Everyone should try and experience a total solar eclipse at least once in their lives

Everyone should try and experience a total solar eclipse at least once in their lives
20 shot sequence of the 2017 eclipse taken by me, but the totality photo is by my friend Jim which I added in photoshop

Today's total solar eclipse features four minutes of totality stretching from Texas to Vermont, but I didn‘t make travel plans to head out to the midwest this time around. I wish I could see it but I feel ok missing it because I got to live it back in 2017.

If you've ever wondered if a total eclipse is worth traveling to and all the hassles and expenses for an unknown experience you're about to have, the answer is emphatically yes, you should definitely do whatever it takes to experience it at least once because it might just be as life-changing for you as it was for me.

Back in the early 1980s, an eclipse happened several hundred miles away from where I grew up but I only got to experience it partially. But I still remember that day as one of the oddest of my childhood.

I was 11 years old in 1984 and my memories are often hazy but I remember one daytime afternoon it almost got totally dark outside over the course of several hours. I also remember feeling slightly nauseous all day. We built pinhole cameras in my 5th grade class to try and view the sun safely but I don't remember being impressed when I got to look into a box and see a tiny crescent of a partial eclipse reflecting on a piece of cardboard.

I'd been alive for ~4,000 days (in Southern California where there's almost no variance from mild sunny weather) by the time of this partial eclipse but that one day (and one day only!) the sun grew dark in the middle of the afternoon and that aspect of it blew my mind.

I still remember the day vividly because it was so unusual.

Whatever happened on my backyard deck, it was going to be FINE

In August of 2017, a total solar eclipse was about to pass through my actual town, with estimates of 45 seconds of totality (I could have driven a few hours for 15 to 30 more seconds of totality but I wasn't sure if it was worth sitting in traffic so I stayed put).

Some friends flew up from the Bay Area and a few drove down from Washington State to crash at my place and enjoy the event in my backyard. I didn't know what to expect but I hoped it'd be more impressive than the weird day I had as a kid.

Being that it was 2017, I had plenty of ways to enhance the experience. I had a iPad app that told me exactly when to take photos to capture it from start to finish.

And I dutifully followed, and took shots with my DSLR on a tripod over a few hours that produced this beautiful sequence of images I later stitched together in Photoshop.

So how was the actual total eclipse?

The total eclipse in 2017 was nothing like the partial one I experienced as a kid.

I grabbed this from Wikipedia

The 2017 total eclipse was a lot like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, which I didn't get to experience until I was 19 even though I only lived a few hours drive away. Everyone told me the Grand Canyon was pretty amazing and it was bigger than I probably thought, but I'd seen countless images of it growing up so when I finally stepped out of a car at the edge of the Grand Canyon I expected a ho-hum experience but instead it completely blew my mind.

I'd never experienced a natural wonder that filled my entire peripheral vision before. There was no way to prepare for the sense of awe and wonder and it can't be oversold. It goes on forever in all directions and it's easily bigger than anything I'd ever laid my eyes upon so I will never, ever forget the first time I witnessed the Grand Canyon in person.

The 2017 eclipse day wasn't as strange as the one in 1984, but there were weird aspects. My childhood memories were of hours of semi-darkness but when I watched a time-lapse video I captured in my backyard in 2017, the sun only dipped in brightness for 15 minutes.

I didn't feel queasy but I was buzzing on the nervous energy you get from planning for a 45 second span of time that you spent a year thinking about. The anticipation for it was very high.

It was fun seeing all the little eclipses in the shadows at the time grew closer, like this shot of my fence showing little half suns in between all the leaves.

The actual strangest part of the total eclipse day was the sound, because at the precise moment the 45 seconds of totality began, every bird suddenly stopped chirping in my neighborhood and it was eerily dead silent (until everyone started awwing and gasping). I rarely notice bird calls unless they're unusual, but that day taught me birds constantly fill our lives with background sound we don't normally perceive.

This shot is from Wikipedia

After all the preparations and safety glasses and my camera setup and the birds going quiet, the totality was incredible because when the moment it began, a friend said we could all take off our eclipse glasses, which I did and for the first time in my life I stared at the sun directly and the actual image of a fiery ball blotted out was more awe-inspiring and overwhelming than I expected.

At that point, I'd been alive for over 16,000 days but I'd never been able to look at the sun without having to wince in pain immediately after. It was glorious, it looked exactly like the photo above but it was something you were experiencing in real time even though it seemed almost mythical or magical. It actually does look like the photos of it!

And you could just stare at it safely with your naked eyes. And you could keep staring. It was a day unlike any I'd ever lived.

It was such an overwhelming experience that I completely forgot my detailed camera checklist I'd been practicing for weeks. There I was, stunned during the 45 seconds gazing at the totality until I realized oh shit, I need to remove my dark filter from my lens, switch my camera settings back to regular light then I could grab a photo but as I began to loosen the filter, the sun already began to reappear as the moment had passed.

I didn't even think to grab my phone and take a zoomed in iPhone picture of it!

Granted, I only had 45 seconds to do a list of things but today's 4 minutes hopefully gives everyone a couple minutes to gaze in wonder in stunned silence as they question the entire universe and their own place within it, then there's another couple minutes to take photos and document the sheer beauty of it all.

It was truly an amazing experience. That 2017 summer day in Oregon at home blew my mind completely and utterly. I can confidently say I would willingly travel to the ends of the earth to see another again now.

That day also made me think about ancient people. How on earth did early humans react to a solar eclipse? Imagine living thousands of similar days and then experiencing one that's unlike any other that came before. What did they think caused temporary darkness? Or why birds would stop chirping? How did they return to normalcy on all the non-eclipse days that followed?

I think of myself as a big smart modern person with books and a science degree so I thought an eclipse would just be a ho-hum occurrence like driving to see a waterfall somewhere that's pretty good but not worth spending money and dozens of hours planning your day around, but I can say a total eclipse was truly a transformative life experience for me.

In the stairway of my house I'm reminded of that day each time I go upstairs because I printed out and framed my 2017 sequence along with my buddy Jim's totality shot in the middle. It's one of the most significant pieces of art in my house.

So yes, you should make plans for the next one so you can catch it in person.

(I want to see an actual Aurora Borealis next)