Great American Eclipse Road Trip 2017 - Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Sep 05, 2017

Though not an inveterate solar eclipse chaser, I've now seen several—and by far the view and experience of the August 21 eclipse from Casper, Wyoming was the best I've ever had. And I'm sure that our group of excited eclipse photographers would say the same. The other locations where I have viewed a total solar eclipse all resembled outdoor rock concerts with strains of Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" drifting across the landscape, while half-clad New Age spiritualists danced to the rhythm of numerous drum circles—more like Burning Man than a significant, awe inspiring and, for many, an once-in-a-lifetime spectacular celestial event.

John Shaw and I led our Great American Eclipse Road Trip—a two-van photo tour that visited several locations along our itinerary route in Wyoming and South Dakota. John and I had done many of these road trips together back in the 1980s and 1990s and, for us, it was just like old times.

We picked up our vans in Billings, Montana and drove them to Casper where we would meet our group prior to the start of our trip. There were no vans to be had any nearer than that, even though we had booked our tour almost two years in advance. Arriving in Casper we had a day and a half of scouting to find a perfect location out in the countryside for our group to experience the eclipse without a Woodstock-like atmosphere. And an excellent location is what we found. A broad grassy plain consisting of thousands of acres of state land and adjacent ranches that by GPS was virtually on the centerline of the moon's umbra—the dark center of its shadow—provided the ultimate location from which to view the solar eclipse.

Our group had a practice day just prior to the eclipse to see the chosen site and set up photo equipment for a dry run to be ready for the two minutes and 26 seconds of craziness that totality would bring.

2017 Solar Eclipse PhotoOn eclipse day we found our spot early, not knowing if we could expect a horde of people to be out there with us or if we would be alone. Thankfully we were alone—virtually the only ones there on those thousands of acres of grassland. We watched with enthusiasm while wearing those strange eclipse glasses that we provided to all participants and that must be used when staring at the sun. At first contact we could see a small sliver of dark moon just kissing the edge of the sun. Shortly thereafter we used our cameras and started photographing the sun using the same very dark filters we used in the special eclipse glasses. The air grew cooler and an eerie blue cast to the daylight crisped the edges of shadows. You could tell that something strange and wonderful was about to happen!

Warned by a GPS-linked countdown app we knew exactly when to take our glasses off and remove the solar filters from our camera lenses in order to catch some of the fast-moving events of totality. We captured the diamond ring effect when the sun is all but obscured by the moon save for a small sliver and Baily's beads as the last bits of light escape through gaps between the mountains of the moon on its perimeter. And then the spectacular corona, the gauzy aura of plasma that surrounds the sun, burst into view.

Devil's TowerAt totality a 360° copper-colored horizon surrounded us on all sides due to the openness of the extensive prairie where we stood. It was hard to know whether to keep photographing or take your eye off the camera and look around. Most of us split the difference between the two—and that was probably the most rewarding experience that still yielded some good shots. Then within a blink of an eye totality was over. Most of us exclaimed that it was among the shortest, yet most jaw-dropping, two minutes and 26 seconds we had ever spent!

Within hours after the end of the eclipse we arrived at Devils Tower National Monument. It seemed like a fitting place to be after the eclipse. Devils Tower is inextricably linked to another "celestial event"—the spaceship arrival in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This year marks the film's 40th anniversary. A special screening at the base of the tower was scheduled for September 2, and later in the month a UFO festival will take place at the monument. Obtaining a shot of the silhouette of the tower against the starry sky was the highlight of our visit there for some participants.

Badlands National Park, South DakotaIn the following days we visited many of the "flyover" vacation spots (and great shooting locations) that many people miss when traveling coast to coast by air. We photographed at Mount Rushmore, along The Needles Highway in Custer State Park, and spent a couple of days in Badlands National Park—all in South Dakota. A few other highlights included some of the "photogenically funky" small town bars that provided us with (much better than expected) dinners along with warm "heartland" hospitality that brought smiles to our faces at virtually every stop along the way of our Great American Eclipse Road Trip.

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