Columnist John Sheirer: Eclipse eclipsed expectations

The writer captured this image of the full eclipse near Mount Philo in Vermont.

The writer captured this image of the full eclipse near Mount Philo in Vermont. PHOTO BY JOHN SHEIRER

By JOHN SHEIRER

Published: 05-12-2024 4:45 PM

During the afternoon of May 10, 1994, I stepped outside into reduced light to see silvery, crescent-shaped shadows shimmering dreamily beneath a mid-sized maple tree. Then on August 21, 2017, I joined my wife Betsy near the Smith College greenhouse and used an old camera to capture the moon’s shadow partially obscuring the sun as it glowed dimly through scattered clouds.

That was my entire life experience with eclipses until recently. A few months ago, I asked Betsy if she’d like to take a day trip to Vermont to see the total eclipse. We checked our calendars, rescheduled some medical appointments, and said, “Why not?”

On the morning of April 8, we packed snacks, sandwiches, folding chairs, and our trusty dog Libby into the car and hit the road just before seven on that Monday morning. The GPS told us that the drive to Mt. Philo Mountain State Park would take three and a half hours. The farther north we went, the heavier traffic became as like-minded eclipse viewers joined us on the highway. We approached the park just before noon, clocking the drive at around five hours.

I had naïvely imagined Mt. Philo to be my secret discovery. So I was a bit shocked when we crested the final hill and saw hundreds of cars parked along the roads in every direction around the mountain. Oh well, more friends to share the eclipse with.

Somehow, we found roadside parking near a field just a few hundred yards from the park entrance. I slung the camp and our bulky lunch cooler over my shoulders while Betsy guided Libby along the one-mile hike to Mt. Philo’s summit. Carrying an extra 30 pounds during the 600-foot elevation gain definitely counted as my exercise for the day. In fact, that climb got my heart rate up higher than the cardiac stress test I had the following day (results: good!).

Once we reached the summit, we took in the beautiful view of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains, then settled down with our hundreds of new friends already ensconced and waiting for the eclipse. Unfortunately, Libby has gotten restless in her old age and didn’t enjoy waiting with the crowd. So we decided to head back down and watch the eclipse from our car. Carrying everything down the mountain was much easier than the hike up.

Back at the car, Libby relaxed in her backseat doggie bed for a pleasant nap. Betsy and I set up our chairs and donned eclipse glasses just in time to see the first hint of moon slip over the sun’s edge. For more than an hour, we watched the eclipse’s slow progression. We studied the light but couldn’t detect any changes. We snacked. We checked on Libby, who snoozed contentedly. We might have succumbed to a quick nap ourselves.

To be honest, if we didn’t know the eclipse was happening, we wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual.

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Then, just a few minutes before the expected 3:26 p.m. totality, the colors around us slightly desaturated. In the distance, we saw what looked like storm clouds cross the mountains and rush toward us. As the giant moon shadow approached, near darkness descended in a matter of seconds and the air chilled. Betsy and I looked at each other and simultaneously called out, “It’s happening!”

And then there it was: a total eclipse with a perfect ring of light hanging where the sun shone brightly just a moment earlier. We could hear cheering all around us, including the faint voices from atop Mt. Philo. Betsy and I were thrilled to share the event as we spent the next three minutes looking in every direction, taking in the dimmed but visible surroundings, putting aside our eclipse glasses to look directly at the safe totality above us. I checked on Libby, and she looked up at me as if to say, “This is cool,” before settling back to sleep.

And then it was over, far too quickly. The emerging sliver of sun brought back daylight as quickly as it had disappeared. We repacked the car and got moving before the mass of people around us filled the roads. The whole way home, Betsy and I repeated the word “wow” about 50 times. The 2024 total eclipse far exceeded my 1994 and 2017 partial eclipse experiences. I can understand how ancient people who couldn’t predict eclipses would be awestruck. We don’t plan to join an eclipse cult, but we were certainly inspired.

Some people claimed that the eclipse was a sign from God that we need to change our ways. The event certainly felt spiritual, but more as celebration than warning. A month later, when Betsy and I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time, we connected our feelings about the fleeting eclipse with the canyon’s epochal geology. Our world is full of beautiful processes, whether they last three minutes or millions of years.

I snapped dozens of photos during the totality, but only one captured a fraction of the wonderful moment with its amazing corona of light. That photo and the memories will keep us going until the 2045 total eclipse passes through Colorado where we can visit our son and daughter-in-law. We’ll be in our eighties then, so I hope someone else will carry our supplies to the mountaintop.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher from Florence. JohnSheirer.com.