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In awe for 123 seconds
Jeff eclipse pic1
Mondays solar eclipse as seen in Madras, Oregon where the path of totality darkened the skies for two minutes as the United States stood by amazed. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/The Journal

MADRAS, ORE. – The dust of this tiny town in Central Oregon is still clinging to the crevices of my leather shoes as I sit at my Ceres Courier desk.

The dust has been there since Sunday morning. It’s Tuesday.

I was among the thousands who sojourned to the high desert town of about 6,500 residents because the moon and sun were ready to dance a swath of darkness across the land.

In last-minute fashion, my son invited me to tag along on Saturday but I was hesitant. Instinctively, I was ready to brush aside the invite. Sleep in the car overnight after traveling 556 miles to get there Sunday to watch a two-minute phenomenon on Monday? Then battle the traffic to head back to California minutes later and travel the 556 miles back? Was I insane?

Turns out I was.

The more I thought about it the more the adventure intrigued me. A road trip with Bret had an appeal. It was the perfect justification to do something I really did not want to do. A side benefit would be a chance to see something quite rare. I’m not the kind of guy who gets excited about celestial bodies doing anything, let alone doing it in unison. But I was impressed at the way the San Francisco sky looked in May 2012 when a solar eclipse passed by the hospital and it looked as though a sunshade hit the Bay Area.

 Never once in my life did I think I’d ever be camping out on treeless ground so dusty that a passing car at 15 mph could raise a cloud to choke, and cause sneezing and wheezing. The ground in Madras – I never heard of it before this weekend – reminded me of the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds parking lot, if that helps you understand it. Some smart farmers up there had the idea to charge $35 per car to occupy 10 feet by 14 feet spot of ground.

Bret bought a space but we really had no idea what we faced. This particular location promised pit toilets but I can tell you there weren’t enough judging by the perpetual lines of 20-30 deep and longer during the bladder-swollen wakeup hour. Some of us men decided it would be easier to empty in a soda cup and discreetly dump it. There would be no outdoor camping – only sleeping inside the vehicle but we brought an air mattress and sleeping bags anyway.

Madras was experiencing an influx of people like never before in its history. It was a sort of Sturgis for the solar thrill-seeking types with vendors hawking eclipse T-shirts and food and souvenirs on the sidewalks. The small-town police department was out in force.

Our camp, if you can call it that, was north of town, farther from California. We rolled past a field that looked as though it was expansive as the cemeteries of Colma, filled with cars, RVs, tent campers. Acres and acres and acres of humanoids. There must have been 5,000 to 8,000 people there.

“Oh, the humanity!” I cried as I mimicked infamous radio announcer Herbert Morrison recoiling as the Hindenberg burn to the mooring mast.

Our “camp” was less crowded but it looked like an assemblage for a drive-in theater without a big screen. Oh, we would be roughing it alright.

No tent.

No running water.

Bathrooms overrun by people.

No in-and-out privileges.

Forget the cell phones. Too many users for the towers available.

Why was this event a big deal, I asked Bret, my family’s version of Bill Nye the science guy. He gave me the low-down – far more than I needed. But essentially, since the Declaration of Independence was signed, 20 total solar eclipses have traced arcs around the United States, with the last occurring on Feb. 26, 1979. I was in high school.

For those lucky souls like us planted within the 70-mile wide path of totality, we would virtually see the moon blot out the sun, except for a silvery ring of brilliant light that would hover in an almost suddenly blackened sky. The trick was getting within that 70-mile swath, which meant getting out of California this time. The next time this will happen in Oregon, our neighbor, will be in 12,000 years and I’m fairly certain I will not be around for that one.

I was finally getting excited.

Darkness fell and it was apparent there was enough room around the car to place the air mattress. At around 11 p.m. we hit the sack, realizing that there would be no quiet rest. People were trekking to the restrooms all night and headlights were bouncing over our shut eyes and there was the never-ending cacophony of car alarms, prompting Bret to accurately note that car alarms are mostly a nuisance rather than beneficial to anyone.

It was a cold night and I wasn’t all that comfortable. Car alarms never ceased to shatter our sleep and usually lasted 8-10 blasts before someone fumbled for the clicker.

Sunlight stole across the sky. The great actor arrived on stage and was patiently awaiting its co-star, still nowhere to be seen.

While faking sleep, I had this nagging feeling that I needed to convince my son – who is 33 and has a mind of his own now – that there was no way we could watch the eclipse from this camp. Getting out of it would be nightmarish and would take hours that we didn’t have. I had to be back at work Tuesday to put out the Courier.

He agreed that we needed to bypass the sea of humanity by positioning south of Madras for a quicker escape. We loaded up everything – the mattress caked with dust and no water to wash it off – and moved out of there.

Madras was starting to awaken. The Black Bear Diner was standing room only so we moved over to Subway where the hit feature was the restroom. We wolfed down our breakfast and decided to take a rural road southwest of town where we found a long stretch of road shouldered by empty desert scape. We parked near others on that desolate stretch and waited.

Out came our lawn chairs and sodas. The cameras were ready. It was just father and son, waiting for a short film for which we had not seen the trailer. After 10 a.m., back home in Ceres, I knew the school children at Sinclear Elementary School were out on the playground with eclipse viewing glasses in hand. Their view of 75 percent coverage would be nothing like what we were about to see at 100 percent.

The sky darkened and suddenly my eyes seemed like they were failing. I can’t describe it, other than I felt like I was watching a flickering TV missing frames. It was irritating.

Finally, darkness was sweeping in from the west, like an invisible being was stealing sunlight.

The bright sun was replaced by a shimmering brilliant ring. It was almost like a short-lived diamond ring hanging in the sky. Knowing it wouldn’t last but two minutes made us savor the spectacle even more. Like a two-minute appearance of Holy God himself.

Through Bret’s telescope I saw the actual solar flares without eye protection.

Another first in my life.

It dawned on me that I rarely give much thought to the mechanics of planetary movement. The sun always comes up in the morning and sets in the evening – without fail. But to see two bodies line up with precision gives pause to the idea of a design grander than I appreciate.

Madras may seem like a long way from the Central Valley, and it is. But after seeing what occurred there, I felt like we are a lot closer than we tend to believe.

I felt closer to Bret. I had no idea that he was determined 16 years ago to see this one eclipse. And it warms my heart to know I got to experience that dream with him.

Was it worth it?

Well, what do you think?