Sunset Ring of Fire
Sunday, 20 May 2012
Big Spring State Park, TX
32° 13' 58.4"N - 101° 29' 27.2"W
Animation thanks to Andrew Sinclair
Having missed the 1992 sunset annular eclipse in California (due to the terrible weather forecast), I really wanted to see this eclipse at sunset. Many of my fellow eclipse chaser friends chose locations in Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and were rewarded with absolutely flawless conditions for viewing. Some of their pictures are stunning, and you can find them all over the web!
For me and a few others, though, the lure of a sunset annular eclipse was simply too great. One person I know was bound and determined to film his sunset eclipse in a place called Sundown, TX! Another was stationed in Lubbock, near the centerline. I wanted to be farther south, both for the possibility of seeing Baily’s Beads at sunset, and to try and get a good photograph of either an “arch” or “horns” of sun as the annular phase ended with the sun perfectly bisected by the horizon. I definitely wanted to be within the portion of the path east of where maximum eclipse occurred at sunset. It would take a perfect horizon, as well – no haze or clouds could spoil the view, and I would need that clarity all the way down to the treetops.
I chose the Midland/Odessa
area as the likely place to start the search for suitable sites. I bought a ticket on
Southwest Airlines (where my equipment would fly for free!), so if
the weather looked lousy I could scrap the trip and transfer the
ticket to some other adventure. The hotel was a bit more of a
challenge, though – a local university had chosen eclipse
weekend to hold their graduation, and no hotel rooms under $120
a night were to be had in the entire twin city area. Not
needing anything elaborate in terms of lodging, I therefore
picked the Motel6 in Big Spring (about a 50-mile drive NE),
basically for the sole reason that it was cheap. As it
turned out, that was a very lucky choice! (And not just
because the room had a refrigerator to store my WalMart-acquired
I began watching the weather forecast a week or so before the event, intending to make my travel decision as late as humanly possible. If I were going to be clouded out at my selected location, then I would simply pass on this eclipse and save the funds for the November Total Eclipse or the June Transit of Venus. But if it looked to be a beautiful West Texas day, I was going to chance it for the prize of finally seeing what an eclipse looks like at sunset!
The cloud forecast was on and off basically the entire week. All I could be really sure of was that it wasn’t going to be raining. The eclipse was going to happen on a Sunday night, and my flight was on Saturday. I therefore basically had until Saturday at noon to decide whether to go, and on that Friday and Saturday the cloud cover forecast varied wildly from 10% to 40%. I didn’t care about cloud cover, but about the horizon to my northwest. Still, it looked very touch and go.
On Friday night, I had told my wife I was almost definitely not going (whereupon she immediately made other pans for my weekend), but then on Saturday morning, the prospects cleared up enough that I changed my mind (with suitable negotiating against those alternate plans!). The panhandle was looking poor, but farther south near Midland looked good. And I could always go west into New Mexico (near Hobbs), and still get the sunset effect I was looking for. So, I hastily packed and headed for the airport.
Midland had a beautiful sunset on Saturday
Sunday morning was absolutely perfect. I had ideas about going out to a suitable flat place (pick one – they’re everywhere!) and photographing the sunrise. I actually thought maybe I would have a fighting chance of seeing the moon; after all, it was fully 13 hours till new moon, the moon rose 25 minutes before the sun, and so on a clear morning such as this, it might actually be visible! Well, it wasn’t. I took a whole lot of telephoto pictures anyway, hoping that some creative post-processing might somehow find the elusive crescent. (As of this writing, it hasn’t!) And so, with that experience behind me, and several dozen mosquito bites serving as a souvenir of my efforts, I headed off in search of a place to watch the sunset.
Thanks to some wonderful eclipse simulation software, I had earlier chosen Garden City, TX to be a prime candidate for offering some of the effects I’d wanted to see, and so I set off in that direction (toward the southeast). On the drive down, clouds started to form, and by 9:00am we had a reasonably good overcast going. But the prospects for the day continued to look good, so I was undeterred. I arrived in town, and promptly found the high school football stadium to be open. Some people were washing the school buses, and I let myself into the garage area. One of the men there was very interested in hearing about the eclipse, and offered to take me over to the Superintendent’s house right away, to get permission to set up that evening. He assured me that the area would be open, but it might be nice to let the Super know what was going on. I told him I didn’t want to bother him at home yet, since I hadn’t made a final choice of viewing area, but that if I found something better and didn’t return, he should definitely take the opportunity to have the whole town over to watch the sunset. With such a good viewing area in my back pocket, I headed off to find an even better one.
By 11:00am, it was very nice and clear once
In West Texas, there are lots of farm roads that lead to dirt “pads”, each pad housing an oil derrick. Every one of these is privately owned, and you can’t tell from aerial views which ones have access roads that are locked. Since the drive to each pad is much longer than it looks on the map, and there are numerous dead ends, it’s much more difficult to find a suitable one on the day of the actual event. The few I had picked out on the map during the weeks and months prior to the eclipse turned out not to be usable at all! But I did manage to find a couple that would make good photographing locations, a good location being defined as one with a good, flat horizon, and another derrick set off in the distance to frame the setting sun against. I marked all these, and catalogued their lat/long in order later that afternoon to use mobile phone software to visualize the eclipse phenomena that would be seen during sunset. I had a few good sites to choose from, and the weather was still looking good.
I took a break from location scouting to drive south of Odessa to what is billed to be the 6th largest meteor crater in the world. It was a bit unimpressive, though certainly large enough. And even though I could imagine that quite a few people might perhaps have wanted to stop by and pay a visit on this eclipse day, the museum and office were keeping their normal 1:00-5:00 Sunday hours – and were therefore closed! I walked around and dutifully obeyed the signs warning me not to collect any rocks. After this side trip, I sat in the comfort of my air-conditioned rental car and decided what to do next. By this time, it was about noon, and I still had 7 hours to position myself in the chosen observation spot. I collected all my stuff, and did a quick think-through of the evening’s upcoming observing session plans.
Sometimes, we amaze ourselves by performing the most forgetful and absent-minded acts. As I advance in age, I find this happening more and more often to me, but today I pulled the absent-minded act to end them all. Expecting this eclipse to be at sunset, I had knowingly left solar filters for my camera lenses at home. Yes, I’d brought along the filters for the big mirror lenses, but not for the small lenses with which I’d take medium and wide shots. But where were my solar viewing glasses? I knew I’d brought a bunch, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. Surely they couldn’t be…
…back at the hotel, still packed in my suitcase is where they were. Yes, I’d forgotten them that morning, and had to make an unscheduled 50-mile jaunt back to the room to retrieve them. Sigh. Well, as it turns out, it truly is sometimes better to be lucky than good. If I hadn’t chosen Big Spring because of the lack of availability of cheap lodging in Midland – and then, if I hadn’t left my eclipse glasses in my room in my rush to head out that morning, then I might never have been headed back into Big Spring at about 1:30pm. And I would never have found what I found.
A bad omen befell me on the start of the drive back to Big Spring. A large crow decided to dive bomb my car, and very seriously miscalculated my speed (about 68 in a 70). He didn’t get out of the way, and I saw him only a split second before he impacted the upper part of the windshield directly in front of my face. Thud… It was a very bad day for him, as I observed in the rear-view mirror that the huge impact had blasted him so high into the sky that it was a full two-and-a-half seconds before his body returned to earth in a flailing ball of feathers. I made my peace with him, and thought of how much of a murderer my young daughter would think me to be.
As I entered the town, something on the GPS caught my eye – a State Park. Big Spring State Park. Normally, I find State Parks interesting, but I generally never consider them in conjunction with eclipse chasing. But on this day, I had a couple of hours to kill, and I thought I might as well check out the park, just to see what was there. Entering the park, I noticed nothing but lots of trees and winding roads. And I’d especially noticed all the signs that advised how the park closed at sunset. There was even one sign giving the time of sunset – making me believe that they were serious about kicking people out. “Nothing here, folks. Nothing at all to see.” And as I climbed a big hill, there was certainly no place at all to watch an ecl–
The sign had an arrow pointing to a “Scenic
caught my attention, because an overlook might mean a nice
horizon. It might
mean a nice sunset. I
wondered aloud what scenery this Scenic Overlook might overlook. And as I drove up to it,
I just about became part of the scenery, as the view temporarily
froze the part of my brain that had been tasked with ordering my
foot to locate and depress the brake pedal.
As I surveyed the horizon to locate the spot where the sun would set, a young couple drove up beside me. I asked them if they came here often (they did), and did the park officials really close the place down at sunset (they did). I told the two of the impending eclipse, and they seemed very excited about it. But it would all be for naught if I got all set up in this most perfect of sunset viewing locations, only to be rousted to the exit at the most crucial time. I would need to get permission to hang around just a bit after sunset, and I was determined to do just that.
A few hundred yards down the road was the park office, and just beyond that, a “residence”. Before bothering someone at home, I thought I’d bother them at work first, and so I headed to the office. It was a nice old stone building with a little enclosed patio, but was definitely boarded up for the day. A sign I managed to find gave some relevant phone numbers, and I called the Park Manager’s house. No answer. I called his cell phone, and was about to hang up when he finally answered. I made my case, and long story short, not only did I get permission to observe, but he was pretty certain he’d be up there that evening with anyone who planned to be there! He had actually thought that the eclipse was the day before, but I convinced him otherwise, and thanked him profusely for the closing-time concession.
I went back to the hotel and retrieved my solar viewing glasses very leisurely – now that the pressure was off to find a spot! It was going to be a perfect evening – so long as the weather held out.
You see, over the course of the early afternoon, some puffy cumulus clouds had decided to head in from the SE. To my north, folks who had selected Lubbock as their viewing spot were bailing in droves, and generally heading west into New Mexico. The cold front that was moving through Oklahoma had a tail hanging off it that had brought dismally overcast skies to the Panhandle, and it didn’t look like there was any chance of dissipation before the main event. In my location, we had a very stiff breeze coming out of the SE, and that was keeping the evil stuff well to the north. However, it was pulling all those puffy clouds in from that southeasterly direction. Watching the satellite images and doing a little calculating, I held out lots of hope that a window in the clouds that I saw would be on my northwestern horizon at about sunset. If not, it didn’t matter – this was the spot I was going to observe from!
As I set my cameras up, and scouted around for the perfect viewing spot, a van with two couples (my age) pulled up. Turns out these folks had had the same idea I had, and they setup a picnic lunch and talked about eclipses with me. I gave them a couple pairs of glasses, since they only had a welder’s glass that I didn’t think was dark enough. Over the next couple of hours, many people came up, some bringing their kids with them – and all of them eager to talk about what they were about to see. There were some people there who had come for other reasons. I tried to talk all of them into staying for sunset, but I have a feeling many didn’t. It was tough even to describe to the people who were there for the eclipse what kind of experience they were in for!
Long story short, we had a great eclipse. The clouds broke up with about an hour to first contact (which I called at precisely 7:34pm). There were some cloud layers that parts of the eclipsed sun had to peek through, but no haze at all, all the way to the ground. We got the full deal, with a good third contact and a bona fide arch during sunset! I treated myself to a Whataburger afterward, and got up very early the next morning to catch the plane home.There will not be an easy opportunity for a sunrise/sunset annular eclipse anytime soon. Partials, yes, but annulars no. The 2013 Annular in Western Australia might be a possibility, as would June 2021 in northern Minnesota.
© 2012 Dan McGlaun