The Great American Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017, sent the nation into quite a tizzy. The last total eclipse visible in mainland USA was in February 1979. Besides, this was also the first solar eclipse visible in the contiguous United States since June 8th, 1918. So naturally, people were scrambling to travel into the path of totality for this once in a lifetime experience. Even outside the path of totality, it was a rare and momentous occasion.
If you have followed my blog, you know that I love solar eclipses. The Great American Eclipse of 2017 was not the first eclipse of my American life. The annular eclipse of May 20th, 2012 was visible from my neck of the Midwestern woods. Even though my town would only see a partial eclipse, I was excited at the opportunity of seeing one after well over a decade. Unfortunately, that eclipse resulted in a total eclipse of the heart. A heartbreak caused by the darkness of cloud cover. Dark clouds, in May, in the heart of spring, who would have thunk? But it was the spring following snowmageddon.
An Ecliptic History
Traveling back in time, the last solar eclipse I saw was the total eclipse of August 11th, 1999. It was the last year of my life in India. It was the last time I would see an eclipse from the terrace of our apartment complex in Vashi. We were not in the path of totality. Our region was at 85 %. However, I saw it with my own bare eyes. We all had x-ray films to look at the eclipse. X-rays are the eclipse glasses of India. Yet, I chose to glower at the sun and stare it down. After all, this was not the first time I was doing it.
My penchant for staring at an eclipse goes back to the total eclipse of October 24th, 1995. It is the very first eclipse I remember seeing ever. It was the furthest I have ever been from the path of totality. However, it was a momentous occasion. After all, it was my first ever eclipse. I was equipped with solar eclipse glasses (x-rays if you have forgotten what they are in India). Then I saw our neighbor stare at the eclipse with his own eyes. He said he had always stared at an eclipse with his own eyes. He was much older, and by default wiser (Indian logic). So I followed suit and stared at the sun. You will not believe what I have to say next. I’ve worn glasses since fifth grade. But my vision was 2020 following the stare down with the sun. I did not need glasses again for over a decade or more. This miracle (or the illusion of it) had a huge impression on me. Ever since I needed glasses again in my twenties, I often stare at the sun in an attempt to repair my vision.
My earliest memories of eclipses though are the rhythmic chanting of the hijras “de daan chute grahan”. Grahan means eclipse in Hindi. The chants meant “give alms to release the eclipse”. Eclipses are considered an ill omen in Indian mythology. There are many practices and rituals surrounding eclipses to ease the ill omens. There are several rules about eating and drinking before and during an eclipse. Giving alms is one practice of alleviating the ill effects.
Then there also the Tintin comic “Prisoners of the Sun”. In “Prisoners of the Sun”, Tintin and his friends are captured by Incas. They are scheduled to be sacrificed to the Sun God. Tintin then tricks the Incas into believing he can control the sun during an eclipse, thus escaping the clutches of death.
It is this mythos surrounding eclipses that are at the heart of my fascination. As a hardened skeptic inspired by a certain Dana Scully, I have a penchant for questioning superstition and finding the scientific explanation. Eclipses are a perfect example of this superstition. For centuries cultures around the world have feared eclipses conjuring tales of angry sun Gods, curses, and omens. In reality, it an eclipse is an explicable and predictable natural phenomenon. Eclipses are one part of the beautiful puzzle that is our cosmos. They are a stunning and beautiful experience as well.
Hungry for an Eclipse
After the total eclipse of my heart, I was hungry for an eclipse. I immediately scheduled the August 21st, 2017 total eclipse of the sun on my calendar. I set the reminder to be a week early. Little did I know it would be the Great American Eclipse. It was a couple months prior that the eclipse showed up in my news feed as a major event. My neck of the woods was in the 80% zone, I decided that traveling to totality was in order.
Unfortunately, I was planning a little too late. My friends and I wanted to see the eclipse in Nashville, but all the hotels and campsites were sold out. Even air BnBs were charging $400 a night. Southern Illinois was out of the question because it’s Illinois. One of my friends vetoed St. Louis due to memories of being lost there during a road trip.
Then I discovered that Lincoln, NE, was in the path of totality and only seven hours away. It was closer than Nashville and there were plenty of rooms available in Omaha. A heavy cloud cover was predicted across the Midwest on the 21st. Throughout our drive to Omaha, my heart fluttered at glimpses of large ominous clouds. My heart sank deeper as we woke up to thunderstorms on the 21st. Nevertheless, we drove out to the prairie reservation we had picked to see the eclipse.
The rain cleared and it turned out to be a gorgeous day on the prairie, barring the cloud cover. We found a quiet spot on a hillock away from the crowds to gaze at the sun. Then the clouds parted in time for totality. This time I saw the little eclipse on the prairie with my authentic eclipse glasses.
I must confess, I took off my glasses and peeked directly at the sun on several occasions. Would you believe it if I told you the sun hangs too low and shines too bright in the Midwest? Every time I looked at the sun, it was a giant blazing ball of yellow. I couldn’t see the moon eating away at its brilliance. In India, the sun stays higher and shines differently. You can stare at the sun and see the moon glide across its surface with your bare eyes.
Header Image by: mark divier