Ezzy's US Eclipse: totality!

BBC Sky at Night Magazine news editor Elizabeth Pearson is on the road trip of lifetime, making her way across the US to view the total solar eclipse.

On the seventh day of her trip, all that driving pays off as totality begins.

Keep up to date with Ezzy's US eclipse exploits via her personal Twitter account and BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Twitter account.

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A sight for sore eyes: the moment everyone had been waiting for.
Credit: Edwin Oude Wesselink

 

Ezzy's US eclipse: Day 7

Wow. What a day today has been!

I'm writing this on eclipse day, having traversed halfway across the state of Nebraska and back, all in the cause of chasing the Sun.

Or, as I was heading for the line of totality, shouldn't that be chasing the dark?

The day started at 4am and a quick check of the weather told me that in order to ensure clear skies, I was going to have to trek west by 150 miles. Through the fog.

Time to grab a coffee, and hit the road.

Three hours later I found myself in Mitchell, Nebraska; a small town 10 miles east of my initial choice of Scottsbluff.

 

Mitchell, Nebraska: site of the climax of Ezzy's eclipse trip across the US. The small town was mostly expecting visitors who were hoping to avoid the crowds farther north.
Credit: Elizabeth Pearson

The town wasn't directly on the centre line of totality, and so only had one minute 57 seconds of totality rather than the two minutes 38 seconds farther north, but I'd checked traffic as well as weather.

Even at 4am, the roads farther north were already jammed. I decided to sacrifice 40 seconds if it meant I wouldn't risk being stuck on the highway when totality struck. 

The eclipse watchers had formed a large gathering at an old airfield just outside the main town; a huge open field where you could hopefully see the shadow rolling in across the hills.

Ezzy prepares for totality, armed with her Coronado PST
Credit: Elizabeth Pearson

 

By the time the eclipse started at around 10:30am local time, several hundred people had arrived at the site, many of whom had also driven a vast distance that morning.

"I've only been planning a week. It wasn’t last minute, I just needed to decide where to go. I was really just waiting out the weather," says Christian Anderson from Denver, Colorado, a four hour drive away.

"Mitchell wasn't too far away, and I thought 'who knows if I'm going to make it to the next one in seven years, so let's give it a shot'."

The moment finally arrives: the skies grow dark and heads everywhere tilt upwards to get a glimpse of totality
Credit: Elizabeth Pearson

 

But not everyone was from out of town. Several locals were there, offering up breakfast and helping to organise the event as well as take advantage of the prime viewing spot. 

"There's mixed feelings about the eclipse here, but I'd say 90 per cent of the people are really excited to welcome people to enjoy the festivities," says Officer Preston with the Mitchell Police Department.

"We're working – controlling traffic and helping people out – but we try to take a moment to look at the eclipse when we can. Mostly I'm looking at the locals and seeing the joy on their faces." 

Though most of the people at the event were first timers taking advantage of how close the eclipse was to their homes, there were more veteran eclipse chasers who had come in from further afield.

"Even now [half an hour before totality] I have goosebumps," says Edwin Oude Wesselink (left) from the Netherlands. This would be his third eclipse.

"I will try to catch the eclipse on camera, I have it set up, but I know from previous experience, you should look. You should look up, you should look around. I'm not going to be looking through the viewfinder during totality."

With only twenty minutes to go, I asked him what I might expect to see when the shadow arrives.

"You really get a strange light, which is different from clouds. It's like someone is dimming the Sun, which you do not normally experience. The temperature drops but I didn't feel it before, because of the excitement."

The temperature had most certainly dropped. On a sunny Nebraska day the air should have been swelteringly hot this close to noon, but it was more like a pleasant summer evening back home in Britain.

Soon enough, I began to notice that strange quality in the light too, almost as if the world had been washed over in grey, and I knew the moment of totality was drawing nearer.

Then, just after 11:47am local time, as I looked towards the western horizon I saw what at first I thought was a trick of my imagination.

The sky seemed to be turning dark before my eyes. I turned around to look at the Sun just as it finally disappeared behind the Moon.

Edwin Oude Wesselink managed to capture these incredible shots of totality.
Credit: Edwin Oude Wesselink

 

"When totality hit, it was so sudden. I expected it to be more gradual. The moment before you were looking at it with eclipse glasses, at the little bit that was left,"says Edwin's son Walter, who was seeing an eclipse for the first time.

"And then it just looked like it explodes from all of the light coming off of the sides of the Moon. I found that to be really impressive."

But it wasn't just the spectacle of the Sun itself that was remarkable, as Barry from Cedar Falls, Utah noted.

"We'd gone out into the field, seeing the glow around us in the distance, but it was so dark where we were, there was this alpen glow around the edges," says Barry

"The other thing we noticed was the shadows being cast as we got near the full eclipse, and how much it resembled the shadow under a full Moon. Very sharp, but at the same time from a diminished sunlight."

Young eclipse chaser Kierra Coerber: "I thought it would be boring. No! It was epic."
Credit: Elizabeth Pearson

 

All too soon though, totality ended with another burst of diamond light, as the Moon's shadow passed over Mitchell, carrying on its way east.

Totality over, the mass exodus began as people hurried back to their corner of the world. But it would be a day that none of them would forget.

"I couldn't ask for a better day. It was moving," says Marty Hedinger, who has lived in the region for 70 years. "I was only disappointed by how short it was. I could have looked at that a little longer. We were lucky to see it."

All too soon, my eclipse journey had reached its end and it was time to make the 150 mile trip back to the Sandhills in central Nebraska.

Of course, the weather around here had been perfect for totality, making my half-state dash completely unnecessary, but hey! I got to enjoy the view on the way back (now the fog was gone) and if nothing else, it was an adventure. 

It's an adventure I was a little sad about coming to an end and so shortly afterward, I headed out into the night.

The Sandhills were so dark that even a short way out of town, you could see the Milky Way making its meandering path across the sky over the rolling fields of crops and grass land that stretch for hundreds of miles.

A wonderful sight – the perfect end to a trip of fantastic skies and incredible scenery.


To read more about my experience of totality, make sure to pick up October's copy of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.


Elizabeth Pearson was travelling with Hertz Roadtrippers.

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