It was eerie, serene and awesome all at once, and I plan to be at the next solar eclipse in 2024

    I was one of thousands who traveled to Grand Island, Nebraska on August 21.  I couldn’t resist the promise of “an experience of a lifetime,” the 2017 eclipse on prairie along the Platte River.  I had no idea how “big” this event would be.

    I started making plans for my trip in late July.   

    Weather?  Grand Island averages 225 sunny days each year. Odds for good weather are better in Nebraska than Oregon.

    Lodging?  I couldn’t find a motel room in Grand Island.  But I kept looking, and found a room a couple of hours east in Norfolk (the childhood home of late night television’s Johnny Carson).  

    Eye Protection?  I ordered eclipse glasses on-line.  Despite the seller’s statement: “we cannot guarantee delivery,” the glasses arrived in 10-days.

    Transportation:   I took my RAV-4 SUV to the dealer for service.  I was ready to hit the road on Sunday, August 20.

    My only “mistake” was listening to National Public Radio from Minnesota to Nebraska.  The news-talk focused on preparing for eclipse day and all the things that could go wrong – from terrorism and eye safety, to traffic and weather.

    By the time I got to Norfolk late Sunday afternoon, the talk was all about the weather and traffic.  Clear skies and sunny was forecast for the west.  Clouds and precipitation in Nebraska.   No!

    Nothing I could do about the weather, but I could minimize traffic issues by arriving early.  That’s what I did.  I left Norfolk at 3am on Monday, and arrived at the Crane Trust Visitor and Nature Center just west of Grand Island around 5am.   I expected to see a line of cars parked along the road.  

    I was the only one there.  I sat in my car at the entrance to the parking lot until they opened it at 6:30 am.  

    I parked my car, grabbed my gear and walked out to the eclipse viewing area across two foot bridges over the Platte River.  The sunrise on the prairie was spectacular.  The pink sky was partly cloudy, but the sun was visible.  Yes!

    I was amazed to see an unexpected weather phenomenon, a “sun halo” off to the east.  A “halo” is caused by reflection and refraction of light through high thin cirrus clouds.  According to weather folklore, a ring around the sun or moon means rain or snow soon.   Please not today!

    I spent the morning walking around the prairie, talking with others who came to experience the solar event.

    Cheryl Tarasenko travelled from Upland, California.  She had hoped to experience the eclipse on the west coast.  But she waited until the last minute – and couldn’t find a place to stay in the path of totality out west.  Nebraska was as “west” as she could get.  Tarasenko was okay with that, as she had a special connection to the state.  Originally from Minot, North Dakota, Tarasenko graduated from Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1978.   

    Renee and Rick Gengler live 2-hours south of Grand Island – in Beloit, Kansas, also a city in the path of the eclipse.   Why come to Nebraska?  A glimpse of complete “totality,” they said in unison.   Beloit would get only 98%.

    For Theresa Abalos of San Jose, California, central Nebraska was a stop along the way back to college this fall.  Accompanied by her dad, Victor and her brother, Vincent, she was on a cross-country trip to Pittsburgh, where she studies music at Carnegie Mellon.  Victor and Vincent were here to capture the eclipse with their cameras.

    Theresa Abalos added something special to the pre-eclipse ambiance by playing her flute out on the prairie.  Before I asked her about it, I assumed her concert was a scheduled event. “No,” she said with a smile, “I was just practicing.”

    By 10 am, the sun was bright and hot.   I envied those who brought tents and umbrellas.  Event volunteer Guy Roggenkamp, a retired teacher from Grand Island, noticed my discomfort and invited me to join him in the shade at the “staff” tent.  I grabbed my chair and sat down next to Linda Marshall, another volunteer who lives in Omaha, where she works as a personal assistant.   We talked and shared stories as travelers often do.

    “Look - it’s started,” came a voice from behind us.  “The moon is moving.”

    The “partial phase” of the eclipse started right on time:  11:34 am.    

     All eyes around me turned and focused on the southern sky.  

    Through my special eclipse glasses, I watched as the moon began its relatively slow journey across the face of the sun – from the upper right to the lower left.

    It took more than an hour to reach totality.  The sky darkened. There was a slight breeze.  The air temperature dropped.  

    I could hear more than a few “oohs” and “ahhs.”  And I heard myself whisper, “This is incredible… awesome…  wow...”

    Then another anonymous voice called out, “We’re in totality now.  You can take-off your glasses and look directly at the sun.  Be sure to put them back on in two and a half minutes.  It’s safe to take photos without filters too.”

    I admit I was skeptical at first.  I took a deep breath and accepted the totality.  I took off my glasses and viewed the eclipse without protection.    

    “Totality” was all too brief, just 2 minutes and 35 seconds.  No flashlights needed.  The sky did not go black.

    It was eerie, serene and awesome!     

     As the moon started to move again, a voice shouted for the last time: “Put on your glasses!”  I did.  And for another hour or so I experienced the last “partial phase” of the solar eclipse of 2017.  It all came to an end at 2:26 pm.  

    I headed back to Minnesota via the Nebraska Sandhills.  No traffic jams here.  But I did hit the thunder storm forecast by my early morning “sun halo.”   I got home at 2am Tuesday morning.

    My eclipse buddy, Linda Marshall, headed back to Omaha Monday afternoon.  She got caught in the traffic jam on Interstate 80.  “Average speed 35 mph, bumper to bumper cars (almost no trucks),” she wrote in an email.  “No one acting like a lunatic; patience all around.  Don't know that I've ever seen that before.  I think everyone was still in awe.”

    Yes.  That was it:  awe.

    If you didn’t make the “eclipse trip” this year - there’s plenty of time to make arrangements for the next one - April 8, 2024.  The path of totality starts in Texas, heads north and then east along Lake Erie up into Maine.   

    I plan to be there!