Michelle Nichols speaks with such passion and poetry about the moon passing in front of the sun that she can inspire someone with even the smallest sliver of astronomical knowledge (such as this travel writer) to begin planning a trip to see the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21.
"It looks like a hole in the sky. In the middle of the day, the sky goes dark and you can see stars and planets," says Nichols, who is director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. "I've seen one total solar eclipse, which was mind-blowing."
The August eclipse is especially exciting for people in the United States because this country will be the only place where something called the "path of totality" can be seen. That's where the moon will completely cover the sun, casting the land in darkness. That path is within a day's driving distance for millions of people.
The path of totality will pass over 14 states, starting in the morning on the coast of Oregon, near Newport, at 10:15 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, with the shadow leaving American soil via McClellanville, South Carolina, at 2:49 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time. In between, it will cross cities in Oregon, Idaho, a sliver of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, a sliver of Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Darkness will last anywhere from a few seconds to two minutes 41 seconds, depending on the location.
While eclipses are fairly common -- they happen about once a year, sometimes more -- they're often in remote areas or over water. This will be the first total solar eclipse that has been visible in the continental United States since 1979, and it's the first to cross the country coast to coast in 99 years. Throughout the country, universities, parks, farms, museums, hotels and other venues are hosting festivals and viewing parties to celebrate the phenomenon.
Nichols will be traveling with a team from the Adler Planetarium about 330 miles south of Chicago to Carbondale, Illinois, which is located in the path of totality. She ticks off the things she's excited to see, such as getting a glimpse of the wispy outer atmosphere of the sun, called the corona.
"This is the jewel of a total solar eclipse and the only time on Earth that the corona can be seen with the naked eye," Nichols says. (Outside of the path of totality, a partial eclipse will be visible, and it will be too bright to see the corona; it will appear more like an ordinary day. You can watch the total solar eclipse on NASA's website.)
And then there are the animals. It will be the first total solar eclipse Nichols has seen from the land -- she watched the eclipse of Aug. 11, 1999, from a ship in the Black Sea -- and she says that she's curious what will happen.
"Animals think it's time to go to bed. So cows might start walking toward the barn because they think it's nighttime. And birds might go to roost because they think it's nighttime. And crickets might start chirping because they think it's nighttime," she says.
It's a reminder of the interconnectedness of the universe.
"Something in space is literally directly affecting stuff here on Earth. That's the most amazing part to me," Nichols says.
Wherever you are, Nichols cautions, never look directly at the sun unless you are within the path of totality and it is completely covered by the moon. She recommends purchasing a pair of eclipse glasses made by one of four companies: Lunt Solar Systems, Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics and Thousand Oaks Optical.
Some people have been planning for this eclipse since 1979, Nichols says. City officials in the path of totality anticipate heavy traffic and many hotels across the country have been long sold out. (Camping may not be a bad idea.) Still, she encourages people to find a way to see the sky show.
If you can't make it, cheer up: There's another total solar eclipse coming on April 8, 2024, which will travel the country from southwest to the northeast.
Ready to chase the eclipse? Here are highlights of what's happening around the country within the path of totality:
• Camping spots are still available (five days, $150-$3,500) in Madras, Oregon, for Solarfest (oregonsolarfest.com/), a music and camping celebration that's operating in partnership with NASA for premier eclipse viewing.
• Open spaces and parkland in Wyoming are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors. In Casper, where elevation is 5,000 feet, viewing parties will go on across town, from the fairgrounds and area churches to a distillery -- Backwater Distilling, which is planning distillery tours, live music, food and cocktails (eclipsecasper.com/festival). In Jackson Hole, the nonprofit organization Wyoming Stargazing is hosting two pre-eclipse mountain parties that include a chairlift ride, presentations from astronomy experts, mingling with retired astronaut Scott Altman, refreshments and stargazing through telescopes (tickets cost $375, wyomingstargazing.org/2017-solar-eclipse/).
• On the day of the eclipse, Spring Creek Ranch is hosting a party in partnership with Wyoming Stargazing, which will include brunch, cocktails, eclipse glasses, and talks and interpretations by experts ($175 per person, springcreekranch.com/activities/solar-eclipse/; condos are still available at the property starting at $1,600 a night).
• In Weston, Missouri, a farm festival is the place to be. Green Dirt Farm and chef Howard Hanna of the Rieger restaurant in Kansas City will co-host an all-day, adults-only festival, cleverly named "Black Sheep in the Shadow -- a Total Eclipse of the Farm," which will include food (roasted pig and lamb), live music and "freakshow-style" performances. ($85, greendirtfarm.com/event/eclipse/).
Rooms are still available at the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center, where guests can also view the sky from the event space on the 42nd floor (rates start at $221 per night, sheratonkansascityhotel.com/). Columbia, Missouri, will be celebrating the darkness with the "Show Me Totality" party including food and music festivals, a run, a golf tournament, a bicycle ride, a concert and viewing parties at multiple locations (comoeclipse.com/).
• In Carbondale, Illinois, a festival art and craft fair, eclipse comic-con and more are in the works. And a team from Chicago's Adler Planetarium will be on-site to answer questions and lead events. NASA will be streaming a live feed and the public is invited to Saluki Stadium, where Matt Kaplan of Planetary Radio will act as a guide for the main event (tickets cost $25, carbondaleeclipse.com/).
• Nashville is the largest city that will see total darkness, and eclipse chasers can attend the Music City Eclipse Science & Technology Fest at the Adventure Science Center, the Italian Lights Fest at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, and viewing parties around town -- including one at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere (visitmusiccity.com/eclipse). Hotels, such as Union Station Hotel Nashville, are offering themed packages, including a viewing party where Moon Pies and Astronaut Ice Cream will be served ($471.28 per night) or guests can upgrade to a suite and have access to a local astronomer and a telescope ($821.17 per night). See unionstationhotelnashville.com/nashville-hotel-specials/great-american-eclipse-package/.
• As its grand finale, the path of totality will cross South Carolina. In Columbia, the South Carolina State Museum will host a weekend-long celebration with eclipse and astronomy activities, talks and expert appearances (scmuseum.org/eclipse/), and nearly 100 events are planned in and around Charleston, including a family-friendly viewing party at the Bend on the Ashley River featuring live music, STEM activities (a robotics demonstration, paper airplane building), astronomers on site and a live feed of NASA launching high-altitude balloons in Charleston (thebendcharleston.com/). There are also events at museums ("Eclipse on a Warship" at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum) and yoga gatherings (SunShadow Yoga at Mount Pleasant Pier), and hotels with remaining rooms are offering eclipse packages -- visit charlestoncvb.com/eclipse/.
To learn more about the eclipse and events surrounding it, visit NASA's eclipse page at eclipse2017.nasa.gov/.