The forests were parched to the point of flame. All around us there was fire, the lowlands choked out with a tide of smoke so thick it piled in visible curtains. When we drove through the valleys it smelled like the coals themselves were cherrying under the hood of the car. It was the stink of summer heat gone hungry, of flame devouring heartwood and sunshine turned to violence. Fire crews had come to the Oregon Cascades all the way from Alaska to temper the flames that seized the horizon with a hot miasma of doomed chaparral and pine. Just the day before, we had climbed to the lookout on Coffin Mountain and watched a fresh plume scuttle up from the foothills of Mt. Hood, a fire only 15 minutes old, unnamed and already outpacing a sibling to the southeast. I asked the ranger for the names of the rest of them, so that I would know what to call the aftermath of scars when we searched for clearings to ski come winter.
But we had come to chase shadows, not smoke. At 6:30 AM an inversion kept the ridges clear as we hiked to the viewpoint where we planned to witness the first North American eclipse in over 3 decades. I was tired, watching my feet as we passed through a forest bearded with moss and bedded with pine needles, our steps quiet on the cushioned floor. There was nothing unusual as we climbed up the switchbacks, the heat already collecting to a sweat between my back and my pack. Where we cleared the trees, the ridgeline was a mix of bear grass flats and leaning talus. Between the subalpine firs, fireweed bloomed in narrow shocks of pink, as tall as our hips, the last of the mountain flowers before fall. We could see the jagged silhouette of Three Fingered Jack rising above the sea of smoke that, in the night, had grown heavy with cold air. The day’s heat would raise the haze again, and by the time we reached the summit of our ridge an hour later the details of that horizon were nothing but gestures.
A crowd had already gathered, a mix of campers and early hikers like us, with their cameras pointed toward the sun. Mt. Jefferson rose in front of the congregation, its profile just the ghost of a sketch against the faded blue barely visible behind a veil of burning foothills. Mt. Hood crowned the north above the smoke line, and we positioned ourselves on a spine of rock that viewed both peaks. It took an hour for the moon to move into position and take its first shy bite of the sun. Without eclipse glasses, you would have no idea. It took twenty minutes for the shadow to carve out the beginnings of a crescent mouth and even then the light was still bright, still mid-morning sharp. The wind breathed heavy against the rocks as a raven tested the currents with a few easy flaps then, perhaps sensing change, eased downhill and out of sight. People shifted back and forth on the path, and I seethed at them as they stood in front of my tripod to take their own photos. I wanted to be alone, wished for silence as I shivered in the cold and collected my body closer together, slouched up against my knees. I wanted things to feel sacred; I wanted the waiting to be full of tension and awe, to be struck dumb with pagan fear and moved to prayer, but such things are rarely so predictable.
The smell of sun-roasted heather and pine kicked up in gusts, a last homage to the heat that was leaking away with the light. It’s hard to imagine, but I want you to try: think of how an evening looks first, light dimmer than midday, of course, but also languid and thick, an amber molasses that hangs gold in the air and casts soft shadows. Now imagine that low light without the warmth or color, thin and gray and empty. There weren’t enough animals at our elevation for us to feel the visceral, circadian chaos of a whole ecosystem tripping over itself to make sense of the light. My parents told me that from their vantage, east of us in the desert, our family dogs had lay down to sleep when it got dark and the coyotes had begun to sing. We just had the cold, and it was all I could think about at the top of a land on fire.
When the circumference of a now perfect circle swallowed the last sickle of light, everything changed. Totality struck like a slow-motion guillotine, and the horizon bled dawn and dusk and gloaming all at once. The black-eyed bloom of the corona shed pedals of light in the middle of a sky turned lapis lazuli. I swore I could see stars, but mostly it was just jet trails chasing the dark. The cascades were ocean gray, the peaks swimming in a daytime aurora of smog. The purple clouds undulated against pale orange and ripe gold. The fires continued to billow into a wind that wouldn’t quit and Mt Jefferson’s profile popped against the burning backdrop. It was a 360-degree coronation of sunset pastels and burning pinks, a crown of shadow and fire.
Shivering against the stone, I felt naked. I craned my neck to view every inch of sky, traced a compass with my eyes and tried to memorize a map of it. How could I take this moment with me? My fumbled photographs were not enough. I myself felt like a reptile slowed from cold, like the victim of some backwards, ectothermic evolution. When the sun came back, I shook the stillness from my limbs and had to move. In the desert, my parents said, the wild horses received the new sun at a gallop, and ran across the hills until they reached the barbwire fence by the highway. I can understand their urgency, because in a minute flat I packed up all my things, strapped on my backpack, and skirted back to the trail. I needed to walk, I was suddenly alive and nauseous and shaking; the smoke glared in the sunlight and Mt. Jefferson was gone again behind it. I wanted to vomit or maybe to cry, but moving felt right, like forcing warmth into reptilian limbs. Something primitive had gutted me, the kind of wound that bleeds pure relief: the knowledge that nothing is sacred, that in the absence of light, we are all animals.