2017 Eclipse Road Trip

The photos start in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but the story starts a bit earlier…  Betsy and I planned this trip about 2 years ago.  I really don’t have a “bucket list”, but if I did, this would be on it…

Here is 12 year old me in 1970 with my 3″ reflector telescope projecting the partial eclipse on to a piece of paper.  Sadly the exposure doesn’t show the crescent sun… (nice try Dad!)

I’ve read about eclipses and heard the tales of the total eclipse.  I really wanted to see one and happily I’m married to someone who wanted to see one as well.   So when the 2017 Eclipse appeared on our radar we instantly decided we were going to see it.

In 2016, near the end of our annual wilderness kayaking trip the group discusses what we might want to do next year.  We mentioned the eclipse as a possible event to all travel to (this is the same group that did the Boundary Waters a few years back).   No takers.

So, in September 2016 I did some research on the path of the eclipse, got out a map, stuck my finger on “Grand Island, Nebraska” and said that’s where we’d go to see the eclipse.

Why Grand Island, Nebraska?  Quickly: statistically had a good chance of clear weather, a “reasonable” 24-30 hour drive (1500 miles) on I-90/I-80, located near the Platte River which we’ve wanted to see (although not in August), Nebraska is basically a grid, so if there were local clouds on the day of the eclipse we could easily travel to where it was clear.   If things went really south weather-wise, I’d settle for seeing a huge severe thunderstorm on the plains…  Plan done, put it on the shelf.   Somewhere in the intervening year our son Jay said that if his work schedule permitted it, he’d like to come along.

I’d like to emphasize what I’ve written a few times already: I wanted to see the eclipse.  I didn’t go there to photograph it.  I brought my cameras along and if not a single picture of the eclipse came out of this trip I would be happy.

I’m also a bit of a weather junkie…A week before the eclipse I started reading the NWS Scientific Forecast reports for the region and they were not sounding good…  We had scheduled to leave on Friday evening (we like to drive at night when possible) but the forecast on Thursday was not looking good for eastern Nebraska:

So Friday night we packed our clothes, some snacks, and a couple of thermorests into the back of a rented Dodge Voyager and headed west.   About 14 hours later the next forecast came in and it was becoming clear that eastern Nebraska was getting too risky.

After 30 hours or so of (almost) straight driving we decided to stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and grab a room.   Had an OK meal at a local restaurant and headed to bed.  Up at 4am and back on the road.

After reading a number of forecast reports, we decided that our destination would be much further west, so we drove back up to I-90 and headed for South Dakota.   I had, possibly unwarranted, concerns that traffic on I-80 in Nebraska was going to be tricky on Eclipse Day.   I was fully prepared to not see the eclipse because of bad weather – nature is nature – but there was no f*cking way I was going to not see the eclipse because I was stuck in traffic somewhere outside the zone of totality…  We would stay clear of crowds and “descend” into the zone from the north..

On our way in we noted that Illinois had lots of corn.  Iowa had lots of it too.  So much that I cannot fathom the sheer scale of what harvest time must be in that state.  I was humbled at how large the farms were and how much planning must go into having a successful crop each year.  Until you travel for hours and hours with nothing but crops on both sides of the road as far as the eye can see, you really don’t understand what it takes to feed a nation / planet.  These are marvels of engineering on a massive scale.

Anyways, on our way out of Iowa we wondered out loud why there weren’t more windmills on these massive farms…  A few minutes later we found out they were there, just not in the part of the state we happened to be in.   Soon we’d see wind farms that spanned the horizon…

This continued into Minnesota, which also seems to be heavily invested in wind power.

Drove by a place where the pylons are being manufactured…  So a LOT more generators in the queue….

South Dakota might have the winds for wind power, but I think they value their landscape higher (at least from the highways).

Ah, the Wall Drug signs…  so good to see them again (we were last in South Dakota back in 2009)

Traveling on I-90 in South Dakota is akin to taking Disney World and stretching it across 350 miles…

Our original plan to see the eclipse in Nebraska was now off the table.   We now decided to head to Rapid City, South Dakota and find a room on Sunday evening (which we did), then get up early on Monday and drive to Wyoming….

Those were sunflowers…. miles of sunflowers…. (what a time-lapse that would be!)

We were pretty road-weary by the time we made it to Rapid City, but frankly if we drove closer to “the zone” the chances of finding a room were starting to diminish and the prices were triple what we were seeing in SD.   We had driven 2110 miles, but we had our “base camp”.  Had a great dinner and turned in early.  Tomorrow was going to be a long day…

While most of Rapid City was sleeping, we were on the road at 4am…..  We were not alone!

Dawn somewhere along the way to Wyoming…   We were part of a steady stream of cars heading south…

We drove down Route 85 and entered the zone of totality.  We continued to a small town called Lusk (which appeared to be ready to handle a crowd).  We went a few miles further and pulled into a ranch turnout at 7am.   It turned out to be a beautiful location…. and not a cloud in the sky.

Others were doing the same up and down the road….   A family who had driven from Wisconsin pulled into our area (Hi Hansons!).  We exchanged stories about how we mutually ended up sitting in a field more or less in the middle of eastern Wyoming.

We then waited…  The eclipse would not start for over 3 hours… The whole event would last 3 hours and where we were standing would see 2 minutes and 9 seconds of totality.

We had our special “eclipse glasses” to safely look at the sun, and I had a solar filter on one of my cameras.   I honestly didn’t have much of a plan photography-wise.  I brought along some cameras and thought about what would be interesting to capture in our location – with as little involvement from me as possible.

(Warning: a bit photo-geeking for the next 3 or 4 paragraphs…)

I set up the Fuji X-T2 with the 100-400mm lens on a tripod with a solar filter.  The first problem was that the filter I had was pretty inexpensive and essentially some mylar film and cardboard…. and that wasn’t faring well in the 20+ MPH breeze that was whipping across the landscape.  Luckily I never travel anywhere without gaffing tape and after a few minutes that problem was solved.  (It had to be set up to take off quickly when totality started).

I set up the X-T1 with a wide lens facing away from the sun and on the landscape behind us, more or less in the direction that the shadow would be approaching us from.   We’re too low to see anything definitive, but the trend would be for a darker sky earlier from the north-west.  That camera was programmed to take a time-lapse on a fixed exposure.  The dynamic range of a total eclipse is impossible to capture (full sun to essentially nighttime, what’s that? 20 stops?) so I set it to slightly overexpose the full daylight so as to get as much of the darkening as possible.

Finally I had a GoPro on a small tripod (and gaffed to the car to keep it from blowing away) that was aimed south: capturing us and the view of the horizon.  I explicitly kept the sun out of the frame to not influence the auto exposure.

TLDR; a few cameras, NONE of them showing exactly what we experienced because it’s pretty much impossible to do so (e.g., the time-lapse goes dark when there is still light and the GoPro looks like it is bright out when it is actually fairly dark…)

So here we go…  (click on any of the photos to see a larger version of them)

An eclipse has 4 stages: C1 through C4.  This is “C1” where the moon first kisses the sun (you can see a little nick at about the 1 o’clock position).   C1 was predicted to be at 10:24:45 MDT by a fun app that we had on my iPhone, calling out events…

(C2 is when totality starts, C3 is when totality ends, and C4 is when the moon is no longer in front of the sun).

Note the sunspots that are scattered on a line from 1 o’clock to 7 o’click.

A few minutes later it is obvious, even with just the sunglasses, that something is happening…

Here’s the eclipse progressing.  The landscape shots are from the time-lapse (remember it is a fixed exposure, this isn’t what the eye sees, I was trying to convey how the light drops)

From C1 to C2 is over an hour.  You have to be very aware of your surroundings to notice the differences at the start.   The human eye and brain tend to normalize the lighting.

But pretty soon things start to get unusual.  First the wind starts to die down a bit.  Then you notice that the crickets are chirping….

And yes… the sky to the north-west does appear a bit darker.  (It’s a bit exaggerated in the photos because the camera has fixed exposure and our eyes are adapting to the light – even as it gets to 1/1000th of what full daylight is..)   To get a sense of what it is like the brightness around you 90 seconds before totality is about the same as it is 15 minutes after a sunset.  The temperature also starts to drop a bit.

Here’s the time-lapse of the western sky (camera facing south-west)

At about a minute to go, it starts to get REALLY interesting…

And then… C2.  The start of totality (11:46:16)….

I’ve dabbled in astronomy over the years (loved my little reflector when I was 12, had a used 8″ Schmitt-Cassagrain for a decade or so back in the 90s).  When you look at a planet or nebula through a telescope there is usually profound disappointment.  The photographs of these celestial objects are ALWAYS better than what you can see through the eyepiece (excluding, perhaps, the moon).  The photographs from large telescopes and space probes see detail and color that the eye cannot see.  They set expectations of what these things are.  The Orion Nebula is a spectacular photograph… and a dull white smudge when viewed in person.

A total solar eclipse is the complete OPPOSITE of that.  My photographs… ALL photographs cannot do it justice.  In the photographs below you are seeing a pale version of a shimmering diamond in the sky…  The dynamic range is something the eye can deal with, but with no photographic capture/presentation system I’m aware of.  I’m glad I have these photographs, but what we saw for those 2 short minutes is burned in our mind’s eye and we know that these images are weak proxies for being there…  That said.. enjoy the show:

Slightly enlarged to show the solar flares at 2 o’clock and some activity at 9 o’clock….

Multiple exposures that bring out different details…

But the show wasn’t just in the sky…. It’s all around you.  A 360 degree sunset…

Here’s a rather processed wide-angle shot (I used 3 graduated neutral density filters in Lightroom to best approximate what the eye was seeing at that moment).

We could have driven further south and got deeper into the zone, extending totality.  But was it worth it for just another 20 seconds???  I think we had a perfect spot, but part of me wanted that extra 20 seconds…   There is so much to see in the sky, in the space around you.  I want to try to take more (different) photographs.  I want to hug my wife and stare at it.  I wish so many more people could experience this…  That it only lasts a few minutes makes it all that more precious and, in the true sense of the word, awesome.

C3: 11:48:25 MDT…  The sun peaks through where the moon had nibbled it an hour and a half ago…   This is also known as the “diamond ring” as, to the eye, the bright sun looks like a diamond while the remaining corona starts to diminish in its brightness and form a ring.

The light in the minute before C2 and after C3 is hard to describe.  It’s just alien….

And then it’s over and the reverse of what we just experienced begins…. it gets brighter, the crickets go silent, the wind starts to pick up and lots of people are headed back from whence they came…   We also recorded a 10 degree temperature drop during the event (75 degrees to 65 and back…)

Here’s how we experienced it:

And so we hit the road at noon.  There was quite a bit of traffic in Lusk, but only for about 20 minutes.   We had a long ride ahead of us and we made it slightly longer..  I had a bad feeling that I-80 was going to be packed (indeed we saw traffic backups just to the south of us) so we decided to head back to I-90 … and Jay had never seen Devil’s Tower before, so why not take a short detour before we got back on the road…  (So, ironically, we had planned for over a year to go to Nebraska and now we would never step foot it the state at all…)

And so began our 40-hour trip back across the mid-west…

Always something interesting along I-90 in SD….

We arrived, exhausted, outside of Buffalo at 9pm on Tuesday.  We had a nice dinner there and an 8-hour layover to get some sleep.  Back on the road in the morning and home by 2pm on Wednesday.

Total round trip: 4280 miles.  We travelled it in 4.5 days for 2 minutes of perfect beauty…  Worth every minute and mile…

Thanks to Betsy and Jay for making this trip both possible and so memorable.  I’m so happy to have shared this with you both.

Now we start planning for April 8, 2024…






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