The Experience of Experiencing Eclipse People Watching

Susan Gerbic


If you are interested in the 2017 solar eclipse event, then I’m sure you have already read about or watched more than I will be able to tell you in this article. I attended and was in the path of the totality. It was awesome, interesting, very cool (both figuratively and literally), and an event that I’m very glad to have experienced. That’s about it. Well, not really.

While there were some stories trending in the news to boycott the eclipse, or pray it away, there was a lot going on behind the scenes to pull this off. Okay, I know what you are thinking: the moon getting in the way of our sun was not planned or directed or anything like that. What I mean is that the people element, the social and educational aspect, was completely planned. Experiencing this event was a moment in time (two minutes, forty-two seconds to be exact); it was a chance the science world had to excite the masses and draw likeminded people together and inspire them. That was what really interested me.

For over a year, I’ve been hearing that some people wanted to move the date for the Skeptic’s Toolbox from its usual third week to the fourth week in August. It has been held in Eugene, Oregon, since 1990 and would put attendees in the right place at the right time for the eclipse. For reasons unknown to this writer, the Toolbox was not held at all in 2017 (nor in 2016). Instead, a day of Toolbox Workshops is to be held at CSICon in Las Vegas in October 2017. This meant that the normal Toolbox attendees (and there are at least fifty diehard fans) were able to descend on whatever eclipse festivities happened to be planned across the United States.

At SkeptiCal, astronomer Andrew Fraknoi lectured on eclipse safety and other tips and trivia about the event. One thing he kept stressing was that once the media caught on to this story, it would be all over the place, and uninformed people would hear about the eclipse and decide on a whim to drive up to see this amazing spectacle. The problem with this, according to Fraknoi, was that the areas of America that would experience the totality were not areas used to having tens of thousands of people descend upon them. There were not enough bathrooms, space on the roads, and hotels to accommodate all the people. If you planned on attending, then you needed to prepare for the worst, and if the crowds didn’t show up, then you would be happily surprised.

Herb Masters from the Bay Area Skeptics and the Masters Challenge Scholarship discovered that Oregon State University (OSU), located in Corvallis, would be opening their dorm rooms and campus (for a reasonable price) to visitors. What a great idea; it would be just like the Toolbox: dorm beds, cafeterias, communal bathrooms, and friendly skeptics sharing a weekend of fun and science together. I was in! Monterey County Skeptics member Deborah Warcken decided to share the adventure and we booked a room together. Jay Diamond and David Almandsmith, from the Bay Area Skeptics, and a few others decided to join us.

Enter Jeanine and John DeNoma and the Oregonians for Science and Reason (O4SR) group. (I’ve written about this group before and did an interview with Jeanine about scholarships O4SR gave to three CSICon attendees in 2016.) The DeNormas live in Monmouth, Oregon, in a good-sized cabin with a large flat area perfect for camping and a mountain named Coffin Butte in their backyard. Jeanine was having none of the plan to watch the eclipse from OSU’s campus. She was insistent that everyone in our group, and anyone else interested, needed to camp on her property and watch the Monday morning eclipse from her home. She sweetened the deal by throwing a spaghetti dinner party on Sunday night and a 6 am breakfast on Monday morning followed by a post-eclipse BBQ. How can you turn that down? One of our good friends from Los Angeles, Paula, decided that she would take the DeNomas up on their offer.

Deborah, Paula, and I decided to rent a car and make the twelve-hour drive from Monterey County up to the area. As we got closer to the date, we found that Fraknoi was correct: the media was starting to notice. We kept hearing about how insane Oregon was going to be. With this in mind, Paula drove up from Los Angeles (about five hours) to spend the night at my house in Salinas, and then the next day we drove until we were tired, got a hotel room in Redding, and then continued the drive, ending up in Salem, Oregon, on Friday afternoon. We experienced no unusual traffic; there was plenty of food and necessities at every stop we made. People all along the route whom we talked to were excited about the eclipse; employees working in the service industry seemed to be prepared, in good moods, and happy about the boost in sales. There were no lines at gas stations or the fast food restaurants we stopped at. California and Oregon seemed to be prepared; or perhaps we were just really early.

We stopped in Salem because Jeanine had arranged for me to talk about the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project to the Cherry City Skeptics. They have existed only a couple years and were a small but attentive audience. Jayson Merkley gave me an excellent introduction and we had a great time. GSoW didn’t get any new editors (at least not so far), but I planted seeds; I can only hope to hear from one or more soon. One very important thing happened when I was about to start my lecture: I received a message from Susan Lancaster. Apparently, she and her husband Robert live only a few miles away in Salem and saw that I had checked in, via Facebook, near them. She asked if I could please stop by and say hello when I could. You can read, in an upcoming article, about Robert Lancaster and how he was an important inspiration for my (and others’) activism in the skeptic world.

Jeanine attended the lecture and took Paula and her camping gear to Monmouth. Deborah and I (after visiting the Lancasters) checked into the dorms in Corvallis (about forty-five minutes south of Salem).

Saturday morning, Deborah and I wandered all over the OSU campus. They had science activities, lectures, art exhibits, music, and an outdoor showing of Apollo 13 going on at night. Lots of people staying at the University, as well as locals, showed up. It is always rewarding to see families with young children enjoying science activities together, and there were plenty. As usual, I photographed like crazy and over-ate, as the cafeteria food was adequate and abundant.

Sunday night, we drove to Monmouth (about twenty minutes away) to the DeNomas. Their property is idyllic: a large two-story cabin with a deck surrounding most of the exterior sits on a side of the mountain with a large field below. The O4SR group had outdone themselves; it was a giant potluck food fest. Yes, I over-ate again. The DeNomas have many tables, benches and porch swings all over the deck, and with at least twenty people attending the spaghetti feast, no matter where you sat you would find great conversations. As soon as I got there I popped down in a shady spot on a porch swing overlooking the fields, with friends on each side of me. The weather was perfect and one of the family dogs took up the rest of the swing and rested his head on my lap to be petted. This was my idea of heaven; I could have stayed the night in that spot.

Monday morning, we drove back to Monmouth, arriving at 6 am for breakfast. We were greeted by Jeanine coming to us with arms wide open, saying “Look at what a beautiful clear day I’ve arranged for the eclipse.” Yes, the weather was perfect. The DeNomas have a giant kitchen island, which made it easy for ten or more people to be frying, buttering, pouring, or whatever was needed for the thirty or so people who showed up for breakfast. I should mention that the DeNomas have thirty-two chickens, plus a blackberry bush larger than a semi-trailer. Ripe sweet blackberries and eggs were plentiful.

Another skeptic friend, Mick West, was staying in lower Oregon with family and noticed my posts on Facebook; he said he was a couple hours away, not quite in the totality. So, we invited him to join us. He got up at 4 am and drove (no traffic, he said) with his wife Holly and father-in-law John to the event. I’ve interviewed Mick for CSICon, and you can read it to learn more about him. He got some amazing photographs of the eclipse, so be sure to look him up on Facebook.

After breakfast, almost twenty people from the O4SR group, and the next-door neighbor and his friends, hiked up Coffin Butte to a clearing at the top where we had an unobstructed view. This was serious business; people began setting up tripods, video cameras, and folding chairs and claiming spots to view the eclipse from, but there was a giddy happiness to everyone. Many of us were strangers to each other, but no one cared; we were all together about to witness something really special. It was quite wonderful just to be there with others who cared. We watched two planes in the sky circling our area; maybe they were NASA flights or just pilots hoping to experience the eclipse from the sky. Birds also circled around; everything was just a normal August morning.

As I came to experience the experience of eclipse watching, more so than the actual eclipse, I set up a tripod to video the people watching the event unfold.

One of the first things we noticed was how the changing light made the shadows of the leaves appear crescent shaped. Then we looked at the shadow of our hands and saw small lumps in between our fingers as if they were webbed. I was surprised at how emotional the experience was for me and others. It became so cold, something I hadn’t really thought would happen. The birds stopped flying around and the crickets became very loud. You probably have read about (or saw yourself) what this was like, so I don’t need to go into too much detail. It was really surreal, especially the diamond ring. What surprised me the most was how bright everything became with only a sliver of the sun being visible after totality ended.

Once it was over, everyone was friends. No one talked about politics, which seems to be a part of every conversation these days. The experience was unifying, and I’m so glad to have been with a great bunch of people.

We went back down the mountain, and lazed around on the cabin’s deck. I started uploading photos, and the entire trip can be found documented on my Facebook page. After a few hours, John DeNoma had a BBQ ready and we gorged on plenty; and yes, once again I ate too much.

Deborah, Paula, and I drove back to Salinas on Tuesday morning. We encountered no problems at all. We asked people we met at a gas station what the weekend was like for them. The man we talked to said that it was really busy, but nothing they couldn’t handle; the rush was over by Monday night. We didn’t know what to expect on the drive home; we had planned to stop half-way, but since we had a clear path ahead of us and three drivers, we kept driving and made it to my home in Salinas in fourteen hours.

The whole experience was wonderful. I met some terrific people, got great photos, and spoke about GSoW to a local skeptic group and to many people at the DeNomas. I learned a lot too, and not just about eclipses. The O4SR group has a lot of great plans in store for the upcoming years, and they are also sponsoring more scholarships to CSICon in Vegas this October.

I vote that all total eclipses should happen in Monmouth each year; who do we talk to about that?

Thank you, Rob Palmer and Stuart Jones, for your proofreading skills.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.