Isobel McGowan, owner of Shakespeare Chateau Inn & Gardens in St. Joseph, got an email last year from a man in Spain. He wanted to reserve a room 2 1/2 years in advance.
Then another person made a reservation for the same dates — Aug. 20-21, 2017.
Before McGowan knew it, her bed and breakfast had sold out for that Sunday and Monday. She soon found out why: “The Great American Eclipse.”
A total eclipse of the sun is one of the most awe-inspiring events you can see. A jet-black moon blots out the sun, turning daylight to dark. The temperature drops, stars come out, birds fall silent and crickets chirp as a glowing, almost otherworldly sunset paints the horizon an orangey-yellow in all directions.
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And of all the places in all the world — starting at 1:08 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2017 — one is coming straight at us. Kansas City is one of the largest cities in the path of the eclipse. If past eclipses elsewhere are any indication, tens of thousands of visitors will add millions of dollars to the local economy and snarl traffic. And in St. Joseph, smack in the middle of the eclipse’s path, an expert from Astronomy Magazine is planning what he says could be one of the largest science gatherings in history.
“For one day we are going to have a gift from the heavens given to all of us,” said Dan McGlaun of Indiana, a self-described “eclipse nerd” who runs the eclipse2017.org website. “You can’t even believe I would use words like that. But it’s not like a comet or a meteor shower. This is something that grabs you by the throat, makes you weak in the knees and shakes you to your foundation. Even when you’ve seen a lot of these, it’s like a narcotic. You have to have your fix.”
Since the 2017 eclipse will be visible only in the continental United States, that won’t be a problem for us.
“The eclipse community has been salivating over this one for 20 years,” McGlaun said. “You don’t have to go to Mongolia. And if you live in Kansas City (especially north of the Missouri River) you could potentially watch it in your jammies from your deck.”
The last time Kansas City saw a total eclipse this close? 1806. The next time we will get one: 2205.
The darkest part of the moon’s shadow, called the umbra, will move at Mach 2, or more than 1,500 miles per hour, cutting a 70-mile-wide swath from Oregon about 10:15 a.m. to South Carolina at 2:49 p.m. and on out to sea. The so-called “path of totality” will clip the northeastern edge of Kansas and cut across Missouri, bisecting both Kansas City and the St. Louis area.
In this area, the closer you are to St. Joseph, the longer you’ll be in the dark.
For true believers, every second spent “in the path” is precious. In 2013 McGlaun traveled to Kenya for a total eclipse that lasted only 11 seconds.
“You want it to last forever,” he said. “Because it is truly gorgeous.”
The Great American Eclipse will last far longer. St. Joseph, for example, will go dark for 2 minutes and 38 seconds, one of the longest times in the nation. Nearby Plattsburg, Lathrop and Lawson get 8 seconds less. The longest viewing time in the country is 2 minutes, 41 seconds, just south of Carbondale, Ill.
Close, but …
Most of the Kansas City area will only get a partial eclipse. Downtown will see a 99.9 percent eclipse, while Johnson Countians get a 99.4 percent eclipse. When it comes to a historic eclipse, experts warn, close is not close enough.
“Partial eclipses are somewhat interesting, in that with the proper eye protection (which must be used at all times), one can see the moon moving slowly across the face of the sun,” McGlaun writes on his website. “The event is not memorable, not life-changing.”
Put another way: “Just as the person who only smells the meal outside the steakhouse remains hungry, so too do those who observe the eclipse from outside the path end the day wondering what, indeed, all the fuss was about,” McGlaun said.
Trust him. The fuss is entirely justified.
“You can understand all the math, science and physics you want,” he said. “But when you see a total eclipse your brain just sort of shuts down because you can’t process what you’re seeing. The typical reaction is ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ ”
Oh, the glory of that corona when it comes out. It just takes your breath away. I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it.
Jackie Beucher, Astronomical Society of Kansas City
This will be the first total eclipse in the continental United States in 37 years, but that only hit a corner of the country. On Feb. 26, 1979, one passed through the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and parts of Canada. Alaska had its turn in 1990; Hawaii in 1991.
“This is unprecedented for the U.S.” said McGlaun. “The last time a total eclipse path crossed the entire United States like this was in 1918. That started in Oregon, went through Denver, Tulsa and Tallahassee. But in 1918 you didn’t have interstates, cars, infrastructure or the Internet. To compare this with that is ridiculous.”
St. Joe is the place
In 2012 more than 50,000 people visited Queensland, Australia.
“A lot of people are going to stay in Kansas City and drive up to St. Joe,” said Michael Bakich, senior editor and photo editor of Astronomy Magazine. “It’s a terrific economic opportunity for Kansas City.”
For now, St. Joseph is where the action is. Bakich, who ran the planetarium at the Kansas City Museum from 1989 to 1997 and now lives in Milwaukee, is organizing a free eclipse watch party at St. Joe’s Rosecrans Memorial Airport.
“The (middle of the) path runs right across the approach end of our runway,” said airport general manager Abe Forney. “If you’re into astronomy, this is the spot.”
Bakich said the word is starting to get out.
“I’ve already got people coming in from Florida, Texas, Arizona and Wisconsin,” he said. “I’ve done more than a dozen talks about the eclipse. And I am speaking to astronomy clubs, asking them to come down en masse and bring telescopes with solar filters so we can show people the sun in the hour and half-partial phases.”
Bakich is expecting the event to be huge.
“St. Joe will never host a Super Bowl,” he said. “This is their Super Bowl. Because of the size of the venue, this may be the largest science event in history. I figured out the square footage of the airport. We could handle a quarter million people.”
Beth Conway, a spokeswoman for the St. Joseph Convention and Visitors Bureau, isn’t so sure.
“They are not all going to be able to get to Rosecrans Airport,” she said. “The traffic will be insane.”
The city will have other watch sites that will be just as good, she promised.
“And truthfully, if you’re anywhere in St. Joe you will see 2 minutes, 38 seconds of totality,” she said.
Bakich also is hoping to hold a series of talks in Kansas City prior to the eclipse. And he wants to work with a radio station to broadcast his event live throughout the region.
Jackie Beucher, past president and current secretary of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, will join Bakich in St. Joseph. She has led eight trips around the world to see total eclipses and will never forget watching a total eclipse from a Hawaiian beach in 1991.
“It was incredible,” she said. “As it started getting dark, the birds went back to bed. Then the night creatures started making noises. Then wind died down, and the ocean went flat as glass. It was so strange. And then totality happened, and oh, the glory of that corona when it comes out. It just takes your breath away. I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it.”
She’s now working on programs for Powell Observatory in Louisburg, Kan., where the group has a 30-inch telescope.
For now, all anybody is hoping for is clear weather. The odds of that are good. Only once in the last 20 years have we had inclement weather on Aug. 21, experts say.
And what about Isobel McGowan? Has all the excitement persuaded her to go to an eclipse watch party?
“If I can get out my front door,” she joked. “They say St. Joseph is going to be mobbed with hundreds of thousands of people. That’s more than we have in the whole city.”
Protect your eyes
During a total eclipse, as long as the moon totally blocks out the sun it is safe to look. If any part of the sun is still shining, you must use appropriate eye protection. Safe methods include special eclipse glasses and pin-hole projection. Unsafe methods include regular sunglasses, Mylar balloons or food wrappers, smoked glass, X-ray film, film negatives and CDs. Eclipse glasses are available to buy from the Astronomical Society of Kansas City and online.
To learn more
▪ The Astronomical Society of Kansas City will offer public presentations about the eclipse, for a small donation, at 7 p.m. July 2 and Aug. 6 at Powell Observatory in Louisburg, Kan., and at 7 p.m. July 8 and Aug. 19 at the Warkoczewski Observatory at UMKC. For more information on those and other talks, see askc.org
▪ For information on the eclipse in St. Joseph, go to stjosepheclipse.com
▪ Visit eclipse expert Dan McGlaun’s website at eclipse2017.org