Dave Williams has never seen a total solar eclipse. With any luck, that’ll change Monday.
The former director of the planetarium at St. Cloud State University organized a caravan of more than 20 astronomy obsessives from central Minnesota to travel to the front lines of the eclipse for the experience of a lifetime.
All told, they’ll be in the car 16 hours to Nebraska and back to witness 2 minutes and 34 seconds of eerie darkness as the moon makes its miraculous journey in front of the sun. During those moments when the earth goes dark, the temperature drops, birds stop chirping, insects go quiet, the stars and planets come out to shine in the middle of the day, and the coronal plasma — that glowing ring around the sun — becomes visible.
“I’ve seen movies of this, I’ve read information, I’ve talked to people,” Williams said. “I want to experience this firsthand.”
Whether they’ve had reservations for years or just threw plans together, scores of scientists, filmmakers, amateur astronomers, families and groups of friends from the North Star State are traveling to witness this rare phenomenon. They’re among the more than 200 million Americans who live in day-trip distance of a 70-mile-wide band that stretches from Oregon to South Carolina. It’s only within this band, called the path of totality, that you can see the eclipse’s full power.
Minnesotans who stay home may still see a partial solar eclipse, with the moon covering about 80 percent of the sun. But we have a chance to see a couple of those every decade. The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in the state was 1954. And it won’t happen again until 2099.
That’s why so many are willing to sit in potential gridlock traffic, pay massive hotel bills and parking fees, brave cell tower overloads and disrupt their work week to observe what’s come to be called the Great American Eclipse.
“You have to move to see it,” said Mike Day, executive vice president of the Science Museum of Minnesota. “You can’t stay at home and wait for these things.”
Day is taking his own advice. He’ll watch this total solar eclipse, his fifth, from Kearney, Neb., stationed near an interstate in case he needs to move fast to find a cloud-free vantage point.
Hank Tetreault of Northfield plans to camp in the Black Hills (and run a 50k trail race) before pushing three hours farther to Casper, Wyo. In case there’s a traffic jam, he’s bringing his bike.
“Hopefully we can get within 20 or 30 miles of Casper and then bike in,” he said. “It’s probably going to be nuts out there.”
Mike Buttry thinks he found a solution to avoid any traffic snarls: He and his family won’t leave the airport.
They’re flying to Kansas City International Airport, just within the eclipse’s path. They’ll stay at the airport hotel, where his 4- and 7-year-olds can play in the pool. On Monday, they’ll step out into the parking lot to watch the eclipse, then catch an afternoon flight back to Minneapolis. “We’ll be at our home in Edina in time for the 5 p.m. news,” Buttry said.
Chris Voss of Minneapolis struggled to find hotels and vacation rentals that hadn’t been jacked up to five times the normal price in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“It’s like the Super Bowl here next winter,” he said. Luckily, he found a reasonable condo for him and his wife and three kids, plus his parents. But that was a year ago.
Voss also reserved spots on an expedition with the Wyoming Stargazers Society to watch the eclipse from the top of a mountain in the Grand Tetons. NASA is co-hosting the $500 event, which includes a meet-and-greet with an astronaut and a livestream of the eclipse as it traverses the country.
“It is expensive,” Voss said, “but we looked at it as an investment in terms of an experience for the family.”
‘A blip in time’
It’s the amazing tales of total eclipses that are luring many Minnesotans.
“You hear all these stories,” said Trena Johnson of Little Canada, who is driving with her family to small-town Crete, Neb. “It’s definitely hyped up,” she said. “I’m hoping it will live up to what everyone has said.”
Those who have seen one admit it can be addictive.
Lawrence Rudnick, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Minnesota, saw his first eclipse in Baja California, Mexico, in 1991. “We’ve been waiting for another one” ever since, he said. He plans to watch this one with family near Bend, Oregon. “It’s pretty dramatic, lots of screaming, oohing and aahing,” he said.
Day, who saw his first in 1972, is already planning his next in Argentina, 2019.
“There’s this hole in the sky that all of the daylight falls into,” he said. “And then two minutes later, snap your fingers and it’s gone. It’s like waking up from a dream.”
WCCO meteorologist Mike Augustyniak, who will be watching from Lincoln, Neb., says the experience is a reminder of man’s place in the universe.
“We see the sun every day and we see the moon every day,” he said. “And when they do these weird things, it makes everybody realize we’re a tiny piece of a much larger world. We’re really just a blip in time.”
Even if you haven’t made travel plans, you can thank Melissa Butts for a chance to see the total solar eclipse.
The Minneapolis-based IMAX filmmaker was inspired by an article a scientist posted on LinkedIn about the eclipse only four months ago. Since then, she’s been working at breakneck speed to produce a virtual reality documentary, with teams filming in four locations on Monday — including a group of University of Minnesota students who will be flying video-equipped balloons over Nebraska and into the stratosphere to capture the moon’s shadow as it moves across the earth. The immersive video will transport viewers directly into the path of eclipse.
The film should land in science museums around the country this fall.
“People who see [a total solar eclipse] say it gives them terrific memories,” Butts said. “The virtual reality experience will also give that to people.”