Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Personal Account of the Total Solar Eclipse from St. Joseph, Missouri August 21, 2017

I saw the Great American Eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017 from St. Joseph, Missouri. I saw totality, the total phase of the eclipse, for a fleeting 10 seconds in a lucky break in the clouds during otherwise overcast and even rainy skies. The location experienced 2 minutes and 38 seconds of totality, which I felt and observed in the change in ambient light and glowing orange horizon, but only about 10 seconds standing in awe, eyes to the alien black hole in the sky. I wanted to write this longer post to get my recollection of the event down into text because I think it's the kind of thing I'll want to revisit later.

portrait with camera and gear at eclipse tailgate
I love this photo, it really captures the day and the atmosphere at the event

On Monday, August 20 my sister Karin and I set out from Indianapolis, IN at 6:30am ET and although it was early, the time passed quickly on our way to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. I had never been to St. Louis before, never seen the Arch in person. This was going to be something of a consolation prize because we were already watching the pessimistic weather forecasts coming out of NW Missouri. I kept telling myself, at least I will have done something new and experienced something that would make the trip worthwhile, even if I didn't see ANY of the eclipse.

stainless steel detail gateway arch bottom
Had to touch the actual arch to say I did. We didn't go inside because it was a 3 hour wait to the top.

under the gateway arch
The arch was very cool, felt like a mix between the Washington Monument and an alien spaceship

We continued on to Kansas City, the location of our hotel. I chose a hotel by the Kansas City airport inside the path of totality, thinking that even if traffic was so apocalyptic that we literally don't make it out of the parking lot, we would still experience totality. We got to the hotel and saw license plates from Minnesota to Washington to Texas, and saw a couple guys testing out solar filters on DSLR cameras in the parking lot on our way to dinner in Kansas (checking another state off the list).

hotel parking lot 5:30am
Not the mad rush I was expecting in the hotel parking lot at 5:30am, traffic was a breeze actually. We parked facing out right by the exit as to make a quick get-away if needed. 

The plan was to wake up at 5am and be on the road to St. Joseph by 5:30am to beat the rush. We woke up to crickets chirping and a clear sky with stars overhead, but no crowds of people. I guess we beat the traffic, and I guess a few people had canceled their hotel rooms (I overhead the employees discussing as we were checking in). Either way, we had clear skies and we were on our way to the event at Rosecrans Memorial Airport.

solar eclipse road signs
Just about all roads west of St. Louis included these solar eclipse traffic warnings

We passed flashing LED construction signs every 2 miles or so warning of anticipated traffic delays due to the solar eclipse, one that said "SOLAR ECLIPSE AUG 21 HEADLIGHTS ON," and clever traffic safety signs that read "ECLIPSE YOUR PHONE, JUST DRIVE," all along the path of totality.

snapchat solar eclipse geo filter
Snapchat had fun solar eclipse geo filters all along the path of totality

We got to the airport among the first hundred cars or so parking for the day. A number of campers and media vans were already there from the days before, and we followed a winding dirt road through the restricted part of the airport. The restricted area signs were covered with hand made posterboard signs directing traffic forward. Volunteers in orange shirts were stationed at each fork in the road making sure we didn't end up on a runway. It looked like we actually drove down an out-of-use runway for a portion of the route.

Sunrise at Rosecrans Memorial Airport
Sunrise at Rosecrans Memorial Airport morning August 21, 2017

We got to the parking field and felt lucky to have an SUV to drive along the grass. Port-o-potties were stationed every 200 feet or so and doubled as parking area signs. We were by P-2 which apparently was hilarious to everyone in line for the toilet because everyone kept making stupid jokes like "P-2, do we have to pick?" and "They should call it a 'U Can' then it could be 'u can pee 2' get it?" (eye roll) all part of the experience!

Hill between the food trucks and parking field

Clouds can't make up their mind, but the sun was a welcome sight

selfie with eclipse glasses
Finally got to put the eclipse glasses to good use on the partial eclipse leading up to totality, before the wave of rain clouds rolled in.

The crowd was an interesting group. I was trying to figure out how to describe them. It was like a combination of people who didn't necessarily seem that into astronomy but were just up for doing stuff, like "might as well" drive down to see the eclipse. There were a fair number of dads in eclipse shirts and strap on sandals, retirees, bucket-listers, families with huge cruising vans and 4 teenagers, and then a few more extreme observers with fancy auto-guided rigs and telescopes set up in the grass. It was like a music fest without the music, or I guess like an astronomy club meeting on steroids.

row of eclipse tailgaters
Row of eclipse tailgaters and some of the nicer telescopes I saw at the event

The guy parked next to us was by himself, his name was either Christo or Christoff and he was originally from South Africa but living in the Netherlands. He said he flew in just for the eclipse and was flying out again the next morning. He said it was a bucket list item, and that he also wanted to see the Northern Lights one day, but that he wasn't necessarily an astronomy buff. He had a great attitude about the possibility of cloudy skies, and he kept saying "thaaats naature I guess" in a South African accent.

photographing the eclipse
Waiting for the sun to poke through the clouds

photographing the eclipse
You can tell by the lens flare that the eclipse hasn't started yet, but I'm testing out my filter and practicing trying to focus

We set up our tailgate in front of the car facing the sunrise to the East NE. Just about everyone set up chairs and tents outside their car like a tailgate, rather than going over to the designated viewing area. This meant that cars were basically trapped in their rows and it would be difficult to leave if anyone wanted to leave. Only 1 or 2 cars ended up leaving down our row before the eclipse, presumably chasing better conditions. Medics and police patrolled up and down the rows in Gator carts and could easily maneuver the tents and tables.

Eclipse tailgate

Sun trying to poke through the clouds

There's still hope! A patch of blue sky!

We ventured over to the food trucks and to take in the crowd, do some people watching, before heading back and setting up the camera in time for the partial phase of the eclipse to begin. It was cloudy right when it started, but the clouds were moving quick and we would see the Pac Man sun through the clouds and got to observe it with our eclipse glasses and I got as many pictures as I could!

partial phase eclipse sequence
Partial phase sequence through the clouds, last photo (12:06pm) exactly 1 hour prior to totality

eclipse sequence square


After getting some photos of the partial eclipse, the clouds really rolled in, and we heard thunder coming from the NW. Great! At this point we start rationalizing our disappointment. "Well, at least we can say we were in the path of totality. At least it should still get dark, so we can experience that." It started raining for real and we got back in the car with everything packed up. Christoff our parking lot neighbor was listening to live coverage on the radio, and I took some photos of the rain 15 minutes before totality to document the lousy weather.

rain before solar eclipse
Feeling very distressed a few minutes before totality! Photo from 12:50pm with totality coming up at 1:06pm.

My sister and I agreed that for totality we would stand outside the car even if it was raining so we could really experience it. We'd read about listening for crickets and watching the sky darken even if it's cloudy. It was still sprinkling when we got out of the car and stood under the tailgate. I put my iPhone on a small tripod to film the ambient changes and record our reaction to totality.



The video speaks for itself, but we saw through the clouds not a thumbnail crescent sun, but an eyelash sun, just a thin line of burning white light through the clouds. It was so tantalizing and tempting to look at it without eclipse glasses. We dared a few peeks through the clouds and tried to watch with our glasses on when it got too bright. I didn't dare get my camera out because I didn't want to miss a chance to see something through holes in the clouds. Actually, holes might be a bit generous, it was more like thin spots in the clouds. It was solid overcast.

mammatus clouds in missouri
On our drive out of Missouri we saw these weird clouds. Karin looked them up and they are called mammatus clouds (as in mammary) and they are supposedly pretty rare, and usually associated with extreme weather.

It got dimmer and we looked to the West to see what looked like sunset approaching. The sky on the western horizon was first to turn orange, and then rather quickly the rest of the sky got dark too. Not just a little dark. DARK. Probably exaggerated even more so by the overcast sky. The orange alien glow was on all horizons and the clouds overhead were purple and wispy light blue/green. The darkness itself was bizarre enough to make the trip worthwhile to be on the line of totality, but then in a break in the clouds I saw something. I saw a solid edge and thought that was too clean a line to be from the clouds itself, and an instant later the total eclipse revealed itself. First through a thin wisp of clouds that were moving, and then almost completely revealed (or very very thin clouds).

how dark does it get at totality
Compare a few minutes before totality to the darkness of totality, screenshots from the iPhone video above

The total eclipse was light blue through the thin clouds, and white corona clearly visible around a black sphere. It looked like an artist rendering of a black hole with some sense of depth and volume and spitting out etherial white flames. It back lit the clouds around it like a full moon, and stood starring back at us in silence. I thought I had seen it for about 7 seconds, but then watching the video I believe it must have been longer. I found other videos on Instagram tagged at that location and it could have been 10-15 seconds easily.

The first thing I remember when it went back behind the clouds was that it looked different than any photo I had ever seen of it. Because of the clouds, I think it validated for me that this wasn't a false memory, I wasn't just remembering other photos I'd seen and convincing myself I'd seen it, I felt like I had proof in my mind that I had really seen it. Every photo I've seen has the stark white contrast, but this had a blue/green glow from the clouds and the white corona stood out against the clean line of the moon. It felt so unnatural, it looked like an alien spaceship, in my mind it seemed almost egg shaped which is probably my memory already distorting my experience or maybe an artifact of the shape of the hole in the clouds, it's hard to say but I remember thinking that it was "O" shaped and not a sphere for some reason. Maybe just my irrational mind overwhelmed by what I was looking at.

When the lights came back on, we again saw the eyelash thin sun coming out from behind the moon. I decided to get my camera and try to get some photos, sort of regretting not already having my camera on auto pilot snapping photos during totality - but then again it was raining just 10 minutes before. I watched with eclipse glasses a few more minutes, and then managed to snag some photos of the crescent sun appearing through the clouds. It was hard to find good exposure because the thickness of the clouds was constantly changing.

crescent sun in clouds
Crescent sun after totality (1:17pm) ISO 100, 300mm, f/7.1, 1/2500

I like these photos because the crescent sun without a solar filter is only something you can get with cloud cover, so this makes it more unique because no one would wish for clouds during the peek of the eclipse, but if you get them it makes some nice variety. So all in all, I think my friends and family were expecting more epic eclipse photos during totality, but I came away with some souvenir shots, a great video memory of totality, and a brief moment of ecstasy after days of anxiety and worry. Now that I've officially witnessed totality, the pressure is off for 2024. It will be easy for 2024 to be the best solar eclipse because the bar is set very low with only seeing 10 seconds of totality, however if I don't see it at all in 2024 I will always have these brief moments from 2017 to remember forever.

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