Eclipse report

Thursday, August 24, 2017   (updated 10 hours later)

Comments: 1   (latest 23 hours later)

Tagged: hunter s. thompson, lightning, cave, ice cream, thunderstorms, road trips, missouri, eclipse

We had 90% eclipse success. There were high hazy clouds, so the stars didn't come out, but we saw corona. We watched the full star turn, from nibble to bite to high totality and back out the other side. We made crescent-splinter shadows with our fingers. We saw both diamond rings. We caught the blazing-pink edge of the chromosphere. Venus was naked-eye visible. My eclipse partner B. had binoculars, and saw Mercury.

Zero is the wrong number of times to see a total eclipse in your life.

I'm going to tell this out of order. I'm not telling it for you, really. I'm turning and polishing the story for my own future self. If you saw totality you have your own story to polish; you don't need mine. If you're browsing for vicarious eclipse reports, you should be looking at photographs, good grief. I came to praise the sky, not photograph it.

We planned for St Joseph, Missouri. It's an easy drive from KC and the weather should have been safe. It wasn't. The Sunday-night forecast said storms would roll in late in the afternoon, and no guarantees before that. We woke up Monday morning and it was worse: 65% cloud cover expected for KC and Saint Joe.

The best shot was east. We jumped into the rental truck at 9 AM and got on the road. Time to totality: four hours.

I had reserved a compact car. Upon arrival, the rental company lady said, "We only have pickup trucks left. You want Ford or Dodge?" "Which one is smaller?" I asked plaintively. Everyone, including B., gave me a wry look. We wound up with an aircraft carrier of a Dodge Ram. "Guts and Glory", said the car manual, when we hauled it out during my interminable search for the parking brake release.

To get to I-70 East, we had to cut down through Kansas City. A morning thunderstorm hung over the city. We drove towards a cruel grey sky, with tall, tall lightning striking down again and again. Then we drove through the storm. And through another storm after that. A roar of water off the windshield and the road, in every direction. It was nearly opaque and it went on -- twenty, thirty minutes. Storms on the East Coast are emphatic but then they're done with you. This wasn't that.

Totality wasn't night. It was a dusk with noon shadows, as the daylight sank away into the earth but left its shape lying on the grass. The crickets slid from day-song to night-song.

After the eclipse we had plenty of daylight, so we stopped at Rock Bridge State Park and hiked around the boardwalks a bit. It's karst, cave terrain. Grue habitat. The natural bridge is an old cave entrance, but the cave has long since collapsed behind it, leaving an open stream flowing into and out of a cavernous passage.

Then there's the Devil's Icebox, another segment of underground stream. You climb down stairs into a deep sinkhole, and a dozen steps down the air changes: muggy August to the eternal chill of the underground empire. You're still in full sunlight, mind you, but it's not summer any more. At the bottom of the stairs, you duck into a low slab room with a dark stream running through. A narrow passage leads inward.

Looking up the second sinkhole
There's a second sinkhole, a climbable pit leading upward... but to daylight rather than a Hall of the Mountain King.

Looking down the same sinkhole
The icy air current follows the stream; in theory you can too, all the way through to its source. But they recommend hard hats, flashlights, and waterproof shoes, which I lacked. (B., a natural adventure person, had two out of three.) You're not supposed to do it these days anyway. There are no grues, but monkeys tromping through the bat lairs spread white-nose syndrome. B. went into a bat-free cave on the other side. I stood a little way back into the passage and let the heat drain out of my bones. When I climbed back up the stairs, through the thermocline, my glasses fogged up.

When we broke out of the storms, we were two hours from Columbia, Missouri. The sky was layered cloud -- not a flat grey overcast, but piecework. The storms growled away to the north. Things looked clearer ahead, if not pure blue.

For the next hour, things kept looking clearer ahead. But never blue. However far we drove, clearer was always a little ways ahead. The clouds were chasing us.

We passed highway signs programmed to read "TOTAL ECLIPSE TODAY; HEADLIGHTS ON".

We thought about stopping in Boonville. The radar looked good as we approached, but the sky didn't look so good in person. We kept driving.

Our plans had been thrown out of whack long before Eclipse Monday. I reserved plane tickets last fall, Boston to Kansas City. But the hordes of sun-chasers must have forced the airlines to adjust their schedules. Our one-hour layover in DC inflated to six hours.

Six hours in National Airport? That's an excuse for Smithsonian side trip. We jumped onto the Metro -- so clean, so architectural, so future-of-the-1970s to our vulgar Charlie-riding sensibilities. Off at L'Enfant Plaza and up to the Air and Space Museum. I hadn't been in for a decade, B. for several. In our childhoods, those moon landers and rovers were just ten years old. Now they're archeology.

The same goes for the USS Enterprise model, come to think of it. The model has been lovingly restored and the upcoming TV show looks like it has the right stuff. The state of our nation... well, as B. said, global warming is an engineering problem bigger than moon landings. Our response couldn't look less like JFK's "...that challenge is one that we are willing to accept."

At the airport on Tuesday, everyone was heading home from the same trip. You could strike up a conversation with anyone. "How was your eclipse?" Instant fraternity! In an airport! As I type this, someone behind me is excitedly planning his camera loadout for Chile in 2019.

The line of totality angled southeast from Columbia, so we didn't really want to stay on I-70 East past that point. And did the skies maybe look a little bit bluer to the south? If the clouds were making east by northeast...

A little town called Ashland looked likely. We figured we'd hang a right on 63, go as far as Ashland, and then decide whether to stay put or move a few miles east or west.

Time to totality: less than an hour. In fact, first contact had already passed. And we were in sunlight! There were shadows on the road! As I made the right turn, B. peered out the window with her filter glasses. Holy crap, a bite out of the sun.

Peering at the sun while driving is somewhere downstream of texting-while-driving, as good ideas go. I kept my eyes on the road. We kept driving.

Two hours on the road and an eclipse and a hike to an icy cave adds up to a lot of exhaustion. The internet recommended Sparky's Ice Cream near U of Missouri. I tried the lavender and the mango. Both were magnificent.

We could have stopped at a lot of places near Ashland. We saw several crowds of skygazers set up with tents. But it was past noon and I felt the magnetic attraction of a sandwich joint. When we pulled over, we saw a bunch of people picnicing on the lawn by Elements Home Energy Solutions. We waved. They offered us snacks. We decided to hang out.

I tweeted: "Lying in a field by a Subway in Ashland, MO. High haze, might not see corona." One of my friends accused me of Hunter S. Thompsonism. We were somewhere around Ashland when the corona started to kick in...

Driving back towards Kansas City in the evening, we ran into another storm, just like the first. Malignant grey skies, lightning strikes, an opaque roar of water for twenty minutes... it was a heck of a way to bookend the day, is what I'm saying.

Then we were through the storm and the setting sun broke through the clouds ahead.

I'm not saying there was a rainbow. We looked behind us for a rainbow. If this were a story, I'd put in a rainbow and nobody would buy it because life doesn't work like that.

We didn't get a rainbow. What we got was yet another thunderstorm which hung over our hotel, alternating lightning-flashes and flood alerts, until at least 1:00 AM. Storms on the East Coast don't do that.

Everyone at the picnic was cheerful. Friends and relatives had come in from New Jersey, Texas, and other places. Someone had a giant Jenga set. They were barbecuing some amazing chicken.

The clouds never completely cleared over Ashland, but they were never thick enough to obscure the show. The sun got narrower and narrower.

Me with binoculars -- not as risky as it looks
I borrowed the binoculars. We only had one binocular filter. I've got my hand over the other lens, which wouldn't be good enough except that the inside lens cap is fitted on that side. The inside lens cap isn't good enough by itself, either...

But you do want both
Both together seemed safe. I didn't wind up pulling an Aughra, anyhow.

Time to totality: sixty seconds. The world grew darker and darker, faster and faster. We watched the last sun-sliver vanish and then yanked off our filter specs.

It wasn't night, exactly. It certainly wasn't day. It wasn't anything like a partial eclipse, or the annular I saw in 1994. It wasn't anything like anything. It was a space outside the world for two and a half minutes.

We went home through the new world that came after.


Comments imported from Blogger