There Goes the Sun

We just had a total eclipse of the sun and by we, I mean me. The United States, has had total eclipses before but we (i.e., people within shouting distance of me) haven’t. I actually thought we had but that’s clearly not the case. I have a memory of standing on the school playground watching the image of an eclipse created by a pinhole in a piece of paper. Total eclipses have been visible in the U.S. in 1954, ’63, ’70, and ’79. Two of those are within my school years but both took place in the summer (June ’54, July ’63) when classes would not have been in session. But what really stomps on the idea that I’d previously seen a full sized solar eclipse in person is the fact that the 1954 event was visible only in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and neighboring states. The only states caught by the 1963 eclipse were Alaska and Maine. The best explanation I can come up with for my school playground memory is that some group met at the school specifically for the 1954 eclipse and saw about 79% obscuration. Maybe that’s it or maybe not. My recall sometimes reaches 79% obscuration, too.

Last Monday’s eclipse delivered 100% obscuration to fourteen of the United States and partial obscuration to all of them except Alaska and Hawaii. I could have stayed home and had 90.43% obscuration but I wanted to not see the whole thing. Not all complete obscuration is equal, however. NASA identified two “greatest” points. The self explanatory point of Greatest Duration was in Illinois near the town of Makanda. The point of Greatest Eclipse, which NASA defines as “the instant when the axis of the Moon’s shadow cone passes closest to Earth’s center” was in Kentucky near the town of Hopkinsville where most of the 30,000 plus residents embraced the name “Eclipseville”. Hopkinsville is about 240 miles from my home.

Area motel rooms and campsites sold out months in advance. I visited Hopkinsville about 24 hours before the big event but lodged more than 60 miles away in Owensboro. Food and souvenir vendors lined downtown streets and entertainers performed in areas set aside for the purpose. It wasn’t as jam packed and hectic as I had feared and my understanding is that even on the next day, when it was jam packed, it was not terribly hectic. People came to see something not say something.

My plan for eclipse day was to get somewhat close to Hopkinsville then seek out a parking spot on some back road. The Western Kentucky Parkway was busy but tolerable until it neared the Pennyrile Parkway where traffic tightened up in a way that promised congestion from that point on. I turned north (away from the congestion) on Pennyrile, took the next exit, then followed secondary and tertiary roads south to the path of the eclipse about twenty-five miles away.

It really was kind of ridiculous for me to even try photographing the eclipse. Without even considering the pros at NASA and other organization, thousands of real photographers with much better equipment and infinitely better skills would be recording images that would capture the event for all of us to enjoy. I was here because I wanted to experience a total eclipse not because I needed a photograph. But… I got some anyway. I found a spot at the edge of a corn field about fourteen miles from Hopkinsville. It was far enough from population centers to keep my phone from picking up a signal. That’s why the screen capture is for the town of Trenton some two miles distant. I set up my tripod and mounted my camera on top. I snapped on the hood with a welder’s lens duct taped to it. I put on my googles. I took some pictures and I watched something marvelous unfold.

The first picture at right is the very first picture I took. Things had started happening as I parked the car and aimed the camera. A little bit of the sun was already gone by the time of the first shutter click. The photo of totality at the top of this post is sized to minimize fuzziness and to show some of the black sky. Although it does not show up in the photo, a star (or more likely a planet) was quite visible to the right of the sun and moon. A vision of totality with unfettered fuzziness is here. The second picture is my version of the diamond ring effect that appeared as totality ended. The third picture shows the sun starting to reassert itself. The Greatest Eclipse point was about 12 miles west of Hopkinsville or about 26 miles from where I stood. The duration of totality at that point was 160.1 seconds. The point of Greatest Duration, 90 miles beyond, beat that by 0.1 second. At my spot next to the corn it was 159.7 seconds. To paraphrase a slogan from an event that occurs in Kentucky on a more regular basis, it was “The most exciting two minutes in amateur sky gazing.”

Witnessing the sun’s disappearance, the mid-day darkness, and the drop in temperature was definitely exciting. It was also thought provoking. To some it was spiritual. More than anything, though, it was uniting. For a short period the eclipse was at the center of the actions of a huge number of people and the conversations of even more. And almost all of those conversations were quite friendly. Sure, in Kentucky I heard some grumbling about traffic and comments about “crazy Texans who drove all that way for two minutes” but there was no real anger in the grumbling and chuckles accompanied the Texan comments.

It was way short of a “The Day the Earth Stood Still” moment but there was just a tiny glimmer of that “tiny ball in a big universe” understanding. In the diner where I overheard the comment about “crazy Texans”, I also observed one fellow explaining the positions of earth, moon, and sun during the eclipse to what seemed to be a regular breakfast meeting of a local “Liars Club”. He wasn’t breaking new ground or fighting against doubt. All the old timers at that table understood the basics but were just a little foggy on the details.

A few weeks ago I visited some mounds in eastern Ohio that are believed to have been constructed at least partially to study the movements of the moon. On the day of the eclipse I held a device in my hand that, bad reception in the cornfield aside, was capable of telling me the precise effect that two heavenly bodies were about to have on the exact spot I was standing on. I thought of Arthur C. Clarke’s well known statement about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. It somehow applied but far from perfectly so. I’ve since learned of other lines from other writers that proceeded Clarke’s and may have influenced it. One that seems quite appropriate to me comes from Leigh Brackett’s 1942 The Sorcerer of Rhiannon: “Witchcraft to the ignorant, … simple science to the learned.” Even though, as the latest and loudest news stories often show, plenty of ignorance remains, we really aren’t quite as ignorant as we used to be. I’m guessing that those mounds helped.

There will be another total solar eclipse within range of Cincinnati in 2024 and again in 2045. Those guys in the diner knew about both. There’s a decent chance I’ll be around in 2024 and a very slim but non-zero chance I’ll still be here in 2045. If I am, I hope that someone drags my ancient bones outside and makes sure my chair is facing the right direction.

Competitive Cardboard

New Richmond did it again. On Saturday, folks from near and far were happily “Creating corrugated chaos on the Ohio” at the twenty-fifth Cardboard Boat Regatta. There weren’t quite as many entries as last year but I think last year’s field of 60+ was a record breaker. About five minutes of light rain fell an hour or so ahead of the start but it instantly forgotten and the skies stayed clear for all of the races. That does not mean that competitors stayed dry.

There were twelve heats for the various classes plus the free-for-all “Cardboard Cup” race. Not all of the races started with perfectly formed lines though many did. But cardboard craft clusters were just as likely to form from those perfect lines as from the less perfect ones.

Some of the racing was really serious but many, in fact most, of the competition seemed to involve more creativity than speed.

Construction materials — cardboard, tape, and paint only — remain the same but construction skills have improved considerably and there aren’t a lot of “dissolving” boats anymore. Crews can still end up in the water, however, and that’s when not losing your head is most important.

Posts on previous Cardboard Boat Regattas are here (2010), here (2011), here (2013), here (2015), and here (2016).

Trip Peek #60
Trip #7
49 & Counting

This picture is from my 2002 49 & Counting trip. Unlike other national Corvette caravans that were focused on the Corvette Museum’s 1994 Labor Day opening, the 2003 caravans were focused on the first Corvette production on June 30, 1953. As a sort of warm up for the fiftieth anniversary celebration, a single caravan made up of a Corvette from each model year traveled from Detroit to St. Louis to Bowling Green. I don’t know why I picked a photograph of the 1954 model to represent the trip as a photo of the 1953 model appears right next to it in the journal. I drove to the museum on one day, hung around for another day of festivities then took a scenic route home along the Ohio River through Indiana on the third. The forty-nine cars in the caravan, or Historic Motorama, always traveled in model year sequence leading one of the driversto quip, “The view never changes… unless you’re the ’53.”


Trip Peeks are short articles published when my world is too busy or too boring for a current events piece to be completed in time for the Sunday posting. In addition to a photo thumbnail from a completed road trip, each Peek includes a brief description of that photo plus links to the full sized photo and the associated trip journal.

Open House at Octagon Mound

It’s not really a house and it’s never actually closed but an “open house” is what the Ohio History Connection calls each of the four days a year that tours are conducted and the general public is permitted inside Octagon Mound at Newark, Ohio. On all other days, access is restricted to members and guests of Moundbuilders Country Club who has leased the property since 1910. While that may sound disrespectful or even sacrilegious, the arrangement has provided a degree of protection that not all area mounds have received. Octagon Mound is part of the largest group of geometric mounds in the world. In addition to the octagon and an attached circle, Newark Earthworks once included a larger circle, a square, and an ellipse along with several pairs of long mounds connecting the geometric figures. The ellipse and all but a fragment of the square have been obliterated and covered over by the city of Newark. Just over forty miles to the southwest, a huge circle mound that gave the city of Circleville its name has been destroyed and buried under that city. In comparison, maybe having a few golfers wandering around isn’t so bad.

Last Monday, July 31, was an Open House day with hourly tours starting at noon. I was there in time for the first one but, after listening to the guides pre-tour comments, I stayed behind when the group headed off to enter the enclosure. The group seemed overly large to me and I thought I might do better with a later tour.

Instead I took the opportunity to look at the map the guide had referenced as he spoke then walked to a nearby observation platform. The platform allows the public to peek inside the enclosure even on days when they are not permitted inside. The picture at the top of this post was also taken from the platform. A path that runs part way around the attached circle is also always available to all and I traveled it while awaiting the next tour. A feature of the circle opposite its connection to the octagon stands several feet higher than the circle itself and has been given the name Observatory Mound. The path leads to within sight of Observatory Mound but doesn’t quite reach it. Walking beyond the path is permitted today and I continued on to the raised section.

The second tour contained nearly as many people as the first so I didn’t help myself much by waiting. I did stick with this one, however. As we paused at the opening to the interior, the guide pointed out that the approximately five foot tall mounds were at an almost ideal height for an adult human to use as sighting lines. Of course, as you can see, smaller creatures can sight along them as well if they position themselves properly. Following an overview of where we were and where we were going, the group headed across the big enclosure without fear of being beaned by a golf ball.

In the first picture we are walking between the parallel mounds that connect the octagon to the circle. The arrangement suggests a walkway. Similar pairs of mounds once connected the area around the octagon with other geometric figures in the complex and possibly with points much farther away. In the second picture we are approaching Observatory Mound and in the third most of the group is arrayed on the mound’s side listening to the guide. The purpose of Observatory Mound is one of the many mysteries associated with the structures. It may have actually been built as something of an observatory. The northernmost rising of the moon can be viewed from it through the circle, octagon, and connecting mounds. It looks as if there was once another opening into the circle at Observatory Mound so it might have been built to close the entrance. The truth is that no one knows and likely never will.

The cluster’s only other surviving enclosure, Great Circle Mound, lies roughly a mile from Octagon Mound. It is also owned by the state and it isn’t leased to a country club or anyone else. It can be visited at any time. These photos were taken near the small museum that stands near the entrance to the circle. The entrance can be seen in the second photo. A large ditch runs along the inside of the circular mound. Much of the material making up the mound was taken from the ditch during construction but there is also evidence that the ditch held water once the structure was completed. Why is just another of the complex’s mysteries.

The Newark Earthworks contain no solar alignments but there are a number of lunar alignments. This fact adds to the mystery since predicting the moon’s movements is a tougher job than predicting those of the sun and their role in daily life is much smaller. The picture of lunar alignments was taken inside the museum. The Ancient Ohio Trail website offers excellent information on the Newark Earthworks as well as other Ohio sites.