Total Eclipse of the Highway or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Traffic

Science Space
Total Eclipse of the Highway or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Traffic

I knew there was going to be a solar eclipse in 2017, but it had not occurred to me to get very excited about it. I had seen a partial solar eclipse in 1995 while I was living in Atlanta. I thought, “That was pretty cool. I’ll just make myself another pinhole camera and view this partial eclipse from San Francisco,” and that would be that.

However, after hearing several people talk about how special a total solar eclipse is, and how being within driving distance of totality is a once-in-a-lifetime event, I eventually got adequately excited to think about traveling to see the eclipse.

It all started innocently enough. I plugged my zip code into a map that told me the closest distance to the path of totality. 480 miles to somewhere in eastern Oregon. “That sounds totally doable,” I thought. So, I convinced my wife we should go on a nice 3-day weekend road trip.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…

Day 1: Saturday, August 19, 2017

03:50pm (0 mi / 0 mi total) Leave San Francisco

We had prior obligations on Saturday, so we didn’t leave as early in the day as we hoped. Eventually we got our act together and packed the car. We heard rumors that traffic would be terrible, so we brought a palette of water bottles, lots of snacks, and an extra 2 gallons of gas just to be extra prepared.

04:05pm (5 mi / 5 mi total) Realize we forgot our Solar Eclipse glasses

We were finally almost on the highway when I remembered our glasses were still at home. I was not happy.

04:30pm (5 mi / 10 mi total) Return home, grab glasses, leave San Francisco…again

We hit standstill traffic immediately heading toward the Bay Bridge. Rush hour still happens on the weekends for some reason. Traffic finally thinned out a bit around Vallejo.

Luckily traffic was light in Northern California, and we had a pretty nice sunset along the way.

07:52pm (170 mi / 180 mi total) Stopped for dinner in Corning, CA

11:07pm (145 mi / 325 mi total) Stopped in Yreka, CA for gas

12:07am (51 mi / 376 mi total) Arrived in Medford, OR

All of the hotels near the path of totality became extremely expensive. We managed to find a reasonably priced place to stay in Medford, OR just over the California-Oregon border on the western side. It would mean driving quite a bit further on the morning of the eclipse, but that seemed fine.


Day 2: Sunday, August 20, 2017

10:00am (0 mi / 376 mi total) Slept in and hung out at hotel

We had a free day in Medford, so we decided to relax and gear up for the big event the next day.

01:00pm (5 mi / 381 mi total) Tried to go to Buttercloud Bakery

Some friends recommended Buttercloud Bakery for lunch. You could tell it was really popular because there was a 45 minute wait for food. We decided to go next door to Señor Sam’s for burritos instead. Next time, Buttercloud Bakery, next time.

03:00pm (21 mi / 402 mi total) Mystery House at Oregon Vortex in Gold Hill, OR

My wife and I are suckers for fun tourist traps, and The Mystery House at the Oregon Vortex is no exception. It’s very similar to The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, CA, and it’s just as quirky and entertaining.

05:00pm (21 mi / 423 mi total) Arrived back at hotel

07:00pm (4 mi / 427 mi total) Went to Red Robin for dinner

Nothing says vacation like unlimited refills on french fries.

08:30pm (4 mi / 431 mi total) Arrived back at hotel

We needed to figure out exactly where to view the eclipse. Looking at the path of totality, we wanted to be as near the center as we could get. The closest major city along I-5 near the center of the path was Salem. I thought maybe lots of people would try to go there, so I looked East and saw a little town called Lyons that was off the beaten path and almost exactly on the center line. So, we decided to try for Lyons, and if we didn’t make it all the way, at least we would be in the path of totality. In order to account for possible traffic, we set our alarm super early to allow us some buffer time to reach Lyons.

09:20pm (2 mi / 432 mi total) Go to gas station to fill up

I learned very abruptly that in Oregon there is no self-service allowed at gas stations. A very surprised attendant informed me that I was not allowed to touch the pump. Oops.

09:50pm (0 mi / 433 mi total) Went to sleep


Day 3: Monday, August 21, 2017

01:52am (0 mi / 433 mi total) Alarm went off

03:00am (0 mi / 433 mi total) Got on the road in Medford, OR toward Path of Totality

06:00am (209 mi / 642 mi total) Got gas at Albany, OR

We made very good time to reach Albany in 3 hours. Getting up early paid off. Lyons was 32 miles away, and we stopped to refuel so we’d have a full tank to start the return trip (turns out this was a very smart decision). This is also where we got off I-5 to take backroads to Lyons.

07:00am (32 mi / 674 mi total) Arrived in Lyons, OR

We made it, right to the center of the path of totality! There were still 2 hours to kill before the eclipse started, and we were getting hungry. We could only find two breakfast diners, and one was “Closed for Eclipse Day,” so everyone in town was at the other place, The Gingerbread House.

08:15am (1 mi / 675 mi total) Ordered food at Gingerbread House

It was a bit of mayhem inside with so many tourists and locals trying to order food, one waitress handling tables, and one cook in the kitchen, but everyone was in an excited mood.

09:06am (1 mi / 676 mi total) (C1 — Moon’s first contact with the Sun) Arrived at John Neal Memorial Park

We found a park (which turned out to be a campground), where a few hundred other people had gathered for the eclipse.

Many astrophotographers were lined up with their special equipment to capture the eclipse.

Several people brought telescopes and projectors for everyone to see the progress up close.

Viewing the eclipse through the many pinholes of a colander was a crowd favorite.

Thank goodness we remembered our glasses!

10:15am One minute until totality

As totality neared, everyone became increasingly excited, but also very quiet. The air cooled down. The light was becoming noticeably dimmer. We actually saw shadow bands appear on the sidewalk in the park!

10:16am (C2) Totality begins

As the last sliver of sun disappeared through our solar glasses, nothing could have prepared me for what would happen next. After taking off the glasses I was met with the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. The immediacy of the emotion was overwhelming.

It’s one thing to see photographs or video of a total solar eclipse. They are beautiful and striking, but I learned in that moment that they are nothing like viewing one with your own eyes. The deep blue color of the sky, the dark grey circle of the moon, the colorful ring of light surrounding it, and the sun’s gorgeous undulating corona; it can’t be captured on film.

Everyone in the park cheered with unbridled excitement, and then immediately fell silent. There were two magical and reverent minutes of totality shared by everyone there.

I managed to take a crude photo of totality with my phone, but it is nothing like the real thing.

10:18am (C3) Totality ends

The crowd cheered again, and we all look around at each other. Most people, myself included, have tears in their eyes.

We saw more shadow bands appear as the light started to increase again. After about an hour of continuing to watch the moon recede, we decided to start heading back home.

11:15am (0 mi / 676 mi total) Left campground

Traffic coming north in the days before the eclipse had been fairly light. Even the local news said that there was much less traffic than the Oregon Highway Patrol had estimated.

Traffic going south after the eclipse, however, was a completely different story.

11:36am (15 mi / 691 mi total) (C4 — Moon fully past Sun) Watched end of eclipse from car

12:30pm (6 mi / 697 mi total) Got on I-5 South on-ramp

Because we were on the path of totality’s center line, we had the unique view of I-5 North and I-5 South both completely backed up as we approached the on-ramp. We turned to get on I-5 South and just sat.

12:45pm (0 mi / 697 mi total) Merged onto I-5 South

15 minutes later we were finally on the highway, going nowhere fast.

01:58pm (8 mi / 705 mi total) Traveled 8 miles

At this point people were getting out of their cars and standing around.

03:05pm (9 mi / 714 mi total) Stopped for lunch at Pioneer Villa Truck Plaza

After another hour of crawling traffic, we needed to get lunch and rest a bit to have energy to continue. We found a crowded truck stop where other people had the same idea.

04:30pm (0 mi / 714 mi total) Left truck stop, get back on I-5

06:15pm (17 mi / 731 mi total) Gone 34 miles total on I-5, traded drivers

After going 34 miles in 5.5 hours, we decided we might not actually make it all the way home to San Francisco. So, we booked a hotel in Redding, CA that we thought we could reach in a reasonable amount of time.

This map shows traffic jams nationwide that follow exactly the path of totality. It is also what I imagined the I-5 traffic map actually looked like.

09:00pm (110 mi / 841 mi total) Stopped at Heaven on Earth restaurant

After we finally passed Eugene, the traffic became much more free flowing. I-5 in Oregon is a grueling marathon of steep mountainous hills, turns, and hundreds of contending 18-wheelers. We found a restaurant at an exit in the middle of nowhere called Heaven on Earth, but when we parked and walked to the door, it was locked. They had just closed. So we traded drivers and trudged onward to find food elsewhere.

09:42pm (30 mi / 871 mi total) Stopped for dinner in Grants Pass, OR

The next available place to get dinner was Grants Pass. We got gas, stopped at a Wendy’s to eat, and stretched our legs. Looking at the map, we were disheartened to see that Redding was still 180 miles away, which would take at least 3 more hours. Nonetheless, we decided it was better to just keep going since traffic was alright.

01:25am (178 mi / 1049 mi total) Arrived in Redding, CA

After travelling 373 miles in 14 hours (an amazing 26.6 mph average), we made it to our hotel in Redding. Total travel for the day (Medford to Lyons to Redding) was 614 miles, and most of the previous 24 hours was spent in the car.

02:00am (0 mi / 1049 mi total) Went to sleep (after being awake 24 hours)


Day 4: Tuesday, August 22, 2017

10:00am (0 mi / 1049 mi total) Wake up, drink lots of coffee

12:00pm (0 mi / 1049 mi total) Leave Redding, CA

Again, we turned onto I-5 South and were greeted with standstill traffic. Luckily, this only lasted for about 20 minutes. It was smooth sailing (finally) from there.

04:30pm (217 mi / 1266 mi total) Arrived home in San Francisco

After a whirlwind of a road trip that had involved 30 hours in the car, we finally made it back home. It took an entire extra day and several hundred more miles than we anticipated, but in the end it was worth it.

I concur with my fellow Waze road warriors.

If you had told me before this trip that I would be dealing with that much traffic and driving that many hours, I would have definitely never left the house. Nobody could have convinced me that two minutes of eclipse could be worth that much trouble.

But, I’m telling you: it was. It was completely worth the trouble. Seeing a total solar eclipse, in person, with a group of other enthusiastic people, is something that everyone should do in their lifetime. It’s just completely indescribable. I now understand why some people spend so much time and money chasing totality around the globe.

So, would I do it all again? Yes, and I’ll definitely be booking my hotel for the 2024 eclipse well in advance, before prices go up!

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Chad Etzel

Chad Etzel is a maker living in San Francisco. After work as a software developer, he comes home to play with 3D printing and electronics projects. Chad is currently obsessed with Nixie tubes. You can follow his projects on Twitter @jazzychad.

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