I was not prepared for how incredible the total eclipse was. It was, literally, awesome. Almost a spiritual experience. I also did not anticipate the crazy-ass, reverse storm-chasing car ride we'd need to undertake in order to see it.
I'm not a bucket list sort of person, but ever since seeing a partial eclipse back in college in the 90s (probably this one), I have wanted to witness a total solar eclipse with my own eyes. I started planning for the 2017 event three years ago...the original idea was to go to Oregon, but then some college friends suggested meeting up in Nebraska, which seemed ideal: perhaps less traffic than Oregon, better weather, and more ways to drive in case of poor weather.
Well, two of those things were true. Waking up on Monday, the cloud cover report for Lincoln didn't look so promising. Rejecting the promise of slightly better skies to the west along I-80, we opted instead to head southeast towards St. Joseph, Missouri where the cloud cover report looked much better. Along the way, thunderstorms started popping up right where we were headed. Committed to our route and trusting this rando internet weather report with religious conviction, we pressed on. We drove through three rainstorms, our car hydroplaning because it was raining so hard, flood warnings popping up on our phones for tiny towns we were about to drive through. Morale was low and the car was pretty quiet for awhile; I Stoically resigned myself to missing the eclipse.
But on the radar, hope. The storms were headed off to the northeast and it appeared as though we might make it past them in time. The Sun appeared briefly through the clouds and from the passenger seat, I stabbed at it shining through the windshield, "There it is! There's the Sun!" We angled back to the west slightly and, after 3.5 hours in the car, we pulled off the road near the aptly named town of Rayville with 40 minutes until totality, mostly clear skies above us. After our effort, all that was missing was a majestic choral "ahhhhhh" sound as the storm clouds parted to reveal the Sun.
My friend Mouser got his camera set up — he'd brought along the 500mm telephoto lens he uses for birding — and we spent some time looking at the partial eclipse through our glasses, binoculars (outfitted with my homemade solar filter), and phone cameras. I hadn't seen a partial eclipse since that one back in the 90s, and it was cool seeing the Sun appear as a crescent in the sky. I took this photo through the clouds:
Some more substantial clouds were approaching but not quickly enough to ruin the eclipse. I pumped my fist, incredulous and thrilled that our effort was going to pay off. As totality approached, the sky got darker, our shadows sharpened, insects started making noise, and disoriented birds quieted. The air cooled and it even started to get a little foggy because of the rapid temperature change.
We saw the Baily's beads and the diamond ring effect. And then...sorry, words are insufficient here. When the Moon finally slipped completely in front of the Sun and the sky went dark, I don't even know how to describe it. The world stopped and time with it. During totality, Mouser took the photo at the top of the page. I'd seen photos like that before but had assumed that the beautifully wispy corona had been enhanced with filters in Photoshop. But no...that is actually what it looks like in the sky when viewing it with the naked eye (albeit smaller). Hands down, it was the most incredible natural event I've ever seen.
After two minutes — or was it several hours? — it was over and we struggled to talk to each other about what we had just seen. We stumbled around, dazed. I felt high, euphoric. Raza Syed put it perfectly:
It was beautiful and dramatic and overwhelming — the most thrillingly disorienting passage of time I've experienced since that one time I skydived. It was a complete circadian mindfuck.
After waiting for more than 20 years, I’m so glad I finally got to witness a total solar eclipse in person. What a thing. What a wondrous thing.
Update: Here are some reports from my eclipse-chasing buddies: a photo of Mouser setting up his camera rig, Nina’s sharp shadow at 99% totality, and Mouser’s slightly out-of-focus shot of the Sun at totality (with an account of our travels that day).