Chasing a Partly Cloudy Eclipse Across America
It’s the day before the eclipse, and I’m meandering west along I-80 into a sunset that seems to last forever. Someday a marketing intern will find everlasting fame when they rebrand the stretch of I-80 out of Des Moines as the highway of the eternal sunset or some other appropriate mythical name that captures what it’s like to drive straight west during late summer across Iowa’s rolling hills as the sun slowly fades from orange to red to a deep purple. It’s not that you can keep up with the sun as it melts into the horizon, it just feels like might as you cross over the hills.
I took the sunset as a good omen as I drove towards this year’s total solar eclipse. What I should have done is recognized it as foreshadowing for the long drive ahead.
I wasn’t planning on traveling to see this year’s eclipse, things have been really busy, and we were supposed to get a good view of a partial eclipse here in Minneapolis. What convinced me to chase the sun and the moon across the farm fields of Nebraska were all the descriptions I read of people who’d seen previous eclipses from the path of totality when I was researching Where to Go and How to Watch this Year’s Solar Eclipse.
Person after person described seeing a total eclipse as a once in a lifetime experience, that seeing a total eclipse was the type of thing that changed their lives. Their stories were infused with such passion and conviction that it was impossible not to get excited about seeing the eclipse and who wouldn’t like a few more once in a lifetime experiences.
So Nebraska, sitting there in the middle of the path of totality, within a ten-hour drive, located squarely in the middle of middle America and about as far away from major population centers as you could get. That meant there would be lots of room to move around depending on the weather and that I could find a reasonably priced room somewhere within a morning’s drive of the eclipse.
The morning drive was necessary because every room in the path of totality I could find was sold out, except for one room, in one motel, that wanted $300 a night and had a two rating on Yelp, which is way out of my budget and somewhere in my not if I can help it range on Yelp.
I also have to admit that I was curious to see Omaha. If you’re asking yourself why anyone would be curious about Omaha, you’re asking yourself a pretty good question. The thing is for almost thirty years, politicians and business leaders in Minnesota, particularly in Minneapolis and St. Paul, have been using the argument that unless the public ponied up the money for a new stadium, building a bigger airport, running a new light rail line, or building whatever shiny thing caught their fancy that the Twin Cities would become a cold Omaha.
I was intrigued to see how a city that was supposedly so lifeless and boring that it was used to scare old people from complaining about government spending could still exist and take up so much space on the map. After spending a couple of days downtown Omaha I have to admit that while I never saw anyone throwing slop into the streets or bringing out their dead, I’m a little less likely to complain about future tax increases at home.
Chasing a Small Patch of Blue Sky
Standing in the middle of Henderson, Nebraska, staring up at the clouds, mildly cursing, the only thing that was clear was that we were going to see a partly cloudy eclipse. The morning of the eclipse my alarm clock was rendered somewhat superfluous by the loud crashes of thunder and lighting outside the hotel. Things hadn’t been looking much better on radar, which showed the rain being replaced by a large mass of clouds that seemed, to me, to be shaped an awful like someone wagging their finger.
The rest of the morning was spent speeding across Nebraska to meet up with a friend who was going to be in the area. When we arrived in Fairview, there were pockets of blue sky floating off to the Northwest with a mass of dark clouds nipping at its heels.
We decided to channel Smokey and the Bandit and raced across back country roads trying to figure out where a small slice of blue sky would be available at the moment of totality. With one eye on the blue sky and the other on the clock, we raced past field after field of corn and soy beans; we passed race tracks, high schools, churches, and back roads full of people on lawn chairs wearing funny glasses.
Eventually, we ended up in the parking lot of a church in Henderson, out of time, still under the clouds with blue sky teasing us from a safe distance. We reluctantly found a park in the center of town where a few people had gathered to watch.
A Partly Cloudy Eclipse
What no one tells you in the run up to these things is what it’s like to sort of see a total eclipse. It’s like the advertising Nebraska used for the eclipse when they touted the state’s two-hundred and seventy days of sun without ever mentioning that seventy-five percent sunny is the same thing as twenty-five percent cloudy.
Overhead the clouds were coming and going, and we were left to watch what was happening in the sky on the small screen on the back of my camera. The $50 cardboard lens I sprang for was doing its job and letting us stare, in an indirect way, directly at the sun. On the small screen, we could see the moon moving across the sun as the light around us started to fade.
Standing in the park during the middle of totality it was easy to see why people throughout time have treated eclipses as mystical events. Think about how scary it would be to see the sky turn black in the middle of the day if you didn’t know what was happening.
As the owls softly hooted the sky darkened and we were serenaded by a large flock of cicadas singing as if night had fallen. What I will remember is how everything else stopped, there were no cars driving by, no lawn mowers running, no one trimming a tree off in the distant. All of the sounds of summer stopped as if everyone and everything decided to bear witness to what was happening in the sky.
After the Eclipse
Afterwards, before the long drive in stop and stop and go traffic on the way back to Omaha, we had a chance to explore Henderson, which is a prosperous little farm town that even had a table of old timers sitting in the café, none of whom seemed overly impressed with the day’s events.
I’m not sure if everyone in town was so nice because of the eclipse, because they live in a small town, or because they’re Mennonite. My guess is it’s a combination of all three. On the way out of town, I stopped at the Henderson Mennonite Heritage Park, which tells the story of the people who settled Henderson and was where most of the town had watched the eclipse.
Even though they’d had 500 people there and were usually closed on Mondays, they were nice enough to give me a tour, where I learned how early immigrants to Henderson came there to escape religious persecution in Russia and a little of what it took to build their community. If you’re ever passing along I-80 it’s worth stopping for a couple of hours.
I’m not sure what it was like for people who saw a partial eclipse, but everywhere I went during the rest of my trip people wanted to talk about what it was like to see an eclipse from the path of totality. Whether it was Lonnie, the farmer, who I ran into on a back road when I was taking pictures of his old John Deere tractor, the folks working in the bar where I had dinner that night, or the couple I ran into the next day hiking through the prairie at Blue Mounds State Park in Southern Minnesota.
What’s funny is the people who saw the eclipse under clear blue skies seemed more reluctant to talk about what they saw than those of us who stared up at the sun through a blanket of clouds. I wonder if they witnessed something we didn’t, something they can’t put into words.
Someday, I might see what they saw, but after covering a thousand miles in three days, I figured out that I’m not going to become someone who chases eclipses across the globe. I’m very thankful I got to see one from the path of totality and could easily see including an eclipse as a part of a future trip, but only if it’s somewhere I really want to go and one part of a trip.
There’s another side to the phrase once in a lifetime, which is where eclipses fall for me now. It’s the part of an experience that says after you’ve done something once, a box has been checked, something has been fulfilled, and that as great as the experience was it’s time to move onto the next thing.
Mark is Umami's publisher