On Friday, April 6th close to midnight, my husband Eric and I arrive in Austin, Texas after three days of driving from Los Angeles. We are tired, hungry, and feeling down that we chose this city as our eclipse viewing destination one year prior. At the time, it was a solid choice. Historically, the clearest spring skies in the United States can be found in Texas, and if you want to view a 100% solar eclipse, you need clear skies so that clouds don’t block your view. But instead, a storm is gathering…

For over a week, meteorologists have been warning of huge cloud cover over the entire bottom half of the USA’s path of totality. Weather is unpredictable though, so as the bad news rolled out in the lead-up to the Great North American Solar Eclipse of 2024, we told ourselves, “Don’t worry. Things could change.” Plus, we didn’t have any other option. We never made alternate eclipse travel plans. Our Plan B was always to drive from Austin to a better viewing city within Texas or to southern Arkansas if needed. We figured, “There’s no way the entire totality pathway in Texas could be covered in clouds. Right….?”

Wrong. Apparently.

My sister Lindsey, my cousin Jocelyn, and her wife Traca are planning to meet us in Austin for the eclipse. Two of my best friends Nicole and Sarah (plus their families) are vacationing in nearby Texas cities. Eric and I saw the total solar eclipse in 2017, but none of them did. Like most people in Washington state, instead of heading south for totality in Oregon in 2017, they stayed home and viewed the 92% or 96% partial eclipse, believing it would be almost as cool as a 100% total eclipse. I’d believed the same thing, but on a whim, Eric, my mom, and I decided to try to reach totality on the morning of the eclipse. We were all shocked by what we witnessed in our 47 seconds of totality. Seeing the power of the sun’s atmosphere streaming millions of miles into space was exhilarating and awe-inspiring. (You can read about that experience here). In the years after, I did my best to paint pictures in everyone else’s mind of how special a total eclipse was, of how extremely different a 100% total eclipse was versus a 99% eclipse, and my words convinced many of my family members and friends of it. That’s why they are headed here.

 

En route to Austin, Eric and I stop at White Sands National Park. Absolutely stunning and worth the detour!

So while Eric and I still technically have time to jump back in our SUV and high-tail our already road-weary bodies from southern Texas up to Missouri where the skies are almost sure to be blue, we really want to see the eclipse with others. We also already spent a lot of money on a nice downtown Austin hotel. The few remaining hotel rooms in promising weather areas have extremely elevated prices. If we leave, we have to eat the cost of an Austin hotel, overpay for a second hotel, and leave behind our family and friends. So we are sticking around Austin.

In the back of my mind, I’ve always known that being “clouded out” in 2024 was a possibility, but it was a passing thought I’d quickly dismiss. Now we are faced with that sobering reality. The moon is going to align perfectly in front of the sun, briefly blocking it out, which will allow a few precious minutes where humans can remove their eclipse glasses and safely peer up into outer space with bare eyes and view the sun’s powerful corona (the point of totality), and we aren’t going to be able to see it.

Total solar eclipses happen every one to three years somewhere around the globe, but they’re often only visible from Earth’s poles or from the middle of the ocean. They are rare opportunities. After 2024, it will be a twenty year wait for another total solar eclipse over the USA.

Mother-fucking-earth.

Driving through New Mexico, we express our concerns about the garbage weather forecasted for the day of totality, and Eric gets distracted by the missile range we are passing.

In screenplay terms, it’s beginning to feel like all is lost. We are entering into the part of the story called “Dark Night of the Soul.” This is the point where the main character feels she is beat and she isn’t going to win.

Over the last few days, Eric has found some great eclipse chasing resources, so he and I have been monitoring the weather patterns and recommendations from different storm chasers and experts. Some data varies, but there are clear patterns emerging. These are  the sources we are relying on the most:

Texas Storm Chasers – They’re providing daily weather updates and viewing location recommendations on their YouTube Channel.
– The Eclipse App – Installed from the App Store on our iPhone for only $3, this allows us to check a city’s predicted cloud cover, the exact time that totality will hit, and the duration of totality. Every hour, the cloud cover for any cities we pinned to our list will update based on new weather data.
The National Weather Service’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Website – You can see forecasted “sky cover” predictions into the future, in hourly intervals.
– A physical copy of the Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2024 by Fred Espenak – I bought this years ago, and while it obviously provides no weather data, it’s useful to have physical maps to reference.

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE ECLIPSE

By Sunday evening, Austin’s forecast is for over 80% cloud cover in the early afternoon when totality hits. We never actually planned to watch the eclipse from Austin though, because it sits at the edge of the totality path. If you’re at the center of the path, you get more viewing time. As you move out from the center, it decreases, exponentially so at the edges of the path. Much of Austin is set to get around 1 minute 45 seconds of totality, so our Plan A was to drive west from Austin to Fredericksburg, which sits right at the center of totality with 4 minutes and 25 seconds of viewing. It’s a cute little town, and Bill Nye is hosting the Eclipse-O-Rama Festival there. Eric and I passed through Fredericksburg on our journey from Los Angeles to Austin and we stopped to scout it. Lots of people were wandering in and out of the restaurants and cute shops wearing eclipse-themed shirts. Fredericksburg was a festive place, but now, it’s forecasted for cloud cover of 78%. I imagine that tomorrow evening, a crowd of eclipse chasers from around the world will be drinking their sorrows in Fredericksburg bars and taverns. No, we need a Plan B.

Around 10PM on Sunday night, Eric, my sister, my cousins, and I have a “meeting” to discuss the next day’s plans. How far is everyone willing to drive? How early is everyone willing to leave? How bad do we anticipate traffic will be? Could we get stuck on an interstate in a subpar viewing area, and if so, what is Plan C and Plan D for alternate highway routes to chase better skies? As Eric and I drove along Interstate-10 eastbound through the bottom half of Texas on Friday, the digital road signs blared their warnings: “Solar Eclipse Monday. Delays Possible. Arrive Early. Stay Put. Leave Late.” But Eric and I suspect that it might be like 2017. That year, the media reported on gas, food, and water shortages and apocalyptic traffic, but none of that proved to be true. The morning of the eclipse Eric, my mom, and I cruised into totality on empty roads. It might be the same thing this year: People won’t understand what they’re missing and they’ll fear the chaos, so there could actually be less traffic than a regular Monday morning work day. At least, that’s what we hope as we talk about where to go the next morning.

Earlier in the day, the Texas Storm Chasers released a very promising image of storm radar that showed a system that might prove to be serendipitous. Moving in from the west is a pocket of clearer skies that’s going to briefly pass over northern Texas and southern Arkansas and southern Oklahoma. There is a good chance that the clear pocket will time up with totality. With that in mind, checking out NOAA and The Eclipse App, the best options for clearer skies currently appear to be in southern Arkansas or southern Oklahoma. Without traffic, and not including stops, it will be at least a five-hour drive. We’ll need to be to our destination no later than 1PM to catch the bulk of the partial eclipse viewing. Depending on where we land, totality will begin around 1:48PM. We all agree to meet at the hotel Starbucks at 6AM and leave from there. We know this will be cutting it close, but we are banking on the fact that other people will stay home.

After everyone parts ways to separate hotel rooms, Eric and I watch David Reimer of Texas Storm Chasers’ new video update on the best places to go in Texas. He recommends that people stay east of I-35 and north of I-20. That means we need to get away from the center line of totality and view it in from the western side of the totality path. Shorter viewing time but better skies.

I can’t sleep. I’ve waited almost seven years to see another total solar eclipse. I sleep maybe four hours.

The plan… Pages from The Road Atlas for the Total Solar Eclipse of 2024. Maps left to right are south to north. 

THE MORNING OF THE ECLIPSE

5:20AM – Rise and shine! Eric and I check the weather data and see that southern Arkansas now has a much cloudier forecast, but things are looking brighter in Texas. NOAA shows small towns just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth to have a 58% projected cloud cover at 1PM and 2PM (not great), but The Eclipse App is forecasting some of those towns, like Cleburne, to have a 26% cloud cover at the exact time of totality (1:39PM there). Perhaps the clear weather system the Texas Storm Chasers have been tracking really is going to pass through at exactly the right time! Cleburne also feels like a great destination because multiple highways intersect it in case we need to continue the chase, plus it’s going to get three minutes and 45 seconds of totality. In any eclipse, you want maximum viewing time, but especially with a cloudier eclipse. The more totality time you have, you increase your odds that the clouds will blow away even briefly to give you precious seconds of an unobstructed view. So when it comes to making a decision as to which city to head to, you must weigh the benefits of forecasted cloud cover percentages against total viewing time.

5:57AM – Jocelyn sends a text from the hotel Starbucks. “Where is everyone?” Hilarious. She’s three minutes early, but I knew she would be. She’s a very punctual person, and last night, just before going to bed, she expressed to me how badly she wants to catch it.

6AM – Eric and I meet the others at the Starbucks and tell them the good news. As of right now, no more Arkansas long haul. Everyone’s happy to hear it. We’ll head to Cleburne, TX, then reassess and redirect from there as needed. We set off with coffee to-go cups and hotel pillows in our arms. Traca’s a good sport and volunteers to sit in the very back row of the SUV, which is tight quarters. No one over the age of eleven can sit comfortably back there, but eclipse chasing requires sacrifices. And just like that, The Great North American Eclipse Chase of 2024 is totally on.

Hitting the road high on hopes and caffeine! The weather image released by the Texas Storm Chasers represents a 1PM forecast: the white area is a large patch of clearer skies moving east with a possibility of it passing over certain areas in the totality path at the exact right time! (Depending on where we end up, totality will be around 1:40PM).

CHASING THE ECLIPSE

6:18AM – We get on Interstate-35 north and as suspected, it’s empty. I fire off a text to Sarah and Nicole to inform them of our Cleburne destination, and I hear back from Sarah almost immediately. She’s been staying two hours south of us, but she’s up and ready to rally her family. With the clear roads and our nearer destination in mind, there’s a good chance we could all rendezvous!

As we drive, we see a dreary gray blanket of clouds in all directions. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll find pockets of blue, but it’s still so early in the day. We feel nervously optimistic, coasting on anticipation and caffeine. As Eric drives, I continue checking the weather resources and backup options.

8:03AM: Plan B turns into Plan C when Cleburne’s cloud forecast jumps from 26% cover up to 39% expected cloud cover at the time of totality, while cities clustered northwest of Dallas like Frisco, Grapevine, and Wautaga improve, ranging from 24-29%. This will put us east of I-35 and north of I-20, just like the Texas Storm Chasers recommended last night. We change course accordingly.

8:39AM – Plan C changes to Plan D as we turn our eyes toward Melissa, TX, a spot even further north of Dallas that’s showing a cloud cover forecast of only 23%. We like that it’s further outside of the sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth. In 2017, Eric and I watched the total eclipse in a rural town’s baseball field, and the sky turned so black we could see all the stars in the sky. Getting farther from the city lights seems ideal.

9:37AM – I hear from Nicole that she and her family are on the road. I do the math in my head. There’s a good chance they can make it north of Dallas too. Will we all converge on the very same spot?

9:50AM – We cheer when we see our first glimpses out of the car window of the sun to the east as it pokes through an opening in the patch of dark clouds. To the west, the sky is bluer now but still covered in patchy white clouds. The blue is encouraging though. We might be seeing the promising weather system that the Texas Storm Chasers claimed was coming our way.

10:15AM – We arrive to Grapevine, TX. We’ve made great time, and we’re hungry for breakfast. This is a good place to determine where we’ll watch the eclipse from, whether it’s here or a nearby town. Grapevine currently projects a 26% cloud cover while Melissa, TX (farther north still) projects 24%. With Sarah and Nicole headed up I-35 to try to catch us, we don’t want to move further north unless it presents a very clear advantage. So I direct Sarah and Nicole towards Grapevine for now, and we find a place to eat: The Old West Café.

Inside the café, my sister Lindsey spots two men in NASA shirts: not the gray T-shirts they sell at Target but official-looking NASA polos with the logo embroidered on the lapel. Could these guys really be from NASA? If NASA guys think Grapevine is a good spot, that’s encouraging. I don’t hear about the NASA guys until after they’re gone or I would have grilled them: Are we in the best spot? Are you watching from Grapevine too? Tellmetellmetellmeeverythingnowplease.

While we’re at the table, we check out nearby cities on The Eclipse App. Fifteen minutes away to the south, a city named Colleyville is forecasted at 1% better than Grapevine. As of now, it’s predicted to have 25% cloud cover at the time of totality, and it has a stellar name! Colleyville (get it, Eric Colley?!). It feels like a sign maybe.

While I’m waiting for my pancakes, I receive a photo of clear blue skies in Indiana from my 5th grade teacher Dave. There’s a B storyline that I haven’t even mentioned yet. Dave and his wife Karen (my 3rd grade teacher) are hoping to see the eclipse too. Last summer, Eric and I had lunch with them and told them about our 2017 eclipse experience and how we were headed to Texas for 2024. Because of that, they planned a visit to see family in Indiana timed with the eclipse. Over the last few days, I’ve been in text communication with Dave and checking the cloud cover of his location periodically. Last night, it was great (upper teens), but when I look now, I’m surprised to see it’s not quite as good at 39%. The whole time we were in Austin, I was feeling like our own odds of catching totality in Texas were low, but I told myself that a consolation for me would be that my teachers would likely see it in Indiana. Dave and Karen were two teachers who’d greatly encouraged my creative side, especially my writing, when I was a young girl. In a full circle moment, last summer they’d once again taken my words seriously when I’d described to them in vivid language how cool an eclipse was. I so want them to see it. 39% cloud cover certainly isn’t bad, but now I feel a little nervous about their prospects. I don’t say any of that in my reply though. I don’t want to put bad mojo into the celestial universe.

10:45AM – The Eclipse App releases updated percentages and while Colleyville holds at 25%, Grapevine greatly improves to only 19% cloud cover. Wow. That’s the best forecast we’ve seen yet in Texas’s totality path. We are in the perfect place.

10:57AM – Eric steps outside the restaurant to call his parents then comes back inside to report clear blue skies. He shows us the photo on his phone, and I feel a shot of adrenaline. But totality isn’t until 1:41PM in Grapevine. What if the blue skies are here too early? The weather system might be moving in too quickly.

The blue skies above the Old West Cafe in Grapevine, TX are a sight for sore eyes.

11:22AM – Behind the restaurant is a school stadium and track underneath the sky of blue. A great place to watch the eclipse from! I can burn off some of my nervous energy by doing laps. Then it hits us that it’s a Monday. Kids are at school. In fact, they’ll possibly be watching the eclipse in this field. Random adult strangers can’t just wander onto school grounds during school hours. So we get back in our SUV and head to Grapevine’s Oak Grove Park to check it out.

There is a lake and about a half dozen boats loading into the water, but it’s otherwise surprisingly empty. The public bathrooms are open, which is  a bonus, but then Lindsey gets bit by an ant. We decide as long we watch out for the ant hills, this park should work. We pick a spot next to a small tree by the softball fields so we have a little shade, and I send the location to Sarah and Nicole. They send back their ETAs. They’re going to reach us in time, and I can’t believe it. Three days ago, I thought the odds of seeing the eclipse with them were low, and now we are all coming together at the same park to hopefully catch it together.

Over the last few days, I sent Nicole and Sarah many of the same websites and apps we’ve been using to track the forecast, so I know they have the data if they want to make a different viewing decision. I know if we get clouded out at the moment of totality, it won’t be my fault. No one will blame me. But the stakes feel even higher now. In total, eleven people who have never seen a total solar eclipse will be joining Eric and me at a spot that we researched, chased, and chose. I don’t want to let anyone down.

As Eric, Lindsey, Jocelyn, Traca, and I peer up at the sky, it’s mostly blue but there are clusters of clouds scattered around. It’s windy and they periodically blow in front of the sun, sometimes veiling it through thin, wispy clouds and sometimes blocking it entirely with thick clouds. They’re moving through the sky quickly and over a period of about a half hour, there is only one time that the clouds block out the sun longer than two minutes. At this spot in Grapevine, our totality will last two minutes and thirty-seven seconds, so our odds feel good.

12:06PM – Sarah sends a photo of the sky where she is as her family continues to drive north. It’s clear, but she’s worried that she can see more clouds ahead to the north where we are. She asks about other cities that they are approaching. Could those be better options? She texts, “Hal – please send a pic of the sky.” Nicole texts that her husband just expressed the same worry. They, too, are driving through blue skies. I send a photo with the forecast data, and I remind them we are still an hour and a half from totality. The data points us here for the crucial moment. Sarah and I jump on a phone call, and I tell her that if she feels better about somewhere else, they should go there. I can’t control the sky. Sarah can sense I’m feeling the weight of it, and she reassures me that of course she understands I can’t precisely predict the clouds, but they’re coming to us. We’re doing this together! Later, Nicole will tell me that as her car drove onward, they passed people in lawn chairs at rest stops, sitting under the blue sky, ready and waiting. But she, too, felt certain that they must press on to reach us.

Clockwise from middle left: Lindsey, Eric, Jocelyn, Traca, and I get our first look at the partial eclipse.

THE ECLIPSE BEGINS

12:23PM – At the park, the event starts for our group of five. We peer up at the beginnings of the partial eclipse through our eclipse glasses. To be clear, this is not the part we dosed ourselves with early morning lattes to see. This is not the part that people travel across continents for. This is just the partial eclipse, not totality. Many people are confused about the differences, sometimes even after I explain it to them. I understand if you feel confused, because before 2017, I didn’t get it either. A partial eclipse goes all the way from a 0.0001%-etc. eclipse to a 99.9999%-etc. eclipse. If it’s not 100%, it’s not totality. Totality only happens if you happen to be in the perfect pathway for the moon to briefly move itself directly in front of the sun, totally blocking it from earth.

During the phases of a partial eclipse, the moon slowly moves more and more in front of the sun, the light outside gradually dims and sometimes creates other interesting lighting effects, the air cools, and animals may react strangely. You can only view the sun of a partial eclipse through your protective eclipse glasses; otherwise you could burn your retina in literally seconds. Partial eclipses, especially ones that reach the 90%+ range are cool and interesting.

However, the awe-inspiring, shocking part of an eclipse is totality. That’s when you can remove your glasses, because now the sun is fully eclipsed by the moon and what you are staring at is actually the sun’s atmosphere (its corona) streaming impossibly far into space from behind the moon. A 99% eclipse looks nothing like a 100% eclipse. The former is like taking part in a memorable science experiment; the latter is like opening your eyes and realizing you now live inside The Lord of the Rings.

As our 2024 eclipse gets underway, it looks like the moon is starting to take a bite out of the sun.

We have long stretches of time in the park where there aren’t clouds anywhere as we watch the moon slowly cover the sun. But then we notice on The Eclipse App that the forecast for Grapevine has changed from 19% cloud cover to 25% cloud cover predicted for the time of totality. Colleyville, fifteen minutes to the south, is now at 23%. This is our last chance to move. Should we?

We decide to stay. Grapevine has given us good vibes from the moment we arrived, but my anxiety is still ratcheting up. I really want to see it again, but even more, I want the eleven people who haven’t seen a total eclipse yet to get to see it.

It’s been almost seven years since Eric and I last saw a 100% total solar eclipse. As we peer up at the partial eclipse, we feel the anticipation building. Skies are mostly clear. We really might go 2 for 2 as eclipse chasers!

12:50PM – Sarah and Nicole and their families arrive almost simultaneously. I’m stunned that the entire group has made it to the same place. Everyone is in positive spirits but there’s a thread of nervous energy beneath it all. Everyone pops their eclipse glasses on and off, peering up at the sun as it disappears behind the moon.

1:12PM – A lady comes by and informs our group that the tall lights in the parking lot near us are on a sensor and will likely come on during the eclipse, so we decide to move down to the lake.

1:19PM – Eric, Lindsey, and I linger a little longer in the shade by the softball fields. The sun is in a crescent shape now, and the birds are going crazy. Nearby, a mockingbird sings like it’s auditioning for Broadway. Eric has The Eclipse App open, set to a totality countdown specific to Grapevine, Texas. I shoot a video of the three of us expressing how excited we are that it appears we nailed the perfect location for viewing it, and Lindsey knocks on the trunk of the tree for luck. Previously, she’d been doubtful that chasing it via storm tracking and hourly weather updates would yield such accurate results, but now, the environmental science major in her is impressed.

The three of us collect our things and head down to the lake to join the others. Other than our group, there are maybe thirty or forty other people at the park, spread out throughout the grassy areas and on folding chairs in the parking lots. It’s relatively quiet. Most of the eclipse events are probably taking place in town.

Our group of thirteen gathers at the lakeside. Just over 20 minutes until totality!

1:29PM – With about twelve minutes to go, a huge, thick system of clouds blows in front of the sun, completely blocking it from our view. It’s not as windy as it was earlier, and as I peer up at the sky, everything inside me sinks. It’s the biggest cloud system we’ve had since arriving to the park, and it’s barely moving. I don’t know that it will clear in time. No… we were so close.

I start pacing. Sarah sets up a time lapse on her phone, pointed at the group. That video will end up showing me going in and out of it, pacing at hyper speed due to the time lapse. At one point, I look down and see that Eric is standing in a small ant hill. Little red ants are crawling up his Brooks running shoes and onto the bottom of his jeans. “You’re in an ant hill!” I shove him forward and start flicking ants off of him. I wouldn’t call it a welcome distraction, but flicking away ants gives me something to do other than freak out about sky cover. We notice then that the entire grassy area is dotted with miniature ant hills. Eric and I find a spot without ants and discuss the clouds. Neither of us feel certain that the sky will clear in time. I resume pacing.

Finally, one of my friends shouts, “Hallie! Stop pacing!” Impossible! I can’t! Only Eric and I know what is at stake. They’ve never seen totality.

My cousin Jocelyn tells me that she thinks the clouds will blow away. She’s been timing how fast they move, and she thinks they’ll be gone in time for totality. I can’t look up at the sky. It’s too nerve-wracking. Instead, I stare down at the grass as I weave around the ant hills.

1:37PM – At four minutes until totality, Jocelyn comes to stand next to me. She points up. “There’s your blue sky, Hallie.” I look up at the sky, and tears well up in my eyes. The very edge of the clouds are still covering the sun, but they really are about to move away from it. What follows is a wide open patch of blue. Plenty of it. I shoot a photo of the sky.

Immediately after Jocelyn says, “There’s your blue sky,” I shoot this photo. It is only four minutes until totality hits, and I can see from the movement of the clouds and the blue sky that follows it, we’re going to catch the 100% eclipse.

Then I turn my phone on me and Eric to record a selfie video. I check his app’s countdown and narrate the situation: “Totality is in three minutes and thirty-six seconds.” I’m breathing a little hard like I just dashed up a flight of stairs (except I didn’t!). “There’s clouds in front of the sun, but they’re about to pop out… it’s about to pop out. We think we’re going to get an opening.” On the last sentence, my voice cracks as I almost start crying. I kill the video feed and start to laugh at how ridiculously overwhelming it all is.

1:39PM – As the clouds clear away from the sun, I’m in a dreamlike spell. I shoot two more quick videos. I don’t even remember shooting these. They each last about two seconds and are shaky videos of the group. I must have been trying to capture the time, place, and feeling as I often do with home videos. However, normally I would probably start the shot on a nice angle of the lake and pan to the group and hold the shot steady for several seconds or ask someone a question to generate interaction. But these quick clips are crooked and shaky, as if someone who was on Quaaludes shot them.

Nearby at the softball fields, we can hear lawn mowers. Park employees are still working. Annoyed, someone in our group asks, “Are they going to keep running that during totality?” I doubt it. There’s no way a person can ignore totality and keep working.

1:40PM – The sky is clear now. Totality is in one minute. I’m surprised that it’s not completely dark outside. When we viewed totality in Oregon in 2017, the sky was so black we could see stars all around us. The dip in temperature was very noticeable there too. I don’t know everything there is to know about solar eclipses, but perhaps it’s not as dark here because we are viewing this one further south. Or maybe it’s because Texas is flat, so we can see the glow of Dallas-Fort Worth in the horizon. Later, Eric will compare the level of darkness we experience in Texas to a night shoot on a film set where you use large lights to cast a faint glow over the scene that’s meant to appear like moonlight on the actors. In our phone home videos, it barely looks dark at all, but that’s because the iPhone tries to correct for the darkness. At one minute to go until totality, it’s definitely very dim and a little cooler, but not as dark and chilly as I expected from our past experience.

Eric and I stand together with our arms around each other. Through the eclipse glasses, the sun is now the tiniest strip of light, like a barely visible thread. For days, we’d felt our odds of catching the eclipse were low, and we’d been trying to remind ourselves to enjoy the experience no matter what. But here we stand now, with eleven of our loved ones in the middle of a town in Texas we’d never heard of until this morning. We chased it and we’re about to catch it.

A robot voice suddenly streams out of Eric’s phone speaker telling us there is thirty  seconds until totality. I had no idea there’d be an announcement, and it gives me good chills. At ten seconds, the voice starts counting down. I quietly count with it, but I’m almost too stunned to speak. When I’m excited, I’m often very demonstrative: sometimes loud and boisterous, especially if amongst friends. I’m the opposite of what I imagined I would be in this moment. I’m silently crying.

1:41PM – TOTALITY. We take off our eclipse glasses and there it is: the beautiful corona pouring its atmospheric rays millions of miles into space. The sky isn’t black and speckled with stars, but rather it’s a hazy, dark blue with Venus popping out too. The eclipse looks somehow different to me this time than it did in 2017. The corona appears as a brilliantly bright powerful stream of lights, and I have less of an impression of burning fire this time around than I did the first time. Instead, it’s pure white. But on the edges of the eclipse, I see small reddish-orange solar prominences that make me think of tiny forest fires on the surface of the sun.

Neither Eric nor I shoot any photos or videos of the total eclipse. We tried to do that in the 47 seconds of the totality we had in 2017, and we quickly learned that photos and videos can’t capture what it really looks and feels like. We want to use every second to watch it.

Photos and videos can’t capture what an eclipse looks like AT ALL. Even ones taken with special high-tech zoom equipment don’t capture the magic. That said, this photo taken by Traca during totality does capture our perfect pocket of blue skies and that in and of itself is a piece of magic. You can see Venus to the right and just below that, an object shooting up out of the clouds. 

Unlike 2017, no one in our vicinity is screaming or shouting. I’m vaguely aware of others around us murmuring. At times, Eric and I speak quietly in awe to each other, but mostly we just stare at it, almost in a trance. The equipment in the softball fields is no longer running. There’s a tranquil stillness all around us as the sun gives us a glimpse of its power in the solar system.

A peacefulness takes over me, and I’m filled with so much gratitude that our efforts paid off. The clouds blocked the sun just before the eclipse but peeled away from it just in time to give us this perfect view. As mesmerizing as the eclipse is, there’s a second layer of emotions for the clear sky surrounding the eclipse. It’s such a gift, timed perfectly for us.

Then something shoots across the sky so high that it gives me the illogical feeling it might collide with the sun itself. Our group starts to chatter. Is that a billionaire’s plane going in for a closer look? Then someone says something about a comet. What comet? I’m confused as I stare at the object as it flies across the sky and out of sight.

Lindsey’s cell phone alarm goes off signaling that there’s only ten seconds left in totality. Our time in totality is so much longer than we had in 2017, but it’s still just a brief flash of magic in a vast universe.

As the sun peeks back out again, strange colors that resemble waves in water pass over the grass at our feet for a few seconds. These alternating light and dark wavy lines are called shadow bands. Totality is over.

Not more than thirty seconds later, a large cloud blows in front of the sun, blocking it entirely from our view. It was all meant to be.

My sister gives me a hug with tears in her eyes. Later, she’ll tell me that she felt so emotional because she knew how important it was to me. One thing that holds true for my big sister in any situation: I know she’s always rooting for me.

Thirty minutes later, I receive a photo from my teacher Dave in Indiana that he snapped from his phone during totality and I almost start crying all over again. As with all cell phone photos, the eclipse appears as a simple glowing circle, but what strikes me as most beautiful is the clear sky. My teachers saw it too. That means everyone whom I encouraged to travel for The Great North American Eclipse got a full totality experience.

On the drive back to our hotel, we hear that Austin was cloudy during totality. The clouds were thin enough to give people a hazy glow, but no one there got to see any detail. From what we can find, it sounds like most or maybe all of the cities south of Dallas were in clouds. People in those areas are posting social media videos and giving news blurbs about how cool totality was, but they’re only talking about the darkness that took over, the shadows on the earth, the temperature drop, and the diffused light hidden behind the clouds. They have no idea what they missed.

Artwork credit: Eric Colley

AFTERWARDS: SYMBOLISM FOR DREAMERS

In the days that followed the eclipse, I had conversations  with different members of our Grapevine group, and one thing that I have come to realize is how the experience of an eclipse can be quite different for each person. I believe that to a degree, an eclipse can give you what you need, if you let it.

In my enthusiasm for the 2017 eclipse, I had described totality with fervor to encourage people to consider traveling for the 2024 eclipse. Again, in my efforts to convince my family and friends to abandon the cloudy areas in southern Texas, I’d used visual descriptions as well as metaphor to push people to not give up the chase. Two days before the eclipse, a psychologist interviewed on the news had said that an eclipse could be life-changing for some people. Those were quite strong words, yet I could imagine it as so. After all, an eclipse reminds us of how powerful and mysterious the universe is, how small we are in the scheme of things, and how fleeting our time is here, yet how beautiful and important that time is. What if those moments of totality can make something click inside someone? Within our group, I’d been aware of more than one person at a crossroads in life. I felt it was possible some people may quite literally need to see it. Eclipses can symbolize new beginnings for people. So I said those things and more. While I don’t think of myself as someone who exaggerates (I like specifics; I like precise details), I’d spoken strongly of the symbolism of eclipses to ensure that others would want to chase it when the time came.

In retrospect, after the eclipse, I wondered if my wording had been too much. Had any of it seemed like hyperbole? I knew that Eric and I had been thrilled with the experience, but I wondered if I’d affected others experience negatively by setting up the eclipse too strongly. It’s like when someone tells you that a movie is going to be the best movie you’ll ever see. You go in with high expectations and therefore you’re harder to impress. Nobody had been screaming in Grapevine the way people had been in Oregon in 2017. It had been a rather quiet viewing experience at the lakeside. When our full group went out to lunch afterwards, eclipse discussion continued but it wasn’t with excessive gushing. Nobody climbed on the table and dedicated a toast to the universe. In many ways, I didn’t have a lot to say about it myself yet. I’d been riding so many emotions during the chase and the capture of it that I felt almost empty immediately afterwards, like someone had unplugged the drain just before the basin spilled over and now everything had washed away.

During the car ride back to Austin, the eclipse continued as the main topic though. Prompted by Jocelyn, one by one, we all shared our “new beginnings” since eclipses can symbolize that. I called my parents to give them the play by play, and my mom soaked in every detail, drawing comparisons to our 2017 experience. Sarah, Nicole, and I continued our three-way text thread, analyzing the flying object in the sky, which after some back and forth discussion and Googling, we determined was not the Comet Pons-Brooks but actually a NASA jet chasing the eclipse from the Mexico border up to the Texas-Arkansas border for research and data collection. Clearly, the eclipse was on everyone’s mind long after totality passed.

But I did wonder exactly how powerful it had been for each person. In some ways, in the first hours after the eclipse, I was having a hard time letting go of the responsibility I’d somehow bestowed on myself: this sense of duty to deliver the ideal eclipse experience to everyone.

Over the next day or so, I started to feel really happy, increasingly so, in a very peaceful way. Eric and I kept marveling at how grateful we were that we caught it, and we saw it with everyone. We kept saying, “I can’t believe it!” Repeatedly, I found myself getting emotional whenever I thought about it, and that’s how I came to understand exactly what this eclipse means to me and what it meant to others.

First, I realized that my eclipse experience in 2017 represented the magic of spontaneity, of saying “yes!” to the unknown. Eric, my mom, and I had been clueless about what a total solar eclipse was, but we’d set off to have an adventure. No one had prepared us for what it would look like. I’d incorrectly assumed that things would just go dark or perhaps there would be a thin, static circular glow like I’d seen in photographs. But it was alive and powerful and awe-inspiring. I now understood that our obliviousness then had contributed greatly to our overall giddiness. I suspect that others in that Oregon field felt that same level of confusion and shock. During our phone call in the car ride back from Grapevine, Texas, my mom had pointed out that in comparison to this year, the news media in 2017 hadn’t done a very good job explaining what happens during the stages of an eclipse, which is why we weren’t even 100% confident that we were supposed to be viewing totality without our glasses on in 2017. Instinctively, we could tell that the sun’s corona didn’t have any of the painful, piercing qualities that the sun itself has, but these were determinations we’d made on the fly while totality was underway. In fact, I’d repeatedly looked away from it in 2017 only to be drawn back to it. It was impossible not to marvel at it. My mom and I had kept grabbing onto each other, saying variations of, “Ohmygod, are we supposed to look at it?” Eric and I also had tried to shoot a video and take a photograph of it in 2017, so in reality, I’d probably only looked at the eclipse for 20-something seconds of the total 47 seconds of totality that we had. The whole thing had been so fast: an exciting, frantic, confusing rush of emotions, perhaps even a touch scary because it was so unknown to us. The experience had been a special reminder that in life, at any moment, magic could be just around the corner.

Photos from the 2017 total solar eclipse in Oregon. Yes, I’m wearing the same sun hat at both eclipse events. No, that wasn’t intentional, but I think this might now be my official eclipse-chasing hat. #goodluck

Eric and I remember the 2017 eclipse as having a significant orange-red color, which is the chromosphere. My mom and another friend who saw it that year elsewhere in Oregon have confirmed that it was orange-red in their memories too. I think that color had etched into my mind as an impression of flames shooting into space. I believe the darkness of the overall sky in Oregon contributed to that visual too. With this eclipse in Texas, the pure whiteness of the corona held a different kind of intensity. It felt almost more concentrated to me this time, seared into outer space like it had been branded there with a hot iron. I’ve since read that all eclipses look a little bit different (size, color, brightness, shape of the corona, how much solar prominence is visible, the brightness/darkness of the sky itself). The view can also vary depending on what part of the planet you are seeing it from. That’s part of the fun for eclipse chasers: seeing what each new eclipse will look like and discussing the differences. Even more importantly though, I realized in many ways it was me who was different this time.

This year, I was more prepared for what to expect. One of my friends later told me that if she’d been alone and not in a group, she would have felt unsure of when she could take her glasses off. I have a vague memory of someone calling out, “Glasses off!” right after The Eclipse App finished its ten-second countdown to totality. Because we all had certain expectations and understandings, nobody in our group felt confusion or fear. There was a peacefulness to which we could view it and have our own unique experience of it. There was no group hysteria this time.

So privately, different people reacted in different ways. I learned this in the days that followed as I talked in more detail with people from the group. Some appreciated it for the cosmic marvel that it is and viewed it as a cool spectacle of science. One of my friends is a big fan of science fiction movies and spent a portion of totality imagining a scenario straight out of the movies she loves so much: This is what it would be like if the aliens came down in their spaceship! Others loved the excitement of chasing it and the victory of catching it. One expressed gratitude that I’d used such strong words to describe the eclipse because had I not, she wouldn’t have put out the effort to chase it across the state. Her first thought after totality ended was: When can I see another one? A few people were moved deeply on an emotional or spiritual level. There was one person in our eclipse group who shared with me that she’d actually felt a little nervous that I’d set up the eclipse to be more powerful than it really could be. She couldn’t imagine an experience that would be that strong, so she was taken aback when she felt so moved by it. The entire experience felt surreal to her, as if she was having an out of body experience. She cried through all of totality, quietly wiping the tears from her cheeks. Later, she tried to come up with words to describe the experience and she felt at a loss, because it was unlike anything she’d ever seen or felt. She and I spent over an hour talking about it, including our thoughts about what the eclipse symbolized in our lives, individually and collectively.

To me, the experience is rich in symbolism. I’m a writer. Writers naturally look for symbolism and meaning in things. We weave stories to make sense of being human. Had we not caught the eclipse this time, I would have been deeply disappointed but I would have eventually found the meaning in that journey. And on a practical level, I would have taken the things we learned about eclipse chasing to increase our odds for the next time.  But finding meaning in chasing an eclipse and missing out on it was not the story I wanted to be forced to tell. I wanted to tell this story.

I wanted to tell the story of a group of scrappy kids from Washington state, who grew up in a small towns, who traveled halfway across the country to see an eclipse. And when the chips were down, everyone in the group rallied and chased it down and caught it together in the nick of time.

And I wanted to tell the story of dreams. I’m a dreamer, and my husband Eric is too. We are at an interesting place in our lives creatively. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes that are exciting and uncertain. I don’t publicly share all of these things, but the sun and the moon are on the move. In fact, I haven’t been updating this blog regularly over the last year largely because I’m trying to stay completely focused on the creative projects I’ve undertaken. The forecast feels bright to me. However, there will always be clouds blowing in and out that we can’t control. To a degree, opportunities and success for anyone who’s pursuing a creative life involves timing and luck. But so does a solar eclipse. You can prepare for an eclipse: educate yourself on how to increase your viewing odds, study the weather and storm patterns, and put in the time, effort, and energy to chase it… but there are no guarantees. Just as there are no guarantees that no matter how hard we work to create meaningful stories as writers or filmmakers that the changing winds of industry, marketplace, and audience won’t influence our experience and outcomes, for better or worse. Our efforts can greatly increase our odds for success, but they can’t promise us perfect blue skies. We have to be ready to beat the clouds at their own game.

But as with any dream, if you don’t catch that eclipse you desire, it’s not over. Catching the next one might take even more effort (Spain Totality 2026, anyone?), but if you really want it, the opportunities will present themselves. You just have to put yourself in the right place at the right time, and you’ll get another chance to lasso your dreams.

But we caught this eclipse, and we caught it perfectly, and I’m taking that forward with me as a good sign. I’m grasping onto it as symbolism for more good things to come our way. Because just when things were looking bleak and gray, just when it felt like our efforts weren’t going to yield the results we wanted, the clouds parted and gave us a gift we’d been dreaming about for years. That’s the true story, and I feel so lucky it’s the one I get to tell.

 


Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, film producer, editor,and co-owner of Fireshoe Productions. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.