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Solartown, OR

Thursday, August 17, 2017 - 12:15pm by Lolo
183 miles and 4 hours from our last stop - 5 night stay


Day 1 - Arrival at Solartown

Lining up for SolartownLining up for SolartownToday was the beginning of our 5-day celebration of the total solar eclipse in Madras, Oregon. Our plans for this event had begun back in January, when Paul and Herb decided that this possibly once-in-a-lifetime event was something definitely worth pursuing.

So, we made Solartown campsite reservations and bought a ticket to the Solarfest festival. We were way ahead of the game. As months passed and word got out as to just how monumental an event this was going to be, accommodations disappeared and prices for those remaining rose to astronomical (no pun intended) heights. By April our $150 5-night campsite had risen to $300, and airbnb rooms were going for as much as $700 a night. We felt quite smug about our foresight.

We were quite excited. Besides the eclipse itself, the whole event was predicted to be quite a scene - 100,000 people descending on the little town of Madras, population 5,000. The town had been prepping for this for over a year, and had partnered with NASA to make it a truly educational and informative event.

Because of its clear skies and breathtaking mountain views, Madras was the place to be along the Totality Line that crossed the U.S. from South Carolina to Oregon. From our campsite, we could see Mt. Hood to the north and Mt. Jefferson to the west.

Our Lawrence Livermore Camping BuddiesOur Lawrence Livermore Camping BuddiesOur home for the 5-day event was Solartown, a farmer’s field setup to accommodate 30,000 people. I guess the enterprising farmer realized there was more money to be made from eclipse mania than alfalfa. So, the alfalfa was replaced with grass and Roundup was used to mark roads and campsite boundaries.

Our arrival at Solartown did not go as smoothly as it could have. Gates didn’t open until noon on Thursday, but campers began arriving at 9:00, causing a mile-long line to extend all the way back to Highway 26. We sat for 5 hours before finally getting in. Fortunately, Hilda and Paul were about an hour ahead of us in line and were able to secure us a campsite right next to theirs.

On the other side of Hilda and Paul’s site was a pair of ex-Lawrence Livermore research scientists, equipped with a huge ham radio antenna, telescopes, cameras with big lenses, computers, etc. - our very own NASA center. They had obviously been prepping for this for some time. My prepping had consisted of ensuring that we would have enough beer and wine to last us the 5 days without having to leave Solartown.

Their ham radio antenna, which was strung with blue lights, would serve as a beacon for us to find our way home whenever we left our campsite.

Day 2 - Smith Rock State Park and the Deschutes Brewery in Bend

Smith Rock State ParkSmith Rock State ParkNone of us just wanted to hang around the campground for 5 days waiting for the eclipse, so we decided that this would be the best day (in terms of traffic) to venture out and explore some of the really cool areas nearby.

Herb and I had been to this area several times before, so we decided to show Hilda and Paul two of our favorite places - Smith Rock State Park and Bend. This would allow for some physical activity followed by refreshing beer at the Deschutes Brewery - my idea of a perfect day.

We drove the 26 miles down to Smith Rock without encountering any traffic at all. I think our rationale that most people had either arrived in Madras yesterday on opening day, or were waiting until closer to the eclipse to arrive, was correct.

Smith Rock is an absolutely stunning place, known both as a premier rock climbing destination (our reason for being here in the past) as well as a wonderful place to hike.

The rock formations in the park are spectacular – multi-colored, jagged ridges of basalt, formed from volcanic activity millions of years ago, when lava flows entered this canyon and cooled. Winding between these basalt peaks is the lovely Crooked River, which twists and turns its way for miles through the park.

Happy Hikers atop Misery RidgeHappy Hikers atop Misery RidgeAfter parking the car, we took the trail down to the river, crossed a bridge, and then followed the River Trail along the banks of the Crooked River. It was very nostalgic for Herb and I, passing so many areas where we had climbed with the boys.

The trail along the river was flat, but eventually we took a turn onto the appropriately named Misery Ridge Trail, where we climbed a series of switchbacks back up to the top. We found a shady spot to have lunch from which there were great views of the river and climbers on the Monkey Face, a rock formation that indeed does look like the face of a monkey.

Afterwards, we continued back down to and across the Crooked River before climbing right back up again to the parking lot.

After 4.5 miles and 1,000-foot elevation gain in hot weather, we felt we owed ourselves a trip to the Deschutes Brewery, in the very fun town of Bend. We must have really wanted that free beer, because it was another 27 miles south on Highway 97. I just couldn’t be so close to Bend without stopping by.

Free Beers at the Deschutes BreweryFree Beers at the Deschutes BreweryHerb and I had been to the Deschutes Pub House before, but never to the actual brewery where they make their beer. Rather than do the tour, we went straight to the tasting room, where we were given a wristband that would allow us four tastings each (for free). What a great concept! Deschutes makes some really good beers. My personal favorite is Freshly Squeezed - an IPA with a bit of a citrus taste. Good thing I didn’t live in Bend, or I probably would have found myself here every afternoon.

Since the drive back was close to an hour and I was the designated driver, I was very responsible and only took a few sips.

When we got back to camp, our neighbors, the Lawrence Livermore researchers, were busy playing with their equipment, practicing for the big day. This was really a huge deal for a lot of people.

Oh, and Hilda and I walked over to try the mobile showers that had been brought in. We couldn’t understand why they weren’t more crowded. There were only about 40 showers in the whole place for 30,000 people, but yet there was no line. They were great!

Day 3 - Solarfest and the arrival of more friends

Mt. Jefferson from SolartownMt. Jefferson from SolartownAs part of our pre-eclipse planning, we had also purchased tickets for the Solarfest festival, which had NASA talks and exhibits, food carts, eclipse merchandise vendors, and bands.

In retrospect, we probably should have waited to go later in the day, because by 1:00 in the afternoon, we were pretty much done with the festival. We had listened to a NASA talk, explored the merchandise booths , had two beers in the beer garden, and eaten lunch. The bands didn’t start until 3:00, but it was hot and we didn’t see how we were going to last until then. We had just peaked too early.

So, we headed back to Solartown, which was in itself quite interesting to wander around. It was amazing how quiet, clean, and harmonious the camp was, considering how many people were packed in. It was kind of a Woodstock for science nerds.

Later that evening, our friends, Anita and Roberts, from Portland (previously New Jersey) arrived to join the festivities.

Day 4 - Exploring Solartown on Foot

Herb getting readyHerb getting readyIt was Sunday, Eclipse Eve, and campers were pouring into Solartown. There was no way we were going to take the car anywhere just to wait in traffic for hours to get back in.

However, there is only so much you can do in an ex-alfalfa field. We would have to figure out some way of entertaining ourselves. We each chose a different path.

Herb stayed at the campsite and played with his new Lawrence Livermore friends, who loaded software onto his laptop that would control his camera’s exposure and timing of pictures during the eclipse. Paul and Hilda went off on their bikes to explore the backroads. Anita, Roberts, and I decided to take a walk across the highway to the Madras airfield, over which people had been dropping out of the sky (with parachutes) for the last few days.

There had to be at least 400 private planes parked alongside the runway, many of which with tents set up beside them. The runway itself was fair game to just wander around on, which was quite surprising to me. There was no control tower - just one guy with a reflective vest directing incoming planes.

WW II Plane at Erickson Aircraft CollectionWW II Plane at Erickson Aircraft CollectionWe waited on a line to enter the Erickson Aircraft Collection, a small museum with a dozen or so American, German, and Japanese planes from the World War II era - many of which are still in flying condition. It was really quite interesting and well worth the $9 admission.

That evening we all attended a talk given by people at a nearby campsite, which had had informative fliers about the eclipse tacked onto their trailer all week. The woman who gave the talk introduced herself as a real estate agent that just happened to be very interested in eclipses. She was actually very good and quite interesting, explaining to us in layman’s terms what to expect on Monday and how to get the most out of our 2+ minutes of “totality.”

I was finally starting to realize just how significant being in the path of totality was - it was not just better than 99%, it was totally different. It was pretty much binary - either you were in totality or you weren’t. Only in totality do you get to experience the full corona, the diamond that briefly appears along the corona’s ring, and Bailey’s beads, where the rough topography of the moon allows beads of sunlight to shine through in some places and not in others.

We also got some hints as to how to use colanders to create interesting patterns of little crescents as the sun builds to totality.

I definitely felt more prepared for tomorrow and excited about the unique and awesome experience that we were going to be a part of.

Day 5 - Totality!

Hilda and Anita getting readyHilda and Anita getting readyI don’t know how to describe it, but there was definitely something different about the mood in the campground this morning - a sense of solemnity and anticipation that we were about to be witnesses to something big.

People were scurrying around cleaning up breakfast dishes, setting up telescopes and tripods, positioning themselves on the roofs of campers and cars. Some were even packing up, so they could leave as soon as it was over and get a jump on the traffic. Despite all the preparations, everything was quiet and calm.

In our campsite, Paul positioned himself on the roof of the motorhome with his tripod and camera to get a good vantage point to capture the whole scene. Herb was set up behind his tripod with a large lens to take photos of the sun going through its various phases. The rest of us were in beach chairs, equipped with colanders and eclipse glasses ready to put on.

Paul capturing the scenePaul capturing the sceneIt was eerily quiet as we all awaited the show to begin. I found myself whispering as to not disturb the mood. For a brief moment in time, 30,000 people were seemingly united in focus and purpose.

At 9:06, exactly on time (isn’t science amazing?), the eclipsed kicked off with what is called first contact, when the moon starts to pass across the sun, biting a little chunk out of it, kind of like pac man.

For the next hour or so, the moon continued on its journey across the sun, eventually forming a crescent. Just before totality, lots of stuff began to happen - the diamond briefly appeared along the corona’s ring, and we started seeing an effect called “Baily’s beads,” where the light from the sun passes through the nooks and crannies on the bumpy moon’s surface. All the while, the temperature was dropping and the skies darkening as if it was nighttime.

The Diamond Ring!The Diamond Ring!At exactly 10:19, the moon totally blocked the sun, and we all briefly took our eclipse glasses off to view the sun’s corona surrounding the moon. It was amazing and humbling. This phase lasted for a little over 2 minutes, before the moon passed through the sun, starting the whole process over in reverse for another hour.

There are no words that give justice to what we had just experienced. Thankfully, Herb took some stunning photos that did just that.

Before the last phases of the eclipse were even over, several campers and cars quietly started moving towards the exit, hoping to beat the crowds. We could already see traffic backing up on the exit roads and Highway 26. We were perfectly happy to stay where we were and just reflect on and absorb what had just occurred.

Post-Totality CelebrationPost-Totality CelebrationWe really didn’t know what to do with ourselves for the rest of the day. It was a hard act to follow. Everything seemed sort of inconsequential in comparison - but in a good uplifting way. The immensity of the event had put everything in perspective.

Anita and Roberts left for Portland later that afternoon, and Hilda and Paul headed home to Sebastopol in the middle of the night.

Herb and I stayed on, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. The next morning we walked around Solartown, surprised to see how little litter there was. Attendees had definitely been on good behavior. Maybe we need more of these awe-inspiring events, or some equivalent kick in our collective butts.


Camping in SolartownCamping in SolartownTemporary campground set up in a farmer’s field in Madras, Oregon, along the path of Totality to accommodate 30,000 people.

Solartown location map in "high definition"

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