Chasing the eclipse
With forecast Saturday evening looking cloudy for Eclipse Day in St. Joseph, Mo., fellow amateur astronomer Clint Branham and I did the only thing we could to change the weather: We decided to change location.
By nearly 800 miles. Destination: Casper, Wyo.
By golly, we WERE going to see the eclipse, no matter what.
You know how last- minute change of plans affects things: Our 7 a.m. departure soon turned into 10 a.m. And the long drive began.
Fourteen hours later — at 2 a.m., we pulled into the driveway of Clint’s uncle’s house in Casper. At 7 a.m. we rolled out of the driveway, more or less not knowing where we were going. Clint headed west, driving up Mount Casper, where we gained 2,000 feet of elevation in under 5 miles. The places to pull off were already packed with cars. Because of the steepness of the mountainside, places to set up for viewing were packed. Clint and I also worried that the mountaintop might block the eclipse. Not wanting to chance it, we kept driving.
Up. And up. Until we got to the top. Instead of parking, Clint decided to keep going. We had plenty of time, so could always turn around. Then we came out of the trees on a ridge overlooking a broad valley. Bingo.
And even more bingo: There was a decent number of cars on the side of what had just become a dirt road, but they were scattered out. Pulling off, we asked a family if we could set up beside them. They welcomed us.
The task of setting up cameras, planning where to aim them, and educating the family we’d adopted, consumed a lot of time. As the eclipse start time approached, we reviewed everything we were going to do. Then it started.
I’ve seen lots of eclipses, so the start was nothing special, just a tiny black line on the edge of the sun.
As the moon moved in front of the sun, the black arc covered more and more of the sun. Until it was way past anything I’ve seen.
All along the way, every couple minutes, I took photos of the progress, using a piece of solar-safe film taped to the telephoto lens.
As the percentage through the high 80s and into the 90s, the sky turned a weird, surreal color. Looking west, we could see the hillside turning black. The eclipse was on us!
Seconds before totality, I pulled the film from the lens and started shooting photos. Not having even done it before — even though I’d read about it, watched videos about it, and thought it through in my noggin — I was not ready. At least I didn’t feel that way.
I mashed the camera button and started firing photos at 6 frames a second.
As the darkness approaches, we could hear cheers from people west of us.
Then: BAM! Darkness.
In the sky the corona suddenly appeared. Seeing the corona is something I cannot describe.
I shouted in joy as a feeling of supreme awe filled me.
Cheers of amazement rolled off to the east, marking the shadow’s march across the United States.
“Take photos!” my mind shouted at me. At some point I’d stopped shooting photos. Camera back to my eye, I started shooting again.
It seemed like 20 seconds at most: Suddenly, what was actually 2 minutes and 23 seconds was over.
The sun flashed back into view as the moon marched on its way, casting a shadow farther and farther east.
I wish I’d taken more photos, and at the same time I’d just stood there and watched the spectacle.
A few minutes later — 25, to be exact — our friends in St. Joseph either did, or did not, see totality. Some were clouded out (they saw the sky get dark, then get bright again), but did not see the glory of the corona; others saw it through clouds, and some, only a few miles away from people who were clouded out, saw the clouds part to offer then the royal eclipse treatment.
Despite the forecast, most people in the nation got a decent taste of totality.
So did we drive a long way for “nothing?” We were somewhere in Nebraska on our way to Casper, when I read the National Weather Service office in Kansas City’s eclipse forecast, which began with the word “Unfortunately,” we knew we’d made the right decision.
As more and more of the sun returned to the sky, most of the people around us packed up and left. We stayed until the moon completely left the sun. We loaded, then executed our plan to drive west to a state highway, then go south to Laramie, Wyo., then on to Denver. When we found ourselves in a 40-mile-long traffic jam, we turned around to head back to Casper.
A friend had been in Glendo, Wyo., east of Casper. She reported it took more than 2 hours to drive the few blocks to get on the interstate and once on the interstate, she was barely moving.
The Waze traffic app is a great thing: It suggested we take state highways north of the interstate. So we did. Our friend reported that our decision was a good one. We arrived in North Platte, Neb., at 2 a.m. Had we stayed on the interstate, we would have been much later.
A decent night’s sleep and we were back on the road.
I stepped onto my driveway at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The numbers: 56 hours on the road in a small car; one meal purchased, the rest pulled from a stocked cooler; one hotel room; nearly 2,200 miles — all for 2 minutes 23 seconds of darkness.
Was it worth it? Undeniably. Absolutely. Without a doubt.
A friend, Lynn Hostetler, called me on the day after the eclipse to tell me that before the eclipse he wasn’t sure why he should drive four hours just to see totality. He said he didn’t understand why it was such a big deal.
He called me to tell me how awesome it was. The excitement in his voice told the story.
When I asked him if he wanted to go to the next eclipse, he asked where. “Chile,” I said.
“I’m going to have to think about that,” he said. “I can see why people chase eclipses. They are addictive.”
“Yes. Yes they are,” I replied. July 2, 2019. Chile. Can I wait until April 8, 2024, for the eclipse that will cast most of Arkansas into total darkness during the day?
Lynn said it: “They are addictive.”
The composite photo is made up of 13 images taken in Casper, Wyo., during the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse.