Eclipse trip – 2017

On the day I’m writing this, it’s the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. North America is experiencing three hurricanes in a row. There are many who are dealing with events far more worthy of attention than my eclipse trip.

However, I promised myself that I would write the story of my trip to see the total eclipse of the sun on 21-Aug-2017. I’m planning more intensive writing projects than a blog post in the future, and one of the first rules of writing is “Write!” So I’m writing the post as I originally planned, but with a link to GlobalGiving to ease my conscience.

This trip was important to me, and not just because of a rare astronomical event. The last time I’d taken a plane trip was in 2012. As a result of that trip, I lost vision in one eye. The story is not quite that simple, and a lot of things went wrong at once (and many other things subsequently went right). Still, I’d been reluctant to travel by air since then. This trip was a threshold-crossing for me.

The trip to Greenville in South Carolina was uneventful. From the plane, I could see a lot of new construction going on near the city; it looks like it’s in the middle of financial boom. The Greenville airport, though smaller than Newark Airport from which I left, is far nicer.

I was met at the airport by M. I had come dressed in my usual NY summer garb: t-shirt and jeans. She warned me that the South Carolina weather was warmer than I’m used to, and I might want to wear shorts to the solar-eclipse picnic the next day. I had no shorts, but M was kind enough to drive me to a tall-mens shop where I could pick up a couple.

M had also warned me before the trip that while Greenville was cosmopolitan (which I can confirm), it was also quite conservative. She advised against wearing pagan/Wiccan jewelry; I interpreted that as a caution not to wear my usual tie-dye t-shirts either. I can attest to the cosmopolitan feel of the city; since I obeyed M’s warning, I can’t confirm the conservative nature of the town based on personal experience. I noted that both M and her boyfriend N were wary of saying the word “Wicca” in public, and I heard a reference to Asheville NC as filled with hippy liberal types.

On the other hand, at the time I visited Greenville the news was filled with discussion of taking down Confederate statues. The only statue I saw in Greenville was one devoted to Black Pride. M told me there was a Confederacy museum not far away, but I did not investigate.

Greenville is certainly not immune to the lure of opportunity. Normally bags of ice in the local grocery store cost $5/bag; on the day of the eclipse they were $10/bag. A parking lot that normally charged $5 for a parking space was charging $50 that day.

Both M and N had to work the next day, so I hung around M’s apartment for several hours. About 2.5 hours before my flight was scheduled to leave, I took an Uber ride to the Greenville airport; there was nothing more for me to do in that apartment and I figured I’d get all the pre-flight TSA shenanigans out of the way. It was the first time I ever used Uber, but there were no problems and my driver was a nice fellow.

At the airport I learned that my tickets had been issued with “TSA Pre-check”. I had seen that on my tickets, but I thought it was an ad for a service I could spend extra money on. I later learned that this was a feature that United sometimes randomly gave away to convince customers that this was a convenience worth paying for. In my case, since I knew my belt and cell phone clip and wallet would set off the metal detectors, the only practical difference was that I didn’t have to take off my shoes — which use Velcro in any case.

It wasn’t until I got to the gate that I learned that my flight, scheduled to leave at 4:25PM, had been delayed to a 9:10PM departure. The problem was due to back-ups at Newark airport.

M warned me that this might happen. The last time she traveled from Greenville to Newark, there was a similar delay. Being a more experienced traveler, she investigated other options and was able to get a flight out of the Asheville NC airport. I couldn’t switch as easily, since I had checked my luggage. (As an inexperienced traveler with two pairs of binoculars to pack, I was not able to condense my life into an overhead bin.)

So I waited in the Greenville airport. I ate lunch. I ate dinner. I read my Kindle. We got lucky and my flight was given an 8:30 departure time.

An hour and half later, we finally landed… and the pilot told us we were in Philadelphia. There was a storm over Newark and they weren’t permitting any flights to land. We had to wait in Philly until Newark gave us clearance and our flight was refueled.

Then the same storm hit the Philadelphia airport. They couldn’t move the fuel truck in the rain, so we had to wait until the storm was over.

I became very, very glad that I had spent the extra $25 for an Economy Plus seat. I’d flown out in a regular Economy seat: I’m 6’3″ and have a 50-inch waist; it was not a comfortable flight. Lesson learned: some things are worth the extra few bucks.

They would not let us exit the plane in Philadelphia, so there wasn’t much to do but wait. I read more on my Kindle. It occurred to me (and my fellow passengers) that, given this delay, they could have bused us from Philly to Newark in less time. (Yes, I know this wasn’t possible due to flight regulations and insurance and other factors.)

After two hours, we finally left Philadelphia, arriving in Newark at 2:30AM. I didn’t get home until 4AM. Again, I realized that if I’d driven from Greenville to my home in New York, it might have taken less time than the plane trip. On the other hand, I later learned from friends who traveled by car that while the trip south had no delays, the trip back was jammed and took 16 hours.

In summary:
– Be prepared.
– Travel into Newark takes longer than you think.
– TSA Pre-check isn’t worth it.
– Extra leg-room is always worth it.
– Make sure your electronic devices are fully charged before you go to an airport, and/or carry your charging cables.

Was it worth it? For the eclipse, absolutely yes. Will I travel by air again? Maybe. I certainly wouldn’t travel any place were there wasn’t some kind of friendly physical support for me at the destination.

Eclipse report – 21-Aug-2017

Watching this total eclipse was better than losing my virginity.

(My apologies to the lady in question, but this is a technical post and I feel I must be completely accurate. Besides, at 2m 11s, the total eclipse lasted longer.)

I traveled to Greenville SC to see the eclipse. (There will be a separate blog post about the trip.) I was nervous that I might miss it, since weather reports were “iffy” and there were some cumulonimbus clouds drifting by as the eclipse approached totality. Fortunately, at the time of the eclipse the sky was clear.

My host for the trip was M and her boyfriend N. (I’m keeping them anonymous because not everyone in South Carolina wants to be associated with us hippy-dippy Wiccan types.) We watched the eclipse in Greenville’s Cleveland Park. It’s a small park but very pleasant, with workout stations, a zoo, and bicycle rentals. We set up a picnic at about 10AM, and relaxed, munched, and socialized until the eclipse at 2:38PM.

Our observing tools were some eclipse glasses I’d purchased a couple of months prior:


I also brought two binoculars: one regular, and one coated for solar observing. It was a bit of pain to travel with them, but I’m very glad I did; they greatly enhanced the experience. I knew how to work with binoculars, and I went over the procedure with M and N; totality would only be for a couple of minutes and you don’t want to be fiddling with focusing knobs in the middle of it.

Another observing tool was the app Solar Eclipse Timer. It computed the exact times associated with the eclipse (first contact, start and end of totality, last contact) based on the exact GPS coordinates of where we were. It counted down to each time and gave warnings (“Glasses on!”) so we were aware of each transition.

I did not try to take pictures of the eclipse. I knew I would not be able to do it with equipment I could pack in a single suitcase, and I also knew that I did not have the experience needed to take pictures of this sort. Also, I wanted to enjoy the eclipse, and not get bogged down in technical details. There are plenty of professionals out there who took pictures of the eclipse, so the only people I disappointed are those relatives who don’t understand astrophotography.

I did take pictures of the eclipse images taken by the “pinhole cameras” formed by the tree leaves:


Getting a bit ahead of the story, here’s the a picture taken after totality. Note that the crescents are now pointed in the opposite direction:


After totality, I saw people making “pinhole cameras” with their hands. Here’s my attempt:


If you’re thinking “The crescent shape in the middle of Bill’s fist is coming from the way he’s holding his fingers” I could show you a series of pictures I took as I rotated my fist; the crescent image does not rotate with my hand.

About five minutes before totality, the ambient light became noticeably dimmer. The street lights turned on. It began to feel more like dusk even with the sun high in the sky. The temperature, which had hovered in the 90s, dropped several degrees; it felt cool and comfortable. After totality, it took just a few minutes for the temperature to get hot enough that we started sweating again. It was a practical lesson on how the heat energy from the sun affects conditions from moment to moment.

My notes on totality:

– I saw no shadow bands either before or after the eclipse. Other observers saw them, so shadow bands must be a function of local conditions:

– In the seconds before totality, I watched through the solar binoculars for Bailey’s Beads and the Diamond Ring. I did not see them. It was just a thinning crescent until totality.

– Just after totality, I saw a “gap” in the thin crescent that might have been a single lunar mountain peak at the edge creating a single “bead”. Or it might have been an Earth-based atmospheric effect.

– We were in a park with lots of birds and a zoo nearby. During the eclipse there was no evident increase in bird sounds, nor any special reaction I could hear from animals in the zoo. The crickets seemed to chirp more loudly, but this might have been my own reaction to the experience.

– During totality I could see Venus, and through the binoculars I could see Regulus right next to the sun. In theory I should have been able to see Jupiter, but it would have been behind the trees lining the field. No sign of Mars or Mercury or any stars visible to the naked eye (even the Sun was blocked!).

– The horizon was blocked by the park’s trees, so I couldn’t see the effect of “moon shadow.”

– I did not see any prominences during the eclipse, though I did see the sunspots on the Sun through the solar binoculars before the eclipse.

Most of the points above are framed in the negative. Remember, I’m a scientist, and a negative observation is still an observation.

As for the eclipse itself:

No pictures, no words, can convey seeing what it was like. The image of the corona blazing in the sky is beyond description. I was profoundly moved. I was “high” for hours afterward. I recall that high typing these words now.

I now know why dedicated eclipse watchers travel to remote corners of the world, even Antarctica, to experience a total eclipse that lasts less than a minute. There’s simply nothing like it. It’s a union of vision and mind and planning and spirit.

It’s why I became a scientist.

Travel to Eclipse?

I was going to wait a bit before writing this, but I see that lots of folks are putting up posts about the total solar eclipse next year. So now is the time to bring this up. There will be a total eclipse of the sun visible over a portion of the US for the first time since 1979.

(The path of that eclipse took it over the Stoneage Replica in Washington state. Isaac Bonewits was there. There’s a picture of him at that ritual, standing next to Morning Glory Zell, on the cover of the first edition of Drawing Down the Moon.)

Would anyone be interested in getting together for a group trip to view the eclipse? We have to start talking about this now. The reason why is that, with all the attention suddenly being paid to the event, places to stay are going to fill up fast. They might have already filled up with amateur astronomers and eclipse fans who know how to plan ahead.

Some possibilities (the links point to eclipse maps):

Nashville TN is the biggest city in the path of the eclipse. (You’ve been to Princeton NJ. Why not visit Princeton TN?)

– The path of totality passes only a short way south of Portland OR. We got peeps in Portland. (You’ve visited Salem MA. Why not visit Salem OR?)

– I’m not a cartographer (there are always issues of map projection), but it looks like the closest eclipse totality point to New York City is in South Carolina (drive south on I-95 for 11 hours).

Does any place sound likely to you? Let me know.

I should add: Thanks to the wonders of planetary motion, we don’t have to wait 38 years before the next eclipse. There will be another one on April 8, 2024. The path of totality will just clip the western point of New York state (about where Camp Brushwood is) and track through Vermont. But I don’t know who’s going to be around in nine years, so we may want to take advantage of the 2017 eclipse.


I just came back from a trip to California to visit my mother.

I had a medical emergency while I was there. I am so glad Nancy went with me. Without her, things would have been much more complicated.

I'll arrange for more complete medical care during this coming week.

One thing is clear: I can't go to Free Spirit Gathering this year. I've already written them to cancel.