A Motorcycle Road Trip Rendezvous With The Great American Eclipse
Photography by Sam Bendall
“Space. The final frontier, these are the voyages…” We all know this monologue at least tangentially, and for me and many others these words were a profound part of childhood. Star Trek made me look up in awe at the heavens. Perhaps one day, I thought, I would travel among the stars as an astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle for NASA. Today I pilot a different kind of machine, a motorcycle, and it too is a vehicle made for exploration and boundless adventure. Loaded with full safety gear, one cannot help to feel somewhat similar to an astronaut too, protected and insulated from the vast elements of nature.
A decade ago, I made a pact with myself to rendezvous with the Great American Eclipse to come in 2017. I did not know how this story would play out, nor did I have any idea how I would get there. But I had been planning this one for a while in one form or another, with little notes around my life and dates set in my phone serving as a constant reminder. Before all the hype of the eclipse hit the news cycle and the population was going crazy about seeing this once-in-a-lifetime event, I started sketching a rough timeline of how my trip might go. At the time it was simple: drive as fast as possible, sleep in my car, watch the eclipse, and drive home so I could inevitably work the next day. As for the location of all this driving and sleeping in the car, I would make my way north from my home in Los Angeles to Oregon, which was the most ideal location for my compressed schedule.
It just so happens that by the time the calendar showed 2017, I had the great fortune and privilege of being a motorcycle journalist and motorcycle safety instructor. Straying from the original plan, it only seemed appropriate to make the trip on two wheels. Though I was entirely prepared to do the ride alone, my good friend Bobby joined me on his Triumph Bonneville T120—solo adventures are awesome, but those with friends are always more memorable. With one long day spent traveling from San Jose, CA to Bend, OR, we placed ourselves in a position close to the town of Madras. It would be one of the many towns along the North American continent where 100% totality of the eclipse could be experienced.
Our first night in Oregon was a great primer to the show in the sky, and we arrived at a great cafe called Spoken Moto after our long ride up the coast. After a handful of beers and some delicious sandwiches and ice cream to cap a day well spent, we opted to pitch camp outside on the lawn instead of behind the shop as originally planned. This proved to be a stupid decision, which we learned under the spray of the timed sprinklers that woke us up at midnight. Thankfully Brian’s (a co-owner of the shop) son Chris was working on his car in the garage nearby and heard us dragging our stuff off the lawn, half asleep and soaking wet. He graciously let us spend the night inside the cafe, which was much warmer and drier than our first choice for sleeping quarters.
We awoke early in the morning as you tend to when sleeping in new places, and though still tired from the trip and the midnight surprise, we got right on with the day to beat the traffic and get into a good position for viewing the event.
From the time we left California to the last person we told our story to, everyone stoked the fires of fear: it was a mass migration of humans to specific locations along a line, the traffic was going to be more than a bit noticeable. And if you were in a car, you probably experienced some such misery if you were in the eclipse’s path. On our exploratory cruisers we took advantage of lane sharing and didn’t have to suffer like our four-wheeled friends.
After poring over a number of maps and overlaying the path of the eclipse, I had a rough idea as to where we should set up and await the convergence of the celestial bodies. This involved venturing off the paved path and making our way along a few fire roads before reaching a remote location in the Oregon high desert. Then we waited.
You don’t witness a total eclipse, you experience it. It truly is a magical event and its finiteness only lends it more meaning. It is remarkable in its full effect; the majority of Americans witnessed a partial eclipse through glasses with solar filters or cut-out cereal boxes, but those in the path of the moon’s umbra were treated to a scene nothing short of spectacular. Unlike an Annular Eclipse, a Total Eclipse is when the moon is close enough to the Earth and therefore large enough to cover the entire sun, allowing the solar corona to be visible to the naked eye. Our location allowed us to view the total eclipse for just over two minutes.
At 9:06AM the moon began its eclipse of the sun. To view the partial portion at this point with the naked eye would be madness and likely a form of blindness. The sun is too mighty, and solar glasses are needed to watch the moon slowly bite away at our star. By 9:40AM, the moon had eclipsed about half of the sun. Around this time is also when strange things began to occur. The landscape dims as less light reaches the surface, yet everything retains a natural vibrancy unique from night or dawn, because the angle of the light is different. The temperature is also dropping steadily as the light’s leaving, and just before totality occurs, the air feels almost 20 degrees cooler.
At 10:18AM we are a single minute from totality. All of a sudden, in the distance, a shadow sweeps across the mountains and across the valley from the west. The light from the sun vanishes and above us is the vision of a black hole enveloped by the spectral light of the sun’s corona. The world goes silent. Every animal in the vicinity is probably wondering what the hell is going on. I look up and am completely blown away. A total eclipse is something that defies belief and no photo could really ever do it justice. The sky retains a beautiful deep shade of blue around the sun, and as you gaze down toward the horizon the color lightens in a smooth gradient. In every direction along the horizon, there appears to be a perpetual sunset with explosions of red, yellow, purple, and pink, while we remain enveloped in the moon’s shadow.
Two minutes and four seconds later, the sun explodes out from behind the moon and the dimmer switch of darkness abates. Daylight returns to the landscape. Bobby and I look at each other and marvel at what we just witnessed. We spent 533 miles and 11.5 hours in the saddle to come up to Oregon to watch a two-minute show. It was more than worth it.
We stopped off at Spoken Moto again for a final coffee and to talk with the Steve and Brian, the owners, who were enjoying the cafe’s second year of success. I also shared a recipe for a sparkling espresso and rocket fuel with the baristas, hoping that when I return it might be on the menu. The eclipse had me in a cosmic mood, and the next three days would be spent heading west toward the Oregon coast and then back down to California. We enjoyed sweeping forest roads through the lush Willamette National Forest, chased the Umpqua River along Highway 38, rode the coast back into California, and stared in wonder at the redwoods along Highways 1 and 128 as we rode back to the Bay.
Over four days we’d experienced: 1,500 miles of riding, 1 small child infatuated with our bikes, 2 complex fires, countless bugs hitting our visors, 12 beers, 10 cups of coffee, 7 bottles of Soylent, 11 protein bars, 3 real meals, 1 suspicious hotel, the courtesy and pleasure of company of kind people along the way, and most importantly, 1 mind-blowing, once-in-a-lifetime Total Eclipse.
The next eclipse that will pass through the United States will be on October 14th, 2023—my birthday in fact— but unlike the Great American Eclipse, this one will be an annular eclipse. Maybe it too will call for another wild ride to rendezvous with the cosmos all the same.