The guilty truth is that I am an eclipse-chaser, admittedly an expensive and indulgent thing. I can claim that I am just along for the ride, but I go willingly, so that isn’t really an excuse.
Okay. We were definitely eclipse-chasers now.
There has always been a bit of astronerd in me. How could you not be intrigued by the enormity of the universe and how things work—physics, relativity, chemistry, biology, the genetic code, the periodic table? I toyed with the idea of being an astronaut–abandoned early on—but still chose introductory astronomy (Nat Sci 9) as my required science in college.
I remember looking out the window one night when I was in grade school in Michigan, and thinking how strange the moon looked, all orange. And later it looked normal again. My first lunar eclipse, I later found out. In 1972, I saw my first solar eclipse from the steps of an MIT building where people had gathered with special protective glasses. Pinhole image projectors made from a perforation in a piece of cardboard, fingers held closely together, or even leaves of trees, created shadow crescent suns on the pavement or paper. The eclipse was only a deep partial in Cambridge, but it was total off the coast of Nova Scotia (as per Carly Simon’s song “You’re so Vain”).
Much later, in 1994 in Oakland, there was a view of another partial solar eclipse, but it was far from total; most eclipses paths are over water, since that makes up most of the Earth’s surface, and often are nowhere near where you are. But in 1999, a total solar eclipse was slated to cross most of Europe and the Middle East, where a huge number of people could see it. We were already planning to go to a family reunion in Europe around that time, so add on a few days and maybe we’d be in luck.
The weather was not cooperating over most of Europe. That was bad, since you can’t see the eclipse through dense clouds and rain, though it will get dark. Most people were disappointed that day. We pored over the weather reports searching for a break; it looked as if there might be some chance in northwestern France, so we hazarded driving in that direction, only to find that all the rooms near the path of totality were booked up. We lucked into a place near Falaise, birthplace of William the Conqueror, though a distance from where we needed to be. So, early the next morning, we headed northward, referring to giant fold-up Michelin road maps. As we raced to reach the path in time, every few minutes I would look out the car window with welder’s glasses and report on the narrowing crescent sun peeking through the clouds. At last, we hoped we were close enough and pulled off the road by a field, where a few others had stopped–soon to be joined by others who perhaps thought we knew what we were doing.
Looking up, we could just see the last sliver of sun through breaks in the clouds, the light got very strange, and it was definitely darker and colder. And then in an instant, there was a brief flash, and everything changed. Where there had been light, there was an exact, round, pitch-black hole in the sky, with a halo of corona around it. The field erupted in cheers and cries of “ooh la la la la la la”, everyone at once. It was surprisingly emotional. It contradicted what we tacitly understood as normal, while the true spatial relationships of the earth, moon and sun were revealed in breathtaking clarity.
And all too soon, totality was over, leaving behind the big question: When is the next one?
The following year, Sally got a “go-to” telescope for her fiftieth birthday, and we brought it on a camping trip to Baja California. For its inaugural observation, we hauled it out at the beach at Pabellon, north of Guerrero Negro, with the Pacific Ocean to the west and the desert to the east—and a completely clear and dark sky. Magical. However, we were so far south and the sky so full of stars that we could hardly identify the ones we needed to calibrate the instrument.
On return, we started going to adult classes at the Chabot observatory to learn the night sky. Ryan would maneuver the planetarium’s Zeiss projector to teach us how to star-hop. After each session we got to look through the historic 20 inch “Rachel” and 8 inch “Leah” refracting telescopes, and “Nellie”, the new 36 inch reflector scope. When the 2001 total solar eclipse passed over Zambia, Chabot live-streamed it on their big screen. Not quite the same as being there though.
And so, in 2002, when there was a chance to see the tail end of a very short eclipse in Australia, we found a way to get there. This was in spite of my boss’s wrath, who didn’t want me to take so much time off (though I had it on the books)—he thundered that I was never to do that again! But we needed all that time for our journey to the other side of the world and no regrets. We camped our way across to the edge of the outback at Lyndhurst, where the Strzelecki Track and Oodnadatta Track intersect, and an eclipse rock festival was underway. We set up a few miles away, overlooking an ancient aboriginal ochre mine of many colors, and were treated to an astounding, sparkling 27-second eclipse with brilliant chromosphere, prominences and corona low in the sky, followed by the crescent sun sinking below the horizon.
Okay. We were definitely eclipse-chasers now.
Since then, we have continued to learn about the night sky and the universe, enjoying comets, meteor showers, aurorae, and deep sky objects through various scopes. Eclipses have been the excuse for more trips than I like to admit, to places we would not otherwise have thought to go, and we have observed from land, sea, and air. We have met fellow eclipse-chasers, and I have written eclipse songs for most of them. We can bore friends with the details of eclipse mechanics, but only if they insist. Technology has made planning much easier, and there is even an eclipse tour industry. And since you can’t guarantee success if weather doesn’t cooperate, you might as well plan a darn good trip around it.
COVID and climate change have affected future travels, but in 2024 there is another eclipse crossing the U.S. and probably near enough to you. Don’t miss it.