This August, you’ll get a chance to have a truly strange and otherworldly experience, when normal daylight suddenly turns to eerie twilight and a black sun hangs high in the sky, like the eye of some seldom-seen God radiating waves of luminous, life-giving energy to humanity.
On August 21, 2017, the mainland United States will have its first total eclipse of the sun since February of 1979. Because of this nearly four-decade-long period without a total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States, most people have no idea exactly what’s coming, but many sense it’s going to be an amazing peak experience—and they’re right. A total solar eclipse is nature’s greatest spectacle, and it can be so moving as to change lives and even the course of history.
A total eclipse of the sun is so uniquely novel and profound that this phenomenon has compelled me to travel the world to experience it. I have seen every total solar eclipse since 1994, and I hope to see every one in my remaining lifetime.
The short period of time during which one can safely look directly at the eclipsed sun and see the light of life—the corona—is called totality. For me, seeking totality is a kind of shamanic pilgrimage. Over the course of 27 years seeking the transcendent experience of totality, I have traveled to some wonderfully enchanting and distant locations, including Hawaii, Chile, Thailand, Mongolia, Aruba, Hungary, Zambia, Australia, Antarctica, Tahiti, Turkey, the South Japan Sea, the Arctic Circle, Fiji and, most recently, Borneo.
I’m not alone in my pursuit of totality. Although different people travel to eclipses for different reasons, the common denominator of the obsession is experiencing the absolute awe and amazement that an eclipse inspires. Those of us who are eclipse nuts are more politely referred to as “eclipse chasers” or “umbraphiles.” There are many of us, but the hardcore group that travels to every totality probably numbers fewer than 100.
A total solar eclipse is not just something that is thrilling to watch; it’s an all-encompassing experience that involves sight, body and mind. The eclipse experience starts with first contact, the moment when the moon initially encroaches on the sun’s disc. Suddenly, part of the sun’s curvature looks off, and then a tiny nibble appears that grows into a dark bite in our star. During this and all subsequent partial phases, you must use protection like eclipse shades to prevent damage to your eyes or even blindness.
Nothing much happens for the next 40 minutes or so except that the dark bite grows larger, but when over half of the sun’s disc is covered, things begin to get strange—very strange. The sunlight starts to change, and it is unlike any type of light you’ve ever seen. The entire environment is profoundly transformed: Colors drain away from plants, the light takes on a metallic quality, the sky deepens in its blueness, and shadows are sharply defined.
Bizarre crescent patterns of light appear beneath any nearby trees. These are pinhole projections of the partial eclipse created by spaces between their leaves. Usually these are just dappled and irregular blotches of sunlight, but during a solar eclipse they become uniform, fish-scale patterns.
As the eclipse deepens toward totality, the temperature begins to drop, and this sensation, along with the perception that the predictable nature of reality is disintegrating, frequently causes people to have goose bumps and experience their hair standing on end. Your rational mind understands what’s happening, but your instinct and body have involuntary responses that override it. Although you’re watching it happen, your mind is thinking, “This cannot be happening.”
Then the weirdness begins to accelerate. At this point, the eclipse experience reminds me a little of the aspects of an LSD or mushroom trip. The changes in the perception of light, the strange patterns on walls or the ground, the rising sense of awe and wonder, and a cascade of metaphysical thoughts about humanity, the universe and life mimic some of the best aspects of early psychedelic states.
The strange bleeding away of light increases, as if some god’s hand were turning down a celestial rheostat. The sun shrinks from a wedge to a curved filament of light. At this point, if you have a clear view of the western horizon, you can lift your shades to see a line of deep indigo blue appear between the land and sky, rising up like a swift-moving thunderstorm, although silent and much faster. It quickly becomes a wall of darkness rushing toward you. This is the shadow of the moon moving faster than the speed of sound. Inside this wall of darkness, totality has already arrived.