Melia Kenny/TMD.

All life experiences are binary; they are either expected or unexpected. You are familiar with most of your daily routine, starting with waking up. What you do for the rest of your day is up to you. Maybe you decide to get out of bed. Maybe you choose to shower and get ready for the rest of your day. Maybe you visit your favorite coffee shop for breakfast, or maybe you don’t. But no matter what you choose, you expect the outcome of your choice and at the end of the day, you close your eyes, you fall asleep and you repeat it all over again. 

Now look, I’m not saying this to be morbid. I think it is important to create consistent habits, and repetition is comforting. I love my morning routines. I love the comfort of walking over the same bridge to get to class each morning. I love my daily calls home to my family, and I love ordering from my favorite restaurant once a week. I love all these things because I know what to expect. But what happens when you experience the unexpected?

You are probably thinking, I experience new things all the time, it’s not that special. I don’t mean new. With new things, we can often anticipate what the experience feels like or recall past memories to help our mind fill in the holes of what just occurred. I’m talking about the rare “hold my breath, what just happened” unexpected — the type of feeling that leaves your brain perplexed and mouth speechless.

I can only remember a few moments in my life when I’ve felt like this, one of them being when I witnessed my first total solar eclipse in 2017.

When my dad first told me we were going to drive over eight hours from the south of San Francisco all the way to northern Oregon just to look at the sky for a few minutes, I thought he was crazy. Why would someone drive for eight hours just to look at the moon? I told him that we could witness the moon cover roughly 85% of the sun from home and that it would be 85% as fascinating — I would quickly learn to eat my words.

The thing about total solar eclipses is that you can see totality, which is when the moon completely covers the sun. Only if you are within the path of totality, which is the small strip of area where the moon’s shadow blankets the Earth’s surface. The further from the center of the path, the less the moon covers the sun and the shorter the time that you experience totality. So we could have stayed home, but we would have only witnessed a partial solar eclipse, not a total solar eclipse — two completely different phenomenons.

After the lengthy drive, my dad, brother and I arrived in Madras, a small town in Oregon with a population of over seven thousand people. By the time we arrived, tens of thousands of people, who’d traveled from all corners of the world, had already flooded the ill-prepared town. Since Madras has the lowest chance of cloud coverage, people from over 39 different countries and all 50 states flocked to Solartown, Madras’s makeshift campsite, for the weekend. Even Oregon’s National Guard was called in to mitigate traffic. I was stunned. People had been living out of their cars for days, setting up tents and telescopes. It gave off an almost cult-like atmosphere: as if it were Judgment Day and this was the final hurrah. As time passed, the anticipation grew. 

“Two hours,” yelled the crowd. “One hour! Ten minutes!! It’s starting!!!” Finally.

First contact: the invisible moon kisses the tip of the sun. If you are not wearing the special shades that block all visible light, you can hardly notice the gradual bites the moon has taken out of the star. Now, it’s just a waiting game. Roughly ten minutes before full coverage, the world is enveloped in gray twilight. As time slowly progresses toward totality, you notice the diamond ring effect, where only a portion of the sun resembling a diamond ring remains. Five seconds before totality, you notice Baily’s beads, in which tiny balls of light surround the rim of the moon. It is almost time. A shadow washes over our world as if God has thrown a blanket over us.

And then it hits. Second contact: totality. The moon has completely covered the sun, and all that is left is its corona, the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere which is typically masked by the sun’s rays. You throw off your glasses, and at this moment, life is transformed. The world changes from light to dark, from hot to cold and from anxious to calm. The deadness of your surroundings flows through your body. You hear nothing but animals shouting in confusion, as your senses overload. You are entranced and nothing matters, not even time: minutes pass but they feel like seconds. And then it’s finished and you want more.

Third Contact: the sun slowly reappears. Your soul comes back to life and you become aware of your surroundings. Putting the shades back on, you see the diamond ring effect and Baily’s beads again. You wave goodbye to the experience and pray that you will see another once more.

Fourth Contact: the sun is now free and cheers ring out from the crowd. You look around and people are still looking up at the sky to process what they have just witnessed. Some people are still in awe, others have looks of confusion and a few are wiping away tears they didn’t know they had.

I fall into the first category. The experience was so enthralling that we traveled to Chile a few years later just to get a glimpse of totality again. While I could expect what it would feel like then, no one could have prepared me for my first eclipse. As the next total solar eclipse visible from North America will occur on April 8, 2024, you already know that I have plans to see it. But until then, I’ll have to wait.

MiC Columnist Deven Parikh can be contacted at pdeven@umich.edu.