But a human lifetime passes in a flash. I turned 56 in April. It is now the year that has loomed over my entire life. In all these years, the words “eclipse” and “2017” have been synonymous in my mind. Nearly five decades have rolled by, the millennium has turned, and I’ve gone gray waiting for the culmination of my life’s expectation in 2017.
Sometime in the last 47 years, I learned that total solar eclipses are actually commonplace. One happens somewhere over the Earth about every 18 months. But that’s the rub. Eclipses have been happening everywhere except the United States. I belong to an entire generation of Americans who has reached adulthood without experiencing totality in their own nation. Those Americans who have seen totality since the 1970s have ventured outside the country, even to the farthest reaches of the globe.
In the meantime, I’ve seen many other glorious sights in the sky, including eerie lunar eclipses, scientifically interesting partial and annular solar eclipses, a very rare pair of Venus transits, and numerous beautiful conjunctions of the moon and planets. But a total eclipse of the sun remains the Holy Grail of sky sightings, and this spectacle has remained elusive.
Total solar eclipses are only visible over a narrow and ever-changing range of locations across the world. The fortunate few who have seen totality declare it to be the most awe-inspiring sight. The sun is obscured by the moon, suddenly plunging the landscape into deep twilight and revealing the solar corona, a wispy, delicate crown encircling the sun. Eclipse observers have a heart-pounding, visceral reaction, as studied and documented by eclipse psychologist Kate Russo. Some observers, such as eclipse filmmaker Mark Liston Bender, director of the new series Eclipse Across America, have an “eclipse epiphany,” their lives transformed by an encounter with totality. Many become “eclipse chasers,” traveling the globe for another immersion in the moon’s shadow.
According to the late Leif Robinson, longtime editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, “No one should pass through life without seeing a total solar eclipse.” I have long wanted to follow the advice of my departed friend and editor, and experience the wonder of a total solar eclipse. But like many others in similar circumstances, I have not been able to do so. There has not been a total solar eclipse anywhere over the continental United States since 1979. I first learned of the 1979 eclipse, which passed over the Pacific Northwest, many years after the event was over. In 1991, I wanted to visit Baja, Mexico, for a total eclipse, but the circumstances prevented a border crossing. By 1998, I was a contributing editor to Sky and Telescope, and Robinson offered to connect me with a speaker gig on an eclipse cruise. But my pregnant wife’s due date was close to the eclipse date, and I could not accept the offer in good conscience.