My curiosity to see last Monday’s American Eclipse, 2017, in “totality” had been planted in my mind in 2014. It was then that I met and became intrigued by the possibility after hearing the stories of Clinton-area solar eclipse enthusiast Spencer Young, who had experienced many adventures traveling with tour groups to witness total eclipses of the sun in such remote destinations as China’s Gobi Desert, Indonesia, Tahiti, Turkey, the Caribbean Sea and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
“A total eclipse is a sight you owe it to yourself to see if at all possible,” Young told me. “Nothing else is like it. … A total eclipse will be passing not far south of Terre Haute in August of 2017.”
My only solar eclipse-viewing opportunity before meeting Young had turned out to be “So what?” in my opinion. Some 15 years before my discussion with him, a roughly 90-percent eclipse had been visible in Terre Haute, but although the sky dimmed, even 10 percent of the sun shining enabled a person to safely drive a vehicle without needing headlights.
In spite of my disappointment with the partial eclipse, as this year’s nation-crossing total eclipse approached, I called Young in the spring and asked if I might join him as he observed it in its totality. He gave me the go-ahead, which set in motion my trip to witness the eclipse in a west suburb of St. Louis in the driveway of the home of his friends, Jim and Joyce Trotter, St. Louis-area professional photographic artists.
I was on my way to the most captivating if fast-fleeting 1 minute and 7 seconds of my life.
The eclipse — which began off the coast of Oregon and then raced at 2,600 miles per hour across the United States to South Carolina with its shadow moving at speeds between 1,500 and 2,400 mph, depending on the part of the country — would be America’s first coast-to-coast total eclipse since 1918.
During my Monday morning drive on Interstate 70 to St. Louis, I saw blinking warning signs alerting motorists to beware of unusually high traffic volume through the following day, but at the time of my drive west, traffic was normal. Only later in the day did I realize how accurate the traffic alerts would prove to be. Millions of us Americans got caught up in the excitement of viewing last Monday’s eclipse, more millions took in the sight on television or the internet, and still more millions watched partial eclipses by direct observation in areas where the view of the sun was not obstructed by clouds.
Driving along I-70 en route to the eclipse gathering in the St. Louis area, I wondered how I would react to seeing the sun completely blocked by the moon. Would it really be a “Wow!” experience? Would I have deeply felt primal sensations or new insights into the nature of light? An epiphany?
I had read news warnings about the need to put on specialized eyewear during the eclipse but had not realized that this eyewear would be so hard to acquire if I waited to get it until the week before the eclipse.
On Aug. 17, I visited the UAP Clinic’s Optical Shop to see if it had eclipse-safe eyewear and was informed that apparently none was available for sale in the Terre Haute area. Terre Haute’s two Walmarts and other stores had already sold out; no more protective eyewear was supposed be in stock before the big day. Also, I was told at the optical shop that they had received information the Vigo County Public Library had already passed out its supplies.
On a frantic wild hunch, I immediately drove north to Clinton’s Walmart, where service associate Danyele Fisher informed me that her store was out of approved protective eyewear, but she did more to help me, first calling Greencastle’s Walmart. Learning that this store too was out of safe eclipse eyewear, Fisher took compassion on me.
She told me that in her personal possession she had an extra pair of special glasses that were not going to be needed because her daughter’s school had changed plans to take students on a field trip to see the eclipse. Instead, students would watch the event on the internet. I felt very lucky as I drove back to Terre Haute with my important special eyewear.
I arrived at the Trotters’ half an hour before the eclipse’s initial stages. Young and the Trotters had already set up special cameras to record the event; additionally, Young had brought his telescope for observation. After introductions, I found myself pleasantly settling into this initially slow-moving but then all-too-quick solar phenomenon.
The Trotters were excellent hosts. We visitors were served hot pizza, cupcakes and soda. Before the eclipse began advancing toward its final stages leading up to totality, the Trotters managed to make the wait interesting for me by showing me the many large and beautiful photographic images they had taken, which covered the walls of their home, showing St. Louis landmarks as well as sites they had photographed around the world from Venice, Italy, to Monument Valley in Utah. Jim’s popular photographic book, “The Best of St. Louis,” now in its fifth edition, can be found throughout the St. Louis area.
Everybody at the gathering became more engaged in the eclipse’s progress as the moon appeared to slowly work its way down into the sun over the course of the coming hour. But there was a problem.
Although it was a beautiful day with mostly blue skies, an alarming number of big fluffy cumulous clouds were floating overhead. If a cloud happened to be in front of the sun for the 1 minute and 7 seconds that it was to be in total eclipse mode at our observation point, seeing the sun would be impossible even though the sky would darken.
While I considered this unwanted possibility, Young told me that once he had been with a large tour group that had gone to Tahiti to see an eclipse, and the organizers decided to split the group into two sections.
“The section that I went with was able to see the eclipse in its totality,” said Young, “but the other group ended up in a location that had thunderstorms.”
Young’s shared other reminiscences that were an entertaining lyrical background to the early afternoon’s cosmic light show.
“What first hooked me on solar eclipses,” Young said, “was an experience I had on the island of Java in Indonesia in 1983. From my observation point, the eclipse at totality appeared to be occurring over a live smoking volcano.”
Young continued helping to pass the time, as our eclipse slowly approached totality. He related a story from his solar eclipse trip to a location near Batman, Turkey, which was close to the country’s southeast border with Iraq.
“The government sent a tank along with us because at the time they were concerned we could be in danger due to the activities of Kurdish separatists. We never had any trouble. When totality approached, the tank driver seemed to enjoy watching the eclipse along with the rest of us. …”
The most recent eclipse tour that Young had taken was to the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway.
“It turned out to be a splendid sight,” he recalled.
Soon Jim Trotter observed, “The eclipse is now at almost 90 percent.”
Meanwhile, problems loomed overhead. Another bank of cumulus clouds approached the sun. … Then the clouds moved on and the sky again became blue — just in time, for light from the sun was dimming to the point that nearby streetlights were turning on.
Even at 95 percent eclipse, sufficient light was available at our location that it was not darker than mid-twilight, but the light did seem to possess an eerily unusual character.
Eclipse action started moving at a seemingly more rapid pace. A 97 percent eclipse became 98 percent, then …
I did not know what to think or feel. It was night-like dark. Could I view the eclipse without protective eyewear?
“Go ahead. The light is just the sun’s corona,” Young told me.
I gazed up in awe at the black hole in the sky, where although the sun was obscured by the moon, the blazing white corona being emitted by the sun shone out around the entire circumference of the moon, a truly marvelous and unforgettable sight.
Was the air really cooler in the darkness? I took a moment to observe. Maybe.
I removed my gaze from the sun’s corona to glance around in the sky for visible stars. If there were any, I did not spot them quickly enough.
During this brief time the eclipse’s totality vanished like a soap bubble. By the time my mind adjusted to it being light again — in fact, much lighter second by second — the fleetingly wonderful experience of witnessing the total eclipse of the sun was over.
The Trotters’ eclipse gathering broke up shortly after totality, but for another hour or so, though the sky would be bright, the spectacle of the moon crossing down in front of it would be visible for people wearing protective eyewear.
I began my drive back to Terre Haute in mid-afternoon traffic that seemed normal.
Arriving on the east side of St. Louis, I detoured for a 10-minute drive off of I-55 to have lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant south of St. Louis University, which a friend had recommended. When I entered the establishment, the sky was bright and sunny, but by the time I came back outside less than an hour later, it was cloudy all the way across the western sky. If the clouds had moved in just a little earlier, they would have completely obscured the total eclipse for me and thousands of others in the St. Louis area.
By the time I returned to the interstate, its lanes for Illinois and Indiana were jam-packed. Traffic soon came to a total standstill with the vehicles of eclipse watchers heading home from points farther south where the eclipse could be seen in totality.
As soon as possible I exited I-55 and drove through downtown St. Louis to get onto I-70. Once I got back up on the Interstate and crossed into Illinois, I again found the highway severely clogged by post-eclipse traffic moving along often at no more than 20 miles per hour. Throughout the trip back to Indiana, traffic was very slow because so many people had driven to a place where they could see a total eclipse of the sun.
No doubt many of these cars carried young people whose parents had taken the time to drive them to see the solar event. I suspected many of the kids would remember the amazement of the eclipse for the rest of their lives.
Notwithstanding the traffic, I felt glad I had taken the time to witness the eclipse with my own eyes, perhaps the only time I will have the opportunity to enjoy such a fantastic if brief spectacle.