That’s the metaphor I kept hearing from my fellow travelers when they tried to describe what it’s like to see your very first solar eclipse. I was on my way to Libya, where I hoped to lose my “eclipse virginity” as these guys and gals like to call it. If I was the equivalent of a virgin in this crowd, then these folks, judging by the size of their telescopes and telephoto lenses, could only be called eclipse sluts. Not that being an eclipse slut is a bad thing, because these were some of the most interesting people I’ve ever come across.
There was Bob, the petroleum geologist from Arp, Texas, who took me on a walk through the desert, pointing out all the fossils and minerals that I’d never realized were all around us. Suddenly, I saw the desert with new eyes. Burning with the zeal of the newly converted, I started picking up handfuls of interesting rocks to take home — a decision I’d later pay for when I tried to get my two-ton suitcase to the airport. Bob thinks filling your suitcase with rocks is perfectly normal behavior. This is a guy who once paid for an extra airline seat to transport home a prize 200-pound rock. And then at the airport, asked for a wheelchair so he could get it aboard the plane.
There was Sheila, an environmentalist from Washington, and her husband David, a biologist with the National Academy of Sciences. David can explain the life cycle of just about every fish or crustacean that crosses your dinner plate. Life may be futile and death may be inevitable, but as David says: “There’s always seafood!”
There were rocket scientists and computer geeks and nuclear engineers. And there were really serious backyard astronomers, lugging a fortune in optical equipment, guys whose idea of a great Saturday night is shivering outside in zero degrees, perfectly sober, searching the skies for a glimpse of the North American Nebula.
These were the folks with whom I shared the Libyan desert that day. We were joined by thousands of eclipse chasers from around the world, all of us milling about in the heat and dust, waiting for the main event.
An NPR reporter who was at the scene described it this way in his radio broadcast: “It’s like a refugee camp for nerds!”
He got it right. I love nerds. I married one.
So what was it like, losing my eclipse virginity?
I remember how the light changed during the hour it took the moon to gradually cover the sun, as though thick clouds were moving in. But the sky was perfectly clear.
I remember how the wind suddenly and eerily picked up, as though something evil was whirling toward us.
I remember how cold it suddenly got, the temperature plunging fifteen degrees within just a few minutes.
And I remember that as the last flicker of daylight vanished, the normally deadpan engineer who was standing right next to me suddenly yelled out: “I … SEE …CORONA!”
For these guys, it really is like having sex.
During totality, Venus and Mercury appeared in the sky. Exuberant Libyans honked their car horns. Birds suddenly took off, confused by the darkness. All around us was a 360-degree sunset.
Four and a half minutes later, totality ended. The sun reappeared, the wind died, and folks began to pack up their telescopes and camera gear.
And I came home.
I don’t know if I’ll ever use any of this in a book. A writer can’t always predict if a seemingly trivial experience will work its way into a story. You don’t know if the confabulating tour guide or the grinning boy on the camel will blossom into fictional characters.
What’s important is that writers seek out these experiences, that we continue to put away memories. That we never stop asking questions and exploring new places. It’s not self-indulgence; it’s part of the job.
And a special message to the Indonesia Hackers Society: boys and girls, you’ve been very, very naughty!