2017 Total Solar Eclipse: Our Amazing Experience

Meaning to finish this sooner after the eclipse, two rather major weather events called Harvey and Irma diverted attention and delayed things. I trust you’ll forgive that and find this summary of our eclipse sojourn insightful.

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Van Tassell: no hassle, just a passel o’green grassel! On this day, we went off-grid, out of pavement, off-network, into the eastern Wyoming weeds, and totaled the sun.

At age six, looking at a map of future solar totalities in the World Book Encyclopedia, I had this area in the crosshairs. Elke and I each have been waiting our whole lives for this, decades since childhood, so it’s fitting that we did it together.

Scientific understanding of the phenomenon does not prepare one for the totality of the totality experience in all senses: cooling temperatures, calming of heretofore ceaseless High Plains wind, sunlight on the prairie grass visibly dimming, rapid darkening, that shadowy speed, high clouds blacken fast in the west, then in seconds: zoom…horizon light with night overhead, surrounding the ring of coronal brilliance about an orb of singular darkness. All too soon, the veil rises and the sky and ground brighten with astonishing quickness. Two and a half minutes seemed like mere seconds.

Regardless, after a lifetime, we finally witnessed one of the most intensely spiritual and moving natural phenomena to be found. Thank God the moon’s apparent diameter so matches the sun’s at a proportional distance of one-over, as a cosmically tuned instrumental duo.

Those few hours along a remote Wyoming roadside, near the Nebraska border, were over a decade in the making, planning-wise, involving a chess-board of strategy between first, second, and third options on approach from Norman. Chasing a known target years in advance, within a 70-mile-wide strip across the nation, isn’t as easy as it sounds, and presents its own logistical challenges.

We had to ditch Option A that we had scouted for many years — Carhenge near Alliance — thanks to crowds estimated at over 4,000 by the Omaha World-Herald, including the state’s governor. From storm-observing trips, shooting sunset and supercell photos there, Carhenge is a familiar place, with no more than another few people on the whole property at any given time. Yet my dreams of shooting totality behind the silhouette of a classic sedan were dashed immediately upon arrival the day before. As we drove by, we saw that the place was jam-packed with people and campers already, and a cop stopping traffic on the highway to let crowds cross from the other side. Again, this was the afternoon before! It made me wish that priority went to those who think of it first instead of those who get there first, because I had Carhenge in mind for over ten years.

I suspected we would be doomed in that regard before the trip, after seeing this otherwise little-known and eccentric place mentioned in eclipse-travel stories as an out-of-the-way alternative by the Denver Post, L.A. Times, Weather Channel, and NPR — not exactly outlets with small audiences!

Fortunately we had a reservation at the Westerner — a wonderful, clean, friendly, welcoming, American-run, mom-and-pop motel in Chadron where we’ve stayed on several storm-observing trips. That also was set also many months in advance, to give us the flexibility to attack the eclipse path from the near-northern (less-populated) approach angle, and to reach most of western/central Nebraska and eastern Wyoming as needed, in the event of cloud cover or traffic problems.

Being a meteorologist, I knew days beforehand that the cloud-cover issue was a legitimate concern in southern and central Nebraska, and on into northern Missouri. A friend had offered me use of his church’s land in northern Missouri as “Option C” in the event my 2-day forecast was for clouds over the main target area of eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. [We had reserved in Lexington, NE, two nights before, to give is a wider-expanse flexibility that still was on the way from Norman to all target options].

By the time we got to Lexington, it was readily apparent that northern Missouri was out, and we were dealing with the Wyoming/Nebraska border region or bust. Our evening in Lexington was graced with a spectacular sunset, lighting up a large supercell 80 miles to our north…

Here’s the bigger SkyPix version, with story. That was followed by the development of a strand of elevated thunderstorms immediately to our east, which I photographed in the dark, from a familiar Platte River bridge near Overton:

Here’s the bigger SkyPix version, with story. That was one of numerous shots I got of filamentous lightning arching out from under cloud base and back into the storm, with almost no cloud-to-ground strikes. Such lightning behavior (to that disproportionate extent) is highly unusual in my storm-observing experience, and was fascinating to behold.

Other than navigating the Alliance and Carhenge crowds to get to Chadron, the day before the eclipse was relaxing and satisfying, especially amidst some of the Sandhills around McPherson and Arthur Counties, covered with wild sunflowers…

On eclipse morning, it was clear (pun intended) that cloud cover would be no problem over the western Nebraska Panhandle and eastern Wyoming, in a slot of opportunity between the ejecting southern-stream shortwave trough’s material and a narrow band of northern-stream cirrus cutting diagonally from southwestern to northeastern Wyoming. We also knew already that Carhenge and anything along and near I-25 was a cluster**** of human clutter, so we aimed for that long but little-traveled and high-quality dirt road going south out of Van Tassell toward Torrington.

We’ve storm-chased and done non-chase photography along that road before, so it was familiar. It goes paved well into the totality path, and there’s a double bend that offers plenty of parking room on public right-of-way out of traffic. We chose that at dinnertime the night before, finalized that decision after a 6 a.m. cloud “nowcast”, and left at 7 to take our place a mere 85 miles away.

Traffic on the road was light, but far more than the handful of cars normally seen on any given day. Fortunately, only four other vehicles parked within a mile — three in the grass around our bend, the fourth being a Doppler on Wheels truck anchored on steel stilts a half-mile to our south. In fact, I had seen a tweet from DOW scientist Karen Kosiba about their plans to sample the boundary layer with clear-air radar and in-situ measurements throughout the eclipse process. That should be a neat dataset! I didn’t know in advance where they were staking out, but wasn’t surprised to find them there. [Storm-intercept minds often think alike. :-)]

After a brief conversation at another DOW with senior scientist Josh Wurman (and shout+wave to Karen!) south of Van Tassell, we got to our spot and set up, with over an hour before the onset of partiality. We set up camp chairs and tripods and solar filters on lenses, then watched (with certified eclipse glasses) and waited and shot every 15 minutes. I went with a 100-400-mm “war horse” tube lens on one camera and a wide-angle L series on the other, just in case I did find an interesting foreground at the location (didn’t happen), and I only shot a few token images with the wide-angle before/after to concentrate on the zoom in to the sun.

Since our lens-mounted solar filters also were certified eye-friendly, we could look through them, but I tried to do so minimally, just in case. With each rendering of the partial sun, the moon obscured more and more sunspots.

Then came that eerie, gradual-then-fast darkening and graying of the Great Plains landscape all around, with noticeable cooling of the temperatures and lessening of the wind. The loss of solar radiation obviously was decoupling the boundary layer, just as occurs around sunset, and once again, I can’ wait to see the DOW crews’ dataset measuring these effects!

Finally, for the first time in my life: totality with corona! The image up at the top of this post was my favorite totality shot. Here is a higher-res version on SkyPix, with more narrative.

Most totality photos you’ll ever see have a black background due to the strong dynamic range around the corona. The JPG versions in my viewfinder did. Fortunately that marvelous navy blue in the real sky was in the RAW image (not in the JPG!), so it was easy to pull out in post-processing and render to how the sky really looked. It was a trade-off between exposing for more coronal detail or the sky, and with very limited time to both shoot and simply appreciate it with eyeballs, I chose to shoot for a chance to exhibit a rarely depicted true-sky look. Bonus: navy blue and silver, Dallas Cowboys colors! That actually occurred to me in real time too, while watching totality. It should clue you in to how much of a Blue Star fan I am, that this realization further enriched the totality experience for me.

The true eclipse experience involves first contact to last, and we enjoyed it all on a mild, post-cold-frontal High Plains summer day. Photographers crank out many composite images after total solar eclipses, and I was no exception.

Here is a larger version already online…click to enlarge.

Unfortunately I missed the diamond rings with camera, but no regrets. They were amazing to see for a blink! I share everyone’s lament that it couldn’t have lasted longer.

On the full-sized TIF, one can see even better the sunspots in each rendering of the partial sun (except where truncated by moon, of course). I plan to print that large-size for framing at home.

For the the composite, to fit the six partials on either side, I had to expand the pixel size of the TIF made from the totality RAW, so I simply pasted outward. The real sky at totality graded from a beautiful navy blue near the sun to a lighter (but still dark) twilight blue-gray with purplish tones at radial distances past about 5 solar diameters.

Here’s how it looked from the opposite side, out in space:

Here was a brief description from Elke soon afterward, accompanying her panoramic image below:

    An utterly incomparable experience, visceral in high degree, for which nothing could prepare you. When the world went dark I looked up to see Venus glowing in the west, but when my eyes swept higher…the black hole above me, darker than darkest night, etched in sharpest relief by a blazing white halo — no photo could ever, ever, ever, do it the smallest justice.

    There was so much wild and strange and awesome to look at, from that beautiful dome of blue black to indigo, to the planets visible, to that starkly burning black hole in the sky that made me weak in the knees, to the wind dying, and birds starting to sing again. I wish it had lasted at least half an hour. It took me that long to catch my breath after totality. I intend to leave my camera at home for the next one.

That light in the distance, down the road, is one of the DOWs.

Once over, still in a state of lingering euphoria, we headed back toward home, on a two-day journey. As for the traffic on main roads east, west and south of us, leading south and southwest to Denver, yes that was as horrendous as predicted. I heard some tales of hours of immobility and woe. One friend who was also near Glendo didn’t get back to his house near Boulder until 1 a.m.! By that time, I had been sound asleep in McCook for over two hours.

Heading southeast, we only got tangled up with some collateral congestion from cross-traffic in Torrington. Crossing miles of backed-up traffic was bad enough, and we were so thankful not to be embedded within it. We crossed another miles-long traffic line (streaming out of Alliance) in Bridgeport, NE. These small towns were ill-prepared for the siege of traffic that descended upon them.

We drove from McCook back to Norman the next day in a leisurely manner, with a fine Italian lunch in Salina. That made it a four-day trip for a couple minutes of totality, a sunset, and some lightning.

Those 2-1/2 minutes alone were worth every dime and mile. Next up: Dallas 2024—hometown, downtown, totality town. If I’m blessed with seven more years of healthy life and civilization doesn’t destroy itself before then, I must not miss a truly once-in-lifetime experience of hometown totality! Still, we’ll have Plans B and C at the ready in case of clouds or calamity.



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