Northwest Nebraska Tourism Director
Friday, August 25, 2017
On August, 21 2017, millions of people across North America experienced something totally unforgettable. I was one of those millions and I enjoyed it with the biggest space nerd I know, my dad.
As the Northwest Nebraska Tourism Director, it’s been my job to help plan and prepare for the Great American Eclipse in the typically quaint and quiet northwest corner of Nebraska. And let me tell you, planning for an event like this is tough.
So, how do you prepare for an eclipse party? You planet. HAHA
But truly, there are many difficult questions to answer:
How do you gauge the number of visitors that are coming? How do you prepare locals for an influx of tourists that could potentially triple or quadruple the population? Will we have enough gas? Food? Will we actually have traffic jams? What about the “weirdos”?
Well, simply put, you can’t plan for an exact number or demographic. What we did know was that this event could be the biggest event in Northwest Nebraska Tourism history. Thousands of people coming to Dawes and Sioux counties for the total eclipse who may never have come here otherwise. Our motto was prepare for the most, hope for the best. And we did.
My dad is a space geek. And he’s proud of it. And so am I. He served 23 years in the Air Force as an aerospace engineer, satellite operator, and missile defense. As a retired Lt. Colonel, he works at MITRE Corporation as the Technical Director for the Space Knowledge Center. I don’t understand everything that he does at work and much of it is classified. But what I do know is that I wake up, go to work and do my best to get more visitors to northwest Nebraska. He wakes up, goes to work, and makes sure other countries don’t even try to shoot missiles our way. And if they do, our U.S. defenses will knock ‘em down, roll ‘em round, come on team let’s work. WORK!
And that’s pretty neat. And that’s exactly why I wanted to watch the total eclipse with my dad.
August 21, 2017
Before pops arrived in Chadron, we tossed around several ideas to view the eclipse. In planning for this event, I learned it’s most enjoyable to be around a surplus of people or wildlife. We thought Alliance’s Carhenge or Agate Fossil Bed National Monument in Sioux County would be the golden ticket, and it certainly was for thousands of others. But, we decided to take a more natural, spontaneous and crowd-less, approach for the event somewhere in southern Dawes County near the Nebraska National Forest. You know, we really wanted to #DiscoverNWNebraska.
It all started with a two hour drive through northwest Nebraska backroads. It was an early rise and we jumped in the car with my dad’s new dog, Comet, who was adopted three days earlier from the Colorado Springs Humane Society. The name was certainly fitting for this astronomical event.
While navigating my dad down Highway 20 I couldn’t help but notice the grey, cloudy skies above us and fog along the buttes, which is atypical for August weather in the area. Heavy traffic on a Monday morning to Crawford was also atypical.
Rounding the corner into Crawford, blue skies began to emerge and it dawned on me that we certainly needed to get my dad a souvenir for the event. So, we proceeded to Herren Brothers True Value in downtown Crawford with hopes to find a t-shirt keepsake. They had one left and it was the right fit! We were told that was the last eclipse T-shirt left in Crawford! Imagine that.
With our trusty tear-off map and Nebraska Public Access Atlas, we proceeded aimlessly south on Highway 71 and various county roads for the next hour looking for the perfect spot. We passed hundreds of eclipse viewers scattered all over the county roads and properties. Too much shade. Not enough trees. Too many people. No people. Whoops, private property. Oops, there goes cell phone coverage and our map, where are we now?
Backroads, lots of coffee and water, and no services is sometimes not a good combination. One of us HAD to go. It wasn’t dad. About 15 minutes later, one of us REALLY had to go. It wasn’t dad. One of us was bouncing in the seat. It still wasn’t dad. It was settled, we would turn at the next road. As fate would have it, that next road had a small crowd of people. We turned and gawked at the telescopes and binoculars as we drove by over the hill.
Minutes later we returned and asked if it was a private party. Surprisingly, it was not and we were welcomed to join the gathering. Maybe it was the “military brat” in me to dive nose first into this group of strangers, but there was no question. We found the spot.
There we were, in Marsland, with Comet the dog, a Senior Space Systems Engineer and several amateur astronomers, viewing the eclipse with an anticipated totality of 2 minutes, 5 seconds.
Leading up to the totality set at 11:48 a.m., these strangers quickly became friends and we learned they came from all over the country including Rapid City, SD, Fort Collins, CO, St. Petersburg, FL, California, New Mexico and several others. They graciously shared their equipment and knowledge, and we took full advantage of the opportunity. Pops became quite the expert at taking pictures of the eclipse through the telescope lenses.
It was about 20 minutes until totality and there was a noticeable difference in darkness and the temperature began to drop. At 11:38 a.m. we saw a pronghorn buck a few hundred yards away. It began running up and down a fence line and in circles, confused by the phenomena. The temperature continued to drop and the darkness increased. At about 11:40 a.m. I had goosebumps and one of my new friends offered me a jacket. The evening crickets started shortly after that, and the 360 degree horizon started turning violet then purple.
The light during this time was extremely unique and difficult to explain. It was almost like lights in a baseball arena coming from above. The gravel was very light, but the world around was dark. We were observing scattered stray sunlight being blocked by the moon.
A semi-truck passed by and the automatic headlights were on. A noticeable 360 sunset was all around us. The moon shape became a sliver, and the sliver a faint line, and then… it happened.
Yeah, I thought it would be neat, but I had no idea. Totality is truly an out-of-body experience. I was looking at a radiant, black sun. Venus, satellites and other stars were clearly visible, at 11;48 in the morning! It was unlike anything I had ever seen or experienced before… totally eccentric. The two minutes flew by – we cheered, we wow’d, we didn’t want it to end. The difference between 99% and 100% obscuration is literally night and day. Wow!
Here is a video taken from my iPhone for about the first 45 seconds of totality. There are certainly much better videos out there and this does not accurately depict the blackout of the sun, but I appreciate the genuine reactions in the clip.
Right when as the sun peaked back out from behind the moon, an eagle was spotted to the south flying overhead as if it were dawn.
The eclipse climax was over, but the memory did not fade. To celebrate the event, a bag of Sun Chips was passed around and we cheered and chatted. One by one the group packed up and left.
Just as soon as everyone showed up, they were gone. My dad laughed when I thought this was “insane traffic” in northwest Nebraska. All lanes going into Crawford were packed for miles. It truly was the most traffic I had ever seen on Highway 20 and 71. I guess that’s just the norm in Colorado, and I don’t miss it!
When we got home after the eclipse, you would NEVER believe what happened … A comet went through my living room window! That’s right, our new four-legged friend was devastated when we left him at home while running a couple errands and busted right through the screen window.
When all was said and done, the Great American Eclipse surpassed all my expectations. From a tourism perspective, I am pleased with the turnout of visitors to our area (estimated of 20,000 extra visitors), and proud of the hospitality they were shown by our communities. We gave out 10,000 pairs of eclipse glasses free of charge in Dawes and Sioux Counties. That’s about 100 pairs of eclipse glasses for every second of totality. Without a doubt, this was this biggest tourism event in our history!
As a viewer, I now understand the thrill that eclipsers are chasing, and they may have just recruited one more guru. But more than anything, I am tickled that I blacked out in Northwest Nebraska with my dad. There is no doubt it’s a memory we will cherish forever.
If you enjoyed watching the eclipse in northwest Nebraska (Harrison, Agate, Crawford, Marsland, or Chadron) send your story or pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org.
One last bad dad joke to send you on your merry way…
How does the man on the moon cut his hair? Eclipse it.