The Agate Fossil Beds National Monument lies in the far northwest corner of Nebraska, 10 miles from the Wyoming border. It was the last place I expected to be Aug. 21, the day of the “Great American Eclipse.”
How we ended up there was part luck and part determination to witness one of nature’s rarest and most breathtaking phenomena — a total solar eclipse.
At first, I expected to be viewing the eclipse at a more convenient location in Nebraska, but I hadn’t figured on the clouds.
Up until the day before the eclipse I kept checking weather reports along the eclipse path, and none of it sounded very good. The forecast improved toward the west, clearing in Casper, Wyo. But Casper was out of the question.
By Sunday evening, I was beginning to feel desperate. I couldn’t bear the thought of missing what might be my only chance to see a total solar eclipse. Then I remembered my friend Doug in Colorado planned to see the eclipse, so I called to see where he was going.
It was music to my ears. Doug said they were on their way to the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, and, most importantly, the skies there would be clear.
Jan and I went right to work, checking travel times and distances, packing pillows, food, maps, books and binoculars, and getting ready for a long night drive.
We left town late that evening, heading north to Lexington, then west on Interstate 80 in drizzling rain. The rain turned to fog and the fog to pea soup, slowing our progress. Mile after mile, it never let up. Dawn came and the fog persisted. In Scottsbluff, 50 miles from the park, the fog was worse than ever. We began to think we had made the wrong decision.
Then, just like that, we drove out of the fog and into bright sunshine. When we entered the park, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
We were ushered into a grass parking area, one of several that soon filled to capacity. More than 5,000 people came there to see the eclipse, and hundreds more were lined up along the road outside. Many of them spread out into the surrounding hills to get a better view of the eclipse.
They had a variety of different telescopes and cameras, and some were conducting a citizen-science experiment; I brought only my binoculars for viewing the corona. I came not for the science but for the experience, not to watch it through an eyepiece but to catch it in a wide net of wonder.
We were tired but buoyed by the sight of a clear blue sky. Having a few hours to spare, we checked out the Visitor’s Center, wandered among the crowd and spent some time resting in the car.
After first contact, we stepped out to take a look. Through our eclipse glasses the sun was reduced to soft orange glow, and a piece of it was missing. Partial eclipses were not new to me, but this was a first for Jan. She kept staring at the disfigured sun, as if caught in a spell.
When the eclipse was well under way, I noticed a slight dimming of the landscape. Seeing the light fade away like that in broad daylight, under a cloudless sky, gave me an eerie feeling. It was the first sign something extraordinary was about to happen.
As the moment of totality approached, a stillness and silence fell over the crowd. Everyone was looking at the sun, some of them no doubt in anticipation of the diamond ring effect, that last flash of sunlight streaming through a valley on the moon.
I kept my eye on the hills to the northwest, hoping to see the moon’s shadow moving toward us. It was a mistake, for I missed the diamond ring effect and the shadow came speeding over the hills too fast to see, and we were plunged into darkness with a stunning suddenness.
Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd. We were now within the umbra, the darkest part of the moon’s shadow; but it wasn’t completely dark, more like being out in a moonlit night. The sky turned a deep, dark blue, and Venus appeared to the right of the sun. The horizon all around had a rosy twilight glow.
Most astonishing of all, was that the sun was gone and in the place where it should have been there was an ink-black hole in the sky.
The ink-spot was surrounded by the pearly white glow of the corona, the sun’s outer atmosphere. Laced with streaming ribbons light, it looked magnificent through my binoculars.
Then, just as suddenly as it started, it was over and daylight returned to the earth. Totality lasted 2 minutes and 26 seconds, and those seconds were seared into my memory.
I kept thinking how strange it was — the darkness at noon, the twilight illusion on the horizon, and that stunning ink-black hole in the sky.
A total solar eclipse creates many interesting and unusual effects, and I came knowing I would see some of those effects. I just didn’t know I would be so deeply moved by what I saw.
Richard Weber is a nature enthusiast living in Ellis County.