Jim is not one for half measures. And Jim wanted to see the solar eclipse in totality – and without clouds. And see it we did, in totality, with a cloudless sky:
Neither totality nor clear weather were the conditions where Jim is currently working, in NYC, or at our home, in Western Massachusetts, where I started the odyssey. And the weather where Jim had originally planned for us to watch was for clouds and rain. It took some rather extraordinary measures to find and get to a place with the correct conditions, a testament to Jim’s perseverance and also his skill at getting around in unfamiliar territory.
We ended up in Mitchell, Nebraska, right on the center line of totality, carefully plotted to be so by Jim using Google Earth, a Sky & Telescope solar eclipse atlas, a Nebraska state atlas, and half a dozen other online tools. Here was our vista, on the side of the road, where there was a steep rise affording a wonderful spot to park the lawn chairs loaned to us by Jim’s brother, Jeff, who lives in Omaha, the city we flew into to start our odyssey. The drop is a lot steeper than it appears in the pictures and the soil is very, very fine, almost ash-like, in which your feet sink for a few inches with each step, even where there’s grass growing on it. Did it get that way from the topsoil being stripped in the Dust Bowl or was it always like that?
You can see that we were not alone. On the way there, there were tons of people in the parking lots at the Scotts Bluff National Monument, which we passed on our way, and rangers setting up for what we heard was a capacity of 1,000 cars. We passed several wayside turn-offs with 20-30 cars in each of them. And there was a moderate stream of cars on the roads. It was really odd knowing that most of them were doing exactly what we were doing, like Druids flocking to a sacred ritual – or lemmings perhaps? ;-)
Jim had been careful to avoid the roads that were likely to be taken by people from Denver and environs, where the eclipse was not total and the population is high – and the GPS indeed showed solid red for stretches that he had avoided. There are a lot of back roads, however, meaning that there were many routes available to avoid traffic and there weren’t people fighting for roadside spots.
I know I was a bit worried, and maybe Jim was too, that we might not be able to just park on the side of the road, either because farmers or police would tell us to move on. But it was happening all over, no problem.
Everyone was friendly, introducing themselves, asking where we were from. There were two gas stations in Mitchell, both with lines for the bathroom of 10-15 people. I imagine those two stations had more people go through their doors on Monday than they generally get in a year. Most people we met (several on the line for the bathroom at one of the two gas stations) were from Colorado, but Tony, the guy next to us that you can see behind Jim in the picture above, drove 1,100 miles from somewhere in Indiana, all by himself because his family didn’t want to go – too far and involved camping. We weren’t the only crazy ones!
When we first sat down on our chairs, settling in for the start of the eclipse in about an hour, I mentioned to Jim that it was a really strange feeling: really exciting and at the same time kind of boring. We and dozens of people we could see, undoubtedly millions along the route of totality, just sitting and waiting for an event that would last for less than three minutes. I finished reading about the eclipse, the history from way back and from the last eclipse to cross the US, in Sky & Telescope’s special eclipse issue that I bought because it came with very fashionable eclipse glasses. Other than that, I just sat and looked and listened and relaxed. It was kind of nice to have nothing much to do. Crickets (or cicadas? something singing), cows out in the fields, pretty wild flowers, peace and anticipation.
Once the eclipse started, Jim and I both took peeks every few minutes.
Through the glasses or the binoculars, it was basically just a circle with a black bite out of it. Jim said he could see more through the binoculars, some features of the sun, but I couldn’t get it so that I saw anything more than a larger view of the black bite and was just as happy with the glasses.
It was getting darker, as if it were a somewhat cloudy day, but there was not a cloud in the sky. When totality was close, I looked at the field behind us and the sky was becoming an indigo blue.
As the bite out of the sun became larger it got considerably colder. What I didn’t know until my first day in Nebraska is that the wind blows there all the time, summer and winter. I had assumed, the temperatures being in the high 80s, that I needed to dress as lightly as possible. But, for some reason, I had brought two cotton sweaters with me, as well as a long-sleeved shirt. I had one sweater on when we got there as it was a cool morning, and a scarf, of course, because unless it’s sweltering, I have a scarf on. I put the second sweater on right away and put its hood over my hat (quite the fashion statement), and added the shirt as well as the temperature dropped quite a bit close to the time of totality, and was glad of all of it. I even put the hood of my sweater over my hat. (What the hell, everyone was looking at the sun.) Jim put on his raincoat, and our neighbors were fetching their jackets from their cars as totality neared.
The wind died down quite a bit just before totality and never picked up again afterward. And the extra layers were shed later when the sun was once again unobscured.
The dramatic drop in temperature when the light was still just seeming like a somewhat cloudy day gave me a profound feeling. The moon blotting out the sun, even by half or three quarters, was taking the warmth away in a way very different from what a cloud does. I felt a current of primal fear, with the clear knowledge of what it would be like if our sun was blotted out, even partially. Yes, the stuff of science fiction, but what came to my mind was the asteroid creating so much dust that the dinosaurs went extinct. Irrational in a way, but not entirely, and from deep inside, primal fear, not terror or anything near to it, but serious unease. I could really understand the fear of people experiencing an eclipse when they had no idea what was happening. Actually I can’t imagine that it would induce anything less than abject terror.
The progress of the shadow across the sun was quite slow, but when the tiny sliver of gold in the surrounding blackness of the view through the glasses, what was left of the sun, got really thin, it went faster. Then, for just an instant, the sliver became a fuzzy round blob at about 7 o’clock on the moon’s shadow. I thought that I was imagining that, the fact that it seemed like a round fuzzy blob just before totality, but I realize now that that was the first “diamond ring”, where, if you were looking without glasses you would see a white band all the way around the moon’s shadow and an oval flare as the last of the sun was just disappearing, the “diamond”.
It seemed like there was a tiny poof as the last tiny piece, at the lower left, went black. There were murmurs of awe from people all up and down the road and the darkness deepened. I immediately took off my eclipse glasses and looked at the totality.
The sky was not black but a deep, deep blue, and the ring of white around the solid black shadow of the moon was not just a ring, but flared out, decreasing the depth of the indigo in the area just around the sun. The blue right around the corona was a beautiful sapphire. I had the feeling of being in some kind of frozen state, of beauty combined with eeriness, of time seeming to stop, of normality being suspended, of the knowledge that huge, momentous things happen constantly without our knowledge or control. Awe. Awe at the sudden and, I knew, very brief, but really dramatic, difference, this gorgeous, alien shape in the sky replacing warmth and light. Awe at the beauty. Awe at my actually being there at a total eclipse of the sun.
I was fascinated by the 360-degree sunset-like effect. The sky was not black, not as dark as it appears in my panoramic photograph, taken with my phone, but much darker than a normal twilight. It was a deep, deep indigo, deeper toward the horizon until it turned a beautiful rose red, not the blood red of a true sunset, and not confined only to the west, although deeper in that direction. We didn’t see a sky full of stars like you would on a clear night, but Venus (we think it was Venus) was very bright just to the right of the sun.
And then, so very quickly, there was the second “diamond ring”. The first one had to be viewed through the glasses because you didn’t know it was safe to take them off until the flash of the diamond ring was gone. The second one, viewed for a nanosecond, was the sign to put the glasses back on. But what a beautiful nanosecond. The ring of white around the black shadow was still there and a brilliant burst of white appeared at the upper right. Again gasps from the people around and a cry of, “The diamond ring!” A feeling of joy came over me at the sight of the burst of white light, and of relaxation at the lessening of the disturbing absence of light and warmth. But at the same time, with the donning of the glasses, a sense of sadness and a void and emptiness that it was over, that I couldn’t look at it any more, that this was probably a once-in-a-life-time experience, that we were back to the mundane, the awe over. The feeling of the return to mundanity was profound.
Jim asked me shortly afterwards, “Well, was it worth it?” I was not prepared for a question that would engage my practical self. I was still processing the feeling of the let-down of its being over. I was full-on facing the reality of the return to the mundane. My response was, “I guess so.” But it was just something I said, not having really taken in the experience yet. Was it life-changing as some of the pre-eclipse writing had predicted? I don’t think so. But it was an experience like no other, I had feelings like I’d never had before, and those feelings raised my awareness of the monumental reality of the universe and our tiny place in it. Of course I had known this since childhood, but experiencing the eclipse took that knowledge out of the abstract. I’ve been lucky enough to see several lunar eclipses, once through a really nice telescope, and a partial solar eclipse (when I was working at Data General in the early ’90s, viewing it through a floppy disk, which is probably not an approved method nowadays, but you’d have to go to a museum to get one anyway). None of those experiences had the impact of this eclipse.
We sat for a while longer, putting on the glasses to occasionally look up at the growing golden crescent, but it was underwhelming after the totality. Some people drove off immediately after the totality. We left about 20 minutes later. Some appeared to be staying until the bitter end.
We had done a lot to get there, especially Jim.
Jim’s brother has lived in Omaha for decades, and Omaha was very close to the line of totality, so Jim booked us both into Omaha on the Friday before Monday’s eclipse.
The plan was to go to Homestead National Monument in Beatrice (pronounced Bee-a (as in at)-tris, with the stress on the a – why???), where NASA had special eclipse programming. Beatrice is an hour and three quarters from Omaha, so we would leave early Monday morning to get there in plenty of time even if there was crowding, traffic, etc.
The first hitch was that, due to thunderstorms, neither Jim, flying out of NYC, where he is working, nor I, flying from home, could leave anywhere near on time. Jim got to Omaha in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I got there at 3:15 Saturday afternoon, having gotten up at 4:30 AM to take a 7:45 AM flight. I was toast, especially as I seem to have eaten things I’m sensitive to in the Amex/Delta Sky Club in Atlanta during my hours-long layover, making me feel dreadful. So we went out to a lovely tapas dinner with Jim’s brother and niece, but there was no time for exploring Omaha. (I was hoping to see their art museum, which is reputed to be quite good, and the history museum, the spot where Lewis and Clark landed during their expedition, and perhaps even walk across the pedestrian bridge over the Missouri to Iowa, but it wasn’t to be.)
The second hitch was that the prediction was for heavy cloud and perhaps rain in Beatrice for Monday. Hotel/motel rooms were going for up to $3,000 a night near the line of totality, no lie. So we spent most of Sunday with me trying to recover from my food exploits of the prior day and Jim mapping out our non-Beatrice plan, calling all over for hours to make arrangements. He made maps of the route of totality, choosing a viewing venue and some alternates.
Jim found a room in Sidney, Nebraska – which was rather miraculous, as anything anywhere near the totality line was completely booked. And I don’t want to know what it cost. I know it wasn’t completely astronomical, but I also know it was more than the $50 that a night at the completely dark brown room in a really run-down, depressing town (or at least a really run-down depressing part of town) was worth. It was all the way across the rather large state, and a couple of hours from Mitchell, Nebraska, our eclipse destination.
Jim’s brother loaned us some folding chairs and a cooler. We stocked up on food and finally set out, post planning, around 4ish, stopping first at Cabella’s for a map of Wyoming, just in case the weather forced us even further west. Jim would have driven to the Pacific if necessary!
The drive from Omaha to Sidney was about six hours, even with the speed limit 75 mph. (There are roads in Nebraska with turn-offs into businesses where the speed limit is 65.) We went from Omaha, in box 55, all the way on the eastern edge of Nebraska, to box 43, almost clear across the state, 395 miles. On Monday, we drove up to box 28, right on the western edge of Nebraska.
At first it was corn and more corn with lots of prairie sunflowers on the edges of the fields. After our stay in the brown motel room with the view of an empty swimming pool and a large boat out of the water beside it and some rusty pipes and other junk, getting up at 5:30, we drove about two more hours to Mitchell. The corn changed to rolling grasslands with strange rock formations.
Fairly close to Mitchell is Scotts Bluff National Monument which has incredibly beautiful rock formations, the kind you see in pictures of the West, but which I’d never seen before, not having been anywhere they existed. Here’s a shot out the windshield of the car of the first of these formations we passed, me being very excited to see something like this:
The other thing that I found quite exciting and strange was that the road we were on was following the Oregon Trail for several miles of our route. It was strange because it was just a seemingly normal road. (See picture above – does that look like the Oregon Trail to you?) Without roadside signs, you’d have no idea of the history behind it. (Jim and I were reminiscing about the Oregon Trail computer game. We bought it for Isabel, who was in first or second grade when we got it, but it was really well designed and fun for all of us. I just looked it up: it was developed in 1971 – for what platform, Multics?? – and still exists, running on computers, tablets, and phones. I might have to download it!)
After the eclipse, when we left our viewing site, we headed north for a few miles to Agate Fossil Beds National Park. You can see it on the map above.
The park had had eclipse events so there were lots of people and cars. In the early 1900s they had found large beds of fossilized bones at the site, but we had a nine-hour drive back, so we skipped the bones and toured the incredible collection of Lakota Sioux clothing, implements, bows, arrows, etc. It was incredibly sad – James H. Cook, who collected all the artifacts, was a great friend to Red Cloud, the leader of the Lakota, and tried, obviously unsuccessfully, to help the Lakota keep their land and way of life. And the objects were truly beautiful.
When we left Agate, we were on a dirt road, white, hard, presumably limestone “dirt”. It went on for over an hour with grasslands and a few cattle and some brilliant green fields with those long, long irrigators here and there. There were maybe three houses in 60 or 70 miles. At one point we passed a bull so large Jim and I thought it was a sculpture or a buffalo at first. He was very calmly lying down and looking around. Very handsome.
Toward the end of that road the houses were far closer together and there were a lot of railway lines. There were dozens and dozens of railroad cars with one engine behind, two in the front, and dozens of these trains, none of them moving except the very first one we saw, which was slowing to a stop, just sitting on the tracks. We saw them for miles and miles of our trip, all stationary. Most were full of coal. BNSF, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway, owned by Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffet’s company, based in Omaha.
That drive really brought home to me how different our lives are in different parts of the country. You’d see a tiny house with four huge farm machines, each costing over $100,000, I’m sure. And you’d go for dozens of miles without seeing a house at all. The whims of the weather and government farm and trade policy could break you in an instant.
We stopped at a truck stop after about two hours and it was my turn to drive. Pulling out of the truck stop, the GPS lady says, “Turn left onto Route 2, stay straight for 4 hours.” Me: “What????” She was completely accurate in her directions. Four hours back to the Interstate through miles and miles of the same rolling hills, a handful of tiny, bleak towns, and then hours on the Interstate back to Omaha. It was a slog the last few hours, both of us fighting sleep and taking turns driving.
But, thanks to Jim’s planning and perseverance, we’d done it – totally and cloudlessly.