The Solar Eclipse from the Path of Totality in Madras, Oregon

The Solar Eclipse from the Path of Totality in Madras, Oregon 1

When we first heard about the Total Solar Eclipse from our RVing friends Mitch and Val of RV Lucky or What, we just knew we had to be there. To be honest, we really didn’t know much about eclipses or what to expect, but Val’s excitement – as an astronomer and science writer – was contagious. It sounded kinda cool and we figured hey, we have an RV and we can go anywhere we like, so why not? So we ditched our tentative 2017 Alaskan summer plans and instead, bought our tickets for 5 days at Solartown and Solarfest, in the tiny town of Madras in Central Oregon.

It had been over 38 years (1979) since mainland USA saw a total solar eclipse and it was just short of 100 years (1918) since the last time a total eclipse traveled from coast to coast. There was one in Hawaii in 1991 but, being a cloudy day, was disappointing for many who tried to see it. So there was a LOT of buzz and excitement about the August 2017 Total Solar Eclipse and it seemed all of the stars were lining up for this to be “the one” that so many of us would be able to witness in wonder for ourselves.

Although we tend to plan our travels, it’s rare we book our camping sites as far as 8 months in advance! But anytime there is going to be a special event and high demand, you need to plan ahead. Not surprisingly, there were no RV hookups available anywhere – NASA had booked the town out completely 3 years ago in anticipation of this astronomical event – so 5 days of boondocking in a farmer’s field it was… for a fee of course. The organizers called it Solartown and fortunately, we managed to snag the first round of tickets in January – $150 for 5 days of dry camping in a field ($30 a night). They told me they wouldn’t book out – the space was that huge – but sure enough, even after they doubled the price to $300 (whether you stayed for one night or five) Solartown did, indeed, sell out in advance of the event! Yep, so far it’s the most we’ve ever paid for boondocking, but boy, it was worth it!

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The buzz around the eclipse seemed to build every month. What started out as a few hundred RVers, turned into thousands of visitors, then tens of thousands. People came from all corners of the globe, not just across the country. A few days before the main event in Madras Oregon, there were predictions that over 100,000 people would be visiting the town of 7,000. All across the country, there were swarms of people trying to get closer to the centerline of the total eclipse, doubling, quadrupling, even 15 times the normal population of some of the small towns in the path. Hotel rates were similar. Rooms that normally cost less than $100 per night were booking for well over $1,000 a night. It got crazy and it’s at times like these that we’re extra grateful for our home on wheels!

A couple of months after we booked, the Xscapers (a sub group of Escapees RV club) learned about it and decided to organize the Oregon Solarfest Convergence (ie. Xscapers RV rally) around the solar eclipse. This party was getting bigger by the minute but this meant we got to experience the entire event with around 100 members of our RVing community.

Our first solar eclipse was an amazing experience, which we captured both in video and in this blog post. Words, photos and video footage can’t possibly convey what it was really like to be there in person, seeing and feeling the eclipse first hand, but we’ve given it our best shot… and I have to say, watching the video during the moments of totality still gives us chills!

We actually ended up creating two videos:

1. A longer video (23 mins 52 secs) that shares the entire Solar Eclipse Weekend – from our journey to arrive at Solarfest to the Convergence (rally) itself, social events and the solar eclipse. This is a great way to watch not only the eclipse, but also get a feel for our RV life, and what it’s like to attend an RV rally (specifically an Xscapers convergence) with friends and strangers alike!

2. A shorter video (4 mins 34 secs) that shares the Highlights of the Solar Eclipse – from sunrise to totality to sunset, with timelapses, crowd reactions, telescope footage and more. It basically condenses 14 hours into 4 minutes and is aimed at a broader (non-RVing) audience who are only interested in seeing the Eclipse.

We feel both videos are worth watching and the eclipse section in each is similar, yet different. If you’re really crunched for time, please be sure to at least watch the short Eclipse video! And if you do watch both but want to re-live the Eclipse all over again, the short video is a quick and easy way to view just that part.

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered or worried about whether or not you’ll be lonely on the road as a full-time RVer, this post and our longer video should put your concerns to rest immediately! We hope this post and both of the videos give you a great feel for the total solar eclipse AND the fun, wonder, and camaraderie that we shared during August 17-22.

About Total Solar Eclipses and Totality

But first, for those who have been living under a rock, here’s a quick overview. A Solar Eclipse (as seen from the planet Earth) occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, and when the Moon fully or partially blocks the Sun. There are four types of eclipse (total, annular, hybrid and partial) and what makes a Total Solar Eclipse so special is not only how rare it is, but the fact that the dark silhouette of the Moon completely obscures the intensely bright light of the Sun, allowing the much fainter solar corona to be visible.

The Sun seems to disappear during the day and the sky darkens in a matter of minutes. During an eclipse, totality occurs at best only in a narrow track on the surface of Earth. It may surprise you to know that total solar eclipses actually happen fairly frequently, but with so much of the earth’s surface being water, a large percentage of these eclipses are not seen by most people. 

It’s less common for a total solar eclipse to hit the mainland, and travel across a country providing the opportunity for millions of people to see, as we were able to do with the most recent solar eclipse that crossed the USA on August 21, 2017.

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Why you need to wear special glasses

Now, I’m sure you had it drummed into you – as we did – not to look directly at the sun during the Eclipse! Actually, it’s never a good idea to stare directly at the Sun, as it can lead to permanent eye damage or blindness. That’s why you need to wear special eye protection when viewing a solar eclipse, to allow you to safely see the effect of the moon crossing over the sun. It is less than amusing for me to recall the “let’s see how long we can stare at the sun without looking away” game devised by my older brother when I was growing up. I have to wonder if the fact both of us have poor eyesight had anything to do with that as our younger brother who didn’t play the game has greater than 20/20 vision! Hmmmmm.

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Getting to Madras – an event in itself!

We stayed at Thousand Trails in Bend/Sunriver, OR area for 3 weeks in the lead up to the Eclipse, so we would be close by when it was time to head to Madness (oops, I mean Madras) for the Solarfest event. We’d read reports predicting horrendous lines of traffic being backed up for hours on end, sold-out gas stations and empty supermarket shelves. So to prepare for ‘Solar-geddon’ as best we could, we made sure we were stocked up on food, water and fuel several days prior and had cash on hand, in case POS machines were down.

David and Cheryl Goldstein of Landmark Adventures took on the task of organizing the Xscapers Solarfest Convergence, keeping us educated, informed and inspired in the weeks and months leading up to it. We volunteered to co-host and offer hands-on help during the event, so we got up early on the morning of Thursday, August 17 to drive from Bend to Madras in the hope of beating the crowds and setting up camp early to prepare for the arrival of the rest of our Xscapers group. We were expecting 33 rigs, one tent and about 100 people all up. This was going to be one heck of a party!

Check-in was at 12noon and we are definitely glad we arrived early, by 9.40am. We parked on the side of the road by an open field, with about 20-30 RVs lined up ahead of us. The event organizers advised they had tech issues with their ticket scanning machines and so check-in would be delayed until 2pm. No biggie! TIme for a shower, a shave, check email and whip up scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and dill sauce for brunch. Gotta love RV life 🙂

We continued to wait patiently as the line of RVs extended for miles behind us, all the way back to US Highway 26 – it was just the beginning of the traffic chaos in Madras that would last for 5 whole days! Finally, at 1.20pm, the line started to move. We were optimistic about being settled in by 2pm, but that was short lived. It took another 3 hours to drive less than one mile and get situated into our campsite on the farmer’s field known as Solartown.

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Solartown: world’s biggest campground?

With 5,000 tenters arriving in cars and 500 RVs expected, it’s understandable to expect delays with a large influx of people, but this was one of the worst examples of utter chaos we’ve ever seen at an RV-ing event. The RV parking appeared to be one of the least organized aspects of the event. We sat in our RVs and watched as they parked about 6 RVs in an hour. They literally had one guy out on the field directing RVs where to park, and they hadn’t marked out the sites yet – they were doing it on the go. This was turning into a very long day. Fortunately, our group was able to offer some suggestions and assistance in organizing which helped speed things up dramatically. Once some structure had been established, the next couple hours saw hundreds more RVs getting parked.

We eventually got situated by 4.30pm, which made for an 8+ hour ordeal from the time we left our campground in Bend-Sunriver that morning, just a little over an hour’s drive away! But we were ready for our 33 RVs, one tent and 100-ish Xscapers friends! By 7.30pm, most of our Xscapers group had arrived and settled in. We were ready to finally relax, kick back with a drink, and start socializing and getting to know everybody!

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The Scene at Solartown and Solarfest

In addition to the sea of RVs and tents, the field was populated with porta potties, shower trucks and several food vendors. We didn’t visit any of them – we had prepared for Solar-geddon, remember!? And we heard that if you ventured closer to town, it seemed everywhere you turned, somebody was trying to sell you T-shirts, or other eclipse-related souvenirs. We managed to avoid them all!

So once we got settled into our camping area, we didn’t visit the town of Madras or even get to Solarfest at the main festival grounds just a few miles away, even though we had previously bought tickets for the festival and shuttle buses for all 5 days. We did attempt to get down there on Saturday night to visit our friends Mitch and Val who were staying at the fairgrounds, but the festival was already at capacity so they wouldn’t even let us board the bus. Oh well. We’d heard pretty lacklustre reports about the festival and transportation anyway and the venue was not capable of holding such crowds. A few from our group reported it took them 2-4 hours to make the round trip, while the festival itself only held their interest for under an hour. Fortunately, we had such a great group of people with us at the camping area, so there was plenty to keep us entertained at Solartown.

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Connecting with our RV Community

We had a fantastic time with everyone at the Xscapers convergence. We kicked the night off with a propane campfire, s’mores and a sing along with the very talented Chuck and Michelle of the Status Crowes, until the Sheriff came by and shut our campfire down – they had just banned them, due to an upgraded fire advisory. Not to be outdone, our friends Denny and Veronica of the RV Outlawz fired up a big projector screen on the rear deck of their toy hauler and ran a crackling fireplace DVD – way to get creative guys!

On Friday night, the effervescent Valerie Coffey (our friend, astronomer, science writer and RVer) gave a fantastic presentation on the eclipse, educating us about the different kinds of eclipses, what makes the total solar eclipse so special, and got us even more revved up for Monday’s grand event!

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Over the rest of the weekend, we ate, drank and were merry – with a pot luck brunch and pot luck dinner – Xscapers know how to put on a fine feast! We ran a Jelly Belly jelly bean flavor guessing contest with those funky flavors like booger, barf and rotten egg – mmmm lovely! Young Titus was the champion, being able to identify several disgusting flavors within moments. We avoided the crowds and expense of local brewery tours by hosting our very own BYO Pub Luck with beer tastings and stories of dozens of brews, ciders and wines from all around the country.

People opened their RV doors for us all to see their decorating and modification skills, with open house tours, and there were countless wonderful conversations and new friendships created. There were newbie RVers, those boondocking for the first time and others who have been on the road for many years. Some were retired, some are still working, some had families, but all came together to share the common adventurous spirit and camaraderie of those who spend extended time in RVs.

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The eclipse excitement had been building for years, climaxing in the previous weeks and now, in the final hours, the energy was palpable! Everyone was eagerly awaiting what would, for many, be a once in a lifetime opportunity to watch the moon completely hide the sun. There was a lot of information on TV, online news sources and NASA websites advising what we might expect to see. And of course, there were many more warnings about the dangers of looking at the sun without special eclipse glasses! The countdown was on to the event that had brought us all together.

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Experiencing the Eclipse

Monday morning, August 21 was Eclipse Day! We awoke just after 6am to climb up onto the RV roof to film and watch the sunrise. It seemed fitting on such a special day when millions around the country (and the world) were paying so much attention to the Sun – the bright and brilliant burning heart of our solar system – something the majority of the population rarely gives a passing thought to, let alone pause to appreciate on a greater level.

We set up the GoPro camera on a tripod on the RV roof in an attempt to capture the eclipse over a period of hours, then headed back down to enjoy eclipse mimosas with everyone, before the eclipse officially began at 9.07am.

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Despite all of the presentations we’d watched and the websites we’d visited in the lead up, nothing really prepared us for the magic of being in the moment of the solar eclipse – and especially totality! About 50-60 of our group gathered in Xscapers Central – between our motorhome and David and Cheryl’s fifth wheel – to don our eclipse glasses, sit in chairs, chat, mill about, peek through a telescope – and in general, keep looking up at the sky, as we watched the entire solar eclipse take place over a total period of a little over 2.5 hours.

Through our eclipse glasses, we watched as the bright orange sun appeared to be ‘eaten away’ by the moon, as it consumed larger and larger percentages of the sun, we felt and heard the excitement of the crowd, until the sun became a very narrow yellow sliver.

In the moments leading up to totality, the light began to dim, dogs started barking and the temperature dropped suddenly – by at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit! It was surreal. We put on our jackets and continue to sit and watch, transfixed, still not really quite sure what to expect… but waiting in anticipation, feeling the buzz.

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Total Eclipse of the Sun!

Then, at 10.19am… Totality! The moon completely eclipsed the sun, and darkness descended upon us all as the crowd erupted! WOW!

The sun was completely blacked out, yet perfectly framed with a dazzling white corona shining out from all around! Nothing had prepared us for this! It was truly amazing! When that last little sliver of the sun disappeared and was fully eclipsed by the moon it was truly an emotional, spiritual event. Somehow, it, makes you feel more connected to the cosmos, at least, that’s how it was for me. Julie said she got chills throughout her body and goosebumps. The pure darkness of the shadowed side of the moon, combined with the white, silky threads of the corona make you feel as though you are peering through a portal into another world. We just stood and stared in awe of its magic. One can only imagine what it must have been like for people to see these eclipses hundreds and thousands of years ago, before the modern understanding we now have about what is occurring. Surely there would have been some who felt the world was coming to an end.

We took off our glasses – the only time during the eclipse when it was safe to look up at the sun while it was completely covered by the moon – TOTALITY. Words cannot begin to describe the feeling, but it truly was amazing!

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Photo credit: Gwen Vojkufka

Totality lasted for 2 minutes and 2 seconds. It seemed to go by so quickly. As we looked to the horizon, it seemed as though sunset was happening all around us, but we mostly focused our attention directly at the main event. Before we knew it, you could see little red beads on the upper left side of the moon called Bailey’s Beads, signaling that totality was ending. The beads become visible as some of the suns rays make it to earth between the high and low surfaces of the moon. Then, one of the spots suddenly got much larger and brighter creating the effect of a giant diamond ring high in the sky! The diamond shone more brightly than you can even imagine, pure white and breathtaking! The band of the ring still showing as the corona still surrounded the moon. Suddenly, it was time to put our special glasses back on to protect our eyes from the rays of the sun as it started to become more visible again. Then boom! The earth lit up again almost instantly as if someone had turned on a light switch in the sky! Nothing at all like the slow, gradual brightening you experience at sunrise. The warmth of the sun’s rays quickly eliminated the cold chill left during its 2-minute disappearing act!

We had our portable solar panel set up throughout the weekend and of course, in the lead up to totality, the amps dropped from 4 down to zero… then back up to 5 amps shortly after the eclipse, where it got to back to happily charging our batteries again!

We were so happy we managed to capture some of the excitement and wonder of the crowd’s reaction in this video. This really allowed us to focus on being in the moment instead of trying to capture photographs in such a brief window of time – and without the proper experience or setup. A few people in our group did manage to get some good shots and generously shared them with us to use here (above – thanks Gwen!) and in the videos (as credited).

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What’s the rush?

Perhaps one of our biggest surprises was witnessing how many people (not in our group but around us in Solartown) walked off immediately after eclipse totality, to get back into their cars and try to leave as they headed back to their normal lives. Perhaps they were trying to ‘beat the rush’ – and we realize many people have to return home and get back to work perhaps the next day – but all we saw was a gridlock of traffic on US-26 from about 10.30am right through to 7.30pm. Nobody was going anywhere fast.

Yes, totality was technically over, but the eclipse wasn’t! The moon was still covering so much of the sun, and this was still such an incredibly rare opportunity to witness it! I guess we should not have been so surprised. In our travels, we make a point of enjoying beautiful sunsets – and occasionally sunrises – as often as we can.

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Whether it’s watching the sun rise from Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine, or watching the sun set on a beach in Maui, Hawai, we almost always notice that the vast majority of people will arrive at a location just in time to watch the actual moment of sunrise or sunset, then leave or otherwise go about their normal lives mere moments after the sun rises above – or drops below – the horizon. We usually like to linger long after the sun sets – or arrive well before it rises – as that’s when the most beautiful color in the sky occurs.

However, we have observed many RVers tend to share photos and talk about sunrises and sunsets, in appreciation for this simple beauty available to almost everyone to enjoy every day – if only they choose to stop and see it.

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Something to think about…

You often hear the phrase ‘stop and smell the roses’. If you don’t already, we would like to invite you to also pause to enjoy the beauty before and after the sun meets the horizon. Don’t be in such a rush to return to the business of your regular life. The irony for those who immediately jumped in their cars after the totality of the eclipse was over, was that so many of them tried to ‘beat the rush’, and they actually created the biggest traffic jams. The roads and highways turned into parking lots all the way across the country in the moments following the eclipse. Some folks ended up spending over 8-10 hours trying to drive what would normally only take two. What a way to lose the magic of what they had just experienced.

We continued to watch the remainder of the eclipse, right up to the very last seconds, way past 11am. We watched the beautiful blood red orb of the sun that appeared Monday night, created by the smoke of nearby fires, as well as the amazingly colorful sunset later that same evening. We enjoyed the company of friends and the comforts of our home on wheels. We slept in the following morning, then took our time packing up, amid saying goodbye and hugging our RVing friends – looking forward to when we meet again, as we inevitably will.

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By the time we left Madras, a little over 24 hours after the eclipse, all of the roads were open and free of traffic. It was a stark contrast to all of those folks who were in such a hurry to return back to their version of ‘normal’. We feel so grateful that we didn’t have to rush off anywhere, that we could relax and keep on enjoying our own ‘normal’ in the comfort of our RV. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

A week and a half later, we still remember and smile as we relive the memory of our very first total solar eclipse. We hope you got the chance to see it too!

And yes, we’re already planning to be at the next one. Will we see you in Texas in 2024?

Did you enjoy our article and videos? We’d love to hear from you!
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