H.L.M. Lee

Life in Light-Years—Chasing the Great American Eclipse

“I am an eclipse chaser.” I say this as if introducing myself at a twelve-step program. Lately, with the responsibilities of parenting, a job and a mortgage, I do my chasing in an armchair with a star chart in my lap or at breakfast reading astronomy magazines. While the comforts of home insulate me from the cold and rain, since viewing the Great American eclipse of 2017 I have yearned for open spaces and deep views of the sky. So I’m preparing once more and will leave my family for a few days to stand in the path of the next total eclipse, April 8, 2024, when the shadow of the moon will sweep from Texas to Maine at more than fifteen-hundred miles per hour.


I am a sky watcher, for above us is drama, danger and surprise: towering cumulus clouds shining against an immense blue dome; lightning and thunderstorms; hailstones pelting a summer afternoon. One autumn evening, not long ago, I looked up and gasped as a dozen glowing spots, each the size of a thumb at arm’s length, flew with intent in silent V formation. My rationality challenged, I froze at the sight of these unidentified flying objects then heard the honking of Canada geese. The imminent alien invasion was merely a small flock wending south for the winter, city light reflected from white under-bellies, black wings and necks and heads invisible in the night.


I spent my boyhood, during the early ‘60s, in suburban Columbus, Ohio. Our neighborhood was a newly developed tract with few streetlamps, so the night enveloped us like a heavy curtain. When my father showed me the Big Dipper, he knelt, swung his arm from its pointer stars to the North Star and gave me my first lesson in astronomy.

In the late ’60s we moved to the Los Angeles area, to the San Fernando valley, a bowl surrounded by hills that collected the exhaust of too many cars. NASA had embarked on the Apollo missions, and one day my father brought home the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy, a big, thick book which I thumbed through endlessly. Plates showing an artist’s conception of the planets were delicately tinted and seem quaint now, but they were based on the best knowledge available. Even so, in the biggest telescopes of the era, Uranus was no more than a fuzzy, pale green disk; Neptune, even farther away, was tiny and featureless; and Pluto was merely a speck of light among the stars.

At some point I acquired a collection of lenses, experimented with them and by trial and error found a pair that magnified distant objects. Mounting them in cardboard tubes, I made a small telescope that was long and skinny and all of an inch in diameter, similar to Galileo’s telescope more than four-hundred years ago. Like mine, his was primitive and low-power. Like Galileo, I turned it to the moon and was astounded by the craters and lunar seas. But I found no stars, for the Los Angeles sky had a glow neither starlight nor a young boy’s hopes could penetrate. Soon I tired of the moon, put away the telescope and found other interests.

Near the end of some December the newspapers wrote about a close grouping of Venus, Mars and Jupiter that they likened to the Christmas star. Eager to see this, I crept out the apartment the next morning, my telescope lashed to an old tripod with telephone wire. The sky was clear and dark, the horizon purple with approaching sunrise. Up there three brilliant points of light shone imperiously like deities. I set my telescope on the sidewalk, squinted through the blurry eyepiece and saw Venus, a tiny crescent like the quarter moon but brighter than any diamond. In the lens Mars was a ruby pinpoint and Jupiter, giant among the planets, an amber bead. For half an hour I gazed at those planets and shivered until I retreated to the warmth of my bedroom, where I put the little telescope in a closet and somehow never took it out again.

As an adult I came to live in Boston, where brownstones line the streets and gas lamps, converted to electricity, lend an antiquarian glimmer to the old brick sidewalks. Amid the excitement surrounding the return of Comet Halley, I impulsively bought a new telescope, a Newtonian reflector with a five-inch mirror and an orange paint job. I used it once to look at the moon then put it away. The weather is often bad in New England and few stars are visible from Boston. I had abandoned my telescope but felt a deep disquiet as I wondered why it was gathering dust. Maybe it was a string of summer nights when my apartment was hot and stifling, or it was the news about Comet Shoemaker-Levy, which had just struck Jupiter—I don’t know—but eventually I found new inspiration to climb the spiral staircase to the roof deck, my telescope in hand.

Over time I became familiar with the sky and the roof deck became a sanctuary. I saw Saturn’s rings and earthshine on the moon. I gazed at blue-white Sirius, the dog star, at the heel of Orion the hunter. I spied elusive Mercury near sunset and split the double stars Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper. 

That planetary configuration I had seen as a boy, I later learned, had occurred on December 25, 1970. Venus indeed was a crescent. The moon was near the horizon, though I didn’t see it all. Perhaps it was hidden by buildings. Perhaps I just didn’t notice it. Nevertheless, the memory transported me back to that chilly dawn when I stood in my robe and, with only a few slivers of glass, crossed the vastness to a universe of new worlds.


During one of my wanderings I found a place, tucked between dreams, in the New Hampshire woods, by name a pond, by size perhaps a small lake. From the southern shore looking north across the waters I saw low, rolling hills much as they must have been for the past hundred years, with stands of maple and oak turning red or yellow or orange as the fall advanced. Here and there the white trunks of birches stood in chalk line relief against evergreens, which took no notice of the dying days.

Water lilies cluttered the shallows with leaves the size of dinner plates and roots that snagged the oars of anyone rowing into them. A loon made his home here, I was told, though he had gone for the season. I was left to imagine evenings when he paddled unperturbed across the pond, with black and gray plumage half-visible in the shadows and sharp bill pointed forward like the prow of a frigate. Wait long enough and I would have expected to hear his call, which would fade in the dusk yet linger in the mind.

Late at night I stood on a floating dock beneath a sky too dark to believe. Until then I knew only a Boston sky filled with electric haze. The Pleiades were rising in the east. Just over the hills the Big Dipper shimmered from turbulence in the atmosphere. I followed the faint band of the Milky Way, traced the twins of Gemini then skipped to Taurus. I happened to gaze in the right place at the right time when a meteor scratched its trail of light before vanishing, as if someone had blown out a candle.

By December, ice glazed the pond while skeletal trees waited for renewal, their branches clattering in the wind. In Boston I studied star charts because the skies were overcast or the weather was cold. A bookmark with words by Longfellow kept my place:

Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels

Thinking about the darkness, months before, above that floating dock, I knew Longfellow had expressed an ineffable vision. Just as I knew the Big Dipper, wheeling around Polaris, was poised inverted before dawn, its bowl spilling memories ladled from a warmer time. I pictured that setting sun, rays skimming the pond, lending the air a gold luminance. A perfect sky arched cloudless and deepening. Most evanescent of all was the silence, broken only by the sound of a rower, the splash of oars cupping water, drops spilling like jewels.


I have seen partial solar eclipses from Los Angeles in 1970 and 1980 and from Boston in 1991. I have seen an annular eclipse—the “ring of fire” often captured in dramatic red photographs—from New Hampshire in 1994. A total solar eclipse, when the moon completely covers the sun, occurs somewhere almost every year or two but very rarely at any particular place; so when I had the means I also had a choice: see this phenomenon from Siberia in the winter of 1997—or the Caribbean a year later. That was a no-brainer. So I booked a tropical cruise for the total eclipse of February 26, 1998.

Moored off Guadeloupe, within eyeshot of the erupting volcano on Montserrat, the smell of sulfur in the air, our ship waited that day on the centerline of the eclipse track. When the dragon finally swallowed the sun, as the Chinese described it, unveiling the glory of the solar corona—the sun’s crown—its wispy outer atmosphere shining with preternatural light, passengers and crew shouted and cheered and clapped, and for three minutes we howled like wolves and wished it would never end.

Though I had flown to the Caribbean to see totality, I am nowhere in the league of serious eclipse chasers, who travel frequently to widely separated locales and spend thousands of dollars to stand in the shadow of the moon. While I had fantasized about visiting Easter Island for the eclipse of 2010, that kind of adventure had ended, as I married and the travel fund became the furniture fund then the college fund. 


Our first daughter was born on October 1, 2004. Her name begins with O. O as in October, the month of her birth. O like the roundness of the lunar eclipse only weeks later—an auspicious one, for on that night of October 27, at 11:40 p.m. EDT, while a ruddy full moon deep in Earth’s shadow hung over the stadium in St. Louis, the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in eighty-six years. As I fed our daughter formula from a bottle, all of Boston cheered and its church bells rang. That October was a very good month. 

Carrying O on my hip, I would point to the moon in all of its phases: a crescent in the dusk, a coin at night, or a pale balloon half-deflated yet floating high in the morning. At some point we gave her the book by Eric Carle, Papa, please get the moon for me, and turned and unfolded its pages to follow the story of Monica, who asked to play with the moon. Climbing a very long ladder perched on top of a very high mountain, her father reached the moon when it was full and round in the sky, but had to wait until it waned. Finally, “When the moon was just the right size,” he brought it down to Earth for her.

Once, when our daughter was five, as the sun was setting and the sky was darkening, I brought out my telescope and focused it on the moon. The neighborhood kids stood in line, peeked through the eyepiece and were amazed by craters they had never seen before. As O squinted to see for herself, I thought, like the father in Eric Carle’s book, I had gotten the moon for her.


Ever since the 1998 Caribbean eclipse, I continued to feel the gravitational pull of sun and moon, for beckoning me was the total solar eclipse of 2017, which would race across the continental United States. It would be the first total eclipse to span coast to coast in almost one-hundred years and millions would see it. The last one to even touch the US mainland was nearly forty years ago, and its track only clipped the Pacific northwest. As a family I resolved to see this event, for my girls would be seven and twelve then, aware enough to stare rapt as the sun hides behind the moon and old enough to remember it for the rest of their lives.

During our trip for the Great American Eclipse—as the media dubbed it—we stayed in cabins at Yellowstone National Park, where we hoped to see Old Faithful and bison and elk and maybe a wolf roaming free. I wanted my daughters to experience the world unmediated by a screen, to hike through prairie and sagebrush and listen to silence broken only by bird song.

On the morning of August 21, my wife and I woke a little before five o’clock. Until then I had suppressed thoughts about the next leg of our trip, after the eclipse, when we would fly to Los Angeles to see my family. My father’s cancer had spread to his liver, but he was eating and doing as well as expected for someone ninety-two years old. As we walked from our cabin, our daughters still sleepy, I paused to look up. The sky was partly cloudy, black and punctuated with stars where it was clear. 

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.
The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 

Ecclesiastes is a hymn to the cycles of our lives, enmeshed in greater patterns like whorls upon whorls in the stream that is time. Dawn was breaking. The air was cold, bracing. Shivering among the lodgepole pines, we were removed from industry and its effluence. Here the Edenic world insulated us and made it easy to forget our collective global footprint. The Earth abides, indifferent to us and our works, but does the Earth forgive?

We sat in our rental car while I went through my checklist: map, water bottles, eclipse glasses and telescope. The plan was to drive into adjacent Grand Teton National Park to the centerline of the eclipse track. I started the engine, turned out of the parking lot and merged into a stream of cars already on the road.

We were in the midst of a tight procession toward the same goal, a line of head-lamps shining in my rearview mirror, a line of taillights glowing in the darkness ahead of us. The road was a single lane in each direction, with a leisurely speed limit and few places to pass, but eventually the cars spread farther and farther apart until we were almost alone.

As we drove by the broad vista of Hayden Valley, I thought about the three women we had met in Bozeman, where we stayed before going to Yellowstone. The hotel breakfast room was filled with visitors coming for the eclipse, and these three friends, all teachers, had propped a sign by their table: Need eclipse glasses! Will buy! With heavily metallized, reflective lenses, eclipse glasses are vital, necessary eye protection for viewing the sun. The inexpensive ones in cardboard frames were sold out everywhere, but I had several extra and gave them each a pair. I refused their offer to pay and we chatted for a few minutes, sharing the camaraderie of worshipers on a pilgrimage. Then I wished them clear skies—the astronomer’s benediction.

After sixty miles through Yellowstone and twenty into Grand Teton National Park, we stopped to rest by Jackson Lake, its waters glassy in the morning calm. I worried about the clouds but there was time for them to burn off. The sun had risen and was still low. Distant peaks like jagged teeth thrust up from a plain that blazed gold in the glancing light. We drove for another hour before pulling into Teton Village—latitude 43° 34’ 48” N, longitude 110° 49’ 48” W—maybe a mile and a half from the centerline. 

After breakfast we staked our place in front of a restaurant hosting an eclipse party, its outdoor deck packed with excited people. High overhead the sun burned in a clear, alpine-blue sky that arched from the ski-slope behind us to the horizon east and the entire vault in-between.

An eclipse is described by the instants when solar and lunar disks touch or separate, about two hours and forty-five minutes from first contact at the start to fourth contact at the end. Totality would begin about 11:35 in the morning and last approximately two minutes and twenty seconds, the exact times depending on location and calculated years in advance.

I readied my telescope, its design more sophisticated than that first one I cobbled together so many years ago. Bouncing light between mirrors, folding the path from lens to lens for compactness, it projected an enlarged image of the sun onto a screen for communal viewing. But why was I drawn to this eclipse? Why fly across the country? Why go to such effort to build a telescope, first a prototype then the final version emblazoned with an Anasazi sun spiral?

In many traditions the sun is the first shaman, the first healer, the sun spiral emblematic of the rhythms of life or the constant motion of the universe. Having evolved a cerebral cortex over our primitive lizard brain, perhaps we worship these symbols out of an innate drive toward light and warmth, behavior as primal as an iguana sunning itself on a rock.

Someone shouted from the party on the deck. “It’s starting!” First contact. I put on my eclipse glasses and saw a dim, orange sun with a sliver carved from one side. Looking down at the projection from my telescope, I saw an image the size of a baseball and traced the growing indentation for my wife and daughters. For almost an hour and a half, we watched, entranced, as blackness consumed the star that gives us life.

Eventually we walked downhill to the road where a small crowd had gathered. Horses in the field there seemed unperturbed but we could feel the anticipation. A line of bright sparks, like a giant strand of Christmas lights, ran up the mountain behind us; people were watching suspended from the ski lift, the sun reflecting off their eclipse glasses.

Only minutes before totality, when the sun was reduced to a thin crescent, the light changed, casting no shadow and illuminating dimly with a gray, remote quality, as if a lamp was glimmering through x-ray film. Then the temperature dropped. “Maybe twenty degrees,” said a man on the sidewalk. I felt goosebumps from the abrupt coolness. I could smell summer grass, dry, almost like hay, from the broad, overgrown field. The horses lifted their heads. We could see the colors of sunset to the east, across the big valley to the distant mountains. The sky darkened and thousands of thread-like, undulating shadow bands danced over every surface, over the sidewalk, over us, rippling like the light at the bottom of a pool. “Cool,” said my daughters.

 “Remember this,” I said to them. “Put this in your memory box.” We will never pass this way again, I thought, holding the moment fast as we gazed up. 

Then—second contact. Totality began. We took off our glasses—totality being the only time to safely watch an eclipse with naked eyes. Day didn’t truly become night, but the sky overhead deepened to indigo, a color we could only see while standing at the tip of the moon’s shadow. Indigo, which Isaac Newton inserted into the rainbow so seven colors matched the seven notes of the Dorian scale. Indigo, therefore, a mystical frequency of light allied with the music of the spheres. Everyone was shouting, clapping at that hole in the sky, a perfect disk, black beyond understanding, black beyond belief, surrounded by the corona glowing an angelic white. 

Overhead, that ring of light was both dynamic and frozen in the moment, radiating energy even as filaments of the corona were pasted against the sky. Every culture has rendered the sun incarnate: Horus, the Egyptian god, a falcon whose right eye was the sun and left eye was the moon; Helios, Greek god of the sun, crowned with the rays of the sun, driving the chariot of the sun; Tawa, the Hopi creator and god of the sun; Surya, Hindu god of the sun, Buddhist god of the sun; UMvelinqangi, Zulu god of the sun and sky; Magec, Tenerife goddess of the sun. Every culture has its solar deity and paradoxically we feel its presence most when it is absent. This is what I wanted my family to see. This is what I wanted them to feel. While we sat at the dining table in the months before this trip, they had to trust me as I attempted—and failed—to describe that coronal light.

All too soon, brilliant sunlight burst from a single point then a band formed around the silhouette of the moon—the diamond ring effect. Third contact. We put on our eclipse glasses again. We could breathe again and blink in the second dawn of the day. Totality had ended.

My father would have liked the eclipse but was unaware of it, having long ago stopped following current events. Instead, he was content to bask on his porch and greet the neighbors by saying, “This is a good day.”

For a while, as I was growing up, he took the family on day trips every Sunday, and we often went to the nearby Griffith Park Observatory, which had a small museum with astronomical exhibits. I have a picture of my father by the sundial there. Though it must have been a weekend, he was standing in jacket and tie as if going to work. One time we saw the 100-inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson, and on another occasion visited the 200-inch Hale telescope on Mount Palomar—each, in their turn, formerly the largest in the world. Oddly enough, despite having brought home the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy, he never once looked through a telescope.

A little less than an hour and a half after totality, the moon slid completely off the sun. Fourth contact. The eclipse was over. Had he been here with us, sitting with his granddaughters under the warm sun, my father surely would have said, “This is a good day.”


Spectators doubtlessly took millions of photographs that August 21, but the luminosity of a total solar eclipse can only be experienced live. The spectrum of emissions correlates with temperature and, at -250 degrees F, the side of the moon that faces us during an eclipse radiates low energy electromagnetic waves that we cannot see—absolute blackness as far as we’re concerned. Dying embers, maybe 1,000 degrees F, glow red. The surface of the sun, ten times hotter at about 10,000 degrees F, is yellow. The corona, however, burns over one hundred times hotter still, at more than a million degrees, far hotter for unknown reasons than the sun itself. No wonder, then, why the corona blazes white with such purity, like the Empyrean in Dante’s Paradiso:

There is in heaven a light, whose goodly shine
Makes the Creator visible to all
Created, that in seeing him alone
Have peace; and in a circle spreads so far,
That the circumference were too loose a zone
To girdle the sun.

In my wife’s cell phone, our pictures of the Great American Eclipse show a pinprick in the sky surrounded by a foggy corona, yet they still evoke that singular day, so potent was the experience. How can we forget when the country paused and millions looked high at that magic alignment? How can we forget that communal moment when we all cheered and pointed to something greater and more wondrous than ourselves?


After the eclipse we flew to Los Angeles to visit my family. When I told my father about our trip, he nodded and smiled. He seemed comfortable, in good spirits, wanting nothing more than to sit on his porch and watch the cars go by.

A month and a half later I flew back to California for the service in his memory. As my sisters and I went through my father’s possessions, I searched for the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astronomy that he brought home when I was a boy. But it was long gone.

I did manage to buy another copy, though. The edition I have is over fifty years old and every so often I open it, weighty, faintly musty and filled with treasures. On one page is a drawing of a solar eclipse, fine rays etched around a crescent sun to suggest the corona, an inky sky emulating the darkness before totality. Another page illustrates the moon orbiting Earth and catching the light from the sun. Seeing that diagram, I closed my eyes; I heard my father’s voice as he swung a flashlight around a baseball to show me the phases of the moon. Then his voice became mine as I, not so long ago, demonstrated the same to my own two girls. I took that auditory memory as a handoff from one generation to the next. Like the Anasazi sun spiral, the cycles of the universe go on; as in Ecclesiastes: The sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. And like the sun during an eclipse, I did feel my father’s presence most in his absence.

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H.L.M. Lee is a writer, amateur astronomer, electronics engineer and owner of a small high-tech company. Besides numerous technical publications, he has also had articles and essays published in Sky and Telescope; Salon.com; the Cognoscenti column of WBUR.com, Boston’s NPR news station; and the anthology Nature’s Healing Spirit. H.L.M. Lee lives in the Boston area.