Late last winter, another couple asked my husband and me if we wanted to “go to the eclipse” with them on August 21. We had nothing scheduled that far in advance. Although I’d heard about the coming solar eclipse that would pass through our part of the nation, it didn’t seem like a big deal.
“Sure,” we told our friends.
There was some vague mention of a road trip to St. Joseph, which is less than an hour north of our house in the Kansas City Northland. Then we thought nothing more about it.
I felt a growing sense of doom, however, when I read in the spring that hotel rooms in St. Joseph had been booked for months. I voiced some concerns about the need to plan our day, but we didn’t pursue anything. Then as August 21 approached, media hype over the solar eclipse grew.
As a good introvert and researcher, I investigated the eclipse more closely. I found maps showing the exact path of the totality. Our house was in it. I found a site listing the precise length of totality at every point along the path. Our house would have a full minute of total eclipse.
“We could just stay here,” I suggested. “Watch from our front porch.” (After the demise of our ash tree, our yard is pretty open.)
News reports grew more frenzied. There would be a thousand-fold increase in population in many small towns along the center path of the eclipse. Menard’s in St. Joseph was renting out its parking lot for $75/space for the day. Arrow Rock, Missouri, was worried about having enough porta-potties.
“Do we really want to leave home?” I asked.
Our group decided to abandon St. Joseph. We would go to Smithville, Missouri, where there would be over two minutes of totality, though not the full two minutes and thirty-eight seconds St. Joseph would have. My husband stores his boat in a garage near Smithville Lake, patrols the reservoir regularly for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and knows many of the backroads around the lake. He suggested several viewing locations with easy access to restrooms. As a fallback, we could sit in the gated storage area where his boat is housed.
Then we learned Smithville Lake had several eclipse-oriented events planned. Three of four people I talked to one day in my neighborhood planned to see the eclipse in Smithville. I worried the hype would cause the hordes to find our off-the-beaten-path locations.
And weather reports were mixed. At first, there was a 20% chance of rain. Then AccuWeather increased its forecast to 51% chance of a thunderstorm on August 21.
“We could always stay at our house,” I said again. “Is the extra minute of totality worth dealing with crowds?” I hate crowds.
“Theresa’s not going to back out, is she?” our eclipse-party friends asked my husband.
“Nah, she’ll go,” my husband said.
When he told me of this exchange, I said, “Of course, I’ll go. But I’m just saying . . .” I would participate in the hype, but I didn’t have to like it.
We prepared to spend the whole day away from home—water, food, sunscreen, insect repellant, an awning, camp chairs—all the necessities for survival. We didn’t want to compete with the multitudes the media said would descend on the path of totality. We would be self-sufficient, prepared to stay off the grid if need be.
Our friends said they would arrive at our house at 6:30 a.m. They live in the south part of the metropolitan area, which was outside the zone of totality. On a normal traffic day, the drive from their house to ours was about 30 minutes. They worried 6:30 might not be early enough.
I mentioned again that we could always watch from our front porch if the traffic was too bad. But I knew none of the others would agree.
On Eclipse Day, our friends rang our doorbell at 6:10 a.m. I was just headed to the kitchen to pack our cooler. “Apple Maps showed heavy traffic. So we left early,” they said. “But we had no problem.”
At 6:19, the four of us left our house, caravanning northward in two cars because we had too much stuff for one vehicle. We reached Smithville in record time and inspected our potential sun-gazing locations. None was crowded. The best place seemed to be near Sailboat Cove—right on the lake, facing west for the best view, with well-maintained restrooms nearby.
We paid the parking fee and pulled into the mostly empty lot. A few people were there before us, but we still had a pick of picnic tables. We set up camp—spreading out enough food for a week and placing our lawn chairs to face the water. We got the awning frame out of the car . . . and discovered we’d left the cover at our house.
My husband drove home and returned by about 8:15. Again, no traffic. We raised the canopy and were ready for the show.
With more than three hours until the partial eclipse began and four and a half hours until totality.
We ate. We read. We chatted. I did the sudoku and crossword puzzles from the newspaper. The sun streamed down, not revealing any sign of impending darkness.
More people arrived at Sailboat Cove and the parking lot filled. Additional cars parked on the grass. But plenty of open space remained for viewers.
In mid-morning clouds churned in and blocked the sun. We held the awning in place through strong wind gusts. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled off in the distance. Then it rained. And poured.
About the time the partial eclipse began, the rain stopped and the clouds thinned. We put on our special eclipse glasses and stared upward. I got a few good pictures with my cell phone camera, its lens covered by another pair of the special lenses.
Around 12:30 p.m. dense clouds rolled in again. The partial eclipse disappeared from sight. The sky grew dark—but how much was due to the eclipse and how much to the looming thunderstorm?
As 1:08—the time of totality at Smithville—approached, disappointment spread like a plague through the watchers.
I decided I wouldn’t be able to see the total eclipse, but the sunset in front of me would still be worth filming. I started my camera’s video mode, something I’d rarely used before. I shot a two-minute video of a lovely midday sunset through a rainstorm.
Then oohs and aahs erupted behind me (you can hear them at the end of the video). The total eclipse flashed briefly through the clouds, and some people—including my husband—saw a glimpse. But because I wasn’t looking skyward, I only saw the sunset.
And so it goes.
After the brief climax of the astronomical show ended, we sat under our tent and ate some more. Then a true Midwestern deluge unleashed its power and threatened to overwhelm the weight-bearing capacity of our canopy. We shook off the water, and when the storm slackened to moderate rain, we packed up and headed home.
Along with all the other sun-gazers.
We drove south on the highway in bumper to bumper traffic before bailing onto county roads as soon as we could. But in trying to avoid the crowds, we encountered two flooded intersections requiring detours—one of which sent us right back onto the crowded highway, and the other sent us north instead of south. What that morning had been an easy 30-minute drive from our house took an hour and a half on the return.
The hype had hit us after all. We’d beaten it in the morning, but it bit us in the afternoon.
Later I learned that the farther south one was in the zone of totality, the better—albeit shorter—the astronomical show was. In St. Joseph, north of us and our original destination, bad weather turned the eclipse into a bust. In Smithville, we had some nice views, though the critical two minutes were disappointing.
Near our home south of Smithville, I was told, the clouds parted and allowed viewers to see the total eclipse for the full minute.
Though the total eclipse did not provide all the spectacle I’d hoped for, I had a pleasant day with friends in a beautiful setting on Lake Smithville. I got wet, but not uncomfortable because the temperatures remained moderate. I enjoyed the day and will have to accept it for what it was.
The part of the eclipse I saw will have to last me for a lifetime because I doubt I’ll travel to see the next U.S. total eclipse in 2024.
What did you see of the Great American Eclipse this week? Was it worth the hype?