completely naive and full of excitement for the unknown….the total solar eclipse was a grown up version.
We’re already looking forward to the next one in 7 years! Where will you watch from?