I have been meaning to post my experiences during the Great American Total Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017 … What can I say? It’s been a busy year! So, here – a year later – is a reminiscence of that incredible day.
The day before, though, I had the chance to meet up in St. Louis with the “Eclipse Escape” crew, led by two of my most favorite people in the world, Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay. I gave a presentation to the 100-plus crew about my book “Incredible Stories From Space” and got to meet IRL a lot of people I’ve known for years online. It was a blast.
The day of the eclipse, I got up early and headed about 40 miles south of St. Louis to the town of Festus, Missouri. I had decided several months earlier that I didn’t want to “cover” the eclipse as a journalist, I just wanted to experience it. I coordinated with longtime good friends Leza and Daryl as to the location so we could be together for the eclipse.
The park at Festus was exactly the type of spot I was looking for: a huge, wide open area with a great view of the sky. We chose a spot near some trees, however, as it was a warm, humid day and being able to duck into the shade occasionally was perfect.
I arrived about 8 am, and watched as people started to stream in. Not long after, I couldn’t access the internet on my phone because of the high demand and so many people in one little spot. So much for sharing things on social media! But it was a great chance to pull out my bag of goodies. I had supplies to make pinhole viewers, as well as a couple of colanders and some info sheets.
A few clouds drifted here and there, but mostly it was clear. Anytime a cloud appeared on the horizon, I got a little nervous.
As the eclipse began, the colander really worked well to show the progress of the Moon moving over the face of the Sun.
The last few minutes leading up to totality, things started to get weird. It started to get dark; a strange, eerie darkness right by us and above us, but yet out on the horizon all around us where it was clear of trees, you could actually see the light outside of the 70-mile wide shadow. It grew darker and the crickets started to chirp. Some street lights in a nearby parking lot turned on. A point of light began to be visible in the sky — it was the planet Venus.
Then the eclipsed crescent Sun grew smaller and smaller. For the first time in my life I then saw Baily’s Beads.
Suddenly the Moon seemed to pop into place directly over the Sun. As one, the crowd oohed, ahhhed, whooped, hollered and cheered.
At totality, the sight was amazing and astonishing. ‘Otherworldly’ was the word that came to mind and I immediately thought how early cultures witnessing a total solar eclipse would have surely thought the world was ending or that the gods had caused such an indescribable sight. No image I have seen of the eclipse (and I’ve seen a lot!!) captures, portrays or does justice to the sight we saw above us in Festus. Even though it was hot, I got chills.
I couldn’t breathe, but yet had to breathe because I started crying. I didn’t realize it at the time, but after re-watching the movie “Contact” a few months ago, my reaction to the eclipse was almost an exact duplicate of how Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) reacted to seeing galaxies across the universe:
“No … no words. No words to describe it. I didn’t know…. I didn’t know it would be so beautiful….I didn’t know…”
Some red or pink spots showed up around the corona, glistening like rubies here and there around the now dark disk of the Sun. This was something I wasn’t expecting, but they were prominences around the Sun, which is hot hydrogen gas rising from the lowest layer of the Sun’s atmosphere.
We had 2 minutes and 40 seconds of totality in Festus, and every second was amazing. I tried to take it all in – the amazing sight above me, the reaction of people around me, the strange darkness and night-time sounds from crickets, but no birds chirping.
Then – suddenly and way too soon — the first point of light reappeared at the edge of the Sun’s limb, meaning totality was coming to an end and everyone needed to get their eclipse glasses back on. While the darkness came gradually before totality, it quickly became as bright as full-sun, even though just a sliver of Sun was showing.
Many people packed up right after that, but I wanted to savor the day and enjoy the other side of the eclipse, and watched through my glasses as the Sun gradually returned to full size. The traffic could wait.
It was an amazing experience and I could see myself easily becoming and eclipse hopper! We are already making plans for April 8, 2024! Don’t miss it!
You can see lots of great eclipse images from people around the country in an article I put together for Universe Today.
Here’s a great video I found online from other folks who were at Festus, it really captures the experience!