Our Total Solar Eclipse Adventure

Posted Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Just a Bit About Eclipses

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the sun and the earth, blocking part or all of its light from reaching some part of the earth. If the sun’s disk is entirely covered by the moon’s shadow, then it’s a total eclipse. These are quite rare; generally they won’t occur at a given location for centuries, so people need to travel to see one in their lifetime. I live in Janesville, Wisconsin, and we won’t get one here until September 14, 2099.

There are also annular solar eclipses, where the moon’s shadow doesn’t quite cover all of the sun; these are interesting but not nearly as spectacular as a total eclipse. When an eclipse goes total, day turns into night for a few minutes, and the sun’s corona, normally invisible due to the extreme brightness of the sun’s disk, can be seen by the naked eye. And no photograph can do justice to that sight!

These are not to be confused with lunar eclipses, when the earth gets between the sun and the moon and blocks sunlight from reaching the moon. These are more common because half of the earth can see them at once. They are quite interesting because the moon doesn’t get totally blacked out, thanks to the earth’s thick atmosphere; it turns blood red instead. One of these is set to occur on January 31, 2018. Totality will be visible early in the morning, in the west-northwest, from 6:51 am until moonset at 7:11 am, with the maximum eclipse at 7:08 am.

Solar Eclipses in My Lifetime

On June 30, 1954, there was a solar eclipse early in the morning, that was total in parts of South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota (including the Twin Cities) and northwest Wisconsin. Here in Janesville, the sun rose at 5:21 am, and maximum eclipse (over 91%!) was at 6:04 am. My mom said she remembered seeing that one, but she thought it was total here. Not quite. This also wasn’t quite in my lifetime, as I didn’t happen until 1958.

There was another on July 20, 1963, total in Canada and parts of the Northeast, 72% partial here, but I don’t remember it as I was only five years old.

Another, on March 7, 1970, was total along the eastern seaboard and 60% partial here; I don’t recall that one either.

My first memorable experience with a solar eclipse was on July 10, 1972; though it was total in northern Canada, it was only 55% here. But I and the neighbor boys watched it via projection onto a piece of paper through binoculars. The sky visibly darkened a little bit. My dad viewed it through welder’s goggles.

On February 26, 1979, a solar eclipse was total in five western states and part of Canada, and 82% partial here. I was working but was able to step outside and see the darkened sky and the crescent sun via pinhole projection. My dad said his thermometer dropped from 28 °F to 22 during the eclipse. ~ On the news at the time, they said to enjoy this one, for it would be the last total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. until 2017. “Oh man,” I thought, “I’ll be an old man by then!”

There was an annular eclipse in Illinois and Indiana (along with other states) on May 10, 1994. It was 86% partial here, but I missed it as I was working inside, in an office, and couldn’t get loose to see it.

And that was it, until 2017. This one was nearly 86% partial here in Janesville, but we drove to see totality, and it was utterly amazing!

The Planning for the Trip

Wednesday, August 9

Originally we had planned to meet a friend in Springfield, Illinois, stay the night with her, and then take her to see the total eclipse of the sun. Recently we learned that she would be in Alabama from August 16 through 25, so she wouldn’t be available.

Meanwhile, our neighbors and close friends, Kayla Cleasby and Terry (Trey) Moore, expressed a desire to go with us. Now I needed to get a room for four adults.

I spent pretty much the rest of the day setting things up for our road trip on the 20th and 21st, to see the eclipse. I couldn’t find a hotel room within 100 miles of the totality plane; everything was booked. I finally saw a city called Marion in the totality plane, but just east of Illinois; assuming this to be Indiana, I checked and found plenty of vacancies, so I booked a room there. Then I discovered that the eclipse would not be total anywhere in Indiana; I was looking at Marion, Kentucky, another 300 miles south! So I had to cancel that room. Later, I found a room in Jacksonville, Illinois, about 2/3 of the way to totality from Janesville; our plan is to drive to Festus, Missouri from there. Of course, weather could change our plans; perhaps this is better than staying somewhere in the totality plane, then having to scramble on eclipse day if bad weather sets in.

Friday, August 11

Ordered a 50-pack of eclipse glasses from Explore Scientific USA online, at 11:53 am. This was my cheapest option; most outlets are sold out.

Wednesday, August 16

Still looking at prospects for the eclipse road trip; later found traffic predictions and decided to steer clear of the St. Louis area altogether, and Illinois as well. We’ll go to a place in or near Fulton, Missouri, on Hwy 54.

Thursday, August 17

Went to the public library to see if they had eclipse glasses; my online order had been canceled due to lack of stock. They said they didn’t have them, but Ace Hardware might; they are the only place in town that might at this point. ~ I went to Ace Hardware on River Street; someone right in front of me was asking about them as I entered. They would be getting 150 pairs in tomorrow, and I should call around 8:30 am. They were first come, first served, and a limit of two per customer; if I bring two people, I was told that I could get the four pairs we need for the trip.

Friday, August 18

Phoned Ace Hardware at 8:15 am and asked about the eclipse glasses. “We have ’em,” was the reply. “They’re selling out quickly, so hurry.” ~ Wendi and I buzzed over there. We each went in separately and bought two pairs each so we would have them for Kayla and Trey as well. Looking through them at the sun outdoors, everything was dark except for a fairly dim, orange ball. The glasses bear the ISO 12312.2-2015 certification so we know they are safe.

Just got our eclipse glasses at Ace Hardware. They’re selling out very quickly.
(Posted at 8:44 am)

I spent a few minutes trying to phone some places in Missouri about viewing the eclipse. I managed to connect with the city manager in Kingdom City, a few miles north of Fulton.

Saturday, August 19

Monday’s weather in Missouri looks iffy, so we might go to Pinckneyville, Illinois instead.

Bought a Mason jar mug set at Woodman’s after work, to serve Kharlie M’s (my signature spiced mocha) on our trip.

Later, at home: Started making the Kharlie M’s but forgot and left the coffee on the stove for 29 minutes! It boiled all over the stove and smelled up the house. It was a Kharlie M nightmare!

Coffee run over on the stove

I cleaned up the mess and managed to brew four Kharlie M’s and put one in each of the four Mason jar mugs. I had to add the sweetening, the chocolate, and the milk… but try as I might, I couldn’t make a lasting froth once everything was mixed together. I tried the wire whisk and even the battery-powered hand frother. So we’ll be drinking frothless Kharlie M’s tomorrow night.

Day 1 of the Trip
Sunday, August 20, 2017

Last minute preparations

Up 9 am. ~ Updated forecasts show intense heat and humidity near Pinckneyville, Illinois, so that’s out. The only thing consistent over the past several days is that Kingdom City and Fulton in Missouri will be the coolest of anywhere I’ve looked. So for Wendi’s safety, we’re going there. ~ Bacon, eggs, toast with strawberry rhubarb jam for breakfast, after 10 am. ~ Did dishes, printed out final directions for travel, updated some records, then shut down the computer; we still need to pack, and it’s already 11:30 am.

The trip begins

Kayla and Trey arrived right after I shut down the computer. We hurriedly packed up and loaded the van. I made Wendi a ham salad sandwich and packed a few chips; she ate while we traveled.

We left the house at 12:30 pm. Kayla used her phone to navigate through the area just south of the Illinois border, where we bypassed the toll; it was a nice country drive. ~ We stopped at a rest area to use the bathroom. Next to us was a van with Kentucky plates; it turned out to be a rental car. The people were from the Milwaukee area, and they were also going to see the eclipse. There was an older man who was the driver, and he chatted with us as we were ready to leave. Inside the building was an elderly couple who were riding with him; we talked to them as well. The man walked with a cane. He told us he had seen a total eclipse in Baja California in 1991, and the totality was nearly seven minutes. He saw another in the Caribbean in 1998. As for the driver, this was his first, and “I’m not getting any younger,” he told us.

Traffic was thick on I-55 near Springfield at 4 pm on Sunday.
(Posted at 8:23 pm)

Dinner and the evening in Illinois

Back on the road. We pulled into Super 8 in Jacksonville, Illinois at 5:30 pm. Becky, the lady at the front desk, noticed that Wendi was in a wheelchair; the motel has no staircase, so we would need a room on the main floor, and the reserved room was upstairs. Quickly, she arranged to get us a room with two double beds on the main floor (she asked if it was okay because the reserved room had two queen beds). She suggested that next time, if I book a room online, that I should add a note that we need handicap access or better yet, phone the motel and ask for it. I thanked her. ~ While she was helping us, the same person phoned the motel twice, asking for a room; they were full. The person hung up the second time.

We unloaded our stuff and then walked next door to a Ponderosa Steakhouse, where we ate our dinner. We all had the buffet.

Kayla “checked in” on Facebook at both Ponderosa and the motel.

Back at the motel, we rested, watched TV, and went on social media on our phones. Trey has the WWE app on his tablet; he watched SummerSlam, normally only available on pay-per-view, from the motel on Wi-Fi; the event ran from 6 to 10 pm, but he started it after dinner and so watched it from 7 to 11 pm. ~ I spent a few minutes looking at different places to view the eclipse after checking the weather; clouds and rain were predicted for some locations. But our current plan of going to Kingdom City, Missouri still looked best, based on temperature and humidity, as well as distance, travel time, and traffic considerations.

Charlie's Facebook post: Drinking Kharlie M's

Sometime after 10:00, I served the Kharlie M’s in the Mason jar mugs. I warmed up the ones for Kayla and Trey; Kayla didn’t drink hers but put it back in the fridge for later. I drank mine cold; it was delicious. Wendi opted out for tonight. ~ We went to bed shortly after midnight with phone alarms set for 7 am.

Day 2 of the Trip
Monday, August 21, 2017

Breakfast and the drive into Missouri

Up 7 am. ~ Kayla and Trey were first to go to the lobby for the continental breakfast. Wendi and I followed a bit later. I had one of the waffles; Wendi had two helpings of biscuits and gravy (which weren’t large to begin with). ~ Several people were discussing where to go to see the eclipse; it seemed that nearly everyone in this motel was there for that reason. But no one seemed sure of where they would be going except for us. What we didn’t know was that to get to central Missouri, we would have to drive through both Louisiana and Mexico.

Kingdom City, MO, here we come.
(Posted at 8:45 am)

We drove nonstop to Kingdom City, as it was only a little over two hours. There were very dark clouds and some rain in western Illinois. There was a narrow two-lane bridge to cross the Mississippi River into Missouri, and this was a bit scary for Wendi. Just beyond the bridge was the city of Louisiana, Missouri, which was quite scenic. A bit later we passed through Bowling Green (not to be confused with the one in Kentucky). Mexico, Missouri was actually in the path of totality for the eclipse, but they would only get 1 minute and 19 seconds; we passed through part of it on the way to Kingdom City. The only traffic delay was turning onto where Missouri Hwy 19 joined U.S. 54 just north of Laddonia, Missouri (five minute wait), then just a bit in Kingdom City (population, 130) just before we reached the official viewing site. Most of this traffic was headed further into the path, most likely to Fulton. We arrived safely at the Fire Fighters Memorial and parked at 11:38 am; the eclipse would begin at 11:46.

View slideshow of the drive and arrival (6 photos)

The eclipse begins

Arrived at Kingdom City only eight minutes before C1. The sun looks like Pac-Man now.
(Posted at 12:08 pm)

Kayla's Facebook check-in post

The parking lot was nearly full by now, but the crowd wasn’t exactly huge. There was plenty of room for chairs or blankets; Wendi sat in her wheelchair, and I helped Kayla throw a blanket on the ground so we could sit. The weather was a mix of clouds and sun; fortunately most of the clouds were thin, so seeing the sun wasn’t a problem. By about five minutes into the eclipse, a small “nibble” could be seen out of the upper right corner of the sun. But during this early partial phase, it was still warm and muggy, so I took Wendi inside the city hall to cool down. We spent a while looking at memorial exhibits from firefighters, including some artifacts from the 9/11/2001 terror attacks in New York.

View slideshow of the Memorial (6 pages, 16 photos)

At a booth near where we were parked, meterologist Nick Stewart from KHQA-TV Channel 7 in Quincy, Illinois was set up, describing the eclipse as it unfolded. He was giving information about it, and as the sky grew gradually darker, he got more excited. Near totality he practically freaked out! There was a live feed online; Curtis Warfield, Jr, the city manager, was among those watching.

Watch replay of live feed from the eclipse (1 hr 37 min; will open in a new window)

As the eclipse progressed, we found some relief from the warmth, and Wendi was able to sit outside with the rest of us. We watched the sky gradually darken and the “bite” taken out of the sun get larger until only a crescent remained. We were a bit hungry, so we had some snacks from the van.

View slideshow of the Eclipse (10 photos)

Totality is spectacular despite clouds

Finally the magic moment arrived at 1:13 pm. Though a very thin layer of cloud was over the sun, we could still see the crescent slowly disappear; there was a glimmer of Baily’s beads which are the result of the sun shining around the moon’s deep valleys and craters for just a second or two, then darkness. This was C2, or second contact, when the moon completely covers the sun. Totality! Whoops and cheers rose from the small crowd. “Whoa,” I exclaimed. “This is absolutely amazing!” The cloud was clearing, and the sun’s corona, at first a bit blurry, became clearly and gloriously visible.

Having read about total eclipses before, I expected the sky to be completely dark except near the horizon, where sunrise or sunset colors would appear. Stars and planets would appear. But due to the cloud cover, our experience was different: a large cumulus cloud just below the sun, bathed in the coronal light, carried a glow by which we could clearly see each other. All around the horizon was a cloudy twilight. Someone described the light as similar to a baseball field at night. But that corona set off the whole sky with its splendor! I tried to take the whole scene in, completely awestruck.

In the distance, the pops and bangs of fireworks could be heard. I pitied anyone near where these were being lit off, for they could draw attention away from the celestial spectacle that was happening. But at this distance, the sound only added to the surreal, celebratory air.

Totality (from our location) lasted 2 minutes, 23 seconds. It seemed more like a minute and a half, and it was soon over. A few seconds before C3 (third contact, when the sun would come back out), the right side of the sun lit up with streaks of red; these were huge flares called solar prominences. I had the impression that the sun was bleeding. Then Baily’s beads appeared for just a second or two, then pop! Out came the sun! It was like when the eye doctor shines that bright light into your dilated eyes, only more of a pinpoint and much, much brighter. “Ooooh, that’s bright,” exclaimed Trey, who had been pretty quiet until now. He donned his eclipse glasses to find the thinnest crescent ever. I noticed that the temperature had dropped quite a bit; I hadn’t noticed it during totality because my mind was occupied with the sight of it.

The party breaks up, and we go to lunch

The sky quickly brightened. Within 15 minutes it looked to us much like full daylight, as our eyes had adjusted to the darkness. By now the parking lot was empty; people were leaving. The live video feed was over, and the TV booth was coming down. No one was sticking around for the remaining partial phase, which was just the reverse of what they had already seen.

Two things about the solar eclipse really stuck with me:

  1. Total solar eclipses are rare. They require that the sun, moon, and earth be in near-perfect alignment. Then there is what scientists call a “cosmic coincidence” that the sun and moon appear about the same size in the sky, because though the sun is about 400 times larger in diameter than the moon, it is also about 400 times farther away. Though no one can either prove or disprove that an intelligent Creator made everything (that is the job of faith), this “coincidence” provides an extremely good case for intelligent design.
  2. Our experience with the eclipse was different from what any of our friends experienced. I had spent long hours trying to decide where to go to view the eclipse, and I had finally decided to go where the weather would be the coolest and the traffic would be the least. As it turned out, some friends that saw it near St. Joseph and Cameron, in western Missouri, saw totality obscured by clouds, though it was novel to have complete darkness in the middle of the day. Those near St. Louis, and those in southern Illinois, saw a classic total eclipse with stars visible during totality. As for us, we got a surprise: the fully eclipsed sun was clearly visible, but the corona lit up the clouds like the full moon would, though the colors were unmistakably different. This provided us a truly unique and unforgettable experience.
  3. There was a third: we got to do a bit of sightseeing along with seeing the eclipse, during the partial phases.

The traffic was slow, but we made our way to a nearby Arby’s for lunch. Quite a few other people had the same idea, so there was a fairly long wait to order and receive our meals. While we were there, people talked excitedly about the eclipse. Some young people had some surprisingly good cellphone pictures of the partial phases taken through eclipse glasses at full zoom, and of the fully eclipsed sun with the corona.

C4, the final contact where the moon’s shadow leaves the sun’s disk entirely, occurred just before 2:41 pm. It came and went without anyone noticing; it was cloudy by now.

The long return trip

We finished our lunch and then left for home at 2:51. It took several minutes to get back onto Hwy 54, but then it was clear sailing for a while.

From the back seat, Kayla announced that my phone had given an alert: just 4.2 miles ahead there was a 20 minute traffic delay. The delay turned out to be nearly an hour: at times traffic moved at speeds up to 40 mph, but sometimes it stopped entirely. It took us until 4:28 to get 36 miles from where we had started from (just north of Laddonia, where Hwy 19 turns off). After that it was clear sailing again.

We crossed the narrow two-lane bridge back into Illinois. A while later we were in Jacksonville; we ate dinner at a Long John Silver’s (6:41 pm). We had fish, or chicken, or both, with fries and soda. We bought gas at Casey’s General Store (7:45) and then hit the road.

Traffic on I-55 was very busy; we were on it for 58 miles. Twice it slowed down to 35 or 40 mph and actually stopped briefly, but it quickly got moving again. Once we turned onto I-39, it cleared up until I-90 joined it; then it was very busy again, but with no slowdowns or stoppage.

Eighty miles south of Rockford, Illinois, around 11:15 pm, we stopped at a rest area. The place was so full that people were cruising around, looking for a place to park. Fortunately there was a disabled stall available, and since we had the disabled plates, we were good. I wondered how much of this traffic was from the eclipse, so I started asking random people, “Did you see the eclipse?” Everyone answered yes; one man asked, “Who didn’t?” Each one told me where they went to see it: St. Clair, Missouri, where an astronomer pointed out what stars could be seen; a state park in southern Illinois near the border; one lady had been in Carbondale, Illinois and had taken the back roads out of there to avoid heavy traffic. One man said it had taken him three hours in St. Louis to go three miles! Most were headed into Wisconsin, some to the Milwaukee area.

Kayla found some change so we could take the tollway this time instead of navigating the maze of country roads in the dark. There was a line at the toll booth; traffic was still heavy, even this far north and this late. Finally we paid the $1.90 toll. Soon after that, just south of the Wisconsin border, we found a construction zone, a single lane, and traffic at a standstill near South Beloit.

I took an exit for U.S. 51 / Illinois 75, intending to drive home through the cities, but then I went the wrong way and found myself headed east, away from South Beloit. In the dark, the interchange was confusing, so Kayla tried the GPS on my phone. It led us right back to I-39/90! But to our delight, we were now past the line of cars and into traffic that was moving. We took it north to Racine Street in Janesville and got off. The city streets were pretty much silent, with only an occasional passing car from the other direction. We arrived at Kayla and Trey’s house at 12:54 am and dropped them off. We arrived home ourselves at 12:58. Total distance for the trip was 786 miles.

I unpacked everything except the cooler and Wendi’s bag. We ate a snack at 3 am, and Wendi went to bed after that. I showered and got to bed around 4:15.

Tuesday, August 22

Here I am with my eclipse glasses, at home on the day after the Great American Eclipse. I’ll share my full story via link later this week. In a word, it was incredible.
(Posted at 12:50 pm)

Charlie with eclipse glasses

Well, I didn’t get the story finished until early September, but here it is. And more stories may follow, as there are more solar eclipses to come.

Upcoming Solar Eclipses

June 10, 2021 - Annular eclipse in Canada (26% partial here)

October 14, 2023 - Annular eclipse in Oregon, extreme northeast California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Arizona and Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas (44% partial here). I may travel to see this one, just because I’ve never seen an annular eclipse. It would be interesting but much less a spectacle than a total eclipse.

April 8, 2024 - Total in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, a bit of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It will be 89% partial here in Janesville.

January 14, 2029 - Partial eclipse (60% here)

August 23, 2044 - Total eclipse in Canada, Montana, North Dakota.

August 12, 2045 - Total eclipse coast-to-coast from northern California to Florida.

Janesville gets an annular eclipse on June 11, 2048, and a total eclipse on September 14, 2099.