Last December in anticipation of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, I wrote an article about my husband Gauss’ and my experiences chasing eclipses. We saw our first one together before we were married, in Winnipeg in 1979. Eclipses can be predicted, and we knew even then about eclipses that would occur in and near North America in 1991, 1998 and 2017.
Back then, 2017 seemed like a lifetime away, and it has been. Just weeks after the Star Tribune published my account of our years of eclipse chasing (Outdoors Weekend, Dec. 23, 2016), Gauss found that he had pancreatic cancer. It’s a grim diagnosis, but we had this year’s eclipse to look forward to. It was the perfect bucket list item. With chemotherapy and good luck, Gauss felt well enough to make the trip.
Instead of driving a Volkswagen Bug to Canada and hoping for clear skies, we now traveled with our adult sons Luca and Emilio — themselves veterans of the eclipses of ’91 and ’98 — their families and some friends, checking weather conditions in real time with smartphones. We would adjust our plans accordingly.
Months before the eclipse, we had reserved hotel rooms in Lincoln, Neb. It was in the path of totality, a reasonable drive from home, and statistically Nebraska had a better chance of clear skies than some places farther east. When we gathered there the night of Aug. 20 and saw unfavorable weather reports, we decided to rise at 5 the next morning to drive west.
If we wanted to be certain of clear skies, we needed to be in Scottsbluff, Neb., 400 miles across the state. We drove through clouds, showers and fog, finally hitting bright sunlight just in time for “first contact,” that moment when the moon begins to cover the disk of the sun.
We selected a spot high on a hill with a good view toward west in hopes of seeing the approaching shadow of the moon. Because we’d seen all our earlier eclipses from low vantage points — the pancake-flat Manitoba prairie, a beach, and a boat in the ocean — this had never been possible for us.
We pulled off into the grass next to the road, among about 20 other cars and trucks. We unpacked blankets, lawn chairs, snacks, and viewing glasses like everyone else there. Luca’s children, ages 3 and 5, presented challenges: keeping them amused, making sure they always used eclipse glasses or viewers and making certain they stayed well away from the highway.
Twisting apart an Oreo cookie, I held the creamy side toward them in my right hand and told them to imagine that it was the sun. Then holding the dark chocolate wafer in my left hand and moving it slowly toward the “sun,” I illustrated how the moon would slowly cover it. We demonstrated how pinholes would project the crescent-shaped image of the sun. Normally these would be visible in the dappled sunlight under trees, but since we were in treeless prairie, we had to improvise. I put a piece of white poster board on the ground and Emilio interlaced his fingers above it, creating little gaps for his niece and nephew to look at. In preparation for the trip I’d written “2017” on a piece of cardboard and punched holes along the written lines. We held it above the poster board, projecting the date of the eclipse in little crescents. Ellie, 5, squealed when she saw them. Her little brother, Soren, looked briefly and then stood off to the side, squeezing his fists, trying to create his own pinholes. Then he lost interest and sat down to eat a peanut butter sandwich.
As the moon covered more of the sun’s disk, the light took on that silvery quality I’d noticed during earlier eclipses, and the air noticeably cooled. Minutes before predicted totality, I looked west across the landscape for the approaching shadow — and this time I saw it. The farthest land on the horizon darkened, and then the darkness enveloped us. Happy shouts rang out from people all around us.
I ran over to Gauss. We hugged and stared up at the black spot where the sun should be, the corona streaming out from all sides. “We did it!” I exclaimed. “Yep! Number four!” he replied, grinning and laughing.
Anticipating this eclipse, perhaps our last together, I had thought that perhaps I would be sad or nostalgic in the moment. Yet, I felt only joy and wonder. During totality the world narrowed to my perception of the event: the 360-degree sunset, Venus glowing in the twilit sky, the black disk above me, the silky white corona. Cosmic events dwarf our personal journeys.
Two minutes and 12 seconds later, it was over. The sunlight came back. People got in their cars and started driving away. Our little group hung around to finish our picnic lunch and share our thoughts. Ellie and Soren had reacted as if it were no big deal. For them, unlike us old folks, everything about the world is new. They haven’t been watching the sun shine in the sky for 30 or 60 years, only to be shocked or surprised when it turns into a black hole in the sky for a few moments.
Neither of my daughters-in-law, Toni and Sarah, had experienced a total eclipse before.
“I get it now,” Toni said, smiling.
“Wow! That was amazing!” Sarah exclaimed. “I mean, before we came I thought, ‘Yeah, this will be cool, it’ll be fun,’ but now that I’ve seen it ... well, it’s way more than what I thought it would be. I wasn’t thinking about the chilly air, and how quiet it got, and how dark.”
“You are officially Rescignos now,” I told both of them, referring to the last name they had both taken when they married my eclipse-chasing sons.
“Yep!” joked Emilio, hugging Sarah, “It’s a little hazing ritual we have if you want to be part of the family.”
We started talking about where we want to meet for the total eclipse to cover part of the United States in 2024.
How lucky am I to have had these cosmic events as mile markers in my life with Gauss and with my children and grandkids? Eclipses represent curiosity and adventure, and in them we experience the beauty and magnificence of nature. Like life itself, eclipses take us to places we might not otherwise visit, in seasons we may not have chosen, and reward us for being there.
Patti Isaacs lives in Stillwater.