The Eclipse Trip, Day 3: The Eclipse and More

I get to see my first (and likely only) total eclipse of the sun. And do some other stuff.

I slept until 5:30, which is really unusual for me. It was quite light out, so I missed my chance for nighttime photography. At least there.

Prepping for the Eclipse

I made coffee and spent some time preparing my cameras for shooting the eclipse. I had my Nikon D7000 with me, along with a 70-300mm Nikkor lens and a solar filter I’d bought to fit it. I’d already experimented with the filter and was satisfied that it enabled me to shoot pictures of the sun without worries of damaging the camera’s sensor. That camera would go on my heavy duty Manfroto tripod, forming my main photographic platform.

I also had a GoPro with me. I thought I’d try using that for a time-lapse. I took a spare pair of eclipse glasses and cut the plastic lens from the cardboard frame, then taped it over the GoPro lens. I had to do this on the outside of the lens case; I couldn’t get it inside. I then set it up where I could get a time-lapse of the sky. I had serious doubts I’d get anything worth keeping.

I also had my iPhone and I made a lens filter for that. Again, I wasn’t happy with the images I got, but it was worth a try.

I did some research with the Observatory app I have on my iPad to get an idea of when all this would begin. I then looked up exact numbers for my location using the PhotoPills app I just got. That said the eclipse would start at 9:09 AM. Less than three hours away.

I spent the next half hour cutting up veggies and browning meat to start a beef stew. I figured that since I had to hang around all morning, I’d put that time to good use. The stew had stew meat from the 1/4 cow I bought last year, onions, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and tomatoes. These last three came from my garden. Once everything was browned, I added salt and pepper (the only appropriate seasonings on hand) and a pint of beef broth that I’d made last autumn and froze. (Honestly, I’m doing everything possible to clear out my freezer.) I put the cover on and let it simmer.

By this time, it was after 7 AM and most of my eclipse “family” (as Jay called us) was up and about. The three guys who had come up from the San Francisco Bay area the day before were already cleaning out their tent. Jay and his brother, the birthday boys, were having coffee. I walked over to wish them a happy birthday. Only the motorhome people were still locked up in their metal box — all five of them.

Sun Through Trees
I took this sample photo early in them morning with the sun through the trees. I guess I was just testing for exposure.

I set up my cameras outside. I took a sample photo of the sun shining through the tall firs on the edge of our camping area. I sacrificed another spare pair of my eclipse glasses for the three guys in the tent to make solar filters for their smartphones.

I should mention here that it was an absolutely perfect day for eclipse viewing. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. The air was clear — not the least bit hazy or smokey. There was virtually no wind and the temperature by 8 AM was in the high 60s/low 70s. We were right on the line for maximum totality. There was nothing that could be changed to make the weather or our position any better for eclipse viewing. Nothing.

I flew the drone for a while, taking it down the road for a view of all the Four Corners campers. There were a lot more than there had been the previous afternoon. I flew it over by Jay’s camp where Jay, not knowing I was flying it, flipped the finger at it. Oops. I landed it and put it away.

And then I waited with the others.

The Eclipse

Before I go any further, I need to apologize for not being able to adequately describe the experience of seeing a total solar eclipse with my own eyes. Simply said, it’s awe-inspiring and probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed. When totality was all over, I was left feeling stunned by the magnificence of what I’d just seen and very sorry for the people who had passed up the opportunity to see it for themselves.

That said, I’ll do my best to describe it.

I do need to point out that even though the photos that follow show a black sky, the sky was bright blue until totality. The photos where the sun looks orange were shot through a solar filter, which basically makes everything except the sun black. Keep that in mind as you view my contribution to the photo library of eclipse photos.

First Bite
One of my companions referred to this as “first bite.” Can you see the shadow of the moon in the upper right corner?

I was watching the sun, though my eclipse glasses, when 9:09 AM rolled along. For some reason, I thought the moon would approach on the lower left of the sun. (In hindsight, that makes no sense. My Observatory app had told me that the moon rose a few minutes before the sun that morning and the sun’s motion through the sky is slightly faster than the moon’s. That meant the sun would catch up to the moon and pass behind it relative to our point of view on earth.) So when I thought I saw a tiny change in the upper right side of the sun, I had to confirm with a look through my filtered camera lens.

“It’s starting!” I called out.

Motorhome Gang
The motorhome gang and their tent-lodging friends, looking up at the eclipse with their eclipse glasses on. (And yes, they did pose for this.)

One by one, my companions put on their eclipse glasses and looked up at the sun. There was some debate and then someone confirmed it. That’s when I mentioned that they could see it better through my camera which was, in essence, acting like a low-powered telescope. That’s probably when my camera became the central viewing area for me, the motorhome people, and their three tent-camping friends. There was barely a minute for the next hour or so that someone wasn’t looking through the viewfinder.

Meanwhile, across the little road that separated us from Jay’s group, Jay had set up a pinhole viewer with a mirror that projected onto the front of his pop-up truck camper. That’s how he was watching the eclipse progress. He’d read somewhere that even looking through eclipse glasses could be harmful to your eyes if you do it too long. So he wasn’t doing it much at all. I think he was there for totality, the two minutes and twenty seconds when you could look at the eclipse without eclipse glasses on.

Projector Projected Image
Jay, a retired teacher, created an eclipse projector and displayed it on the front of his camper.

Half Covered Sun
I figure the sun was about a third covered in this shot. Without eclipse glasses on, it was still bright sunlight all around us.

I snapped a photos with the camera periodically as the moon’s shadow progressed across the face of the sun. The sun looked like an orange disc with a black disc held against it. I had to reposition the camera on the tripod every 5-10 minutes because the sun and moon kept moving up and to the right in the sky.

I tried shooting images with my iPhone but they looked like crap. Behind us, my GoPro had been snapping away since before 9 AM, taking one shot every 20 seconds. I had no idea what I’d wind up with.

Then I had the idea of using my binoculars in conjunction with the eclipse glasses. I had to hold the glasses over the side of the binoculars facing the sun. Then I’d raise them to my eyes and pivot my head toward the sun. The tricky part was finding the sun — eclipse glasses make everything except the sun completely black. You can’t peek while you’re doing this. You have to point your body towards the sun’s warmth until the sun pops into view. It was worth the effort. I was able to get an even better view of the sun and even saw a series of three sun spots in a line, like Orion’s Belt on the sun. These spots don’t show in any of my Nikon photos, but I think it’s the exposure that hid them.

This part of the eclipse took a long time. In the movies, it seems like it all happens really quickly, but it doesn’t. It took more than a hour from the start at 9:09 to totality at around 10:20. For the first half of this time, there was basically no change in the sun’s light. It was still a bright, warm sunny day. With the glasses off, not looking at the sun (of course) you wouldn’t even know an eclipse was happening unless you were paying really close attention to your surroundings.

Crescent Shadows
Shadows cast by the trees near Jay’s camp appeared as scallops in the road.

The first hint that something was amiss was the way the shadows changed. The area we were in was surrounded by tall fir trees. As the moon hid at least 50% of the sun, the shadows took on a crescent shape, like scallops. This was particularly noticeable near Jay’s camp and we all went over for a look. I recalled seeing shadows like this one day when I lived in New Jersey back in the 1990s. There had been a partial solar eclipse where I lived and I didn’t even know about it until I saw the shadows change. Not having any way to safely view the sun, I never saw the eclipse itself or learned how much of the sun was obscured. (Note to self: Google this.)

Amir of the motorhome was the first to notice the temperature change. I had a crappy weather station thermometer with me, but being crappy, it couldn’t keep up with the change and provide accurate readings. He claimed to be very sensitive to temperature changes. Wearing shorts and a tee shirt, he and his wife donned sweatshirts before totality.

The atmosphere in the camp was festive. We didn’t spend the whole time staring at the sun. It really did happen slowly. I just took periodic photos and kept my camera pointed the right direction so others could look. One person claimed to see the jagged edges of the moon’s surface against the sun. Only a few of us saw the sun spots, which were best visible through the binoculars.

Crescent Sun
At about 90-95% eclipsed, the sun looked like a crescent through the eclipse glasses, but it was still very bright all around us.

Excitement in the camp grew as the moon covered 90% of the sun’s disc. This is what I would have experienced if I’d stayed home. It was still very bright outside, but the light had taken on a weird characteristic that I can’t really explain. Was the color different? Maybe a little blue? Or flatter? I can’t explain it. It was just weird. And the temperature change started to become obvious.

I was watching with my eclipse glasses when the sun slipped completely behind the moon. Everything went black as the people around me started hooting with glee. I pulled off the glasses and looked up. And there, in the sky, was a total eclipse of the sun.

Total Eclipse of the Sun
A total eclipse of the sun, as documented by my Nikon camera with 300mm lens and no solar filter. The sky was this dark. Can you see the star in the lower left corner of the photo? Venus, which was in the upper-right outside the camera’s field of view, was much brighter.

It was amazing. How can I explain it other than to say that it looks exactly like the photos? There’s what looks like a perfectly round black void in the sky with a halo of white light radiating from it. It’s completely surreal.

But what’s really amazing is how quickly the light around us is snuffed out in the final 60 seconds or so before totality. One minute, it’s daytime with a weird blue-gray light and a blue sky. The next minute, it’s as dark as a night with a full moon and the sky is black. (I can easily imagine how it must have terrified ancient people who didn’t see it coming.) And yes, I saw stars. Venus was a bright light up ahead of the sun’s path in the sky.

In the two minutes and twenty seconds of totality, it was hard to make all the observations I’d heard suggested. I couldn’t tell if the wildlife was quiet, mostly because all of us were talking about what we were seeing. I didn’t dwell on how dark it was or how the temperature changed because I was too focused on that haloed void in the sky. I barely had the presence of mind to take a few photos. (And yes, I know I can see eclipse photos anywhere, but it’s different when it’s from my own camera — documentation of something I personally witnessed.)

Diamond Ring
I was pleasantly surprised to see that my camera had captured the “diamond ring” effect in the very last shot before I put the solar filter back on.

Crescent after Eclipse
Here’s one of the photos I took after totality. I have a bunch of others, too. I’ll likely fiddle with them in Photoshop when I get home to make some sort of sequence.

Across the little road, Jay was calling out the time. He wanted to make sure we all had our glasses on before totality ended. I think we all stared until the sun told us because all of a sudden it was bright again and we had to look away. Glasses on, I looked back. The sun had continued moving beyond the moon. Totality was over.

As quickly as the sunlight had disappeared, it was back. Within minutes, I could feel the sun warming the air around me. Fifteen minutes later, only the weird shadows remained to indicate that there was anything amiss with the sun. Over the next hour or so, I shot a few more photos. But as we all went about our business, we lost interest in the final moments of the eclipse. Even I missed the moment when the moon’s shadow left the sun behind.

Post Eclipse

What was weird to me was that within minutes of totality ending, people around Four Corners Camp started to leave. It was like being at a ballgame at the bottom of the ninth inning when the home team isn’t likely to catch up with the visitor’s lead. Hurry up, get out, beat the traffic. Very strange.

After watching the waning eclipse on and off for a while, I went into my camper and dished out some of the stew I’d started that morning. It was excellent; the meat was very tender and the veggies tasty. It was around 11 AM and it was the first thing I’d eaten all day.

Amir began fiddling with the bladder tanks he’d installed on his motorhome to increase the amount of fresh and gray water he could carry. He came over to explain what he was up to and why. He’d had the motorhome for about a year and had made some modifications so it would be better suited to off-the-grid use. A engineer who had recently sold his business, he had the knowledge and time to fiddle around and make improvements. We talked for a while about how RVs were so outdated and how much technology could improve them. It was refreshing to talk to someone with good ideas who could think outside the box and was willing to implement them.

While we chatted, his wife came over with a plate for me. “I made you a breakfast burrito,” she said before I could turn it down. “Come inside and eat with us.”

So Penny and I went into the motorhome and took a seat at the table with the rest of the gang. The breakfast burrito was eggs with chopped up leftover hamburger wrapped in a flour tortilla with guacamole and salsa. Tasty. One of their sons fed Penny about half a leftover hamburger while we talked about their travel plans. I told them about Quartzsite. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I see them there next January.

By the time I got back outside, the eclipse was long over and about half the area campers were gone. The three tent guys had left before breakfast; they were aiming for Reno, where they’d spend the night before driving back to the Bay area. Tents that had been set up in the field and RVs that had been parked along the road were gone. The population of Four Corners Camp had been cut in half in less than two hours.

I turned off the GoPro and removed it from where it had been mounted. I shifted my solar panel to point more directly at the sun. Then I brought my camera inside and spent some time cleaning up and doing the dishes.

It wasn’t until much later that I’d look at the GoPro photos. As I expected, they were pretty bad and not worth sharing. Oh, well.

Amir and his family left a while later. They were also headed to Reno but would spend the night at John Day, taking care of some motorhome issues. Apparently, the water heater wasn’t working and Amir’s wife was eager to take a shower.

I visited with Jay and his friends. We chatted for a while. I asked him if it was everything he’d expected — after all, he’d told me that he’d planned the trip eight years before. He said that it was. But, at the same time, he seemed sad — maybe because this long-planned event was behind him? I asked how long he was staying at the camp and he replied that no one had told him when it was time to leave. We agreed that it was nice to live life without someone else telling us what to do. He was new to retirement and apparently liking it a lot.

Back at my RV, I put the finishing touches on my Day 1 blog post. Through many tries with a patchy connection, I managed to get it posted on my blog. Between upload attempts, I wrote up Day 2 and then managed to get that online. By then, it was after 3 PM.

I took out the map and tried to make a plan for the next 12 hours. I really wanted to hike around Magone Lake and I thought a late afternoon hike would be a good idea. There was a slight possibility that some campsites there may have opened up for the night. But I didn’t really want to stay in the area. Instead, I wanted to be on my way. I thought that it might be neat to camp out near the fire tower at Ritter Butte and I remembered the big parking area full of campers that I’d passed the morning before. That might be a good destination for the evening.

Plan made, I started to put it in motion. I broke camp by putting away the solar panels and my grill and cleaning up the inside of the camper. By 4 PM, I was ready to go. I walked over to say goodbye to Jay and his friends and to thank him again for allowing me to be part of his eclipse family. Then Penny and I went back to the truck and drove off.

Very few campers remained at Four Corners Camp.

Magone Lake

Magone Lake was eight miles from Four Corners. It took about 20 minutes to get there on the gravel and then narrow paved road. I parked at the boat launch parking area, which was surprisingly active for a Monday afternoon. It seemed that a lot of people had decided to come for more than just the eclipse. It was great to see so many people in the water swimming and paddling around in kayaks — especially families.

One of the great things about the area is that with no cell service, people can’t spend all their time focused on a phone screen.

Magone Lake
One of the photos I shot during our hike. I am such a sucker for reflections.

I put Penny on a leash, set up GaiaGPS on my iPhone to record a track — even though I had no map of the area — and set out on the trail that looked like it went around the lake. We went clockwise, walking in on the shady west side of the lake past the picnic area and campground first. There were other hikers, some with dogs, who we passed along the way. The trail was narrow but well-worn and became paved for handicap and stroller access at the picnic area. Past the campground, where it crossed dry feed stream, the pavement ended again. I let Penny off her leash to run ahead of me as she usually does. I kept a brisk pace, stopping once in a while to take a photo. The lake was pretty the way so many mountain lakes are, but my camera couldn’t seem to capture that beauty.

I worked up a bit of a sweat on the sunny side of the lake, which was good for me. I haven’t been nearly as active in the past year or so as I should be. I need a good workout once in a while. Within 45 minutes, we were back at the parking area. GaiaGPS told me we’d hiked 1-3/4 miles. (you can check out our track here.) Not bad, but certainly nothing to brag about.

I consulted the Oregon map I had with me, trying to determine how many miles we were from Ritter Butte. I wavered on spending the night at the lake. I really did want to start driving north, though. My rough plans included a day of wine tasting in Walla Walla and some night photography at Palouse Falls. I had to be home by Friday evening for a charter flight on Saturday. Spending the night at Magone Lake meant a longer drive the next day to Walla Walla. I was hoping to make it a scenic drive and didn’t want to arrive in town too late to stop at a winery or two. That meant putting some miles behind me before nightfall.

So we left the park, tracing our route back on the narrow paved and then gravel road northwest to Long Creek. Just about all the campers I’d seen the day before were gone. We emerged from the forest and drove the last few miles to Long Creek, where we turned north on route 395. Eight or nine miles later, we were at the turn for Ritter Butte.

All of the campers who had been set up there the day before were gone. I turned left, noticing the preponderance of “No Trespassing” signs that looked brand new. I was very disappointed to see one at the turn for the road that went up to the fire tower.

With a 5-bar LTE signal, I used my iPad to look up the Ritter Butte Fire Lookout. Every reference I saw said it was open to the public. Yet here were the signs saying it wasn’t. What was I to believe? I chose the signs. I turned around.

The parking area that had resembled a cosy camp the day before looked more like a gravel parking lot in the late afternoon light. I imagined camping out while cars and trucks zipped by throughout the night. I turned north on Route 395 and kept going.

I figured I’d camp out at the campground that had been full on Saturday night. Surely there would be space on a Monday night. But I didn’t get that far. After driving at least 20 miles, I reached the turnoff for Olive Lake, where I’d been told there were place to camp. That was still 20 miles south of the campground I was shooting for. With sunset on it’s way, I made the turn. Five minutes later, I was pulling into a creekside campground with only five sites, one of which was empty. I backed in for the night.

To give you an idea of how small this campground is, the canopy of trees over the entrance was so low that I know my camper pushed them aside as we rolled in. I also know that there’s no way in hell I could have made the entrance turn, let alone the turnaround at the end, with my old fifth wheel. My truck camper was the only RV in the place — everyone else was camping in a tent. My next door neighbors had two cars and three tents, including a shade tent, crammed into their site. The best site, which was a big one at the far end, was occupied by a young guy in a compact car with a small dome tent.

I settled in, made some dinner, ate, and then walked back out to the entrance to pay the $8 fee. My next door neighbors were eating something that smelled really good. We exchanged a few words before I went back into my camper to start this blog post.

It was getting dark by 8:30 and I moved up to lounge in my bed, where I spent some time reading my eclipse book. Soon I was falling asleep. I killed the light and was sound asleep in minutes.

The Eclipse Trip, Day 2: Finding the Perfect Spot

I make new friends at Four Corners Camp.

I woke up very early, as I sometimes do. It was still dark out. There were billions of stars in the sky over our camp.

I made coffee and settled down at the table to write up a blog post about the previous day’s activities. It got light out. The three guys who had parked next to me and slept in the woods came back to their truck. I watched them load up their gear and drive out. No one stirred at the other camper.

Forest Trail
Technically, this is Forest Road 100. But realistically, it’s just a two-track trail into the forest.

Since I hadn’t yet put photos in the post and I didn’t have any kind of cell signal at all anyway, I closed up my laptop and made breakfast. Then Penny and I went for a very short walk — about half a mile — up the forest road that had been gated off. A small creek babbled along one side, hidden in the weeds. I heard birds and the occasional sound of a passing car on the main road. I’d worn the wrong shoes; I was wearing street shoes but I should have been wearing hikers to protect my soles from the sharp rocks that had once graveled the two-track trail. So we turned around and headed back. I really liked the way the sunlight shined through the tops of the weeds.

It didn’t take long to get ready to leave. Really: it’s just a matter of putting away loose objects. I’ve learned over the years I’ve been RVing that if you put everything away when you’re done using it, you can be ready to go in just a few minutes.

When I rolled out of my campsite at about 8 AM, there had still been no movement from the other RV. Talk about sleeping in!

On the Road Again

I continued on route 395 southbound, passing Dale and the 4127 foot Meadow Brook Summit. It was around then that I started noticing tents and RVs parked alongside the road in places that looked like they might be public land. But the biggest crowd I saw was at Ritter Butte Summit (elev. 3993). It was a mostly grassy hillside with what looked from the main road like a low fire tower on top. There had to be at least two dozen campers in tents and RVs parked all over an open area just off the road. It was tempting to just pull off and join them, but I was convinced that a better spot was up ahead.

I did pull over, though, and that was to use my phone and make sure I’d downloaded maps I needed for going off the grid. I just GaiaGPS on my iPhone and iPad and I highly recommend it. It’s one of the few apps that allow you to download topo maps — as well as other maps you might find useful — so they’re handy if you don’t have a cell signal. I had a five bar LTE signal at Ritter Butte thanks to the cell tower next to the fire tower.

When my map downloads were set up and my podcasts updated, I continued on my way. Google told me 50 miles before that I needed to make a left on Main Street. Main Street turned out to be in the small town of Long Creek, which was really rocking with eclipse visitors. I didn’t stop. Instead, I made the left where instructed and headed southeast along a narrow chip-sealed road.

I passed a few farms and ranches as the road cut through a grassy landscape with forests on hilltops nearby. Then the chip-seal turned to gravel and I entered the forest.

Now campers were common on either side of the road. This was national forest (either Umatilla or Whitman or maybe even Malheur — they all run into each other in this area) and camping was allowed pretty much anywhere. People had set up little communities of RVs and tents here, there, and everywhere. I wondered whether I could just join in on one of them and was sorely tempted when I saw three Lance rigs just like mine parked out in a field. But I still thought a better spot was ahead, so I kept going.

Have I mentioned the signs? I don’t think so. I started seeing them the day before, just south of Pendleton on route 395, but they were out here, too. Flashing construction signs, all with the same basic message: “Fire Danger Extreme” and “No Campfires” and “Do Not Park on Dry Grass.” I think I passed at least five of them between Pendleton and my final destination.

Magone Lake and the Campsite Hunt

What was that destination? Magone Lake. The line for totality would pass right though it. A small lake in the national forest, surrounded by unpaved roads, hillsides, and trees, about 20 miles northeast of John Day. I thought it might be remote enough to be a little less crowded than other popular destinations.

Well, it might have been less crowded, but it was still crowded. I reached the turnoff and was startled to see a freshly asphalted one-lane road with turnouts. There were people camped out alongside the road all the way down to the lake. One guy had even pitched a tent in the road shoulder. Of course, the two campgrounds were full. There were people milling about all over the place — exactly the kind of scene I wanted to avoid. This was at 10 AM, a full day before the eclipse. It would only get worse.

Magone Lake
Magone Lake is a pretty little mountain lake about 20 miles from John Day.

I drove to the boat ramp area and parked to take a look around. As usual, people commented about Penny, who I had on a leash. Everyone was friendly and upbeat — they probably already had overnight parking spots! I found a trail that looked like it would go around the lake and considered doing a short hike, but decided that I’d be better off finding my campsite and saving the hike for after the eclipse. So we got back into the truck and started out.

I can go into a long story here about how I used my downloaded topo map to find roads to explore that might have good campsites on them. I could tell you about how many people I saw camped in the most inappropriate places (think dense woods with no view of the sky). I could even tell you how I actually parked and got the truck up on leveling blocks in a lonely forest campsite not far from the lake. But the short version is that I decided that I didn’t want to experience the eclipse alone and needed to find an existing camp to join.

Eventually, after many bumpy miles on rugged dirt and gravel roads, I wound up in a place called Four Corners. It’s a crossroads that just happens to have some relatively parking spots and fields. Trucks, cars, and RVs were parked where they could fit. I cruised through with both windows open, looking for a place I might be able to squeeze in the truck without bothering other campers.

I was eying a patch of dirt near a large motorhome when I heard a guy yell out, “Innagadadavida!” I looked and found a guy a little older than me looking at me. He yelled it again, at me.

What followed was me selling myself as a good addition to their campsite who would take up very little room. Yes, he was expecting seven more people (none of whom showed up, by the way) and the folks with the motorhome were expecting three (who did show up later on). My sales pitch worked and they pulled aside their makeshift road block to let me in. Soon I was leveling the camper on the blocks and putting my solar panels out to soak up the sun. I’d be there for more than 24 hours.

It was about noon.

At Four Corners Camp

Although the Innagadadavida guy (Jay) had invited me over to their camp across the road, I made myself lunch first. Later, I went over and spent some time with him and his friends. The next day would be his and his twin brother John’s birthday. John was there, too, along with some other people whose names I’ve already forgotten. They had two ukuleles and a guitar and an electric base guitar (powered by an inverter connected to a 12 volt car battery) and a drum kit. Short a drummer, they asked me to sit in and even gave me a few drumming lessons. I managed to keep the beat with the base drum’s foot pedal, but getting my two hands to act independently was a whole other story. In the end, I kept rhythm with a drumstick on an empty whiskey bottle while John played the drums. It was a fun way to spend the afternoon, just hanging out with new friends.

A stranger is often a friend you haven’t met yet.

I flew my drone a little, too. Not enough to annoy people — at least I hope not. I wanted some aerial views of the camp, which I began calling Four Corners Camp. We were on the fringes. There were probably two hundred people camped out within 50 acres or so. More people came in all afternoon and even after sunset.

Campsite from the Air
Our campsite from the air.

The motorhome people’s companions arrived: three retirement age men who set up a 25-year-old tent that looked brand new. The motorhome people included a husband (Amir) and wife, two of their sons, and one son’s girlfriend. Most of them hiked to the lake in the afternoon. I’m not sure, but I think it was a long hike.

I did some repairs. I’d gotten the bright idea to put my clothes in the cabinets in the sleeping area and use the drawer under one dining bench for books and computer stuff I’d brought along. It would make that stuff handier. Trouble was, that stuff is also heavier and the constant bumping around on back roads had caused the screws to come loose on one of the drawer support arms. I had to use some Gorilla Glue to help the screws bite and stick to get the support arm back in place. I had everything I needed for the repair so it wasn’t a big deal. But I did have a lot of junk just sitting out waiting to be put away for most of the evening.

We had a nice sunset with high, thin clouds.

Mother Nature treated us to a nice sunset. We were a bit worried about the cloud cover, but I suspected it would clear up overnight.

To that end, I prepped my Nikon for a night photo shoot, getting all the settings on the camera and actually setting up the tripod outside my door. If I woke up as early as I had that morning, I could go out and shoot before dawn.

I had a salad for dinner. Later, the motorhome people offered me a hamburger, which I declined. I did hang out for a while in their motorhome with them. They were a happy bunch. The two boys were headed off to college soon and their parents were semi retired and planning a cross-country trip in the motorhome, which was new to them. I was glad to see people living life while they were still young enough to enjoy it. So many people wait too damn long.

Penny and I went back to the camper at around 9 PM. I spent some time reading a book about eclipses that I’d bought for the trip but soon fell asleep with the book in my hands. I turned out the light and went to bed.

The Eclipse Trip, Day 1: Packing and Heading Out

My long-planned trip to see the total solar eclipse finally begins.

My tenth season as a cherry drying pilot officially ended on August 16, leaving me free to begin my vacation. I like to tell people that I get seven months of vacation time each year, but that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Truth is, when I’m not on contract to dry wet cherry trees (roughly June though August) or warm cold almond trees (roughly March and April), I still do get the occasional flying job. I did two long charters this past week and have another scheduled for next Saturday. Those jobs basically dictated when I could take my vacation.

But more important was timing and location of the total solar eclipse: August 21 along a path that went through central Oregon. I began planning late last year, when I first heard about the eclipse and its path. Although in some years, my cherry season has gone as late as August 25, last year it ended on July 30. That would give me plenty of time to get into position for the event. But Mother Nature fooled all of us this year with a longer than usual winter. Cherry season started late and it looked, at first, as if I’d be on contract until August 23. While I was scrambling to figure out a way to make the 200-mile trip south while still on contract without letting my orchards go without coverage — likely by having one of my other pilots stick around at a huge cost to me — Mother Nature turned up the heat. Contract dates shifted and my last contract was set to end on August 16. Phew.

When I realized that a quick trip wouldn’t be necessary, I planned a week-long vacation and blocked it out on my calendar so I wouldn’t be tempted to book something else. Last year’s vacation started on my last contract day; I had the camper parked and ready to go when my client called to confirm that they’d finished picking. On that trip, I’d gone north into the North Cascades in Washington and British Columbia. It was my first big trip with my first truck camper, The Turtleback. Since then, I’ve downsized a little bit to a newer rig without a pop-out slide. I took it on a weekend-long mushroom hunt back in May, but this would be my first big trip with what I’ve been calling T2.

Packing Up

Over the summer, T2 was home to one of my contract pilots, who camped out in it in Quincy, AZ for about a month. I brought it home and put it away in mid July. Since he’d cleaned it very well, I didn’t do much in it other than strip off the linens and put them and all the towels, etc. through the wash. Busy with other things, I just left the folded up laundry in the camper. Later, I took some of the pots and pans out to finish up the furnishing of my glamping tent setup. (That’s quite a saga and I promise to blog about it soon.) So this week, when I went to look at what needed to be done to prepare for my trip, I found that I needed to do quite a bit of packing.

I started on Thursday and Friday, adding back the things I’d removed and taking inventory of what I had. In addition to food and clothes, I needed a full complement of gear for off-the grid living. I had no desire to park in a KOA-style, full-hookup campground while I was away, so that meant I’d need DC chargers for my devices, my 100-watt inverter in case I wanted to watch a movie on the TV, and my solar panel to keep the batteries charged in the event that I decided to park somewhere for a few days. (And yes, I’ve already decided to get solar panels permanently installed on the roof of this rig; my last one had a panel and it really was convenient.) I decided against bringing my generator since I’d honestly prefer having no power at all over listening to it, even though it’s a very quiet Honda. (I’m still sitting on the fence about getting a generator installed in this rig; my last one had one and it came in handy when my batteries decided to crap out during my long winter trip.)

So little by little I got things packed into T2 on Thursday and Friday. I divided my time between casual packing, running errands, and working on that glamping setup with a handyman friend.

I should mention here that one of the quirks about T2 is that it doesn’t have a queen sized bed like most truck campers. Instead, it has two narrow twins that can be zipped together to form a queen. They are typical camper mattresses — in other words, not very comfortable — and since I sleep on a king bed at home, downsizing to a narrow twin bed is quite a challenge. So on Amazon Prime Day, I took advantage of an offer for a roll-up queen mattress that had gotten very good reviews, planning to pull the two twins and replace them with a queen. The only reason I left them as twin beds for this trip was because I’d invited two different friends to join me and the twin beds made sleeping arrangements easy. While I didn’t really expect either one to say yes — who knew that some people have trouble making time for something as significant as a total solar eclipse viewing? — I figured I’d leave the beds as they were just in case. In the end, I talked myself out of making the switch until my big winter trip. So the new mattress remains rolled up in its box until November.

Eclipse Reminder
Worried that I might forget (as if!) I set up a reminder for the eclipse; it went off on my phone roughly 48 hours before the actual time. I’d originally planned to drive down to a friend’s house near Salem for the eclipse.

Although I’d originally planned to depart first thing Sunday morning, by Friday afternoon it looked like I might be able to pull off a Saturday noon departure. My house-sitter would come on Sunday, but I wasn’t worried much about the garage cats or chickens she’d be taking care of; I have them set up so that short absences would not be a problem. But on Saturday, as I continued to pack and prepare, noon came and went. I admit that I worked at a leisurely pace — one of the things I really like about my life these days is that I’m seldom rushed — but I honestly didn’t expect it to take so long. Keep in mind that I also had to clean house for the house-sitter. I was finally packed with T2 on the truck by 2 PM. After showering, dressing, and gathering together a few more things, Penny and I climbed into the truck. When we left at 3:02 PM, my two 3-month kittens were playing in the front yard; I’d left the big garage door open just enough for them to get in and out.

I made only one stop before heading out of town: Les Schwab to get the tire pressure checked and adjust the tie-down screws. I was heading out of town at 3:33 PM.

First Day’s Drive

Since I doubted that I’d make it all the way to my final destination before nightfall — and I don’t like to drive in unknown territory at night — I plugged a destination along the way into Google Maps on my iPhone: Pendleton, OR.

Pendleton was about 2/3 of the way: a 3-1/2 drive. Google wanted me to drive the usual route south to Tri-Cities and then take a few freeways east. That’s how I often went on my annual migration between Wickenburg, AZ and Quincy, WA and I never was fond of the route — especially the traffic in Richland. Instead, I told Google I’d take the slightly longer way that did the freeway driving up front on I-90 to Moses Lake and then south on farm roads.

I ended up with a fast drive on route 17 almost to Pasco, where I crossed the Snake River near its confluence with the Columbia. Then route 12 to 730. There was a really pretty stretch of road right alongside the Columbia River through one of its many flood-carved gorges and, once again, I thought about taking a boat trip from just downriver from the Priest Rapids Dam to the ocean. All the dams downstream from Priest Rapids have locks, making it very possible to take such a trip. I always wondered if my little boat was up to the task.

A sign and Google announced, almost in unison, that I’d entered Oregon.

I turned away from the river on route 37, which turned out to be a twisty road that wound up a canyon through farmland. There were cut wheat fields on either side of the road, here and there, with a few farm houses and grain elevators every few miles. I had to slow down considerably. One thing about driving with a truck camper on the truck is that it completely changes the truck’s center of gravity, raising it a few feet. Slowing down to take curves is not optional — it’s required. As I drove, I’d glance in the rear view mirrors to watch T2 swaying back and forth. I’d need to remember to open cabinets slowly when I parked for the night.

I rolled into Pendleton about an hour before sunset, not quite sure where I needed to go next. I pulled into the first gas station I came to. In Oregon, fuel is full-service everywhere, although if you drive a diesel truck, they’ll let you fuel it yourself. I’d rather let them do it, so I did. The attendant was a friendly Hispanic guy who took my credit card for the pump while I removed the tie-down screw that made it impossible to open the fuel door. He handed back the card and got the fuel pump going. Then, while I climbed back into the truck to consult my Oregon map, he and another attendant did something I still can’t believe: they cleaned my truck’s windshield.

Oregon Full Service
When they say “full service” at an Oregon gas station, they mean it.

Understand that this is no small task. My truck is big. To reach the windshield, you need a long handle on the washer/squeegee. They didn’t have that. What they did have were stepladders, though, and they pulled those out, one on either side of the truck, and got to work. They chatted as they did the job giving me the impression that they did this all the time.

I honestly don’t know if I paid more to fuel there than at some truck stop near the highway, but I don’t care. There’s something to be said about service.

I climbed back down when the fueling was done and refastened the tie-down screw. I thanked the attendant, wondering, in an off-hand way, if I was supposed to give him a tip. But I am old enough to remember when service like that could be found at every gas station, so I didn’t. He didn’t seem to expect one.

I moved the truck away from the pumps and parked for a moment to program Google Maps on my iPhone. I plugged in my final destination and was told it was about 2 hours away. I figured I’d continue on my route and find a place to park for the night along the way.

First Night’s Campsite

What a lot of folks don’t understand is that camping in public lands is legal unless posted otherwise. So all I needed to do was get into the national forest and find a place to pull off the road for the night.

And no, camping alone in the forest doesn’t scare me. Why should it?

Trouble was, I wasn’t exactly sure how far I was from the national forest or whether there would be suitable camping areas along the way.

Just south of Pendleton on route 395 is mostly farmland and ranches — large expanses of grassy, treeless terrain with rolling hills and the occasional cattle pen. Even if the side roads weren’t gated, my rig would stand out like a sore thumb if parked for the night. I wasn’t worried about the drivers in passing cars seeing me. What I was worried about was settling in for the night and having a rancher or state patrolman tell me I was camping on private property and had to move. I really don’t like driving at night.

So I continued on my way, following the road as it wound up into the hills. There were more and more fir trees as I climbed. Soon I was in forest. I started getting hopeful.

There were other vehicles on the road ahead of me including other campers likely headed south for the same reason I was. Most of them were slower than me and I passed them. I was stuck for a long while behind a truck pulling an ancient fifth wheel as it labored up the curvy mountain road. The sun got lower and lower until it disappeared from view behind a hill. I didn’t see it again that day.

I saw a sign for the Battle Mountain day use area and pulled over. It looked like a day use area — you know, the kind of place with picnic tables and hiking trails — and since those usually prohibit camping, I kept going. Seeing a “Camping 12 Miles” sign right after that confirmed my suspicion; why would they put a sign right there if camping were allowed at the day use area?

Daylight faded.

The campground was a state park site with basic amenities like a level paved parking space, picnic table, and maybe fire pits. I don’t really know because I didn’t get to drive through. A ranger was at the entrance, chatting with the guy who’d pulled in before me. When he left, I rolled up and said, “Campground full?”

“Campground is full,” he confirmed. He then told me that 12 miles back up the road was a day use area that allowed camping.

I told him that I’d assumed it didn’t allow camping because it was a day use area. He said that they were changing rules all over the place. He seemed frustrated. I figured the change was likely connected to the eclipse and meeting the demand of people looking for a place to spend the night.

I asked him what options I had further south. I told him I didn’t need a campground, that I just needed a place to park. He mentioned wide pull-outs along the side of the road. I’d been seeing some of these pull outs and although they were wide enough to park in, traffic would be passing close all night. So when he mentioned forest roads another 20 miles down south, my ears perked up. “Look for the turnoff for Olive Lake,” he told me. “Twenty miles.”

I pulled out and continued south. By now, it was getting dark. I really wanted to park for the night while I could still see what was around me. I drove for about 10 minutes, passing one possible spot along the road along the way. And then paydirt: a large turnout for a forest road.

There was an SUV with a small pull trailer already backed into it, as far away from the road as possible. I didn’t want to intrude. There was a two-track road — the forest road, I guess — leading further into the forest and I started up it. It ended with a gate about 100 yards from the campers. I backed down the way I’d come.

I stopped the truck and got out. There was a woman lounging in a hammock. She had a small dog that barked at me and she laughed. I wondered if she was also traveling alone but then I saw a companion poke his head out of the camper.

“Would you mind if I parked here, too?” I asked. It’s getting too dark for me to continue.”

“Sure,” she called back. “Park wherever you like.”

I moved the truck so the camper’s door faced into the forest, giving them plenty of room while still staying quite a bit off the road. Then I turned off the truck. Simple as that.

First Night Parking
I shot this photo the next morning. The other camper was really backed deep against the woods around the parking area.

The other campers had two dogs: a small one on a leash and a large one that was loose. The little dog barked as little dogs will. Penny wanted to go meet it, but it wanted nothing to do with her. So she met the bigger dog, who came over to be petted. Not wanting to intrude on the other campers and eager to get inside to use the toilet and make dinner, I called Penny back, thanked the other campers, and climbed into T2.

It seemed to be dark within minutes. It was after 8 PM.

I was making dinner when another vehicle pulled in. After trying the road and then backing down, it parked between me and the main road. I saw lights in the back of the vehicle and I assumed the campers were setting up a tent. But later I saw lights on the other side of the SUV campers; whoever was in the new vehicle had set up camp in the forest. It wasn’t until the morning that I saw them: three young guys in a tiny pickup with very little gear. I suspect they camped out under the stars. Ah, to be young again!

Later, a big touring motorcycle pulled in. Boy, was he out of place! I don’t know what he expected to find, but it wasn’t in our makeshift campground. He idled for a while in the parking area, probably consulting a map, and then left.

Dinner First Night
The only thing I hate more than eating off paper plates is washing dishes when I’m tired.

I had a nice dinner of steamed asparagus and reheated leftover chicken breast, followed by some blueberry “ice cream” I’d made at home that morning and stowed in the freezer. I let Penny out for a pee before turning in for the night. The other campers were in their little RV; the lights were on. Overhead, the sky was full of stars. I regretted not having my camera set up for some night photography.

I climbed up to bed a little while later. Although there are two beds and I had Penny’s bed set up on the other one, she insisted on finding space on my bed. She’s a small dog but it’s a small bed and I’m not a small person. My mind is made up: the queen mattress is going into the camper as soon as I get home.

I studied the map for a while, disappointed that my destination is so small that it didn’t appear. But that might be a good thing: maybe other people won’t find it and it’ll be less crowded than I expect.

I turned in at around 9:30. The lights were still on in the RV next door and I could see headlamps bobbing around in the woods beyond them.