Like Pasachoff, many chasers caught the bug during childhood or adolescence. Joe Rao, a meteorologist in Westchester, New York, first saw a total eclipse in 1972, at age 16, after his grandfather announced that his own eclipse viewing in 1925 was the greatest experience of his life. The family piled into Rao’s parents’ beat-up Plymouth Fury and drove 800 miles north to Canada. “You never forget your first kiss, you never forget when you make love for the first time,” Rao says. “And you never forget that first moment when you bask in the shadow of the moon.”
A year after his first eclipse sighting, Rao met Glenn Schneider, also a teenaged eclipse enthusiast, at New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. The two have now been friends for more than 40 years and have seen four eclipses together. Rao analyzes weather maps, while Schneider charts the path of totality and creates flight plans for aircraft looking to get into the eclipse path. Schneider is also an astronomer, but he doesn’t chase eclipses for scientific pursuit, he says: He does it purely for the experience. His first eclipse “completely overwhelmed me,” he says. “I’d read about it for years, but it kind of beats into your soul. When it was over, I was literally shaking. Those three minutes changed my life forever.”
“This is life’s greatest natural special event,” says Noelle Filippenko, an interactive event designer and eclipse chaser who saw her first in 2001 in Zimbabwe (the same eclipse Russo watched from Madagascar). She watched the skies darken—setting off birds calling, gnats buzzing, and water buffalo returning to their homes—with about 130 other people. “You get this hour-long build up before totality,” she says. “It’s kind of like an orgasm, with the pent-up excitement for a long time leading up to it.” She and her husband, Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko, got engaged at the 2005 eclipse in the South Pacific and gave their daughter the middle name Corona.
And it goes like this. Marriages, deaths, births, graduations, continents visited… for chasers, says Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astronomer who’s seen 27 total eclipses, “the major events in your life are all reference-pointed by eclipses.” Espenak met his wife at an eclipse in 1995 in India, when he loaned her a camera tripod; the couple quickly realized they had walked past each other at an eclipse gathering in Quebec almost twenty years before.
Next Monday afternoon, most Americans will be able to see a partial eclipse, but that’s nothing compared to the real deal, chasers say. “You have to get into the path of totality,” says eclipse-chasers.com founder Kramer. “It’s like the eye of God suddenly looks down on you and says, ‘What’s up?'”
“I tell people to see the partial if that’s all you can do,” says Alex Filippenko. “But if there is any way you can make the trip to get into totality, do it.” A partial eclipse doesn’t offer the same atmospheric effects as totality—the changes in temperature, wind, barometric pressure, and the awe-inspiring visuals, like the Baily’s beads effect, when sunlight shoots through the moon’s crater-filled surface, eventually leaving a diamond-like sparkle at one side. This is what usually sets off uncontrollable reactions in viewers: goosebumps, tears, an adrenaline rush, screams or whimpers. “Some people start giggling, others start swearing,” says Kramer. Others get meditatively quiet, says Noelle Filippenko.