It was the Best of Times. It was the Worst of Times.....
This will NOT be another gushing success story. In fact, it is a counterbalance to the flood of wonderful eclipse accounts here and on every astro-forum, and I'm elated to see so many of the CN community's successes.
I'm still trying to digest all that happened at our viewing site near Rocheport, MO. I've got such a mixed bag of feelings about what took place, I just gotta' share it.
I'll get the worst news out of the way post-haste. My imaging dreams,..... all the prep,.... all the work,..... all the days of practice, went for naught. Oh, the equipment worked just fine. But I almost have nothing to show for it except for some of my longest exposures.....and those are blurred by a high cloudy veil that thickened as totality drew close. I'm guessing severe underexposure due to the cirrus canopy. I'll be analyzing that 'til the cows come home.
I also made some pretty dumb mistakes, one of which could've been disastrous, saved by my eldest son Chuck's eagle eye. At one point, after a brief power outage, I had accidentally flipped the switch on my drive from N to S, sending the tracking wildly out of whack. I still don't know how I did that......I've NEVER done that! There were other, smaller gaffs too, but they hardly matter now.
Now aside from those disasters, we were 10 miles west of Columbia, MO. We were guests among a group of about 20 friends and family. The setting was beautiful. A 28 acre property, right between I-70 and the Missouri River, and just up the road from the biggest, oldest oak tree in Missouri.
The highest spot, and best vantage point, was a 5 acre piece of manicured, soft grassland, loosely ringed by well spaced oaks,which ran along a great arc of driveway stone that ended in a teardrop shaped 'circle' in front of the property residence.
This high spot left great horizon views N, E, and W, and only slightly obstructed views to the south, where, 50 yards from the area I was setting up, the grass suddenly sloped steeply southward to a large rock-rimmed pond, a jewel in the center of the property, and near the edge of a more densely forested area. An honest-to-God true “ol' swimmin' hole”. To the west of the pond , up the slope was our host's beautiful, naturally shaded home.
So let's get to the REALLY crazy stuff.....
OK. So as you all already know, all the other 'players',.... the Sun, Moon, and Earth played their parts perfectly.
Visually, we all had some nice views of most of the C1-C2 phase through my 9x60 finder, Chuck's Nexstar C5 and a cornucopia of filtered binoculars
The only thing is that for us on the ground,...in this exact spot,... as we got within 15% of totality, the high white cirrus layer became thicker, robbing the Sun of it's ability to produce shadows.
As totality drew near my laptop spat it's scripted voice prompts “10 minutes to go”. Low, dark clouds gathered, seemingly drawn to the Sun like iron filings to a magnet.
The ground grew dimmer and dimmer. The horizons N, S, and W horizons took on a peach/pink color, while it was decidedly yellow to the East.
The temperature drop was most startling of all. What was a hot and muggy day, felt suddenly, easily, 15... maybe even 20 degrees cooler, and a strong breeze accompanied the cooling, exaggerating it's effect even more. Refreshing actually. Someone said “chilly”.
I was waiting for the dark ominous cloud blotting out the Sun to dump a torrent of rain on us at any moment, as a final insult...........but it never happened. Totality had begun....
Everyone strained skyward, hoping, praying, trying by sheer force of will to move or part the gray blob that swallowed the star of our show. No one spoke, except the cicada's who chirped their dusk song.
In that darkness, there was no warning for what happened next. Had we not all been looking up where the Sun should have been, we'd have missed it.
Staring down at us, suddenly, like some flying cyclops was this eyeball in the sky, still dressed in a cirrus shroud, a silvered circle of 'blackness' rimmed by a somewhat asymmetrical soft white corona which glowed eerily outward about a solar radii on either side. Among the group, my youngest son's voice was the first to blast out a cheer. Without even thinking, I felt both of my fists shoot skyward, and some primal sound from deep within issued from my gaping mouth. For what seemed no more than 6-7 seconds, I heard various shouts, squeals, and gasps from the group. I stopped breathing....
It was as if our collective pleadings were suddenly answered by some force greater than any of us could fathom. By the clock, it was mid-totality.
…..and then, just as startlingly, it was gone again.
We could see the edge of the dark cloud, and everyone knew we were racing the clock to get the Sun into a more substantial opening.....but it was not to be.....except for one brief, glorious moment, when we all saw for just an instant, the diamond ring burst forth from the edge of the cloud. Everyone was still 'naked-eye' and I hope no one stared for more than an instant. I doubt they did, because, maybe due to our night-adapting pupils, that light was the most brilliant white light I've ever seen. EVER! Everyone whooped again at the sight of the Moon initiating it's departure.
And then, as had happened as we approached totality, the weather began almost instantly to reverse itself. The dark low clouds seemed to just melt, patches of blue began to pierce the high cirrus, and before we were 20 minutes on the other side of totality, the Sun was blazing hot, the oppressive humidity hung like liquid air around us, and the wind which had gone from zero to an estimated persistent 10-15mph, disappeared with stunning quickness. It was the damnedest thing I've ever witnessed, and there is no doubt in my mind that it was all a direct result of the effects of the shadow, both coming and going.
I have to add something in here,.......an unexpected joy I experienced.
I guess because of the gear I and my eldest son had set up, we were sought out by other guests, as astro / eclipse 'experts', and peppered with a myriad of questions. Totally unexpected. Totally enjoyable too! Someone even addressed me as “professor”......I'm still laughing.
It's really amazing how this one event sparks such curiosity even in 'old' people.....like me! It made me realize that it's not enough to accumulate these meager crumbs of knowledge. The reward is in sharing them with others!!
So profound was the weather change, that as an example...after enjoying some ice cold adult beverages and some great BBQ and smoked veggies provided by our gracious hosts, I went back out to the viewing field to break down my gear.
This was when I realized that in my anxiety over what I just knew was happening with my imaging, I'd completely forgotten to start my Cybershot which was in movie mode to capture the general scene and people, ......the hit's just keep on comin'********I'm still kicking myself for not delegating that task to a leveler head.....
Anyway, by the time I was halfway done, I was panting, and a bath of sweat. I literally stumbled my way back to the RV we'd rented and collapsed inside in the air conditioning.
My youngest son Michael and his girlfriend Ariella saw this, and gratefully they finished the task and packed it all away for the trip back to the Chicago area. I want to thank them too, for their unabashed enthusiasm for the brief show we got of totality. Chuck and I had shared that “what new” 'look'.....you know the one......that hobbyists give each other when yet another astro-event gets clouded out?
Well, Mike and Arie made us both realize that we actually escaped that fate.....not by much, but hey, we really did get to see it! And that buoyed my spirits immeasurably.
The return trip was arduous with all the traffic, especially when we met up with the throng returning north from Carbondale and beyond. What was a 5hr 40 min trip down turned to an 8hr 20 min return ordeal. The last 30 miles were punctuated by a literal deluge of driving rain, which I swear never let up even one iota, until well after we'd pulled into the garage. My bride of 45 years, Cathie, handled the drive home like a champ, even through that storm , and I'll be forever grateful to her for all her assistance and encouragement through out the trip planning and execution.
I have to say though, that for all the disappointments, my spirits are actually pretty high. So many interesting things happened, I'll never forget this.
It has served to do one thing. That 'teaser', that brief taste of totality, has stamped a bulls-eye on the map AND the calendar. I, and my family are determined to be there April 8th, 2024.