This blog is mostly about my wilderness adventures, both internal and external. Sometimes, though, wilderness is encountered on a sheep farm in Oregon, staring at the moon as it covers the sun. And it’s best experienced with a crowd of strangers.
Back in June, when Mr. Adventure and I read the first news stories about the traffic jams expected in central Oregon for the eclipse, we paused. A few months earlier, we’d made plans to camp with friends in the Ochoco Mountains northeast of Prineville, Oregon. The area is known for its exceptionally dark skies, so nighttime stargazing promised to be excellent. But then we started reading the articles. As many as a million people might come to central Oregon for the eclipse, lured by reliably clear August weather. The few roads that crisscross the region would fill with cars. The stories said public agencies were using the eclipse as a practice run for the inevitable, yet unpredictable, Great Cascadian Subduction Earthquake, when thousands of people living west of the Cascade Range could head east to find shelter and sustenance.
The prospect was not enticing. A trip that normally takes a little more than five hours could take twice that, or worse. We’d be dispersed camping for four or five days, which meant practicing Leave No Trace assiduously — no vault toilets there. Besides, we had some medical stuff happening in the two weeks before the eclipse: minor surgery for Mr. Adventure and wisdom teeth removal for The Artist, our teenage daughter. I couldn’t wrap my brain around making plans when I wasn’t sure how everyone would be feeling.
Once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list event
Then I saw a video clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about the eclipse. “Try to get to it,” he urged. “It’s a stunning spectacle.” A once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list event. And the zone of totality started about four hours from our house. We really should go. Looking at the map of totality, I realized we could see the eclipse if we got a little south of Maupin, Oregon, a small town on the Deschutes River south of The Dalles. The road to Maupin likely wouldn’t see as much traffic as the other roads into central Oregon. We’d be at the northern edge of the zone, and could beat a hasty retreat back to Olympia afterward.
So, we tentatively planned to drive to Hood River and stay with Mr. Adventure’s brother, get up before dawn, drive into the zone of totality, park, and watch. But neither of us felt completely comfortable with this scheme. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) announced that pulling over on state highways was prohibited. Unfamiliar with the country around Maupin, I wasn’t sure there would be a place to pull off and watch that didn’t flout the rule. And we knew we’d feel better if we had a place to stay closer to the zone of totality.
Then, a week before the eclipse, I was Googling “Maupin eclipse camping” and a new event appeared. X-Dog Events, a group that sponsors races around Oregon (motto: “Ludicrous Ideas. Real Events.”) posted a new event. Camping at Imperial River Company in Maupin the night before the eclipse, then a shuttle bus into the zone of totality and a BBQ afterward. Mr. Adventure and I looked at each other. “What do you think?” I asked. “Do it,” he responded.
After the big traffic jams in central Oregon on Thursday, the projected transportation nightmare did not materialize. Friday, easy sailing. Saturday, easy sailing. We left for Maupin Sunday morning and made it in record time.
Camping with X-Dog
The Imperial River Company is a combination lodge, restaurant, and river-rafting operation perched on a rolling lawn on the Deschutes River. At the X-Dog Events welcome tent, the organizer gave us colored bracelets, one for the camping and one for the shuttle bus, and told us to pick a spot. We were the last of perhaps 10 tents to set up, and had a great view of the rafters coming off the river and the corn hole tournament happening across the lawn. The Artist brought a friend along, and they disappeared to explore. Mr. Adventure and I put up the tent, set up our chairs, and spent the rest of the afternoon alternately watching the corn hole tournament, reading, and congratulating ourselves for having made it to the eclipse. Clouds drifted in as evening fell, but the forecast promised clear skies the next day. After walking uphill to check out Maupin, a town where river rafting outfitters might outnumber full-time residents, we returned to camp and fell asleep to the sound of karaoke and laughter radiating from the lodge’s terrace.
Ka-thump ka-thump. Ka-thump ka-thump. At 5:45am, I woke to the sound of car after car after car heading south on the Highway 197 bridge overhead, tires rolling over the joints in the decking. Ka-thump ka-thump. I lay there listening, then suddenly realized what it meant. I woke Mr. Adventure. “Listen!” I said. He looked at me. “It’s people driving into the zone of totality.” Time to get up. The day looked perfect. We dressed, packed, and rousted the girls, who’d stayed up late enjoying the karaoke and playing pool. Coffee in hand, we waited for the shuttle bus and crowded on with everyone else.
Twenty minutes later, we arrived at Shorttail Farms in tiny Pine Grove, Oregon, for the viewing party. Located on a plateau between the Deschutes and White rivers, the farm enjoys long views in every direction. The east face of Mt. Hood glowed in the sunlight. And there, in a fenced pasture, goats! But unlike any goats I’d seen. These were fleecy black-and-white animals with horns arcing back from their foreheads. We asked the farmer, who told us these were Jacob sheep, a heritage breed raised for wool, fleece, and meat. Oops. I admired the sheep, who moved as a tightly packed flock around their pasture, then strolled around the farm.
It started at 9:06am, a little nibble out of the sun. Everyone lined up chairs along the fence line, chatting and looking up through regulation eclipse glasses as the astronomical phenomenon progressed. The temperature started to cool off. The breeze started to pick up. About 10 minutes before totality, the light started to noticeably fade. Smoothly, steadily, it got darker. Dusk started in the west and headed east as the moon’s shadow passed overhead. At totality, we all let out a cheer, took off our eclipse glasses, and gazed in wonder for 75 seconds. The shadow slid past, the sun reappeared, and the fields lit up again.
Euphoria is a common effect of seeing a total solar eclipse. Effervescent happiness permeated the crowd, and we laughed and exclaimed about the amazing thing we’d just witnessed. There is a kind of wild joy in that moment of feeling like you’re part of something much bigger than yourself. Instinctively, we knew that watching with other people, even people we didn’t know, was essential. The eclipse bound us together. None of us would forget this experience.
“I’m so glad we did this,” I said to Mr. Adventure for the umpteenth time. “Me too,” he smiled back. “Me too.”
What makes an eclipse even better? BBQ.
As we gradually came back to earth, finding our feet still firmly stuck to the planet and the sun once again shining brightly in that clear, clear sky, other senses kicked in. A new smell drifted over the scent of hay and manure. The BBQ was almost ready.
In addition to running Shorttail Farms, owners Andrew and Kriss work in Portland, participate in X-Dog Events races, and operate BugsBBQ and the Ham-bulance, a food truck that delivers delicious BBQ to events and parties all over the region. All morning, they’d been preparing food for the post-eclipse party. Long tables held trays of delectable ribs, brisket, and roast chickens, prepared from animals raised on the farm. Cole slaw, macaroni salad, and two kinds of beans nestled alongside. Yum. Everyone loaded plates, grabbed a drink, and found some shade for relaxing. The dogs monitored closely, snatching an abandoned rib bone to gnaw on when they could.
All too soon, it was time to board the bus and head back to the Imperial River Company. As the bus headed south, we saw a long line of cars crawling down Highway 197 into Maupin from the opposite direction. Could this be the dreaded eclipse traffic jam? Not really. The backup stemmed from the 25 mph speed limit in Maupin. Once out of the town, we drove the speed limit back to I-84 and the Columbia River.
Extending the experience
Mr. Adventure kept an eye on TripCheck, Oregon’s real-time highway traffic map, as we drove west. Figuring that I-5 north would be a zoo, I’d planned to drive over the shoulder of Mt. Adams on national forest roads. After grabbing huckleberry shakes in Trout Lake, a jumping-off point for recreationists heading to mounts Adams or St. Helens from the south, we headed north only to pass a sign saying the road was closed ahead.
Back to the Forest Service ranger station, where we learned that indeed, the road we planned to take was closed until the fall. The ranger looked at our disappointed faces and said, “Don’t worry. There’s another way.” That’s how we ended up skirting Mt. St. Helens on forest roads that took us most of the way home up and over the crest of the Cascades. And yes, it ended up taking seven hours, but the scenery in Gifford Pinchot National Forest sure beat the interstate.
As we unpacked, I reflected on our eclipse experience and what I learned. First, I wish I’d read a little more beforehand. For one thing, I would have heard Neil deGrasse Tyson’s advice to put your camera down during the event. Because I was taking pictures of everything, I probably only watched totality for 25 seconds. I won’t make that mistake next time. Second, it’s possible to make last-minute plans that succeed beyond your expectations. We were ready to roll with whatever happened, and what happened turned out to be perfect. Finally, a solar eclipse truly is a don’t-miss event. Mr. Adventure and I are already looking at the path of the 2024 North American solar eclipse and figuring out where we want to be during it. Montreal? Maine? Northern Vermont? Sounds like a plan.