Picture the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen, then multiply it by 10. Now imagine it only appears for a combined 90 minutes or less per century. And to complicate things further, let’s say a different part of Earth — oftentimes remote or inaccessible — is visited by this sight every time, a display that may be confined to an area only a few miles across. Only then is it possible to understand the elusive splendor and omen of a total solar eclipse.
It’s been 681 days since the last total solar eclipse, during which the moon’s shadow traced a 70-mile-wide sliver across the United States. Millions crammed into the path of totality to gawk upward, unaware that their lives would be changed by what they saw.
Shivers ran down my spine and my hands shook that day in a rural Nebraska field as I watched the sky transform into something otherworldly. I was flanked by my good friend and mentor, Dan Satterfield, chief meteorologist at WBOC-TV in Salisbury, Md. After totality ended that day, I recall turning to him and joking “ready for July 2, 2019?” We both knew we could never miss a moment like that.
Nearly two years later, we found ourselves on flights to Chile. I reserved hotels in September 2017, less than two weeks after the last eclipse. I arrived in Santiago on Saturday morning after an overnight flight from Toronto.
As soon as I deplaned, I was amazed. The ordinarily tranquil airport was bursting at the seams with eclipse chasers and astrotourists. I heard at least seven or eight languages. I measured the customs and declaration line at more than a mile long. The air was buzzing with excitement and a sense of foreboding wonder, the word “eclipse” seemingly echoing from everywhere. I checked my phone in anticipation of rendezvousing with Dan, who was set to arrive within 30 minutes of me.
But the airline had different plans. Forty-eight hours of flight delays later, Dan finally made it. I had spent the past day-and-a-half — including 31 hours at the airport — frantically making rearrangements, scooping up one of the last rental cars and navigating Santiago’s bus system like a contestant on “The Amazing Race.” (I even sent my former Spanish teacher a thank-you note.) At long last, Dan arrived. After a four-hour rest, we piled into our bright red Ford Explorer for the 290-mile drive to La Serena.
The drive was serene. En route, we passed hundreds of people crowding the edge of the highway, sporting backpacks and holding signs reading “eclipse.” The hitchhikers were a few of the estimated 500,000 people who made the pilgrimage northward, cramming into La Serena — a city usually home to 200,000 — in anticipation of Tuesday’s show. Vendors peddled eclipse glasses at traffic lights, while billboards every few miles stressed eye safety. It was beginning to feel real.
That night, Dan and I spent two hours meticulously plotting our course. There were few road options available, and most of the hordes were either staying in La Serena or heading east toward Vicuña. We had a lot to consider, including potential coastal fog, low sun angle, road options and from which direction the sun would be shining. I had driven every potential route vicariously via Google Maps months prior, and was prepared for the possibilities. In the end, we jointly selected what months ago seemed the least likely option: a two-hour treacherous dirt road into the mountains, featuring 180-degree hairpin turns and 200-foot drops. It was a gamble that paid off.
We claimed our own mountaintop more than a mile high. I lugged five tripods, eight cameras, food and water the last 400 feet up. With scrub brush and cactuses peppering the dry desert landscape, the aesthetics of the scene on any day would have been enough to take my breath away, but I knew I was in for something beyond words.
As the afternoon wore on, the shadows sharpened. Sunlight became weird. An ominous presence seemed to be nearby. I rehearsed my choreographed “camera dance,” ensuring I was confident I could capture the scene I knew would be emblazoned in my memory for the rest of my life.
At 4:35 p.m., we were seconds away. Light was dropping quickly. My cameras were rolling (although some of my best footage was corrupted).
This time, the shadow came in four times faster than during the 2017 eclipse, which meant we didn’t see twilight looming or the shadow approaching. In just 15 seconds, day became night. It was real, and it was spectacular.
The color of the sky during an eclipse can’t be explained. This time, it was even deeper than 2017, thanks to a wider shadow. There appeared to be no 360-degree sunrise, and if there was, I was too busy — the solar corona had finally appeared. It’s then that you become convinced the universe is a sentient being; during an eclipse, you look it in the eye.
Until you see an eclipse, there’s no way to understand why people travel 10,000 miles for two-and-a-half minutes of action. It’s a feeling of awe, grandeur, excitement, fear and some other emotion I can’t quite name. You realize your place in life, the scale of the universe and the importance of living for the right reasons.
Seeing something this incredible every two or so years is like meeting an old, wise friend; you contemplate how you’ve changed since your last reunion and eagerly look forward to meeting again — however fleeting your time together may be. Being washed over by the moon’s shadow is a form of baptism, a refreshing “clean slate.” It grounds you.
This old friend will return to Chile and Argentina on Dec. 14, 2020. Occurring during the Geminid meteor shower means that shooting stars will light up the premature night sky during totality. Dan and I hope to be there.
This trip clarified that joy in life is all about the people you meet, the adventures you share and finding those rare, beautiful moments that will last a lifetime.
Capital Weather Gang’s Camden Walker also traveled to Chile to witness the eclipse. His video of totality is below . . .