"It's like looking into the face of God," they said when asked what a total solar eclipse was like.
Like many Americans, I had been looking forward to the total solar eclipse for about a year. I only remember ever seeing a partial solar eclipse when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. We made little shoe box pin hole viewers and I wasn't impressed. However, I was eagerly anticipating this totality event. I've heard that it will change your life.
Note: to skip to the good parts, go to the sections between the --- lines.
My original plans were to travel to Idaho and stay with the family of a friend of mine who is stationed in Germany with the US Army. They were more than welcoming and opened up their home to me. But after hearing more and more anticipation of large crowds and traffic jams, I decided to change my plans to Wyoming instead. A little town of Riverton, population about 10,000 sat directly underneath the path of totality.
Wanting to beat the heavy weekend traffic, I left for Wyoming at about 7pm from Salt Lake City. I laid the rear seats flat and unfolded a camping air mattress and my sleeping bag. My plan was to drive up to Riverton, getting there about midnight or shortly thereafter, and sleeping in the WalMart parking lot. The drive was uneventful with only me and 3 other cars on the road. Mountain Dew kept me awake and a new audio book, The Great American Eclipse, kept me entertained. Many people had the same overnight plans; the parking lot was full of campers, RVs, and cars with sleepy travelers.
I met my parents at the park around 8am and we set up our gear. I forgot to bring a chair but thankfully Hotel WalMart had plenty in stock. To the little town of Riverton, this must have seemed like quite the crowd. Being from the sprawling metropolis of Salt Lake City, it seemed like just another Saturday at the city park to me. While there were plenty of people there with chairs, shade tents, and cameras on tripods, it was by no means crowded.
High clouds threatened our experience. In my audio book, I heard a story about a group of scientists in the mid 1800s that traveled 45 days by train, stage coach, and horseback to end up in a Canadian swamp, attacked by squadrons of mosquitoes, only to be under the cover of a totally overcast sky. They then had to make a 60 day journey home. Thick bands of high clouds moved into our view of the sun. With our last 5 minutes before totality we were nervous that we'd miss the event of the decade. Thankfully, right before the moon fully covered the sun, a small break in the clouds opened up and gave us a 98% clear view.
I was prepared for shooting with my 400mm Sigma lens and my Nikon d750. I purchased a solar filter online that folds into a cap that you place over the business end of your lens. It worked out great and I got several compliments from people walking around the park. The event started around 10:30am with the moon taking little bites from the sun. At 400mm I was able to see several sun spots that slowly disappeared behind the moon.
For those that have never seen a total solar eclipse, it is quite the experience. About 5 minutes before totality, it is getting noticeable darker and cooler. About 2 minutes prior, there is a perceptible increase in contrast and sharpness in your surrounding landscape. The best way I can describe it is like when you are watching a YouTube video and the HD resolution sudden snaps in. Taking a look around, it was like seeing everything and everyone in High Definition. The reason for this is because the light from the sun is now very unidirectional instead of omni-directional.
About 30 seconds before totality you can capture the "diamond ring" which is the sun shining around the moon like a ring with one point of very bright light. It looks like a diamond ring. Several seconds later and you can capture "Baily's beads." Named for scientist and astronomer Francis Baily who provided the science behind this phenomena in 1836. It is when the last light of the sun is shining through the peaks and valley of the craters on the moon. Very impressive we can perceive that here on Earth, 250,000 miles away.
And then it happens. The moon fully occludes the sun; the fullness and glory is beyond my ability to aptly describe. Before you is revealed a pitch black disk, like a black hole, surrounded by the ethereal atmosphere of the sun, evaporating into outer space. For barely more than 2 minutes you are transported to an alien world with a dim, steel blue sky. Stars appear in the firmament and you can clearly see Venus hanging just below and to the left. The silvery strands of the star's corona, burning at almost 6000 degrees Kelvin, shimmer like the hair of God. With carefully timed photographs, solar prominences, or solar flares, can be seen shooting out behind the black disk, each one dwarfing our tiny planet a million times over.
I was so focused on my photography, blasting through 50 different shutter speeds, that I almost forgot to LOOK UP. During totality you don't need solar glasses and can gaze upon the glory with your naked eye. Never before have I seen anything this incredible.
As the moon continues to cross in front of the sun, Baily's beads peak through the other side and you rush to put your glasses back on. Another diamond ring event and a crescent sliver appears on the other side. The moon's shadow is blazing across the United States at 1000 miles per hour.
The next eclipse to come to America is in 2024. In my opinion it should be the event around which your year revolves. Pull your kids out of school. Take time off work. There are very few people in the history of the world who have seen this in its totality. Those who haven't seen it, just don't "get it." When I talk to people at work or friends or family that haven't seen it, I can't understand their inconsequential attitude toward an experience that happens so infrequently. Maybe it is the science nerd in me, maybe it is the photography nerd in me. People probably have the same frustration with me because I don't care about college sports.
But while March Madness happens every year, you might not get a chance to see this twice in your life. You owe it to yourself to witness a total solar eclipse before you die.