I was up at three am to check the weather...
Rats! Heavy overcast moving in by seven and no clearly until the afternoon. It was -18°F and the roads were slippery with a traveler's advisory. Any sane person would go back to bed and be happy to not be outside in a Montana Winter. But today was special and I needed a clear morning at all costs.
A call to the weather officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base made my decision easy - Lewistown, about 110 miles to the East, was likely to be clear until noon. I threw on a coat and ran outside to plug in the Saab's block heater. Thirty minutes at 1800 watts should be enough to warm the oil enough to crank the engine. I would have just enough time to shower, eat and pack.
It was 34 years ago today. A total eclipse in the continental United States and hopefully my first. I had taken off time from Brookhaven National Labs and had flown out to my parent's house in Great Falls, Montana - smack dab in the path of totality. The weather had looked promising the night before, but Montana weather is Montana weather and now I had a few hours to reason with Montana Highway 200. Not exactly my favorite road even with ideal conditions.
Cars and trucks were rare, which was good as most of the trip was below 40 mph with lots of packed snow and icy ruts from the storm the day before. The clouds thinned as I went and about 20 miles West of Lewistown I saw stars for the first time. I managed to make it by seven giving me time to set up. Not knowing where to go, I turned into the Lewistown Airport and found about 200 people assembled for the show.
First contact was roughly about 8:15. Everything seemed to be taking place too slowly at this point. I checked my tripod and cameras and looked at the Sun through welder's glass and some mylar coated filters. Not much to see, but the 300mm lens on the old Fujica camera showed a few sunspots and gave a sense of the movement of the Moon relative to the Sun.
Eclipses are great places to meet people. I'm not a fan of the notion that waiting is a boring activity if there are other people around to talk to - particularly if everyone is focused on the same thing. There were a group of teens dressed in Fergus County Eagle jackets, a lawyer, several people from Great Falls who made the trip the night before, a couple from Austria, a Swede, an MD from San Francisco, a group from Cambridge, a few truck drivers who were wondering if this was worth sticking around for, and a retired baker from someplace near London.
The baker was the most interesting person. When he was young he saw his first total eclipse and found it "the closest thing to a religious experience" he ever experienced. He swore that he would see as many as possible during his life and this one would push his count to over a dozen.
a baker's dozen...
The guys from Cambridge had several very nice telescopes and an automated heavy tracking mount. They had done this before and were looking for high quality photography. Seeing the kit should have told me something, but I went back to work on my camera. I took a test shot and the shutter was having problems. The camera had been cleaned and lubricated with a special low temperature lubricant, but temperatures in the negative teens were too much. I wondered how brittle the film was.
Slowly the sky became darker. It seemed like dusk and the approaching darkness built everyone's excitement. One of the guys from Cambridge was also a physicist and our conversation about solar neutrino flux measurements was replaced with simple statements of wonder and excitement. Two hundred people had been turned into curious 12 year olds....
It was now too dark to read and I knew the Moon's shadow was approaching at something over Mach 1.5 from the West. I was getting ready for what I had hoped would be a furious two minutes with the camera, but there was a sudden dimming and I looked at the Sun and Moon without a filter. A shaft of sunlight shone on us through a mountain valley on the moon giving a bright diamond ring effect and several bits of red light were brightly visible. This is the hydrogen-alpha line, something I was very used to in undergrad physics labs, but the intensity made it the most beautiful red I had ever seen in my life.
That lasted a few seconds - I think - time was running at a different scale for me now. Everything seemed to be happening too fast.
I starred at the corona - the Sun's atmosphere - extending out maybe a third of the solar radius. It was much smaller than I had imagined and much more ephemeral looking. I had expected the Moon to be black, but it wasn't - it was maybe as bright as the sky surrounding the corona. It was the surface of the Moon being lit from the Earth. I wondered if you could take a photo that would show features on the Moon during totality, but I quickly dropped that as time was running too quickly.
Turning to the camera, mad at myself for missing second contact, I looked to the East and saw something that took my breath away. The leading edge of the umbra was moving across the hills. The boundary was a bit feathered and it was moving along at well over 1,000 mph. It was the my visceral feeling of how big this really was.
As I turned I looked North and saw stars. Maybe down to about 4th magnitude. They were stars you expected during warmer times of the year and their angle was all wrong. I quickly found a few constellations to get a sense of the sky and forced myself to work on the camera and get a few images of the corona and maybe third contact.
I managed two exposures and the shutter froze. A bit of thinking told me to just give up. That extra heavy suitcase, the battery pack for the clock drive and the preparation of the camera all down the drain, but the intensity of the events as they were unfolding had thankfully overpowered me. Freed from babysitting the camera I could enjoy the minute or so of remaining darkness.
People were cheering, whooping, swearing, applauding and jumping around. Just before third contact I looked North at the stars again knowing I'd only see that again when I was at my next total eclipse and wondering where I would be in life in 2017 when the next American total eclipse would take place.
August 21, 2017 - I plan on being somewhere along this path1...
The corona is enormously beautiful along with the hydrogen-alpha light from a couple of flares blazing away. I could have watched it for hours...
A loud sonic boom, followed by another a few seconds behind and then another. It must have been some Air Force or National Guard fighters enjoying the view and trying to keep pace with the shadow. I briefly looked up and caught one of them perhaps six or seven miles up with a bright glow from his afterburner making him easy to spot.
Suddenly a brilliant flash of light and another diamond ring. The Sun was finally shining through after a bit over two minutes of totality. It seemed like it had been ten seconds are less.
I looked around at the crowd. It was still very much like dusk, and the Sun was 99% covered, but no one was looking a it. The difference between totality and 99.9% totality is infinite. There is no comparison.
But looking around at the people suddenly made me wish I had a working camera. Everyone I saw had the same thing I felt on my face.
tears frozen to their cheeks...
There was a lot of hugging. It was now clear to me the old English baker had made the correct decision.
1 I won't be taking a camera for the eclipse proper. There are professional who will get much better images anyway. Recording this yourself is diverting and just not worth it. What you see with your eyes is much more beautiful than any photo. I've been fortunate enough to see quite a bit of Nature so far and nothing competes with a total solar eclipse.
I usually spend a bit of time and add some photos or drawings to the blog posts, but they would be such lame approximations of the real thing that I'll leave them out this time
For some time we have been trying to duplicate the lentil soup from a local Afghan restaurant. This is seriously good stuff and there are times that is all I want ... Finally we learned the magic ingredient happens to be dried sour plums. I was unfamiliar with them. We can't get them locally and I won't be going to the city for a few weeks, so I asked around and found people recommend Fastachi. Their service is prompt and, two days later we could try experimenting.
A few tries and it was nailed. This is not a perfect replica but happens to be even better. An incredible soup that is simple to make. It is wonderful served with a warm crusty bread. You can also drizzle a bit of olive oil on top and add some shaved toasted pistachios for a nice presentation, but I certainly won't fault anyone for just digging in and enjoying. The recipe makes four largish bowls of soup.
Red Lentil Afghan Soup with Dried Sour Plums
° 4 tbl extra virgin olive oil
° 2 medium-large onions minced
° 6 large garlic cloves minced
° 1-1/2 liters (6 to 6-1/2 cups) water (may need to add more)
° 280g red lentils (cleaned! - we use Trader Joe's split red lentils)
° 1/2 tsp red pepper
° 1 tsp turmeric
° 16 dried sour plums minced - a good source is Fastachi
° non-iodized sea salt to taste, after freshly ground black pepper to taste
° your best extra virgin olive oil for garnishing (optional)
° toasted sliced or shaved pistachios for garnishing (optional)
° sauté onions and garlic in evoo until onions are golden
° add water, plums, spices and salt and bring to boil
° reduce to medium and add lentils, stir
° drop temp to medium low and cover
° cook 40-45 minutes - stir regularly and add water if necessary
° puree it if you like a smooth soup
° black pepper to taste (it takes a boatload of black pepper)
° garnish with a bit of olive oil and some shaved toasted pistachios (optional)