Anatomy of an Eclipse Trip – Day One

DAY ONE – August 13, 2017

Two minutes and 15 seconds.

A lot of conversation and planning for years has been spent preparing for those few fleeting moments. It’s called the Great American Eclipse, the first total eclipse to fall across the continental United States since 1979 when the path skirted a few northwestern states. It is the first total solar eclipse to go from sea to shining sea across our country since 1918. Due to its accessibility it is being touted as being the most watched eclipse in the history of the world.

That accessibility is an important part of this eclipse for us. Being in our “backyard” we can drive 1,500+ miles to our chosen site and carry lots of gear, and that’s exactly the plan. Onboard we have 3 computers, 4 telescopes, 5 tripods, and 7 cameras (not including Smartphones).

The rest of the Jeep has clothing and camping gear filling every empty crevice. As we traverse Interstate 80, I sit in the backseat like a Mercury Astronaut crowded in a small capsule with little leg room.

Peter Detterline

Gary A. Becker is the veteran in our group with some nine eclipse trips. This will be his 5th total solar eclipse. My name is Peter Detterline, and this will be my 6th total solar eclipse. Gary and I both had careers as planetarium directors, and both of us currently teach college astronomy. Gary is at Moravian College and I’m at Montgomery County Community College.

My son, Michael Landolfa, at age 18 travels with us to see his first total solar eclipse. When he was 10 years old, I remember waking him up at 4 AM to watch his first lunar eclipse. We sat there in the treehouse looking at the blood red moon and just talked about life and the incredible wonders of nature. That is my favorite lunar eclipse memory.

An eclipse is not just about experiencing the event, but who you experience it with. You are sharing an event so special, so incredible it becomes a part of your common experience. I can recall vividly the people who were at those eclipses in my life, and that makes all the difference. For this total solar eclipse those memories will linger long after the solar corona fades.

The Sun is some 400x larger than the Moon, but it is also 400x farther away. Solar eclipses occur because the Sun and Moon have about the same apparent diameter in the sky. The difference between an annular and a total eclipse is the distance of the Moon. The Moon’s orbit being elliptical allows the Moon to swing in closer to the Earth at some times and farther at others. If a solar eclipse occurs when it is farther in its orbit the Moon appears too small and won’t cover the entire Sun. At its best it produces a thin “annulus” or ring of light.

Michael’s first annular eclipse is when we went to the Grand Canyon in 2012. Laying out on a plateau and watching the Sun set over the world’s deepest canyon is a special event. Having the right people with you is important. Choosing the right location is just as important and adds to the beauty of the experience. So a lot of planning goes into an eclipse trip.
I’m proud to be with my son as he experiences his first total solar eclipse, we will have seen all three together. I asked him what he expects will happen. He knows the basics of what will happen, but he honestly tells me that he doesn’t know. It is one thing to read about an event, and another to experience it. His insights will be an important part of this blog, and will hopefully inspire others to take that step further, and really experience the wonders we call life.

A year ago we took a less crowded Jeep westward to examine our options first hand.

The path of totality covers some 14 states from Oregon through South Carolina. Even though the longest eclipse occurs in Illinois, Gary and I weren’t interested in anything east of the Missouri. The chance for cloudy weather is much greater, and besides we want to get out to our site early, and do some stargazing under pristine dark skies prior to the event. Just as important is that there are roads that follow the eclipse path for 200 miles going through Nebraska and Wyoming. If the weather does get nasty we can go either direction and stay in the path. So we agreed to look for sites from central Nebraska through Idaho.

Being school teachers we developed a rubric to grade each site. The perfect eclipse site in our opinion needed to have the following
1. Close to centerline
2. Ease of access
3. Bathroom facilities
4. Setup overnight
5. Security
6. Lack of wind- stable sky
7. Water (lake, river) – stable sky
8. Beautiful landscape
9. Shade
10. Parking
11. Lack of crowds
So we looked at various potential sites based on these criteria, and picked 6 locations spread evenly along the path through those states.

Smartphone Apps for the eclipse helped to pinpoint our location with respect to the path of totality. So where did we decide? As we leave the mountains of our home state of Pennsylvania our destination is Guernsey State Park, Wyoming. But that can change to any of those other sites depending on weather. And weather is key. No matter how well you plan, you are still at the mercy of the weather. There is nothing worse than sitting through a storm or an overcast sky during totality. Gary and I have both sadly experienced watching the sky get dark, and knowing that above those clouds there is something almost miraculous happening, and you can’t do anything to witness the event.

So we use various weather sources including Accuweather, and a smartphone app called Bloomsky.

Bloomsky is an all sky camera that people place in their yards. Images are updated automatically every 5 minutes to the Internet. So I saved Bloomsky cameras around each of our 6 destinations. Although it doesn’t give forecasts or predictions like Accuweather, I can check instantly on the conditions on each of those sites right from my smartphone. This will become important in case we need to travel due to weather.

Each day I’ll give Gary’s report on the weather conditions along the path of totality. Think of it as a log of “Would you see the eclipse if it happened today?” Oregon would not. Idaho is a bit iffy, but possible. Western Wyoming at the Grand Tetons would be a no. We would have seen it at our site in eastern Wyoming, but with high thin clouds. After that it looks pretty good until Tennessee. South Carolina would have experienced the event.

There are 8 days to the eclipse and tonight we sleep in Davenport Iowa, just west of the Mississippi River.