Chad’s Great American Eclipse Chase: Part 1 — Prologue

This series details the eclipse-chasing exploits of our President and CEO, Chad Dorsey, as he heads down to Tennessee on a quest for the total solar eclipse. See the whole series.

I. Packing—and recalling.

As the suitcases start to fill and the lists of remaining to-dos become gradually shorter, the actual fact seems increasingly hard to believe—2017 is actually here, and the chase is about to begin once again.

When you’ve been targeting a specific date for more than 25 years, anticipation takes on a more subtle dimension. You see, this date has been in our sights since the afternoon of July 11, 1991. That was the day when our family, together with our close friends the Stewarts, experienced the 1991 eclipse in Baja, Mexico. There are more tales to be told of that magnificent eclipse later in this series, but only two facts are of real importance for the time being. First, that was the moment when I (and thousands of others standing there that day) officially caught eclipse fever, and second, that was the moment when, in the growing light of the receding partial phases, we all hunched over the battered copy of Astronomy magazine to ask the same question—where and when could we find totality again?

Astronomy magazine from July 1999
In July 1999, Astronomy magazine featured the “eclipse of the century.”

While there were many upcoming eclipses to be chased (and my father, an 8th grade science teacher, has sought out at least one other in the intervening years—Aruba in 1998), the most attractive candidate was obvious at a glance. As we scanned the graphic of future eclipse tracks, we saw many that fell across the ocean, hit land in Siberia in the dead of winter, or presented themselves in other un-useful or hard-to-reach areas. But one opportunity popped immediately off the page—a beautiful crimson stripe straight across the United States. And in the middle of August. It was enough to make any eclipse fanatic’s heart beat a little faster, if not send them running to the phone to book a hotel room right then and there.

The only catch? That enticing track marked a moment in time that lay a full 26 years in the future, practically an eternity for someone at my stage of life then. Nonetheless, we made a pact at that moment that we would do whatever it took to reconvene our group in the center of the moon’s shadow on that faraway date. I speculated with the Stewarts’ daughter, my friend since childhood, about what we might be doing in life then, imagining where we might be, but it all seemed far too far away to ever be a reality.

Map of future eclipse tracks
The future, as shown in 1999

Fast forwarding those 26 years, that daydream now seems both immediately close and unfathomably distant. Preparations for August 21 seem infused by a similar duality. While all the intrigue and mystery remain, the buildup seems prosaic in a way, and the hype and excitement in the media dulls somewhat on impact. But I do know that I’m finally heading to see that actual eclipse, and that we actually are all reconvening once again, this time with a raft of intervening life experiences and three additional children (and one dog) in tow among us.

II. Realizing again, with new eyes.

Group with eclipse glasses in Baja Mexico
The Dorseys and Stewarts prepare for the 1999 eclipse in Baja, Mexico

Now and then, though, the jolts come, and instants of full-blown excitement wash in, sweeping away any accumulated feelings that this might be an ordinary trip. Seeing an article try to describe totality to those who have never experienced it. Hearing a the recorded gasps of eclipse watchers in Manitoba, Canada in 1979—the eclipse where my father first caught the bug—at the moment the shadow first engulfs them. In those instants, anything timeworn drops away, and I’m instantly a kid again. Because in the moment of totality, we’re all transformed into kids again. Screaming, laughing, gasping, staring. Truly—it’s just like that. Those few minutes are somehow transcendent, childlike wonder played out on a grand scale in a fleeting experience that binds all those who watch together. Yeah, I know—when you read them, such descriptions are florid. Hyperbolic, even. But to anyone who’s experienced totality, they barely even begin to capture the essence of the thing.

The most exciting part about this one is that the people it stands to bind together include my own children. In a wonderful twist of fate, my son happens to be barely a year older than I was when I saw my father pack for Manitoba.

Manitoba eclipse T-shirt
A t-shirt depicts the 1979 Manitoba, CA, eclipse

I still remember seeing him lay out the filters, tripods, and camera equipment in a huge spread on the living room floor and observing as he rehearsed his moves over and over—removing the filters, training the camera, snapping photos—a carefully choreographed dance timed to the transition into totality. This time, my son and daughter get to come along, and I get the honor of passing the passion for eclipse chasing on to the next generation. That is, as long as the weather cooperates…