Total eclipse August 21 2017 Madras Airport, Madras Oregon

Maybe you heard, there was a total eclipse on August 21st that went right across the United States.

I heard about this eclipse over a year and a half ago, and resolved to go and see one for myself to see what it was really like. It would never in my lifetime be so close to us in the UK.

Even then, to our shock, all the hotel rooms in all the major eclipse areas had gone – booked three years in advance.

Total eclipse prices

Nevertheless, we selected the place we felt would be most likely to have clear skies – mid-Oregon – and parlayed the man who runs the local private airfield to rent us a tent (at a price that probably would have paid for a private jet).

Getting there was an adventure. We flew (not in a private jet) to Seattle, and then drove through the night for five and a half hours to avoid the predicted traffic jams as hundreds of thousands of cars were expected to flood into Oregon and other eclipse states.

Coming from crowded England, the sheer distances were a revelation, not least the final stretch from Portland, through pitch-black mountains and woods, where two hours could easily go by without seeing a single light, not a house, let alone a gas station.

To our relief, and surprise, we hardly saw another car on the road. Later we heard that there had indeed been dreadful traffic jams – but the day before.

We arrived early morning, exhausted and jet-lagged, at the tiny town of Madras – normally six thousand souls, temporarily swelled to about a million. Plus an equal number of eclipse T-shirts. And an equal amount of hype.

Let me say first, the total eclipse did happen and was fascinating. Let me say second, that most of what was said about it was rubbish.

Total eclipse fake news and real

1. People discovered nirvana, burst into tears and became enlightened

Well, maybe some did, but we didn’t see any on Madras airport. What we saw was a lot of people staring at the sky. It was pretty dramatic – but nirvana? To be honest, if you’ve lived more than few years on this planet, you’ve probably seen a wide range of things. A solar totality is awesome, to be sure, and one of the great celestial events. But enlightenment? Tears? Come on.

2. It grew darker – like dusk – as the moon moved across the sun

You know, what surprised me most of all, was how it stayed light right until the moment of totality. For an hour after first contact, without eclipse glasses you’d hardly have known anything was happening. What did happen, near totality, was that the light grew subtly strange: a little thinner, almost silvery. But our eyes adjust – and right up until the moon totally covered the sun, it was effectively full daylight.

What nobody warned me about, though, was how cold it would get. From blazing August heat to a wintry chill, in about sixty minutes. The sun might still be shining, but we were shivering.

3. All the birds stopped singing, dogs barked and nature went mad

This one probably did happen elsewhere, but on a small airfield in the middle of what was an arid and parched Oregon in midsummer, there were no birds. Or other animals come to that. Just silence.

And then – when the totality arrived – applause! That was indeed mad. I mean, the sun and moon weren’t doing anything particularly clever. They didn’t even have to try hard. But everyone clapped. Go figure.

4. And it turned into total night

Actually, it didn’t. Even the photo above is misleading. The sun’s corona is so bright during the totality that – even though you could now look at it without eclipse glasses –  a camera can’t help but register the darker areas as black. In fact, the area around the sun was more like a very deep blue.

Madras Eclipse 2017 total eclipse  - sunset coloursAnd as the moon’s shadow is just seventy miles across, so you can see out of it in all directions, shading off to sunset colours.

But what was rather spectacular was that the sunset, unlike any other sunset was all round you – 360 degrees.

5. It’s the shortest two and a half minutes of your life

It went pretty quickly, it’s true. The best advice I was given beforehand was not to try too hard to take hundreds of photos but simply enjoy the occasion. I did. And it was certainly special.

We may not have seen the face of Buddha, but we did see something that many people haven’t. It’s one of the few things that the human race can’t screw up. The sun and moon are going to do their thing, whatever mess we make of the world down here. And they did.

And, despite my cynical remarks, there is something very dramatic about seeing a black hole in the middle of the sun. It’s smaller than you expect, but no less intense for all that.

Then – after just over 120 seconds – a burst of flame appears around one edge of the moon, looking for all the world like a diamond ring. A brief moment, and it’s daylight again. The sun has returned.

Normal service is to be resumed. The traffic jams began immediately to form.

And we went to buy our Madras eclipse T-shirts, only to find they’d sold out.