Bill Kramer felt the tip of a machine gun against his back, forcefully guiding him to the back room of an Indonesian airport. It was 1983, 11 years after he saw his first solar eclipse as a boy, and his wife had come along to see her first one, too. A small telescope in his carry-on bag had alarmed customs officials, and he had no idea how to explain that he’d merely brought it to see the moon perfectly aligning with the sun, shrouding the Earth in a magical sort of darkness.
“I’m sweating bullets, and this guy comes in with this big uniform and says in a perfect American accent, ‘Wow, what a nice telescope,’” Kramer, a 58-year-old retired computer scientist now living in Jamaica, recalled in a Skype interview. “The relief I felt was pretty incredible.”
Kramer is an eclipse chaser, and the officials surveying his bag weren’t the first people Kramer encountered who didn’t quite understand his passion. Chasers often make careers of their voyages to see the sun’s glowing corona, or they’re vigorous planners who book remote trips into the path of totality years ahead of time. And those of us who are “eclipse virgins” — a popular term among the chasers — probably won’t understand the appeal until we see one ourselves, they say. To them, eclipse chasing is a core identity, a lifestyle or – at the very least — travel with a purpose.
“It’s an outlook. It’s a way of life,” Kate Russo, a 44-year-old psychologist currently living in Belfast, Ireland, said via Skype. “We prioritize eclipses in our lives, and we all make sacrifices in other ways so that we can actually spend the money chasing eclipses.”
Russo has seen 10 total solar eclipses over the last 18 years, trekking to places like Turkey, the Faroe Islands, Madagascar and Indonesia. She has conducted research and interviewed both eclipse chasers and first-time viewers, penning their experiences into books. Her latest, Being in the Shadow, was written just for eclipse virgins. She was one herself until 1999, when she watched a total solar eclipse off the French coast — a moment that, at the time, was intended to be only a single checkmark on a bucket list.
“I didn’t anticipate how much it would have an impact on me,” she said. “I knew I had to see another one. It almost felt like you were in a movie set … It was like another world, another planet — it just felt so wrong, so unusual, so beautiful.”
Eclipse chasers make up a tight-knit community that has grown with the advent of the internet. “Back in the days before Facebook and before the internet, you never saw [the others] again until you went to another eclipse,” Kramer said, but now most chat via a mailing list with several hundred subscribers. Together, chasers often discuss dates that are several years in the future — a digitized version of “Billy’s travel planner” in the early 1970s, where, as a boy, he mapped out dates as far ahead as 2025 and even eclipses for his future grandchildren to see.
The next eclipse on chasers’ minds is the Aug. 21, 2017 total solar eclipse that will sweep across the continental U.S. for the first time in nearly 100 years. The last time a total solar eclipse was viewable from the U.S. was 1979.
“It’s a very big deal,” Jay Pasachoff, a field memorial professor of Astronomy at Williams College and author of the Peterson Field Guide to Stars and Planets, said in an interview. “I recently saw some discussion that it is the biggest thing in the United States since the moon landing, and that sounds very reasonable to me. Now that the path of totality is coast to coast and the partial phases are visible through the whole country, there is tremendous excitement.”
Pasachoff, 74, has seen 55 solar eclipses in his lifetime — 23 of which were total solar eclipses — since his first-ever experience aboard a plane with an astronomy professor in 1959. He was a 16-year-old freshman at Harvard University at the time, and he recalls the eclipse being both “beautiful and interesting.”
“Each [eclipse] has its own story and its own history, and this one will have its own story, too,” he said. “There are billions and trillions of stars we can’t see any other way.”
Part of the appeal is seeing something so rare and spectacular as a gargantuan, moon-sized shadow overtaking Earth, creating a false impression of night. Total solar eclipses, viewable only in the narrow path of totality, can even cause a stir in some nocturnal creatures. The corona, our sun’s outer atmosphere, is visible at this time, unveiling a natural phenomenon that has been of human interest since at least 932 BC.
“You have this feeling of zen-like oneness with the universe,” Kramer said. “I can feel the planet moving beneath my feet and the moon above. You can wax poetically all you want about it.”
There is something epic about the way some eclipse chasers describe their experiences. In 2008, Russo uprooted to Mongolia and joined a tour group traveling in Russian vans to see a total solar eclipse. With the desire to withdraw from the group, she and two others climbed a mountain to “see the eclipse in a landscape that was rugged and beautiful.” They thought they were alone, until a family of about 12 people joined them.
“There’s something very uniting about it,” she said. “It’s like when birds flock together to see something amazing. We couldn’t speak the same language, but that did not matter. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. That’s what being an eclipse chaser is all about — you’re part of something much bigger.”
How to be an eclipse chaser
Every chaser started out watching a first total solar eclipse, an allegedly mind-blowing experience for those lucky enough to be within the path of totality, where the Earth will become 10,000 times darker in the last minute. This time around, the path will run through swaths of states like Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina.
“You have to be in totality to see the effect, and just enjoy it for the couple of minutes it lasts,” Pasachoff said. He brings about 200 pieces of equipment to each eclipse, but he also studies them for a living.
“For a first-time person, it’s probably best not to be distracted by cameras and to just savor the experience,” he said.
Though Kramer is more of a hobbyist, he recommends bringing a camera (he uses a Canon PowerShot or a Sony NEX-5N). He recommends more serious photographers use astronomical tripods, which are specifically designed for tracking stars.
“The minimum gear that I would take with me is a set of binoculars,” he said. “I can see a heck of a lot of good stuff with [them].”
Of course, anyone viewing the eclipse — whether a partial or total one — should bring a pair of certified, approved eclipse glasses. The only time a human can look directly at the sun without them on is for the brief minutes of totality, when the sun is completely covered by the moon (otherwise, you risk going blind). Anyone planning on becoming a chaser probably wants to keep their eyesight for the next one, after all.
“It’s a really neat community to be a part of,” Russo said. “We come from all walks of life, and what we have in common is that we just know this experience is something we want to have again and again. After many people see their first eclipse, it just seems to really ignite something within them.”