Eclipse 2017: Connectivity and the Farthest-Reaching Party Ever

What hath connectivity wrought? Two eclipses, 47 years apart, tell a small piece of the story and raise questions about spontaneous gatherings in the 21st century.

In the early 1960s, I read an astronomy book that showed a total solar eclipse would pass a few hours from my home on March 7, 1970. I vowed then I would travel to see it; sure enough, seven or eight years hence, a group of us drove south from Petersburg, Va., to Tarboro, N.C., and watched the darkened moon blot out the sun. There was little traffic, and our carload was virtually alone in a field that stretched for miles.

At 99 percent total, the eclipse was pretty interesting. A bluish veil descended over earth, birds made night sounds and the few passing cars had their lights on. But the moment the eclipse reached 100 percent totality was incomparably different from the view a split second earlier -- surreal beyond imagination.

Shadow bands -- wavy lines like ripples on a pond -- stretched for miles across the landscape. The corona surrounding the blackened moon was a ring of pure white brilliance resembling burning magnesium. Only one other time -- the birth of my son -- have I witnessed anything so miraculous and remote from my life's other experiences. (For the best description I've ever read of the experience, read Bob Berman's "A Total Solar Eclipse Feels Really, Really Weird" at Wired.)

So, a few years back, when I first heard about the total eclipse that will cross America on Monday, I made a similar vow to witness the event. We chose Madras, Ore., because it's the least likely spot to experience clouds. Aware the event was gathering attention, we made hotel reservations a year in advance.

The closest accommodations not yet reserved were 43 miles away, in the town of Bend. No problem, we thought; we'd simply rise early and drive north on the generally empty roads of Oregon's high desert. We asked the tourism bureau in Madras for information about restaurants, restrooms and such, and they kindly proffered information by surface mail and email.

In late spring 2017, the warnings began.

Web articles and emails from Madras advised caution. The drive from Bend, normally 45 minutes, would likely take eight to ten hours. Local authorities suggested driving to Madras the day before and sleeping in cars. Missives warned drivers pulling off the sides of roads not to keep their engines (and air conditioners) running, as running vehicles risk igniting potentially lethal grass fires.

Emergency vehicles, other emails suggested, might not be able to reach distressed drivers having medical episodes. Restrooms would likely be overwhelmed as 1 million visitors and a high percentage of Oregon's 4 million residents cram into the 70-mile-wide path of totality.

The same story, it seems, was playing out across the entire path, stretching from Oregon to South Carolina: tens of millions of people forming 100 Woodstocks simultaneously and contiguously from sea to sea. With the warnings becoming ever more apocalyptic, and not being fond of crowds, my family and I reluctantly decided to cancel our visit to Oregon and miss one of the premier events of a lifetime.

Ironically, the internet that helps people avoid crowds and congestion (think of Google Maps or Waze) is helping to funnel millions into what could be one of the greatest congestion events in history. I suspect that a considerable portion of the crowd will be there not because of any abiding fascination with astronomy, but rather because this is the Era of Connectivity, and all their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pals are going.

This spontaneous massing for the eclipse is sibling to the frenzy that led to the Fyre Festival catastrophe that left many stranded in atrocious conditions in the Bahamas earlier this year and cousin to the Twitter mobs that instantly destroy the reputations and lives of random strangers who stumble over the wrong person's or group's sensibilities somewhere on social media.

As with Twitter mobs, traffic jams and mega-concerts, I'll continue using the internet to avoid crowds, not plunge into them. Let's see if more follow suit after Eclipsomania.