The Trip to Totality – Letter to the School

Dear Mr H******:
I am writing to let you know that I will be taking my daughters to see the Great American Eclipse. I realize this is the beginning of the school year, but because of the rarity and magnitude of this celestial event, I feel it’d be okay for them to miss school. Can you imagine the wonder it might instill in them to stand in the moon’s shadow?

Maddie takes time to photograph the sunset before the full moon rises.

It was not an easy decision.
One day I was driving at work in an oilfield when I heard the writer and astronomer Kelly Beatty on NPR’s Here and Now, talking with Jeremy Hobson, about how stunned and awed he is whenever he sees a solar eclipse. In grade school, I’d seen a partial solar eclipse that looked like someone had taken a shot at the sun and had only grazed it. It made me want to see the total eclipse, but I was never to be in the right part of the world. When I’d first heard about the Great American Eclipse, I saw that path was right over where I’d lived and worked for years. Traveling to the path of totality was conceivable, an almost 14-hour drive, we could make it. My main concern was the eclipse will happen at the beginning of the fall semester and both my girls need to be in class at the high school.
But hearing the interview woke my childhood desire to see the sun blotted out and stand in the darkness during midday. To feel the magnitude of being in the shadow of the moon. We would literally be a part of something astronomical. I’d have the opportunity to teach my daughters the history and science of eclipses as we prepared to make our trip, and then we could be witness to it.
I weighed these things as the interview went on. Was I just pursuing my own boyhood desire? Was I only concerned with the spectacle of it? What was I looking for and hoping to find in the moon’s shadow? What was I hoping to give my daughters by taking them on this adventure? Sure, I thought, all of the above things, but what of the things we can’t know until it has happened? For the unknown and the transcendent experience. As Beatty talked with Jeremy Hobson, I decided my girls could miss a couple of days of school for that.
Who knows, maybe you will let them report back on what they learned as a benefit from losing their presence for a couple days. My girls have been learning about solar and night photography and we have taken some pretty spectacular shots of the sun and the full moon rising behind the windmill farm. We are also taking part in the citizen science project the Eclipse Megamovie organized and administered by University of California, Berkeley.

As soon as I opened the package we were staring into the eyes of the sun. You know. We were not blinded by the light.

My daughters have been asking thought provoking questions about the eclipse and what it will be like since I made the decision to go. They can put together a presentation about their journey and what they have learned in the processes. I selected a spot using interactive eclipse maps and Google Earth. I sent the latitude and longitude to a college friend who lives in the area and he scouted the location. We will be camped 50 miles up a gravel road on the exact center of moon’s path. They can share what we have learned about photographing an eclipse, the history, science and superstitions of solar eclipses. They can also demonstrate safe ways to view them. Most importantly, they can bring back the story of what it was like to stand in the shadow of the moon for two minutes and twelve seconds. What it was like to look west from a high ridge as the 64.3-mile wide shadow rushed across the land, engulfed them at the incredible speed of 2049 miles per hour, and then watched it fly east. What will the sky and land look like? Will the birds fly to roost or the coyotes howl? What stars and planets will be visible for that brief moment? What sense of awe will they carry out of the umbra’s darkness? What boon will they bring back for their friends and peers? I don’t know. I’ve never seen a total solar eclipse, but I’m anxious to share the experience with my girls.

Sophia journals at sunset as we await the last full moon before the Great American Eclipse.

I did an interview with Boise Public Radio and will be doing a follow up with them about our Trip to Totality. I have been keeping a blog about our preparations and, because I’m a writer, I have a book proposal in the works.
I plan to have them out of school on August 21 and 22. We might get back so they can attend half a day on the 22nd, but that might not work given there could be a million person traffic jam getting back.
Thank you in advance for your understanding and let me know if you want a report from the field. I will send this email to their teachers as soon as all of their email addresses are available. Some are not yet listed on their school profiles.
Sincerely,
Jerry D. Mathes II

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