A Trip to Watch the Sky (Eclipse ramblings)

b.stark

Forever Wandering
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Apr 8, 2015
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So I wanted to write down my thoughts from the eclipse while everything was still pretty fresh. It's going to be a little bit trip report style, but I haven't got the pics uploaded yet, and for this trip to be honest I don't really consider them important anyway. Therefore, this will be a words only report, mostly focusing on my eclipse experience itself. Very personal (I watched it myself, with only a few other people within 1/2 mile) and honest. So take it for what it is.

I'd been watching my schedule with interest since last year, knowing about the eclipse. As of a year ago I didn't really know what my work schedule or personal life would be like, so I had no idea, even when things were a bit more concrete in the beginning of this year, whether or not I'd have any opportunity to chase it. My work schedule is a 4 on 4 off rotating shift (each 8 days I switch between 12 hour days or nights), with some overtime and callouts thrown in. As the time neared, I was happy to see that at least with my particular crew's rotation, I'd have the day off. Whether or not I'd actually have the day off or not was another issue. As of a couple weeks ago... the day was clear. I held my breath a bit, hoping that I wouldn't get any last minute overtime scheduled, and as of a few days ago, I was kind of ignoring my phone so I wouldn't get a surprise callout. Amazingly by Sunday I hadn't gotten a phone call, so after church on Sunday I threw my stuff in my pickup and headed West, toward the end of the state that was supposed to have the least possibility of being clouded over.

I headed for my favorite layover stop on the way to the mountains, Fort Robinson State Park. Laid back, remote, and actually quite pretty, it was "busy" for the eclipse. They had actually opened up a couple pastures near horse barns to accommodate extra campers, but it still wasn't really crowded. I got a spot and settled in for the night, chatting on the phone with a friend who was also eager to see the eclipse, and I watched a beautiful sunset turn into a starry night sky. Turned in for a pretty calm night of sleep. I'm about 50% on getting either perfect weather or perfect storms at Fort Robinson, and fortunately last month I had the perfect storm, so this time it was perfect weather.

The next morning I woke up early. The goal was to outsmart clouds. The cloud forecast for western Nebraska was pretty good, so I nixed my idea of heading across the border to Wyoming. That gave me time to get breakfast at the park cafe. OK food, but the particular meal I got was enough for 3 of me! After that, quickly packed up my tent and headed out to what looked to be a good spot: Box Butte Reservoir.

As I approached the Niobrara River valley, it was covered with fog. I turned onto a gravel road, a bit miffed that the fog was keeping me from scoping out alternate spots to watch the eclipse if my first choice didn't turn out. As I got nearer to the lake, the fog thickened. I figured I'd give it until 9:00AM local time to clear out. Checked out a few spots along the lake before ending up along the dam itself, watching the fog blow out over the lake in a spectacular fashion. I had found my spot. Set up my scope and got out my binoculars and watched birds or whatever other critters were around to bide my time until the eclipse came.

Then it happened. Clouds began to move in. Just a small batch of clouds, but just the right size to obscure the sky over the lake and ruin my eclipse viewing if they hung around. The wind was blowing hard, and I scanned the horizon intently with binoculars to see if it was just a small band. Around 10:00AM, less than half an hour before the eclipse was supposed to start, I decided that I hadn't drove what would end up being around 900 miles to be clouded out last minute by a dinky but catastrophic little band of clouds. Since the western end of the cloud band was easily visible, I threw everything back in the pickup and blasted westward along a gravel road, calling on all my lifetime of being a country boy accustomed to all sorts of gravel road driving, I sped to find a better spot. I ended up roaring through Marsland, a little ghost town, and continued on west of the big highway, finding the area pretty well picked over by other eclipse viewers, much to my surprise.

After some frantic buzzing around, I found a spot. Or at least though I found one. It was along a gravel road in western Nebraska, which meant it was mostly sand, and the wind was blowing as it usually does. After watching some of the eclipse there, I moved about 1/4 mile up the road to a spot where the sand was not blasting the flesh off my bones.

The initial stages of the eclipse were something I'd seen before. Long ago, yes, but the memory came back fast enough. To be honest a partial eclipse is pretty underwhelming. You look at the sun through some kind of filter and patiently wait as the bright orange disc is slowly eaten by a black disc. The light dims a bit, as in a cloudy day, and does become a bit surreal as the sun is slowly eaten away by the moon. I whiled away the time by taking pics of the partially eclipsed sun by projecting it on a fence post with my binoculars. I watched cattle in the pasture across the road. I glassed the area for pronghorn, deer, coyotes, other eclipse viewers. I took note of all the angles I wanted to try to photograph during the totality. I was unprepared entirely for what was going to happen.

I really did not know what to expect during the eclipse. Yeah, there were all the rumors about stars and 360 degree sunset, and animals doing night time stuff, but apart from that I really didn't know what was about to happen. I don't think I'd even really looked at eclipse pictures in all the months preceding this event. My intent, actually, was to get the horizon and stars, which I figured would be many, during totality, which I figured wouldn't be all that crazy to look at.

The light continued to dim. I marveled at how so little a portion of the sun gave such an amount of light. Even as the sun approached a tiny sliver, the land was still brighter than on many overcast days. The light did begin to take on a bit of a surreal character. It was fully sunlight, but weaker, and the whole land and sky began to darken. Still the same color as normal sunlight, just weaker.

Finally, the sun was but a tiny diamond of light. The light had a much different quality to it, not as much of the warm yellow it usually is, but a piercing white brilliant pinpoint that defied the moon in draping the land in surreal, but fading, light. I got my camera ready and started taking pictures of the developing scene around. The horizon--all of it--was taking on the late evening sunset look. Things were getting darker rapidly, and things were changing quickly. The wind, which had been sandblasting my flesh from my bones earlier, began to calm, as in evening. The cattle across the road had laid down earlier, and were perfectly content on their hillside surrounding an abandoned ranch house. Crickets began to chirp in great number. It got dark enough that a couple of stars began showing in the sky.

And then that diamond in the sky winked out of existence, and I was confronted with what Edward Abbey calls the "shock of the real." It was something that proclaimed its existence so boldly, obviously, and incontestably, that I had no option but to cope with it, but all my senses and all my mind could not fully comprehend what I was seeing. Even though I knew it would happen, when that diamond disappeared, everything changed and my head was snapped to where the sun had been in an instant.

The sun had ceased to exist. In its place was something completely unexpected, out of this world, out of my experience, and beautiful beyond any kind of description. But I'm going to try to describe it a little bit anyway. The sun had transformed into a black hole, blacker than any black my eyes have seen before. It was the blackest thing in the sky. Blacker than anything, and void of anything other than black. Surrounding the black was the sun's corona, streaming outward in such brilliant bright white splendor as I have no way of telling you either by description or comparison. I was rendered speechless, wanting to scream but all that came out was "wow." What struck me most was the size and clarity of this strange alien object. Big, of course, as the full moon was the black center, but the corona, streaming in all its glory, was something to behold, announcing its truly unbelievable beauty and commanding the sky, demanding all who would see it to look at it and only it. I put up my binoculars and took an even closer look at this mesmerizing object, and again was rendered silent by it. All the world was stopped for a moment by a night never seen before, a different kind of night totally alien and filled with a beauty which normal nights cannot fathom. Somewhere, from a hilltop a mile or two away, I heard the cheers of other eclipse viewers floating through the calmed air, as we all told each other what beauty we were beholding, even though we didn't need to.

I knew that once the totality started I had a bit less than 2 minutes. I dedicated the first 30 seconds or so to being totally enraptured by what I was seeing, and I never really recovered from it. I fumbled around with my camera, taking a few pictures of the surroundings, and a couple of that brilliant object in the sky itself. Unfortunately, I had underestimated this event in all respects. I actually figured that the starry night during the daytime would be the most impressive part of it all, and had my camera prepared complete with 24mm lens to do astrophotography instead of anything more focused. I was so moved by the sight that even when I started taking pictures, I fumbled with the camera badly. I took a few pictures of the landscape, and a couple far too wide shots of the brilliant object in the sky itself. One of the last pictures I took was a vertical shot from the horizon up to the sun, capturing the eerie night sky in the middle of the day, all the way up to the main event itself, proclaiming its existence against all disbelief. Unfortunately, I had bumped a dial on the camera and the image was shot in some horrific black and white effect mode, which I only realized after reviewing what were supposed to be my last couple shots. I couldn't look away from the sky enough to figure out what was wrong with the camera, and stood there dumbfounded.

Then the diamond of sunlight reappeared, and the sky in an instant ceased to be alien. It was over before it started, or so it felt. The 360 degree sunset, the stars, the darkness of the land, the crickets, everything in the instant that diamond appeared changed. I was left with a few crappy pictures and a feeling like I'd never felt before, an awe that was greater than all the rest, a feeling that left me covered in goosebumps and with tears in my eyes. It was over.

I was left standing there, in the slowly brightening light, to try to comprehend what had just happened. I've seen a partial eclipse before, and didn't think much of the total eclipse other than it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to go see it unobscured by clouds. But this was something so totally of a different magnitude that it can't even begin to be compared with a partial eclipse, or with anything else I've ever seen in my life. I've seen some beautiful places and amazing things, from tornadoes, to mountains, to canyons, to newborn children, but this was something totally different than all the rest. If you'll allow me to wax a bit Christian on you all, I'm going to quote Psalm 19, which says "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." This was something that had proclaimed that glory in a way which left me with what is best described as the shock of the real.

I gathered up my things and slowly packed them into my pickup, still watching the rest of the eclipse occasionally. I'll admit, though, that I was not longer really interested in it. The totality had just changed everything for me. I thought I'd seen beautiful and amazing things before, but it all pales in comparison to what I'd seen in less than 2 minutes. A man who had been watching from a ways north of me stopped and we chatted a while, both loaded on adrenaline and completely exhilarated by what we had seen. After a few more minutes of watching, I packed up the last of my stuff and headed down the highway, still tingling from the experience. The friend I had talked to the evening before called, having been just able to drive to a place where he could see it as well. We struggled together to explain to each other what we had seen, and mutually understood what we felt from the experience.

I ended up driving all 8 hours or so back home on the other end of the state that day. Briefly I considered stopping and camping halfway back, but the weather was pretty meh there and I figured my own bed would be a nice place to calm down after such an experience.

The sun had a few more tricks up its sleeve, though, and when I got within about 30 miles of home it was lighting up the back side of a huge storm system with more spectacular color and beauty. I took a couple pictures out of my pickup window, but I don't think I even bothered to process any of those. The memory of it would be enough.

If there's any regret I have, it's that I tried to photograph the eclipse at all. If I do get to see one again, I think I'll just take it all in and enjoy the moment and bask in its glory.

Hope this was interesting and not just a tl;dr post.

This is my "disappointing" accidental b&w pic of the eclipse


My best shot of the full surround sunset during totality
 

wsp_scott

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Joined
May 16, 2016
Messages
907
A great description of the eclipse and I agree about trying to get a photo, should have just enjoyed the amazing sight. Glad the weather worked for you.
 

Curt

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Joined
Feb 1, 2014
Messages
405
I got flummoxed too. Didn't get a very good picture at totality either. Although it wouldn't be true, I'd like to think that it was partly due to the challenging conditions. It was completely overcast here in Lincoln at totality but you could still see the glow around the sun and moon. Oddly, it was rainbow hued. I was so awed by it that I wasn't thinking straight enough to get my camera settings right. I've seen one picture by a professional photographer (Eric Fowler of Nebraskaland Magazine - I'm hoping they put it in an upcoming issue) whose picture has the colors at totality that I remember seeing.

Here's my best picture at totality which doesn't come close to doing the thing justice. I wish it had the colors.
P8211075.jpg
 

swmalone

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Joined
Apr 27, 2016
Messages
429
I figured with professionals set up to take pictures I wouldn't even try. I am glad I just focused on watching it because totality seemed to pass so quickly.
 

Curt

Member
Joined
Feb 1, 2014
Messages
405
I figured with professionals set up to take pictures I wouldn't even try. I am glad I just focused on watching it because totality seemed to pass so quickly.

I agree. It was over way too soon. Like you, I'm glad to have the memory. It was a wonderful experience.
 
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