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Essay: Moon's shadow to streak across Nebraska

NASA map1 / 3
Solar eclipse - WikipediaWikipedia3543 × 3489Search by imageA total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon completely covers the Sun's disk, as seen in this 1999 solar eclipse. Solar prominences can be seen along the ...2 / 3
Safety first: Donna and Rand Middleton find the certified solar glasses block out so much light they are able to stare into a flood light without blinking.3 / 3

WILLMAR, Minn. — A total solar eclipse will turn day to night Monday, Aug. 21, in the United States, starting in Oregon and departing at South Carolina.

It will happen fast. The moon's shadow will pass over 14 states at the speed of a supersonic fighter.

The blackout is narrow with a well-defined superhighway of totality is pegged at 70 miles wide.

Outside this narrow lane, the eclipse is partial and covers, to some degree, all of the North American continent.

For many Minnesotans and the Central Plains states, ground zero is Nebraska.

This is the equivalent of a hundred-yard touchdown dash for the Cornhuskers. After zipping across Wyoming, the inky shadow enters Nebraska in Sioux County, at the top of the stubby panhandle, and swiftly cuts diagonally to the extreme southeast — in the space of 17 minutes — exiting over the Missouri River.

Making the trip

We are headed for the southeast corner, specifically Falls City (pop. 4,300), the hub of Nebraska's Richardson County. The solar eclipse map tells us that there, starting at 1:04 p.m., we can experience a total solar eclipse for 2 minutes and 37 seconds, near as good as it gets anyplace in the U.S.

We can remove our certified special eye protection during that short period of total eclipse, snap photos with our smartphones and, if near a farm yard, watch the chickens go to roost.

Outside this ribbon of darkness, the eclipse is diminished. Protective eyewear is essential throughout. The partial eclipse will best be experienced in Minnesota in the far southwest.

When the eclipse appeared on Donna's radar, Rand thought Luverne would be good enough. Donna knew better. It was all or nothing.

With a little more study, Rand agreed. He read, online, "Close is not good enough!"

Wearing the special solar protective eyewear, partial is "interesting light and atmosphere" but, to offer a perhaps tone-deaf analogy, it's the difference between being in the VIP seats at WE Fest

and lurking outside the gate hundreds of yards from the main stage.

Wrote a veteran of 12 total solar eclipses: "... a total eclipse is a memorable, life-changing event which burns itself into memory — and never fades."

Barring clouds, of course.

A place in the path

Not willing to take a stab in the dark, we placed an ad in the Falls City Journal. The response was immediate. Nikki, who got Donna's email in the classified ad department, responded immediately, kindly offering her own yard near downtown.

Within several days of the ad appearing, we had heard from Falls City and nearby Verdon and Rulo. So, we had a spot to lie on our backs and watch — full recline is recommended to avoid having to crane your neck.

Like many communities in the path, events are planned. Falls City is staging "Dining in the Dark" on a downtown street. For $30, you receive a meal, T-shirt and eclipse eyewear.

We reserved a room in Shenandoah, Iowa, for Saturday and Sunday nights. We plan to explore in Nebraska on Sunday and visit each of the generous folks who called. We have already decided to bivouac at a spread a little south of Falls City.

A hill on the property was decisive. We had read, if possible — "elevate" to view the fast-approaching shadow.

On the road

We will also decide which of the three Missouri River crossings to use Sunday morning, either Nebraska City, Brownville or Rulo.

It's possible any or all of the three could be a chokepoint Monday morning as we solar tourists flood the state. Southeast Nebraska is within easy reach of Des Moines and Kansas City. Cornhuskers could pour down from Omaha and Lincoln.

One forecast, quoted in the Omaha World Herald, is upward of a half-million visitors. But no one knows: There is no precedent for this spectacle in the age of superhighways. Nebraska is seen by some experts on this sort of thing as the magnet for most of the Plains States, as far south as the Rio Grande.

Nebraska will put on additional troopers and dispatchers, plus three aircraft to scope traffic.

Road maintenance will be shut down.

Drivers are asked to turn on headlights and not to park or drive on shoulders. And don't wear those funky eclipse glasses while driving. Interstate 80 near Grand Island, Neb., is square in the solar sites, so that stretch of four-lane is a special concern.

The Nebraska National Guard has been put on standby. Oregon will deploy its Guard to deal with the surge of visitors.

Once in a lifetime

A coast-to-coast total solar eclipse last occurred in June 1918, and this is the first of any duration in the Lower 48 in 38 years.

If you can't make this one, there are more coming: Maine to Texas eclipse in 2024 and closer to home — in 2044 — a total eclipse slingshots through parts of North Dakota and Montana.

Outside the narrow band stretching diagonally from Portland to Charleston, viewers on Aug. 21 will see a partial eclipse. It will cover all of North America from Hudson Bay to Central America. In Minnesota a 90 percent line runs through Marshall while an 80 percent line crosses Duluth.

The moon will partially block out the sun. Certified eyewear is mandatory for safety.

An alternate is pinhole projections, either a box or by using a couple of index cards, one with a small hole to project the sun on the other.

On camera

We have decided to watch the moment unfold, not photograph it. Those with 35mm cameras, proper filters, a long lens and tripod will produce the "keepers" for photographic purposes.

Oh sure, we'll each have our smartphones in hand to snap away, including a few of the sky, the surroundings and the other heaven-gazers.

While totality is measured in seconds, the whole thing lasts around three hours, about the couch time to watch an NFL or Major League Baseball game.

With millions of others — some coming from overseas — we will be wishing upon a star for a clear day. If the sky is blue, we have front-row. If not, at least, we visited the Falls City area and met some nice people.

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