Total Recall: Lessons From An Eclipse Chaser

A freelance writer recalls his 2017 quest through Kentucky to catch two viewings of the total solar eclipse.
Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

I WAS never partial to eclipses. Not that the subject of outer space didn’t fascinate me. As a schoolkid, I watched Star Trek and Lost in Space, read The How and Why Wonder Book of Planets and Interplanetary Travel, and collected Gordon’s Potato Chips space coins. I searched the night sky for planets, and satellites, and falling stars.

I wanted to like eclipses, too, but the kind we got in Franklin, Indiana, never lived up to their billing. Indy newscasters would geek out over a coming partial eclipse, and I would stand outside at the appointed time only to see the sky turn dingy gray for a couple minutes before resuming regularly scheduled programming. So when I heard that a total eclipse would sweep through Kentucky on August 21, 2017, I had no interest in joining the pilgrimage. Fool me twice, shame on me—especially if I have to drive three-and-a-half hours to get there.

But a couple days before the celestial event, my attitude got a radical reordering. Some astronomer on the radio was endorsing the approaching sky show in terms I couldn’t dismiss: “A total eclipse is the most spectacular sight you can witness from Earth!” Suddenly, I grasped the significance of the word “total,” something I missed in my youth. As Darth Vader once said: Never underestimate the power of the dark side. But with two days to go before the event, my trip to the shadows was already gearing up to be more like a DoorDash delivery than an eclipse excursion. With two gimpy cars in the driveway, the best I could do was rent an SUV for my wife, Marcella, and myself. And there wasn’t a pair of viewing glasses to be found in metro Indy.

On Eclipse Day, we left home with three hours to spare, expecting to reach Kentucky in enough time to eat a bucket of Extra Crispy before we caught the eclipse. But the slowness of the rental car agency burned 20 of our minutes, and a smooth first hour on the highway terminated in a sudden slowdown—incredibly, one of the two southbound lanes had been barricaded for road repair, with nary a worker in sight. With all the speed of a Little League parade, we snaked down to Evansville to find traffic creeping at an even slower pace across the Ohio River bridge ahead of us. By the time our tires touched Kentucky pavement, we were inside our last hour.

We’d brought an information sheet with a map showing the zone of totality and how long it would last in various towns. The map said we were still 40 minutes away from the edge of the zone. But if you want to fully experience an eclipse, it’s not enough to reach the zone’s edge. Since the moon is roundish, it casts a shadow that’s smaller at the top and bottom than in the middle. Thus, people who stand at the inside edge of the zone may experience totality for only 1 or 2 seconds, which is like flying to Hawaii just long enough to wave at the hula dancers.

It came down to this: There were two major thoroughfares into Kentucky’s interior, and I didn’t trust either of them. See, superslabs like I-69 and U.S. 41 attract swarms of neurotic tourists who choose itineraries as if their maps depicted pictures of grotesque creatures and the warning, “Here there be dragons,” everywhere else.

I needed a third option, a route that was straighter and faster than the local squiggles, yet obscure enough to be too scary for the tourists. Moments later I got one: ALT U.S. 41, an earlier version of the current 41. Sure, it offered only two lanes with sharper curves through the countryside. But we’d essentially be taking a major highway that no one considered major anymore.

Just as I’d hoped, ALT 41 was wide open all the way to the eclipse zone— almost. “This is the kind of road where you might see farm equipment,” Marcella noted, and, as if on cue, we rounded the next corner and had to brake for a combine. With 15 minutes remaining, we entered the zone of totality and continued on to Dixon, where the skies would darken for one minute. It wasn’t the two-minute, 40-second maximum we’d hoped for, but I felt satisfied that we’d done the best we could with the time we had.

That is, until I checked the info sheet and discovered that if we drove 10 more miles to Providence in the 12 minutes we had left before the eclipse began, we’d be rewarded with twice as much totality. Zoom—we hit the road again, navigating straightaways and soft curves until a pair of lofty Golden Arches welcomed us to Providence. About a dozen sky watchers clustered outside the McDonald’s, and as the last two minutes ticked down, I parked, and Marcella and I joined them. An affable employee stepped out of the restaurant carrying a box of viewing glasses, a gift from his manager, and handed them out before the solar show began.

Like a lamp on a dimmer switch, the sunlight rapidly faded. Amid the “oohs” and “aahs” of the McDonald’s patrons, I took a quick peek through the glasses, reluctant to trust them with my retinal health, and aimed my cellphone camera long enough to record an image of the sun in the deep blue sky.

Yep, blue. Contrary to my expectations, it never turned as black as midnight. And the two minutes of totality ended all too soon.

Was it worth the trip? Well, yeah—nothing in my lifetime of cosmic fandom compared to this. Was it the most spectacular sight visible from Earth? Maybe. But I’ve never seen the Northern Lights at their most vibrant.

I’m stoked at the prospect of watching my second total eclipse from my backyard. But the first one taught me a few lessons. I’ve learned, for example, that a partial eclipse is about as enthralling as a partial-view seat at a sporting event. I’ve learned that you can’t find viewing glasses during the week of a total eclipse—except maybe at a McDonald’s. Above all, I’ve learned that if you’re road-tripping to an eclipse, head out early.

If Indiana gets clear skies on April 8, maybe I’ll celebrate as lavishly as I did in 2017: With a Big Mac in a rented SUV.