Total Eclipse of the Sun

Total eclipse. Aurora, Oregon - August 21, 2017

Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is
-Bruce Springsteen

The day of the eclipse has arrived: August 21, 2017. You’ve planned all year for this rare celestial event, organizing an entire two-week trip to the American Northwest around it. Your bus, which was originally scheduled to leave Portland, Oregon for the Willamette Valley at seven in the morning is now leaving at 5:30 to account for the massive influx of eclipse traffic in the area, so you awake in your Portland hotel room around 3:45 and walk through the city in the cold, dark morning to the pickup location.

Once on the highway you quickly discover that the organizers’ fears were well founded as you find yourself stuck in gridlocked traffic, and you’re thankful that the tour operator chose to alter the itinerary from Salem to Aurora, half the distance from Portland. The trade-off is that you’ll only see 30 seconds of eclipse totality rather than 90 seconds, but you figure that 30 seconds is better than completely missing it while stuck inside a bus on the road.

It takes the bus 90 minutes to drive 22 miles but you finally reach your destination: Aurora Colony Vineyards, a quiet, idyllic place for viewing an eclipse. You have a couple of hours to kill before it begins. In the meantime, your tour operator offers your group a chance to hop back on the bus and drive further south to a school, where you would be able to see 60 seconds of totality instead of 30. Most of the group chooses this option, but you and a few others elect to eschew further time on the road in favor of remaining behind to relax and view the eclipse in the peace and tranquility of the vineyard.

So you grab a blanket and hike up into the vines, scoping out a nice private location to sit and watch.


The eclipse begins and you don your viewing glasses.


For a while not much has changed. You can see the moon beginning to cover the sun through the glasses, but when you remove the glasses the sky appears as bright as usual–and will remain so for roughly an hour. The moon’s path across the sun is slow, so you alternate between removing your glasses to take some photos and putting the glasses back on to check the status of the eclipse.

You watch in wonder as a hot air balloon circles the sun, partially jealous of the prime location of its passengers, but also thinking, “They better not block my view.” You’re reminded of the myth of Icarus.


You take some time to call your wife back home in New Jersey while you wait for the ultimate show. Even with the sun half covered there’s not a noticeable difference in the level of daylight.

Then it starts to get cooler. The farm animals know something is up. They hang out at the barn door, not sure what to make of this, afraid to venture too far from safety. Dogs in the area start barking like crazy.

The air grows even colder and you throw on your jacket as the wind kicks up. The sky begins to darken as if the day is retiring to an early dusk. Mount Hood in the distance has become much more visible in the amber hue of the diminishing light.

Still the air grows colder and it’s suddenly quiet, eerily so. The dogs have stopped barking, the birds no longer chirp. You keep alternating between ‘glasses on’ and ‘glasses off’ as the eclipse approaches totality.

Then it happens.

The others nearby start oohing and ahhing. At first you’re afraid to remove your glasses because of the horror stories you’ve been told about eye damage, despite knowing that it’s safe to remove them during totality. So you glance at other people to make sure their glasses are off and then you throw yours to the ground as you rise to your feet.

You stare awestruck at something out of a science fiction film: a dark circle surrounded by a ring of purple fire, a glowing white diamond at its edge, all cast against a black sky. You are witnessing a total solar eclipse.

Total eclipse. Aurora, Oregon - August 21, 2017

You zoom in with your camera and snap a few quick photos that you know will never do justice to what your eyes are seeing. You let the camera drop to your side, your eyes unable to peel themselves away from the majesty of totality. It’s not until you hear others mention the stars that you finally turn away from the sun and view the rest of the sky, now sprinkled with glowing balls of light at 10:18 in the morning. The hilly rows of vines stretch into the distance under a starry sky.

Then it’s over. All of this has happened in less than 30 seconds.

The diamond at the edge of the eclipsed sun grows brighter and you know it’s time to put your glasses back on. Light returns to the sky almost instantly–but it’s not daylight–instead you’re faced with a strange twilight. You remove the glasses and turn your sights away from the sun and toward the countryside, which now seems to be bathed in a neon glow.

You snap some more photos then sit back and take it all in. You still can’t believe what you just saw and you find yourself wishing for more, somewhat regretting not traveling further south to experience more totality, but also grateful for being among the privileged few humans on Earth to have witnessed a total eclipse of the sun. You wonder what the ancients must have thought when they saw such an event. Did they think the world was ending? That a deity was coming down to strike vengeance upon the wicked?

Gradually, full daylight returns to the valley. You pack up your picnic spread and head back to the winery. The moon will continue to eclipse the sun for another hour or so before it moves away and resumes its eternal dance with the Earth, but the show is essentially over. The phase of totality now feels as if it happened in another life to another version of yourself. Nevertheless, you are hooked. You know that you’ll be chasing the next total eclipse to hit North America in 2024, and perhaps others around the world in the years beyond, just to get that feeling again, that indescribable sensation of existing among the cosmos, if only for a moment.

How a Solar Eclipse Inspired a Two-Week Tour of the American Northwest

When I heard about the total solar eclipse scheduled to cross the United States this summer, I knew I had to see it since the opportunity to witness one does not come along often in a lifetime. I noticed on the map of totality that it would be passing close to Portland, Oregon, a city I’d recently talked about visiting, so figured I’d make a trip out of it. I booked a stay in the city and then found a day tour that will take me south into the path of totality and provide me with a complementary pair of eclipse viewing glasses.

But I didn’t stop there. Once I realized that the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood (aka, the Overlook Hotel from the The Shining) was within driving distance, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend a night there. Then I thought, why not keep driving across the county to Yellowstone? So I booked a five-night stay in Yellowstone. At this point I was on a roll so I decided that I would extend the road trip all the way to South Dakota before flying home. Then I could visit Devils Tower and Mount Rushmore while spending three nights in historic Deadwood.

Alas, I bit off a bit more than I could chew in terms of driving all the way from Portland. The time I would spend on the road was much greater than I thought and, more importantly, the price of the rental car to cover that time and distance would be astronomical. It turns out that it’s much cheaper to fly part of that distance, so I formed a new plan: rent a car overnight for the drive out to Mount Hood, backtrack to Portland for a flight to Missoula, Montana, and then get another rental to drive the remaining distance to Yellowstone and Deadwood.

And so, with everything now booked, here is my rough itinerary:

Days 1-4: Portland

I will essentially have two full days to spend in Portland as the first day will be the flight and the third day will be the eclipse tour. I booked an apartment in the heart of downtown, so my plan is essentially to just wander around on foot. A couple of places I would definitely like to visit are the Japanese Gardens and Powell’s City of Books, but other than that I’ll probably just wing it and look for some good places to eat.

The day of the eclipse will be a super early morning (for me). A bus will take me to the Oregon State Fairgrounds for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Eclipse Viewing Party. After the eclipse the tour will visit two wineries in the Willamette Valley for some wine tasting.

Day 5: Timberline Lodge

Next up is a drive out to Mount Hood for a visit to The Overlook Hot . . . err, I mean Timberline Lodge. Even though only the exteriors of The Shining were shot here, it’s still a must-do pilgrimage for any fan of the film, and it’s a gorgeous location near the top of Mount Hood. The lodge offers a ski-lift ride to the 7000-foot level of the mountain, so I’m going to try to do that, as well as some light hiking.

On the way up to Mount Hood from Portland, I’m hoping to take a detour to the majestic Multnomah Falls:

Day 6: Missoula

This will essentially be a travel day, driving back to Portland to hop on a flight to Missoula, Montana, during which I will be riding in my first ever propeller plane.

I made sure to book a window seat for the amazing views I’ve read about on this flight. In Missoula I’ll stay overnight at a nearby hotel before embarking the following morning on my roughly 6-hour drive to Yellowstone.

Days 7-10: Yellowstone National Park

This has become the centerpiece of my trip. I had originally booked 5 nights in Canyon Village because it was centrally located between the North and South portions of the park and I didn’t feel like constantly packing everything up to stay in different parts of the park, as many have recommended. However, I soon realized that most of my planned activities were in the southern portion of the park, so I would be doing a lot of driving. And when I decided to add Grand Teton National Park to my itinerary, I knew I had to make a change.

So now I will be spending the first two nights in Canyon Village. The first night will involve driving in from the north, so I will get to pass through Lamar Valley (one of the best places to see wildlife) toward the end of the day on my way to check in. If I have time, I may also stop in Mammoth and visit Tower Falls.

On the second day I will hike around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. If I get up early enough, I may spend the morning in Lamar Valley again (hopefully by visiting there twice I’ll increase my chances of spotting a wolf), and, if I have time in the afternoon, I’ll try to hit the Norris Geyser Basin trail.

On the third day I will be driving toward Grant Village, which will be my lodging for the final three nights, a location close enough to Grand Teton for a day trip. On the way to Grant Village, I will be driving through Hayden Valley, the other prime wildlife viewing spot. I’m planning to spend most of my day there since check-in is not until 4:30. If there is time I will also do the Mud Volcano trail and then stop at the northern part of Yellowstone Lake before heading to my final destination. Grant Village is situated on the West Thumb portion of the lake so I may do some light hiking around there after check-in, or head to the nearby West Thumb Geyser Basin and Lake Overlook trails.

The fourth day will be spent in the Old Faithful area along the various geyser trails before making my way north to the Grand Prismatic Spring and hopefully a drive down Firehole Canyon Drive.

Overall, I’m going to avoid more arduous and remote backcountry hikes since I will be there by myself, and especially since reading so many accounts of bear scares! I hadn’t originally planned on carrying bear spray, but numerous warnings from different sites have convinced me to rent a canister for the week, as even some of the smaller, more populated hikes can result in bear encounters. Hopefully, I’ll never have to use it.

It seems that I’ll essentially be off the grid for my five days in Yellowstone/Grand Teton, as the lodges charge for wifi and cell coverage may be spotty. No TV/radio or AC in the lodges, either, but I expect that I’ll be exhausted enough that lack of TV won’t matter, and the high elevation means cooler temperatures, so AC shouldn’t be an issue, either.

Day 11: Grand Teton National Park

Located just south of Yellowstone, I almost didn’t include this in my trip because of the driving distance from my original Yellowstone lodging, but a few friends said I shouldn’t miss it, and who knows if I’ll ever be out this way again? So, I did some research and came up with a good route that will get me to all of the key attractions in one day, and leaving from a much closer Yellowstone lodge will make the day trip more feasible.

I later learned that the path of totality for the solar eclipse will pass right through Grand Teton–that would have been an amazing place to view the eclipse, and probably less likely to be affected by weather than Oregon, but that would have required re-doing my entire trip and losing some non-refundable flight bookings, so I’ll stick with Oregon, and if the weather cooperates, I’ll be among the first in the country to see the eclipse. I imagine that Grand Teton will probably be a madhouse anyway since it will most certainly be one of the most poplar places to view the eclipse.

Day 12: Drive to Deadwood

This will be the longest drive of the trip, at an estimated 7.5 to 8 hours (longer with stops). But first I will be exiting Yellowstone out of the East Entrance and hope to spend some time at the Lake Butte Overlook, which provides a high vantage point over Yellowstone Lake. And if I leave early enough I may hike the Storm Point trail on the northern shore of the lake on my way out.

Then comes the long trek across the entire state of Wyoming. The route I’m taking is supposed to be pretty scenic, though I may want to limit my stops if I hope to reach Deadwood at a decent hour. I chose Deadwood in part because of its central location between Devils Tower and Mount Rushmore, but also because I was a huge fan of the HBO show and thought it might be cool to walk around the historic town in the footsteps of so many famous people.

Day 13: Devils Tower

On this day I will be fulfilling another childhood dream with a drive out to Devils Tower, made famous by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I imagine by now you’ve picked up on the fact that most of the destinations on this trip were inspired by TV and film. Even my desire to visit Portland could be attributed to the TV show Portlandia, among others. And if you want to stretch things further you can associate Mount Rushmore with North by Northwest and the Yellowstone/Grand Teton portion of the trip to nature shows like Planet Earth.

Anyway, if I have time after my visit to Devils Tower, I’m hoping to drive through the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway on the way home.

Interestingly, Spearfish was a key filming location for Dances with Wolves—another movie connection. 🙂

Day 14: Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park

My original plan for this day was to drive straight to Mount Rushmore, but after researching nearby Custer State Park, I’ve decided to take a long route through three scenic drives that ultimately end at Mount Rushmore. The three routes: Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Wildlife Loop Road collectively make up the majority of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, which is considered one of the top scenic byways in America.

That should occupy most of the day, but if I have time I may detour to the Crazy Horse Memorial. Later that night perhaps I’ll take one final stroll around Deadwood before packing for the trip home. I’ll have to get up early to get to Rapid City airport for a flight to Denver with a super quick layover that’ll have me running to catch my plane home to New Jersey.

Overall, it’s quite an ambitious itinerary I’ve set for myself over two those weeks, but one that will be extremely fulfilling if all goes to plan. I do regret that I won’t have time to visit a couple of parks in the area: Glacier National Park in Montana and Badlands National park in South Dakota, but you can’t do it all in one trip! If I had to plan it over again, I might have remained in the Wyoming/Montana area to fit in Glacier National Park and left the entire South Dakota area for a separate trip, but on the other hand, who knows if I’ll ever get out that way again, so I might as well cram as many of my bucket list items into one trip as I can.

So that’s the agenda. What do you think?