Part 1: Checking the checklist
Sunday. I’m heading down I-5 from Seattle en route to Oregon. Along with, so it would seem, the entire population of Washington State. It is August 20, 2017, a scant 25 hours before the total eclipse of the sun. Despite my smartphone’s navigation app telling me there are no traffic problems en route to my destination, clearly the volume of cars and trucks on the interstate is unmistakably heavy for this hour on a Sunday morning.
My wife (being the morning person in our family) has volunteered to drive the first leg. So here I sit, riding shotgun, idly listening to an audiobook, and typing this blog entry. My mind has repeatedly, almost obsessively gone over our packing list. Like the rest of this throng of travelers today, we have foolishly set out for the middle of Oregon just one day in advance of the big event. Unlike others who have been planning this for years. With the number of visitors in Oregon alone expected in the millions, the evento has clever names like “Apoc-eclipse”. Those with forethought have researched, inquired, and reserved every possible hotel, motel, B&B, campground, RV site, yurt, and plot of dirt available. Some even years in advance. We on the other hand, got invited fairly last minute to a farm near Salem, OR, by a friend in my son’s boy scout troop. Sometimes all the preparation and forward thinking in the world can get scooped by dumb luck.
But even with dumb luck on my side, I’ve tried to leave very little to chance. For a trip totalling less than 48 hours long, involving only one night and a family of four, we have way overpacked. Our large SUV brims with camping supplies, cooking supplies, and oh yes, camera supplies. Now that last inventory entails six (6) cameras for me. Plus my wife and kids each had their smartphone cameras. Also packed are tripods, lens cleaners, lens cleaning solution, and last but certainly not least, ISO approved eclipse glasses. Oh, and a ton of cardboard, tubing, duct tape and other supplies to build a really large pinhole camera. Why? Because A) it teaches the kids about optics; B) we’ll be down with inquisitive teenage kids who love to engineer things – this is going to be a 12 foot long camera obscura; C) we have a whole day to kill before the eclipse what else are you going to do? And finally D) this makes seven, SEVEN (7) (!) cameras for me.
Seriously though we try to prepare for everything. This includes the drive. Based on predictions of the Apoc-Eclipse, store shelves will be laid bare, gas stations pumped dry, cellphone towers overloaded, any accommodations overbooked, and all roads inextricably snarled. So we pack enough provisions for extra meals, should we be stuck on the way down OR on the way back up. We’ve planned gas stops to keep our tank full, balancing the need for a maximum fuel with the desire to keep driving (Never pull over if you’ve got forward momentum)! We have drinking water. Not just those 1-liter BPA-free bottles, mind you, we’re talking about large multi-gallon tanks. We are carrying gallons of water for frick’s sake. On a trip where our destination has fresh running water. My point is that we are prepared. We have researched, planned, and packed. Everything has worked perfectly.
Part 2: Staging
We’re at our campsite. It is perfect. My pinhole camera is engineered and constructed. It’s HUGE. I mean, you can make your little cereal box pinhole cameras, maybe one from a Pringle’s can I guess. But then, are you even trying?
(Go big or go home)
Our tent has been pitched. I’ve got fiddle and harmonica for some tunes around a non-existent campfire (Central Oregon being under a burn-ban). The food situation is quite extravagant for a “scout camping trip”, with a portable pizza oven, fajitas, and wow is that pasta putanesca?? Everything is prepared perfectly. There’s a breeze in the trees, and catfish idly feed in the small fishing hole next to camp. Perfect.
Save for one small but inescapable anxiety: what if that weather forecast is wrong? What about those wildfires out by Mt. Jefferson, could that smoke cause a haze tomorrow? I mean, now that I’m enjoying my campsite I’m looking up noting that the sky isn’t actually BLUE, blue. Will it clear up by tomorrow? Maybe I should have done more research. Found a place east of the mountains. Headed for Bend or Madras. The skies should be much clearer there, right? Could I have done this better? No, no. I can’t second guess this amount of preparation. I’ve done everything I could…
Acts of Failure
This is a blog about FAILURE. If something fails because of something out of our control, is it still a failure? Sometimes you can do everything right. Plan every thing down to the last detail. You can even plan for eventuality Numbers 4 or 5, going deep into the what-ifs. Plans B, C, D, and E present and accounted for, yet STILL there are things you just can’t control. You can plan FOR the weather - bring your sunscreen, carry an umbrella, keep snow chains in your car, etc. You can plan around weather - “Hey the ski report is terrible at Plan A Mountain, let’s go to Plan B Resort instead”. What you cannot do, despite all of our modern meteorological science, is plan ON the weather. You just can’t count on it behaving the way you hope, want, or need it to behave.
This might feel somewhat helpless but also simultaneously liberating. We hate the things we cannot control, but once we determine that we can’t control them, any responsibilities that depend on those things are released. We even coin terminology for these things: “Acts of God” invoking images of an omnipotent finger appearing in the sky, or lightning bolts materializing from Mt. Olympus, or a demon rising from a portal between here and the 7th plane of hell. But it just means things well beyond human control. Usually they need to be extreme, like a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or a rain of frogs from the sky, but not necessarily.
It’s those “acts of god” that allow an insurance company to abrogate its coverage according to many policies. Industries base much of their planning and reviewing on whether an “act of god” had anything to do with an outcome. In the history of investigating of aircraft disasters, climate-related causes have often been the cause. If weather so severe downed the plane, it may help close the book on a crash investigation. Responsibility of the pilot, the maintenance crews, the air-traffic controllers? All absolved by an act of god.
Acts of God. If the almighty’s finger has descended from heaven to wreak havoc upon the earth, then our human need to find fault can just point a finger right back at the almighty. Call it a failure if you must, but if the Big Guy (or Gal) Upstairs is calling the shots, what can you do about it, right? It’s not a Failure when Fate’s pulling all the strings, is it?
Part 3: The Big Day
Dawn arrives on Monday morning. I’ve slept well in our tent and the light wakes me before the rest of my family. I sneak out and try to run to the field where we’ll view the eclipse in time to see the sun rising just beyond Mt. Jefferson. I snap a shot. Too late. I’ve missed the best images of the sun just above the horizon. I can’t control the rotation of the earth, but I can get my ass out of bed in time to see the sunrise, ya dumb jerk! Not a great omen for a day where planning, timing, and preparation are critical. Still, though, I notice the sky is clear. The haze is gone, no smoke visible, and above only blue. Maybe the Acts of God will smile on us.
Hasty breakfasts are wolfed down by all of the campers. Tents, stoves, and tables are dismantled and packed into cars, so we could focus our attentions on the sun. We await “First Contact”, the point when the moon’s silhouette first bites the sun– when Luna the caterpillar starts nibbling away at Sol. Down in the viewing field our Scout patrol and families have gathered. Camp chairs, blankets, tripods, and humans dot a small patch of the field. Contraptions for viewing are constructed. This includes setting up my pinhole camera on stacked chairs to get the proper elevation angle.
(Nerd Level to 110% Engage!!)
We have about only 20 or 30 more minutes and we spend the time completely “geeking” out - making sure we all have our eclipse glasses, pulling out all of the various devices and pre-aiming them, sharing on social media what a spectacle this is. I casually wish everyone “Happy Eclipse! Don’t go blind!” eliciting polite giggles. Then, first contact…
(No this isn't First Contact...My camera FAILED to capture that)
Part 4: Totally Total
No words. No words sufficient to describe this event. In a blog about Failure, I most certainly would fail to do it justice. The closest I’ll come is to describe not the eclipse itself, but the surrounding world and our collective reactions. We notice how much cooler the air progressively gets. We wonder if our eyes deceive us. Since we’ve spent so much time fiddling with these awkward glasses, maybe we’re just thinking the sky is changing. “Sure it’s blue and all but isn’t it…no it’s DEFINITELY getting darker.” After first contact there is a slight lull. We initially think wow this next hour will crawl by so slowly as we wait for totality (second contact). But very soon after this we are amazed at how fast the moon’s shadow consumes the sun…a very hungry caterpillar indeed. By ten o’clock the changes in ambient conditions are unmistakable. Birds normally seen at dusk fly about to hunt for food. Notably, a small brood of chickens nearby remains completely un-phased. Maybe some animals are too cool for this, or maybe they are just awaiting Totality when they become sentient and speak in perfect English.
I am trying not to fail to make sure I EXPERIENCE the eclipse and NOT just record it with my 6+ cameras. One camera is a GoPro on a headband on my head which I use specifically to try to video the world and people around me. I eventually ditch all but my SLR for pictures. When it finally happens, we remove our glasses. Around me the crowd erupts in a mix of surprise, wonderment, cheers, and just plain silent amazement.
(No camera filter. Except for the Moon. The Moon was my filter)
What we thought would be a long minute-plus is over in a heartbeat and Totality ends. Some responsible parent yells out, “Glasses back on!” Looking through them, we see a new crescent emerge, opposite to where its earlier sibling crescent had given up resisting the engulfing shadow and had disappeared into Totality. It is over. Some stay to continue watching the sun emerge fully. Most of us begin to pack up our gear and walk back towards our cars. The dire predictions of Apoc-eclipse have seemed very overstated thus far, but the drive home might prove some of the prognosticating doom-sayers right.
Part 5: Apoc-Eclipse Now (and Later)
Eight hours later, after a drive that should only take half as long, I pull into our driveway. The highways have indeed been snarled with fellow umbraphiles. Unlike the thousands upon thousands who came into Oregon like a steady rain over several days, the returning crowd all leave Oregon at once. Basically as soon as Totality was over, we were a sudden flash-flood-inducing downpour. A-ha! Our preparation and planning would now to be put to the test. Would we need that extra water? Would our gas station optimization schedule prove adequate? During the trip, stuck idling in traffic, I gaze enviously at the vehicles outfitted with racks for extra gas cans.
But really, it’s just a long drive. We have our Audiobook (14 hours of narration of which we finished less than half), several podcasts, music playlists, and of course several full Broadway Musical soundtracks. If there’s any failure of planning here, it’s that we have packed the back of the SUV such that goodie bags of junk food are completely unaccessible without stopping to reach the buried treasure. Getting home we empty the truck and try to process what we’ve experienced.
I pat myself on the back for nailing it on most of this trip. Planning, packing, viewing, and experiencing all went off with nary a hitch. I’m a born pessimist, though, so I wonder what I could have done better. Failure is a bit of an obsession of mine, because even in success, I dwell on the what-ifs. Should I have set up my cameras differently? Did I spend too much time on my cameras? Did I spend enough? Should I have studied weather patterns more closely months in advance to pick a better location? Should I have traveled further east? Could I have shaved off time on our drive by taking alternate routes? I can be relentless when I have a success. When I outright fail, it can be pretty damned harsh.
We as a species tend to do that, both to our credit, and possibly to our detriment. Fearing that we may get fat resting on our laurels, we don’t always give ourselves the chance to reflect on what went right. And when an Act of God causes a failure, we don’t actually stop pointing the finger at ourselves. Could we have done more? Could we have avoided even an Act of God? We’ve known about weather causing aircraft disasters since the beginning of flight. We can’t control the weather, but we can always get better at predicting it, spotting it, avoiding it, and now even flying through it. We don’t just stop at “Act of God” as a cause of an accident when making out reports; we study the problem, make recommendations, and even invent new ways to deal with the next “Act”. And, being human, we still manage to find fault in each other, even when “Act of God” gets in the mix. Should the weather have been factored into the pre-mission planning? Could the pilots, air-traffic controllers, etc. have come up with a better strategy, a better route, or anything to avoid this? Why don’t we equip every modern jet with the latest in this or that radar technology? The weather can drop below freezing whenever it damn well pleases, sure, regardless of our planning. But we can control when and how vigorously to de-ice our wings, plow our runways, or scrub a launch because we know O-rings on rockets get brittle below freezing.
Humans have known of eclipses since ancient times. Greeks, Chinese, and likely many other societies we don’t even know had detailed records accurately predicting eclipses. Yet so many peoples and societies were dumbfounded when the event occurred. Animals might be fooled into thinking night was falling, but many “superior” human beings fell prostrate to the ground, convinced the world was ending. This was to them the ultimate “Act of God”, the blotting out of the sun. Others used the knowledge to their advantage, claiming that power of the gods was their own. Today we have computers telling us the best location and time to view an eclipse. We have social media to share photos of the sun, the moon, and each other, and to crack jokes about it with memes. We build contraptions to “geek out” for a few hours. We have amazing devices in our hands to record the whole thing. Yet when the time comes, when it finally happens, we are awed. We whoop and holler. We fall silent. What we can anticipate with ridiculously precise science, still does not fail to be a spectacular Act of God. I was struck dumb by every second of it, and despite knowing exactly WHAT would happen and WHY, I just couldn’t have planned on that. Happy to have failed that. Awesome. Totality Awesome.