Everything under the Sun: A journey to and from the 2017 total solar eclipse

Oct 6, 17 • 5enses, ColumnNo Comments

Illustration by Dale O’Dell.

Story, photos, & illustrations by Dale O’Dell

Given that the occurrence of a total solar eclipse is about once per continent per human lifetime, it’s highly likely that during your lifetime an eclipse will happen over the landmass on which you live. And you should see it. An eclipse is a unique astronomical event that you should witness at least once, even if you must travel a great distance. There’s nothing comparable. It can’t be overemphasized: Each and every human being should see at least one total solar eclipse.

I was already planning another photo shoot when I first learned about the 2017 solar eclipse. I’d be photographing land art installations featuring automobiles including “Carhenge” in Alliance, Neb. The Aug. 21 total solar eclipse would span the entirety of the North America, and I wondered whether the shadow would fall over Nebraska. Yes, it would! The Moon’s shadow would traverse the sky directly over Alliance. I scheduled the trip and planned on shooting both “Carhenge” and the eclipse.

I taught myself about solar filters, protecting my eyes and my camera’s sensor, exposure data, and all of that. I read books and astronomy websites. Many experts were saying the same thing about optimum viewing locations: The highest probability of clear skies was in the middle of the continent like in, you know, Alliance, Neb. Since it looked like I’d have company, I tried to book a room 10 months beforehand. Too late. Lodgings in Alliance and nearby Scottsbluff were totally booked — and at “special eclipse viewing” rates of $400-$900. Luckily, I found a room at a less-than-extortionate price 30 miles away, in Bridgeport. The Scottsbluff newspaper reported Alliance, population 8,500, expected 10,000 eclipse visitors. This was going to be a solar Woodstock.

Doing eclipse research, I rediscovered mythology surrounding eclipses. Primitive man didn’t understand eclipses and ascribed them supernatural causes. Hopefully — and despite national anti-science sentiments — no one still believes that eclipses are the Sun being eaten by a frog, wolf, or dragon. Nor do people believe that the Sun is being stolen by dogs or bitten by a bear. Despite our scientific knowledge of orbital dynamics, there’s still plenty of pseudoscience out there. Notions like the disruption of Earth’s magnetic field and people’s bodily systems may have some validity, but ideas about evil omens, life-changing events, and enhanced emotions have no scientific basis.

Before leaving, I rehearsed photographing the Sun using a timer set to two-and-a-half minutes, i.e. the duration of totality. Just how many photos could I shoot in 150 seconds? There’s nothing quite like the pressure of photographing something that’ll fry your eyes if you look at it — especially something that only comes around every 100 years, lasts fewer than three minutes, and that you really can’t practice for.

Driving through Colorado, signs warned of “heavy eclipse traffic,” but I rolled into “Carhenge” at 10:30 a.m. the day before the eclipse without incident or delay. A tenth of a mile up the highway, a farmer had made his bean field available to campers for $45 a day. I happily paid and claimed a spot on high ground.

Dale O’Dell, center. Photo by Dale O’Dell.

My fellow campers and I were surprised to have free wi-fi. Verizon even trucked in portable cellphone towers so we could all update social media in real time. There were souvenirs, t-shirts, food, and ice and water for sale. In Alliance, itself, there was a tribal powwow, softball games, and rock bands. The churches put out food for eclipse travelers.

By late afternoon Sunday, the bean field was nearly full. White legs paraded by. City Dads struggled with brand-new tents. There must’ve been $100 million  of Canon, Nikon, and Celestron glass pointed skyward. On Sunday, the Alliance airport had a fly-in breakfast and was overwhelmed by 250 private planes. A certain famous actor/pilot was allegedly there, but I didn’t see Han Solo or the Millennium Falcon. Camping next to me were Alex and Austin, a couple of guys from Bismark, N.D., fully prepped with beer and eclipse glasses. Janice and her two daughters were nearby setting up multiple telescopes and cameras. There was Halter-Top Hanna, the unwashed hippie chick laying out crystals to be “charged” under “eclipse light.” Shaman Sam looked ready for a photon bath — whoa dude, put on a shirt! I also met Sonny (his real name), an “eclipse-chaser” who proudly proclaimed, “This is my tenth eclipse!”

Most people I spoke with traveled 250-500 miles to see totality. After the eclipse, I talked to the proprietor of Bridgeport’s Meadowlark Hotel who’d taken reservations from China, Japan, Australia, France, England, and Austria. Crowd size estimates were about 5,000 around “Carhenge.” The estimate was 20,000 eclipse viewers for the entire Alliance area.

On eclipse day, we awoke to a fright: fog. Well, I thought, if I don’t get the shot it’s not my fault. Janice, my camper neighbor came over, tablet in hand. “I’ve got a NOAA weather app here that says the temps dropped last night,” she said. “We hit the dew point and this is just ground fog that ought to burn off in an hour.” She was right. (Thanks again to the farmer for the free wi-fi.) The fog scare made the eclipse even more precious.

While the weather cleared, the Bismark boys made a coffee run and we began Eclipse Day fully caffeinated. Another guy wandered through the campground selling cinnamon rolls. Excitement grew as thousands of tripods, cameras, telescopes, and binoculars were set up. My setup included three solar-filter-equipped DSLRs and a video camera. I was well-rehearsed and ready.

Someone yelled “first contact,” and we peered sunward through eclipse glasses to see a tiny notch taken out of the Sun by the Moon. I shot photos about every 15 minutes to document the progression. Without looking at the Sun through eclipse glasses, you really couldn’t tell anything extraordinary was happening. Janice was struggling with camera alignment, and I assisted her. Later, a panicked man came by asking for tape, duct tape, anything. His homemade, 3D-printed solar filter holder had broken at just the wrong moment. I handed him a roll of duct tape. Finally, the light changed, darkening slightly, as if a cloud had passed over the Sun. Solar filters came off cameras and everybody got ready. …


It was dark, sunset all around. Birds quieted and crickets chirped. It went from midday to twilight in an instant. It was weird and spectacular. Through my telephoto lens, I saw the diamond ring, the Sun’s photosphere, the solar flares, prominences, and everything. I got the shot! Totality was magic, an incredible sight. Two-and-a-half minutes later, third contact and totality were over, the landscape brightened, and the Moon began to uncover the Sun. The crowd cheered.

Wow. Just wow.

The temperature had dropped about 10 degrees during totality, but we only noticed afterward as it warmed up again. I continued photographing the eclipse, but many were taking down tents and packing up to leave like it was the eighth inning of the ballgame and they were going to beat the traffic. (They didn’t). The guy with the broken solar filter holder returned my duct tape with a big hug. “Oh man, you saved the shot, thank you, thank you, thank you!” I was happy to help, and I’m happy he got the shot. Never travel without duct tape.

By about 1 p.m. it was just a regular day again, except that I was standing in a hot bean field with 10,000 new friends. I packed up, bade farewell to my eclipse buddies, and bugged out. Ten miles later, I found that traffic I’d skipped the day before and spent the next three hours driving 30 miles to Bridgeport.

After check-in and a much needed shower, the memory cards from the cameras went into a secure case and into my shirt pocket, never to be away from my person until I returned to my studio in Prescott. The images on those cards were more precious than gold. Then I was off to the bar and dinner. The long drive home gave me a lot of time to process what I’d witnessed.

An eclipse is a fixed astronomical event. The solar eclipse that just happened was going to happen exactly as it did no matter what, even if there were no conscious entities on Earth to witness it. This is where it gets interesting. Not to be a nihilist, but nothing has any intrinsic meaning on its own and all meaning ascribed to the eclipse is applied by human observers. So, in terms of meaning, we get out of it whatever we bring into it. The New Age types got their crystals charged or chakras cleansed (or whatever). The scientific types gathered data and perhaps a greater understanding of the universe’s clockwork. Others were merely curious, satiated by a new experience. For some, it was an excuse for a party. For kids, it was a day off from school or at least some time outside. Everyone got something positive out of it, and with those good feelings multiplied by 10,000 or 20,000 souls, well, that’s palpable positivity.

I experienced a range of feelings. Immediately after totality, I was profoundly exhausted. Was my fatigue caused by a sudden change in gravity or energy? Did the eclipse itself cause my sudden tiredness? Possibly. But, more likely, the culmination of planning, preparation, travel, discomfort, and the anxiety of only having two-and-a-half minutes to get a photo, actually getting the photo, then suddenly being fulfilled might be a more realistic cause of fatigue. As a photographer, I’d successfully met a unique technical challenge and, as an artist, generated new imagery for future works. I’d witnessed a beautiful temporary light event more incredible than a Pink Floyd concert. I’d met interesting folks and shared a communal experience.

Moreover, I’d felt my place in the universe. Seeing the eclipse underscored my humanity. I’d perceived this rare, fleeting thing and made it permanent in my memory. It was significant because I saw it, and it was real because others saw it, too. I perceive, therefore I am. The eclipse would’ve occurred even if no one had seen it, but without witnesses there’d be no meaning, no wow factor.

Wow. Wow times millions of witnesses.

To conclude, I’ll reiterate my initial thoughts. I really mean them. …

Given that the occurrence of a total solar eclipse is about once per continent per human lifetime, it’s highly likely that during your lifetime an eclipse will happen over the landmass on which you live. And you should see it. An eclipse is a unique astronomical event that you should witness at least once, even if you must travel a great distance. There’s nothing comparable. It can’t be overemphasized: Each and every human being should see at least one total solar eclipse.


Technical info

For the solar photography I used a Canon 5D MkIII mounted on a tripod. The lens was a Canon 100-400 mm zoom at 400 mm. A hydrogen-blocking solar filter from Thousand Oaks Optical was used for all the solar photographs. No filter was necessary during totality. I used eclipse viewers and glasses also from Thousand Oaks Optical.

I set up a second camera as back up. It was a Panasonic Lumix G-1 with a Lumix 45-200 mm lens at 200 mm (400 mm equivalent) equipped with the same solar filter. The Canon camera didn’t fail, so I didn’t need this camera and only shot a few photos with it.

For editorial photography, I used a Panasonic Lumix GX-1 with Lumix lenses of 7-14 mm, 14-45 mm, 45-200 mm, and 20 mm.


See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.

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