We parked on the shoulder of a narrow road along with a hundred other cars in Queensland, Australia. We had left Palm Cove at 1:00 AM on our way to Palmer Lake and a guaranteed clear view of the sky. Five solar physicists and me. My Big Bang Moment. We stopped two hours later, some distance from our destination, when the cars, cameras and folks huddled with sleeping bags wrapped around their shoulders told us we’d driven far enough.
Stepping out of the van we allowed our eyes to grow accustomed to the dark and then looked up. The Milky Way stretched to each horizon and the Large Magellanic Cloud was a sparkling smudge above the hills to our right. We marveled and pointed and giggled until our craned necks grew too tired to take in any more of the thousands of fairy lights above us. We needed to sleep. The main event was hours away.
I was the first to wake. My rustling stirred the others. The stars were gone and the sky was silver blue. But that would change. The sun hadn’t yet broken over the rim of the earth to fill the air with brilliant gold.
We stretched, stumbled off the last bits of sleep and found our cameras. A few low clouds would prevent us from seeing first contact. That was all right. The clouds could have first contact. Everything else was ours.
The moon took its time. We waited patiently. Some poured coffee, others chatted with new neighbors. We were all strangers and all friends with a single, pure intention – to witness a rare and beautiful chance of nature. To see the moon block the light of the sun. To be awed.
When the sun turned to a thin blazing sliver of fire we stopped talking, turned our bodies toward the celestial spectacle and instinctively drew a silent, sacred space around the moment.
The sun disappeared. One voice behind me whispered, “there it is.” Another, a cowboy’s whoop of delight from a hundred yards down the road, was quickly muffled. This wasn’t the time for whoops and cheers. Minutes before we were a giddy group of fellow travelers but no longer. Now we were one spirit in communion with something so big and so wondrous no words or photographs or dances or paintings exist that can describe it.
We took our protective glasses off and stood with totality for two minutes. Venus stood with us, a hand width away from the moon’s black silhouette now framed by the aura of the sun’s white corona. The experience was primal. Grounding. It laid us bare and filled the world with one pure, singular tone.
The flash of stunning white light signaling the end of totality is burned into my memory as surely as it has laid down scar tissue on the back of my eyes. Our glasses back on, we watched the bully sun begin to push the moon out of the way. But the sacred spell was broken. We gathered for souvenir photographs, enjoyed the fidelity of a stranger’s telescope, climbed into the family van and became our new selves.