Total Solar Eclipse, Tryon, NE, August 21, 2017

by John Farley

The Trip

As soon as I first heard about this eclipse 7 or 8 months ago, I knew we would be going. Seeing a total eclipse has been on my bucket list since I was a child, and now one would be occurrig just one state away in WY and NE. Alice was not as excited about it as I was, but she was up for it, so we booked a room within a few days of when I first heard about it. I considered eastern WY or western NE, liking both because they are climatologically among the sunniest parts of the path of totality, so the chance of having the view ruined by clouds would be less there than, say, the mountains where clouds form more easily or farther east where the availability of moisture is greater. Of these possibilities, I rather quickly settled on western NE because I figured that with it being farther from Denver and having no sizable cities such as Casper, WY, there would not be as many people. I figured, correctly as it turned out, that more people would head right up I-25 into Wyoming than would make the somewhat longer treck to NE. I settled on Ogallala as a place to stay overnight, figuring that since it was just outside the path of totality, fewer people would head there than places in the path such as Casper or North Platte. We booked a room for the 20th and 21st, figuring it would make things easier if we stayed two nights than if we tried to check out of a hotel the morning of the eclipse. It would be 2 or 3 in the afternoon anyway by the time we got back to Ogallala after the eclipse, so no point in trying to start home the day of the eclipse. As the date drew closer, we decided to go as far as Denver on the 19th. That way if there were massive crowds and jams on the 20th, we would be in a much better position than if we tried to go all the way in one day, and also since Alice has back trouble it is hard for her to ride in the car for more than around 6 or 7 hours. We booked a hotel in the cluster of hotels on Tower Rd. near the Denver airport (DIA), figuring that would be an easy exit from and return to E-470, which would also allow us to miss the daily jams, perhaps greatly enhanced by eclipse traffic, that would occur on I-25 in the Denver area. And it would make for a relatively easy run up I-76 to Ogallala the day before the eclipse.

So that was what we did, arriving at our hotel around 5 p.m. While we were eating dinner (between about 5:30 and 6:30) I noticed that a very strong wind came up outside, along with some rain. When we got back to the room after dinner, I noted that a special weather statement had been issued for possible 50-55 mph winds associated with a small thunderstorm (but with strong outflow) near DIA. Indeed, a 48 mph gust was recorded there. Also the wind sparked a wildfire north of the airport that threatened some homes and did burn a pickup truck. But of greater interest to me, photographically anyway, was the rainbow that formed as the cell moved over the airport. There was a pot of gold somewhere at the airport!

This just a phone picture I took through the window of our room, which looked right out on DIA, but it got the job done. Next morning, we headed on to Ogallala, arriving there early in the afternoon and getting into our room. The forecast did look like clouds might be a concern, and I did explore the feasibility of running east into the North Platte area if necessary to avoid clouds, and it looked do-able unless massive traffic jams formed. Up to this point we had no problems, aside from some minor traffic delays that seemed pretty unrelated to the eclipse (e.g. in the heavy traffic in Colorado Springs and between there and Denver, where we did hit some jams due to earlier accidents and construction, there was about the same amount of traffic coming the other way). We also encountered only one instance of price-gouging, at an Ogallala gas station where the advertised price was 2.17 and 9/10 but the pump price was actually 30-40 cents higher, depending on whether you paid with cash or credit. Unfortunately by the time I noticed that I had already put my card in, but I was just topping the tank in case gas became scarce, so it did not matter all that much. Certainly there was some price gouging on hotel and motel rooms, but we avoided that by booking early.

The Day of the Eclipse

There was a lot of concern about Nebraska because of potential cloud cover and there were some scattered to broken stratocumulus in some places north and west of where we were at totality time, but it worked out fine for us and from what I am hearing many others in NE. Here is our story:

We were up around 6:00 a.m. at our lodging in Ogallala, and looking out the window I saw nothing but dense fog and stratus cloud cover. I looked at satellite pics and cloud forecasts for eclipse time, and between the two thought that the name of the game would be getting into a likely NE-SW clear stretch between potential stratus or stratocumulus to the northwest (which might become broken or even scattered and would likely be clear enough to see through some places but not others) and a potentially thicker band of mid-to high clouds to the southeast (which might or might not be thin enough to see through). I went back and forth between our initial target of Arthur and a possible revised target of just NW of North Platte. The latter looked to be a surer bet of being clear, but Arthur would have a longer time of totality and if it was really clear we could go to a viewing party that was to occur right on the centerline north of there. As others have noted, there are some definite similarities between eclipse chasing and storm chasing, except that in eclipse chasing you want the opposite result - clear, sunny skies with no rain or clouds to block your view.

I was leaning for a while toward the North Platte target, but as we left the fog had lifted and the stratus were breaking up with a number of patches of blue. So as we left, I decided our target would remain Arthur. If we were there early enough, we would still be able to shift east or even east then south if the North Platte area looked better, so we still had flexibility. We got to Arthur around 8:45 a.m. Lots of people on the fairgrounds and in the town itself, with sufficient free parking and free porta-potties. I would say that Arthur planned very well for the large crowds that indeed did show up, and made the experience very pleasant without trying to make money off it. Very nice! That said, there was still too much of a stratus deck there at 9:30 a.m. MDT, but the sky looked brighter to the east. So we repositioned east to Tryon, where we could see that the edge of the stratus/stratocumulus was just SE of there, with clear skies except for a few thin cirroform clouds southeast of there. Hence, we then continued southeast from Tryon, ending up at a watch party about 10 miles SE of Tryon along route 97. This was well past the SE edge of the stratus deck, only a few thin cirroform clouds to deal with, so I could stop worrying about clouds blocking our view. It was a big open field where people could really spread out and get comfortable, and the porta-potties they provided helped with that, too. Twenty bucks for the two of us to get in and park wherever we wanted. They had free bottled water and hamburgers for $5, but since we brought our own food and water we did not need to take advantage of that. There was around 2 minutes and 27 seconds of totality at this location, per the NASA interactive map. So this was really better than either Arthur or North Platte - more totality time than North Platte (and even a little more than Arthur proper), and no worry about clouds as there would have been in Arthur.

We set up our lawn chairs and watched, with the partial eclipse beginning a few minutes after we got there. Our eclipse glasses worked great, as we could watch the moon gradually spread across the sun from the upper right toward the lower left, starting with a small dent in the sun at the upper right and gradually covering more and more until there was just a little "crescent sun" with the sunlight at the lower left. What did not work so well was my camera filter. The one I originally bought was on Amazon's recall, so I did not want to use it, and had hurriedly found a last-minute alternative. It literally arrived the day before we left. It was a sheet with instructions for cutting it and attaching it to cardboard or posterboard and fitting it over the camera/telescope/binocular lens. I had tested it the day it arrived and it seemed to work OK, but on eclipse day I could not seem to get the camera quite correctly focused, and none of the partial eclipse pictures turned out. But no worry, that was not what I was really after and there are plenty of images on the Web that look just like what we saw through our eclipse glasses. Since I wanted to watch it get dark, I took off the eclipse glasses and just watched the light fade until the shadows were gone, then looked up and got my first view of the spectacular experience of totality. The corona all around the dark circle of the moon was amazing, whiter than what I had expected. Here is a picture taken during totality:

More zoomed/cropped image, with Mercury clearly visible at the lower left:

I am sure there are many better pictures of the eclipse on the net, but with a little post-processing at home, I am happy with these. Totality was spectacular! Initially as we planned the trip Alice was not sure what all the big deal was, but in the end she, too, was very impressed and glad we made the treck. There was very noticeable cooling which, as others have mentioned on the Internet, continued and may have peaked a while after totality - similar to how the coldest temperatures in the early morning are not at or before sunrise, but rather a while after sunrise in most cases - there is a slight lag. Same way with the eclipse. There were a lot of cows in a field across the highway and they did NOT head home, but swarms of gnats did appear like they usually do at twilight. (During totality it was sufficiently dark that I could not see the cows on the other side of the highway, but when the light returned they were still in the same place with no movement.) I had heard there might be an Aurora visible and looked for it but there was not. However, the colors of the darkened sky and the distant clouds were quite eerie, and there was a dull pinkish-orange color along the northern horizon, the direction where the horizon was most visible as the sandhills blocked a perfect view of the horizon in some other directions - and I looked that way to see if I could see the aurora. This I would guess was part of the "360-degree sunset" effect that others have talked about. Venus was clearly visible to the west of the eclipsed sun during totality. I did not notice Mercury closer to the sun on the other side (but less bright), but did get it in some of my pictures, as shown above. One thing a little surprising to me was how dark it got in the minute or two before totality and how dark it stayed for a minute or two afterwards. Certainly not as dark as during totality, but much darker than in any partial eclipse I had preiously seen. I did get a glimpse of the diamond ring effect at the end of totality, but was too nervous about potential eye damage to look at it for more than a split second. Alice also commented on seeing the diamond ring. Did not see the "shadow snakes" but also was not looking for them, as I was unaware of that phenomenon until others talked about it online after the eclipse.

Before moving on to our return to Ogallala, I do want to mention my favorite non-eclipse picture of the day. This long-haired dachshund belonged to the people who owned the large tract of land from which we watched the eclipse. The area was perhaps a half mile square with a big hill at the southern end, with people, cars, and campers scattered around it watching the eclipse. At some point well before totality one of the hosts took off up to the top of the hill in a golf cart, not knowing that the dog was running along behind the whole time. When she drove the cart back down later, the dog was in her lap. This picture was taken after totality; guess the dog was recovered from the run.

Following the eclipse we re-traced our steps back through Tryon and Arthur to Ogallala. It would have been shorter to go the 20 miles SSE to North Platte then back to Ogallala on 30 or 80, but I figured the traffic would be terrible getting into and through North Platte. I was thinking about stopping in Tryon and getting some pictures of the crescent-shaped images of the sun under a tree, as there were no trees near us at our viewing location. But I forgot about that, perhaps in part because I was also looking for an eclipse T-shirt and saw a place in Tryon selling them. The shirts were very nice with a nice eclipse image and mention of both the Nebraska Sandhills and Tryon, but they were sold out of them. However, they gave me a card to order online and I should now have one on the way. My daughter, who watched the eclipse at Fort Kaskaskia, IL with my grandchildren, did get a nice picture of the crescents under a tree, as did a number of other people from what I have seen on the Internet.

As to traffic, we had no problems at all except getting back through Arthur after the eclipse. There was maybe a 10 or 15 minute delay there at a point where two roads come together and traffic was already backed up a half mile or so from town to there. Fortunately Nebraska state troopers were directing traffic at the intersection or we would have waited forever, since normally the road we were on, route 92 coming from the east, has a stop while the other road, route 61, has the right-of-way. Later at a restaurant that evening we did hear of a big jam SE of Alliance where it took folks 3 hours to go 23 miles, and I heard reports of massive backups on I-25 north of Denver. But the backup coming back through Arthur was the only real jam we encountered. Incidentally, it did clear out in time for totality in Arthur, but it worked out fine where we went, so it's all good!

Total eclipse chase distance: 1277 miles.

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