Path of Totality

I spent the better part of today in a race with the moon, trying to catch a patch of blue sky on a cloudy day in Missouri so I could witness my first, and possibly last, total eclipse of the sun.

I resolved to fly into the path of totality for this one.  I could always fly into the path of totality somewhere else in the world, wherever an eclipse is imminent … but this one was so close, it seemed a shame not to try and make it.  There was no question about staying in Austin and watching the partial.  I had seen one of those before, and you can’t even look directly at it without polarized glasses.  Seeing the moon move across a very-dimmed image of the sun behind nearly opaque glasses is cool enough, but I had a hunch that the total eclipse was a whole different animal.  My goal was to see the corona – ejections of gas from the surface of the sun that are not as bright as the star itself, but, due to Someone’s Law of Thermodynamics, are actually hotter than the surface.

So I scoped out the map of the path of totality across the United States, and discovered that it went through Kansas City, Missouri, where I have family to visit.  They generously put me up in their guest room, and I resolved to drive 45 minutes north to Cameron, MO, since they lived south of KC in Lee’s Summit, out of the path of totality.  They got 99.8% of an eclipse, but that’s still too bright to look at.  That’s how freaking bright the sun is.

This morning, I watched local weather, and – disaster! – a storm was headed right over Cameron, MO at the peak of the eclipse.  Had I flown all this way for nothing?  I examined the map and saw that the path of totality arced southeast, meaning that I could also encounter it if I drove due east.  The weather out that way looked more promising, both visually and from the weather reports, so I resolved to try the tiny town of Concordia, sixty minutes to the east, and if need be, push another hour east to the college town of Columbia – halfway across the state.  (And have to push an afternoon meeting I scheduled in Overland Park, because there was no way I would make it back from Columbia in time).

Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 8.59.59 AM
Courtesy of NASA

As I drove east, I saw the clouds thin out ahead of me and the rain become sparse, but it was still nipping at my tail when I pulled into Concordia and ate a late breakfast at Topsy’s Diner.  The sky was still so cloudy that I couldn’t see the sun – I had to use the Starlight iPhone app to even see where the sun was.

So, with the eclipse beginning in 25 minutes, I sighed and pushed on to Columbia, stopping at one rest stop to glimpse the sun in my ISO-specs as the moon was just starting to move in front of the sun.

Columbia is a very attractive and lively town, home of the Mizzou Tigers.  The sky was brighter and I could tell where the sun was, but it was still disturbingly overcast.  As I pulled up to Faurot Field, the first real blast of full sunlight all day hit me, and I cheered out loud.  It was short-lived, though.  There was no denying it – I had driven halfway to St. Louis, and it was just a cloudy day in Missouri.

Deciding that this was where I would make my stand, for better or for worse, I found Capen Rock Park, parked my Cousin Mark’s car in what I hoped was not a mud pit, and walked a hundred feet to a small field where a few families and collections of students had struck a picnic.  I was feeling introverted so I didn’t make conversation with anyone … I just posted up and got my first good look at the sky.

It definitely wasn’t “Blue Skies Smiling At Me” over my head, but it could have been a lot worse.  The sky was hazy with high-altitude clouds, but the sun was clearly visible through them, even with the ISO specs.  Larger clouds occasionally blocked the sun altogether, but there were also high-altitude winds that pushed the clouds out of the way in less than a minute.  All around me, kids and college students yammered and joked and wondered whether they could look at the sun (at totality, you can; any other time, don’t risk it).

As totality approached, the clouds became more sparse and the view got better.  By the time the eclipse waxed total, there was actually blue in the sky.  I couldn’t really see the beading of the sunlight as it interacted with the craterous surface of the moon, but once totality hit, everything that was suppoed to happen happened.  It got cold.  The sky got dark.  Venus came out.  Insects began chirping and dogs (or maybe coyotes) started howling.  The children and college kids nearby stopped blabbering and cooed with awe and delight.  At various distances, I heard crowds cheering all over town.  My specs came off, and I looked at the corona blasting superheated hydrogen and helium off the sun’s surface for about two minutes.

When the moment of totality ended, I got to watch the “diamond ring” effect as just one tiny bead of sunlight first poked its way out from behind the moon.  Even that is dangerous to look at, so I looked away a split second later and had a hell of an afterimage on my vision … but it made an impression.

Verdict: Worth It.

From where did you watch the eclipse?

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