Totality

It started with a letter in the mail in the summer of 2008, and ended Monday in a Burger King parking lot in St. Clair, Missouri.

We got what seemed like just another solicitation from our alma mater. The Harvey Mudd College Alumni Association was sponsoring a trip to China and Tibet to see the total eclipse of July 2009. I remember looking at the letter and telling Julie something like, “Ha ha! We should do this.” and then, upon further consideration, “No, really, we should do this!” We signed up and paid our deposit. Then Julie got laid off.

We considered backing out of the trip, sacrificing our deposit. But the more we thought about it, the more we realized that the trip might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So we decided to go anyway, regardless of the finances. We are fortunate and privileged to be able to make that choice.

The trip to China was fantastic. We met up with some friends we had known in college, and met other alumni we had not known before. We flew to Beijing and stayed for a few days. From there it was on to Xian, then Chengdu, then up to Emei Shan, where we were to see the eclipse. This location had been chosen by Sirius Travel, who specializes in eclipse tours and was conducting our trip. It was supposed to have a very good chance of good weather.

It didn’t. The eclipse was supposed to happen about 8:00 in the morning. About 4:00, I woke up in our hotel room to a pounding rainstorm. This was before the widespread availability of smartphones; all I had was a Nokia flip-phone. I called my mother in Missouri and asked her to get on her computer and look at the weather in China. She responded that it did not look good. I really didn’t need her to tell me that.

The tour group assembled on the lawn where we were to view the eclipse, but all we saw were grey clouds. We started making our own fun, creating rock sculptures and offerings to the eclipse gods. Apparently they were not satisfactory, as the eclipse came and went without us seeing any of it. It got dark under the clouds, then got (slightly) lighter again. We had missed it.

Eclipse veterans told us that it still “counted”, as time in totality. I didn’t listen; it didn’t count as far as I cared, because I hadn’t seen it. (The rest of the China / Tibet trip was amazing, by the way. The lack of eclipse didn’t diminish what we experienced on the rest of the trip, especially given that China closed off travel to Tibet shortly after our visit.) (Not that it was our fault, I think.) (I mean, I can’t be sure, but it’s not like we did anything egregious.) (Okay, Eric’s dad did take a picture of Chinese soldiers from the tour bus after we were told not to, but I really don’t think…)

I don’t remember when I started looking for the next eclipse opportunity, but I think it was still on that trip. I found that an eclipse was to go across the United States in August 2017, going just south of St. Louis. My parents still lived in St. Louis at that time, so I told them to put it on their calendars, because I was going to be there.

Fast-forward to early 2017. My parents had since retired to Texas, and I had literally no family remaining in St. Louis. Still, it seemed like a good location to view the eclipse. We made hotel reservations in Chesterfield, a suburb to the west of St. Louis. Our hotel was in the path of totality, but if we went south a bit, we could get a longer time in totality. We decided to try to get to St. Clair, very near the centerline of the umbral path (meaning maximum time in totality).

From Xavier Jubier’s interactive map: http://www.eclipse2017.org/xavier_redirect.htm

 

My parents joined us in Chesterfield. I worried about crowds and clouds. News reports predicted horrific traffic jams as people tried to get to the path of totality. My big concern, after our experience in China, was getting stuck underneath clouds. To address this, I had studied the map extensively, ready to drive in any direction that seemed to have clear skies.

In fact, on Monday the 21st it wasn’t clouds or crowds that frustrated us, but bureaucrats. The St. Clair website had recommended an abandoned airport north of town as a good parking and observing location for day-trippers from St. Louis. When we got there, however, two official cars blocked the road. The St. Clair official told us that the FAA wouldn’t allow them to use the airport. We had to go someplace else.

I drove back down the road about a half-mile, to a Burger King, so we could use their restrooms. As we sat in the parking lot, we noticed that the cars around us were waiting for the eclipse. We decided to wait there until someone made us move. In the event, no one ever did. Kudos to the Burger King management for not kicking us out. They were busy making money from all the people coming from out of town. The lines for food were literally out the door.

We had been smart enough to arrive about an hour before first contact. As we waited, more and more cars filled up the lot, and the dirt/weeds/gravel patch next to it. By the time of first contact, there were probably 75-100 people in this immediate vicinity, with more watching from lots across the street, or the gas station next door.

As the eclipse deepened, I watched with awe and anticipation. I reflected on how much of the Sun could be blocked before we would even notice. With only a small sliver of the Sun still visible, the light around us seemed like a slightly cloudy day.

Then came totality.

I have no words.

No one can describe for you what totality is like, if you haven’t seen it for yourself. Pictures do not convey the experience. Videos do not capture the feeling.

I yelled, “Glasses off!” when I was sure that it was safe to view totality. We saw the solar corona; we saw some bright stars; we saw a “sunset” glow on the horizon all around us. I thought it might be darker, but I think there was enough light pollution from the businesses around us that the sky only got a deep blue, not ever black. We saw a nice “diamond ring” effect on both second contact and third contact, but we did not see Bailey’s beads.

I took some pictures with my cell phone because why not, but they did not come out at all. Some of our friends, however, in different locations, took much better pictures. Here are some of Kyle Roesler’s. 

We watched for the full 2 minutes and 39 seconds, and then the real world returned, slowly. I might have giggled a little bit. (OK, a lot.) Cheers arose. We popped some champagne to celebrate the Sun’s return.

On Tuesday the 22nd, we woke up to overcast skies and rain.

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