Editor's note: First Person is an occasional series of essays by readers and Star Tribune staff members.

After driving nearly 400 miles through cold, brittle weather in my little Volkswagen Bug and crossing into Canada from North Dakota, the snow began to fly. My heart sank. It was Feb. 25, 1979, and my boyfriend, Gauss, and I were hoping to see a total solar eclipse the next day in Winnipeg. Would this storm ruin our plans?

We checked into a motel and ran a tub of scalding hot water — Volkswagen Bugs were notorious for heating inadequately. Oh, well, I thought as I soaked, it was worth a try, a good story to tell friends back home.

After midnight, we poked our heads out the motel door into the frigid air. Stars! There was hope!

We drove the remaining hundred miles the next morning, following a printed map from NASA to a dirt road in the path of “totality.” Another car was parked about a quarter mile away. The moon’s shadow had begun to cover the bright disk of the sun, lending a silvery quality to the light. As the shadow inched closer to totality, the sky, although blue, looked almost overcast.

We unpacked squares of No. 14 welding glass, recommended by NASA, that Gauss had bought in anticipation of the trip. Looking through the greenish tint at the sun, we could see a diminishing sliver of light and then, a single ray of sunshine, the “diamond ring effect,” as the sun’s last ray shone through a gap in the moon’s mountains. Looking away, I lowered the glass.

Then totality hit. The effect was sudden and stunning, as if someone had flipped off a light switch. The bright sunny morning now looked like a twilit evening. We could now safely look directly at the eclipse. Hardy little birds roosted en masse in nearby shrubs. Above us, the sun’s gossamer-white corona burst from behind the black disk of the moon. Stars twinkled. Turning around, I noticed bands of pink, purple, and orange in all directions marking the distant edge of the moon’s shadow against the prairie.

Totality lasted less than three minutes. I didn’t bring a camera, only my senses. Under the navy sky pinpricked with stars and planets, I drank in the 360-degree sunset, the sleeping birds. Gauss and I glanced at each other, mouths agape and smiling stupidly, overwhelmed. We jumped in the air and yelled in celebration. The people down the road did the same thing.

Then the light switched back on. If we wanted to look, it would have to be through the murky welding glass again. The birds twittered and roused from their perches as if dawn were breaking again. We took refuge in the chilly Bug, cranked the heat as high as it would go, and headed into Winnipeg for a hot meal.

The difference between a partial eclipse, which many of us have seen, and a total eclipse, which we had just witnessed, was, well, like night and day. We were hooked. As we waited for our food, Gauss paged through his NASA book in search of the next eclipse — they can be predicted far into the future — and made a note of it.

We have enjoyed each eclipse while anticipating the next. Now, our focus is on the upcoming event, Aug. 21, 2017, when a total eclipse will send the moon’s shadow arcing across the western and central United States. We will see it with our two sons — one now an amateur astronomer himself — and their families.

Chasing totality

Gauss and I married the year after our trip to Canada, and since then have planned several of our vacations around eclipses. In 1991 with our then-young boys, we flew to Mexico for what was termed “The Eclipse of the Century,” so called because totality lasted nearly seven minutes. We planned a year in advance, but even so, hotel rooms in Baja California were booked. We enacted Plan B, staying in Puerto Vallarta just outside the path of totality and renting a car to drive north to watch. Once there, however, we found an excursion boat that would take us out into the ocean where the eclipse would be total.

The morning dawned cloudy, and we worried. But our Winnipeg experience had taught us that things could change.

This was not your typical Puerto Vallarta party cruise. Our fellow travelers were bookish amateur astronomers and university professors: Men clad in Bermuda shorts wearing black socks and Birkenstock sandals; women with sensible bowl haircuts who wore bulky watches and comfortable shoes. The upper deck bristled with telescopes and binoculars. Dweeb heaven! As we left the coast, the clouds dissipated and dolphins played alongside us in the wake. Once again, we caught the silvery light, and at totality, the sunset all around the horizon. Even the professors shouted in excitement.

Three years later, our family drove to Indiana to experience an annular eclipse, one that occurs when the moon is farther from the earth in its orbit. The disk of the moon appears smaller and therefore does not cover the sun entirely, leaving a ring of light visible. The internet was a valuable tool at that point, supplying weather radar and information from NASA. We chose our location based on likelihood of clear skies, stopping at a freeway rest area just south of Gary.

Since during an annular eclipse the sun’s rays are never totally blocked, we had to watch it through welding glass or make a pinhole in a piece of cardboard to project the shape of the eclipse onto the ground. Even the spaces between the leaves on trees can accomplish this. Looking on the sidewalk, we saw first crescents of sunlight and then the perfect little rings of the annular eclipse among the leafy shadows. Our children missed a day of school for this applied science lesson — a worthwhile trade.

Waiting on Aruba

Our last trip was to the island of Aruba in February 1998, the perfect winter getaway, eclipse or no. We reserved a hotel at the earliest possible moment. Cruise ships had disgorged hundreds of eclipse junkies, and as we waited for totality, we struck up conversations with the enthusiasts around us: a couple from New York; an amateur astro-photographer who captured the event on film and sold us professional-quality images to remember the eclipse by.

The secrets to a successful eclipse trip are flexibility and realistic expectations. Because the 2017 eclipse will span the continent, we plan alternate routes depending on climate trends and weather reports. While the eclipse will pass through Missouri, clear skies are more likely in the rain shadows of eastern Oregon or western Wyoming. We expect that certain cities in the path will be crowded so we’ll stay nimble, camping so we won’t be tied to a particular location. Cellphones and weather apps will make this easier.

The next U.S. eclipses after this will occur in 2024 and 2045. Gauss and I realize that the 2017 eclipse could be the last one we may see in our lifetimes. But what an adventure it’s been! We’re ordering more viewing glass, looking at maps, and looking forward to sharing this stunning natural phenomenon with our children — and now our grandchildren.


Patti Isaacs of Stillwater is a cartographer interested in all aspects of world geography. She is working on a book about living in the disappearing world of collectivized China.

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