The Solar Eclipse

A shot of the eclipse, by Grand Island, Nebraska. (Tim Middaugh / The Globe)

On Sunday, my uncle Dave and grandfather Mike drove down from Minneapolis to pick me up. We were headed for Nebraska to see the eclipse, in its totality.

Dave booked a hotel room in Omaha more than a month in advance, and it’s a good thing he did. Every hotel anywhere near the eclipse’s totality range was completely full days before the natural event. The receptionist at the Omaha hotel said he had received at least 45 calls on Saturday night from people asking for a room.

Nebraska alone probably saw nearly 1 million people, and like much of the Midwest located in totality range, it wasn’t ready for the explosion of visitors. Interstate 80 was often completely jammed, and wireless internet, whether it was Verizon or AT&T, barely worked.

We had initially planned to view the eclipse somewhere south of Lincoln, but the weather wasn’t having it. Heavy, opaque clouds were moving east toward our location, which meant we had to keep traveling west to see the sun.

We settled just south of Grand Island near the Platte River, about five hours from Worthington. Just a few very light clouds remained in front of the sun, which sat in the middle of the sky, still beaming bright as ever, even though the moon had already obstructed a good chunk of it.

As the moon got closer to totally covering the sun, the temperature started to drop, though our perceived sunlight didn’t change much until the sun was just a sliver. At that point, the light was just a few shades darker than usual, as if we were wearing two pairs of sunglasses.

Maybe it was just my anticipation building, but the minutes just before totality gave me an eerie feeling — that something wasn’t right. A hawk, just 10 yards in front of us, looked like it felt the same way. It was gliding low to the ground without much care, as if it knew the end of the world was coming.

Then, in an instant, the sky went dark, and the eclipse was staring right at us.

As awesome as the eclipse is, the horizon is probably the most beautiful part of the whole thing. It lights up with a beautiful orange color on all sides, like a sunset, creating an incredible contrast with the dark blue sky.

Then, after less than two minutes, the sun peeked out and everything lit up again like nothing happened.

We had hoped to see what Dave called “shadow bands.” They’re fast-moving bands of light and dark that occur before and after the eclipse. He saw them during the eclipse in 1979, and spoke a lot about them as one of the strangest and most surreal phenomenons.

Although many others reported seeing shadow bands, we didn’t see them. Was it the mild cloud cover? Or was it because the sun was so high in the sky, illuminating much of the horizon on all sides, and thus making our location too bright?

It’s difficult to know, because scientists apparently still don’t know what causes these things.

So, was the long trip worth it? I’d say yes, and I’d absolutely do it again.

But was it a “once-in-a-lifetime experience?”

On one hand, eclipses aren’t actually that uncommon. The next one is in April 2024, and it will be twice as long in duration.

On the other hand, it’s best to see it when you get the chance, so I’m glad I did. Nature typically just goes through the motions — the sun comes up, and it’s sunny. Then it goes down, and it’s dark. Of course, that’s the case every single day, so with the eclipse, it’s incredible to witness a natural event that deviates so dramatically from what we’re used to.