Thursday, May 24, 2012


Sunday 20 May 2012 brought the prospect of a solar eclipse practically to my backyard.  I've seen plenty of partial eclipses in my time; that's when the moon slides across the sun in the sky and blocks part of the solar disk.  While interesting, nothing apparently tops a total solar eclipse, when the moon completely obscures the sun, making a pearly corona visible and plunging lucky viewers into a false, temporary nighttime.  From all accounts it is probably the most awesome thing you can ever hope to see in the sky.

Halfway between a partial and a total eclipse is something called an annular eclipse.  That's when the moon crosses the solar disk but is a bit too far away to cover the sun completely.  What you end up seeing is a "ring of fire," a brilliant circle of sunlight in the sky.  This is the kind of eclipse that happened last Sunday.

Usually eclipses happen in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or Antarctica or the Kamchatka peninsula or some other gawd-awful corner of the world.  So I was completely psyched when I learned months ago that one will be visible from northern Arizona, a mere 200 miles from my home in Phoenix.  Even better, the event was going to happen at 6:30pm, as opposed to sunrise, which would give me plenty of time to get there and set up.

So, after helping out at Brambley Hedge Rabbit Rescue Sunday adoptions, I packed up my camera gear and headed north.  On the way to Flagstaff I drove by the site of the Gladiator wildfire, and could see huge columns of smoke rising in the distance.  The smoke turned the entire sky a dirty beige color, and it was surreal and claustrophobic to see such an angry, damaged sky from an out-of-control fire.

The drive was very pleasant if uneventful, and I haven't been up north of Flagstaff in a very long time.  I had forgotten how beautiful the landscape is up there.  All along Route 89 north I spotted people off the road in little clearing areas, setting up their cameras and their telescopes, getting ready for the event.  After 3 hours of driving I made my turn-off onto Route 64, with the Vermilion mountains a muted magenta color in the distance.  I was planning on going to the Grand Canyon to watch but I was too cheap to pay the $25 entrance fee, and chose instead a speck on the map called the Little Colorado River Gorge Overlook.  The name of the place is bigger than the place itself.  I had an hour before the high point of the eclipse, and I used that time to explore the Gorge Overlook, which was very much bigger and deeper than I had ever imagined, and it turned out to be a marvelous and very impressive thing to see.

The Gorge Overlook site turned out to be pretty popular with astronomy nerds like me, and there were at least 20 other people that had come there to do the same thing I was - observe the eclipse.  We all had a very good time laughing and talking, and everyone was as excited and thrilled as I was at the approaching sky show.

I set my camera up and sat down to wait for the event.  The minutes ticked by and I could see a bite taken out of the right side of the sun.  The bite slowly, inexorably got larger, and by the time the sun was one third covered, the brightness of the sun was noticeably diminished.  The moon slid further across the sun and my anticipation was building with each passing second.  I started furiously snapping pictures, getting more and more excited.  Finally, the moment I had been waiting for happened.  The moon crossed the limb of the sun and the annular phase had started.  A thin, brilliant ring of sunlight surrounded the moon, and the area was plunged into a strange kind of twilight, almost like the sun was being filtered behind some clouds, but there were no clouds in the cerulean blue northern Arizona sky.  This is a composite photo I made of some of my best eclipse shots:

Two minutes later, it was over.  The moon breached the opposite side of the sun and the ring of fire turned back into a thin crescent.  The eclipse was finished, but the memories it left with me I know will last the rest of my lifetime.  It was an awesome and awe-inspiring sight, and it left me absolutely exhilarated and feeling like I had just witnessed something extremely rare and special and magical, which I had.

Even better, it made me feel very excited about something I had never seen before. I was almost giddy with anticipation, and felt that there are still wonderful things to marvel at in the beautiful, complex, sometimes terrifying and always fascinating universe in which we live. It was good to know that I can still be impressed and humbled by nature, and I'm not quite so jaded that I can't be made to feel like a young child again.

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