Thousands if not tens of thousands of hopeful eclipse viewers invaded Nebraska during the days leading up to the eclipse on August 21, 2017. The path of totality stretched across the state from Alliance in the northwest through Lincoln and Beatrice in the southeast.
Cloud cover was spotty on eclipse day. Radio and TV weather forecasters had to admit that they could only provide an educated guess about the cloud cover at any given location at a particular time.
I traveled with some friends from Wisconsin to Fairmont, Nebraska, a town smack in the middle of the path of totality about sixty miles west of Lincoln and 15 miles south of Interstate 80. We drove in from the north and arrived at about 9:30 am. We had no problem getting there and no problem parking.
By 10:30 in the morning, Fairmont's parks and public spaces were filled with people. A guy driving a tractor pulling a hay wagon was offering rides around town. The American Legion Hall was filled with people eating breakfast or buying T-shirts to commemorate the day. Members of the volunteer fire department had set up a grilling station and were preparing hamburgers and brats for several thousand guests.
I met the Brunick family from Yankton. They had gotten up early - really early - to make the several hour drive with their kids. There were people from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and especially Texas. There were a lot of people from Texas. There were young families with kids and older families with the the oldest in wheelchairs. There was a guy from North Carolina tuning up a telescope the size of a small oil drum. (He promised to give me a picture. If he gets back to me, I'll post it here.)
The high clouds predicted for the area began to thicken. At 11:00 am it was obvious that the clouds were going to be over the area for a while. Even heavier cloud cover was starting to roll in from the southwest.
But skies to the north and west were clear. My Wisconsin friends and conferred briefly and decided to embark on what I think we all assumed would be a risky car chase. We thought if we could make it just a few miles west and few north, we could get out from under the cloud cover. We expected a lot of other people do the same thing. For us it was shrug and go. Sit under the clouds or take a chance on clearer skies. Nothing to lose.
We had a lot of company on Interstate 80 westbound to Grand Island. It occurred to me that in an evacuation, people run away from something rather than toward it. Not expecting to breat the tension in the least, I said to my friend, "It's all about the journey, isn't it." We both kind of laughed at that. Kind of.
At about 12:15 pm, we found a spot on the south side of the Platte River a few miles east of Grand Island. I and my friends from the Milwaukee area joined several other groups who'd made a run for the river from some cloudier locale.
We watched the moon slide between us an the sun. Daylight begin to fade and we were all spending more energy on photography and videography that we probably should have - but it takes a long time for the moon to fully cover the sun and there's time to think. Anyway, I was planning to be fully in the moment for those few seconds of totality. If I could get a picture, that would be fine. If not, that would also be fine - the world is now full of 2017 eclipse pictures of varying degrees of quality. Here's mine. (For an excellent timelapse photo of the eclipse over Nebraska, check out Chynna Lockett's post for SDPB Radio.)
A total eclipse of the sun is as amazing as you've heard it is. I'm sure that everyone experiences a total eclipse in a unique and personal way. I'm also certain that no first-time viewer has ever experienced anything remotely like it. I can't say this for sure, but I'd be surprised if anyone who has seen a total eclipse would ever pass on seeing another one.
As for my snarkiness about it being "all about the journey," I take it back. I'll remember everything about it and would do it all again if I could. Except that I'd add a day to the end of the trip and not sit in a long line of stalled traffic on a hot summer day in Columbus, Nebraska.
But now that I think about it. I think I would probably do that again too.
Be sure to watch "Eclipse Over America" from NOVA and PBS.