A Texas-Size Taste of Next Year’s Blockbuster Solar Eclipse

The Texas sun seemed too bossy to let the moon step on its spotlight.

The skies did not fully cede to darkness as I watched the annular eclipse in the Hill Country town of Bandera on Saturday, but instead had just a slight slate blue tone. And rather than the usual chill that comes with totality, the air retained a certain warmth.

Distracted by the warped shadows cast by leaves, I was oblivious for a moment to what was happening above until a cheer from the crowd outside the Bandera Natural History Museum prompted me to look up — safely bespectacled with protective eyewear, of course. And there I saw the moon nestled within the sun, a black disk surrounded by the slim, symmetrical ring of light that defines an annular eclipse. It was enchanting, but somehow I still felt myself wanting more.

An obstinate sun was not to blame for the letdown, according to Joseph Rao, an associate and guest lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and a longtime umbraphile — or eclipse chaser. That overabundance of light was a result of a moon being at its farthest point from Earth and thus too far from us to fully blot out the sun.

The moon covered all but a thin ring of the sun during the annular solar eclipse on Saturday in Texas.Credit…Brandon Bell/Getty Images
The 2017 total solar eclipse seen from Madras, Ore. Next year’s total eclipse, on April 8, promises to be as dramatic and will cross 13 states from Texas to Maine.Credit…Aubrey Gemignani/NASA

Mr. Rao caught the eclipse bug in 1963 as a child in the Bronx, when he witnessed his first partial eclipse. He has since seen 13 total eclipses from land, sea and air, and has little patience for the annular variety: As far as he is concerned, annular eclipses are “no more than glorified partial eclipses of the sun,” he said in an interview on Monday.

“There’s no comparison between what you saw on Saturday and what you’re going to see next April,” Mr. Rao said, referring to the total solar eclipse that will sweep across North America on April 8. “In the case of a total eclipse, the solar system grabs you by the neck and says, ‘Look at this.’”

‘Time kind of stopped’

In the United States, the path of next year’s total eclipse will run from Texas to Maine, hitting 11 other states along the way, including Arkansas, Indiana and New York. What makes Texas Hill Country unique — and what brought me to Bandera — is that it lies within the paths of both eclipses, a rare distinction.

The watch party on Saturday at the museum drew about 160 people, many with kids. But if the crowds who flocked to the Great American Eclipse in 2017 are any indication, in April, places like Bandera are going to be packed with visitors seeking a taste of the timeless magic that only happens when things get dark, and a little spooky.

After experiencing the 2017 total eclipse, Hon Walker, a content writer from Portland, Ore., knew he needed to see one again. “When it got dark, time kind of stopped for a couple of minutes, and I felt like I could see the actual clockwork of our cosmos,” he said. “I was with a crowd of strangers in a chilly Idaho field, and nobody could say anything except ‘Oh my God.’”

Knox Worde, president of the Astronomy Club of Asheville in North Carolina, described his experience in 2017 as spectacular and humbling. “It’s an unusual darkness,” he said. “You can see the stars pop out.”

Mr. Rao said that a few factors will make April’s total eclipse “extra special”: The moon will be near its closest point to Earth, so the shadow it casts will be, on average, 123 miles wide, about 50 miles larger than that of the 2017 eclipse. In several locations, the totality will be up to 4 minutes 30 seconds, whereas in most eclipses, totalities last an average of only one or two minutes.

Eclipse watchers in Austin, Texas, on Saturday. The event gave towns in nearby Hill Country, which is also in the path of April’s total eclipse, a chance to practice for the big show next spring.Credit…Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

“A minute or two before totality you’re still in sunshine and daylight, and all of a sudden within 30 seconds you’re going from that to darkness,” Mr. Rao said.

‘Now is the time to start booking’

The Texas twofer has had tourism officials in the Hill Country, a region famous for its birds, wildflowers and towns like German-themed Fredericksburg, making big plans.

“The likelihood of this sort of event occurring is extremely rare,” said Dawn Davies, the night sky program manager with the Hill Country Alliance. An amateur astronomer and a NASA eclipse ambassador, Ms. Davies is leading the alliance’s efforts to organize and support eclipse events in the area. Though Saturday provided a test run, she said, the group has also been relying on the experiences of towns and cities along the Oregon-to-South Carolina path of the 2017 eclipse, which “really snuck up on a lot of folks.”

Patricia Moore, the executive director of the Bandera County Convention and Visitors Bureau, barely waited till the moment of annularity had passed on Saturday to tell me, “Now is the time to start booking” accommodations for April. At the nearby Best Western, rooms for that eclipse are going for about $1,100 a night, Ms. Moore said.

In Bandera, the self-proclaimed Cowboy Capital of the World, this eclipse came with wagon rides, Old West shootout re-enactments and one outrageously long-horned bull named Redneck. In addition to the watch party at the natural history museum — where replicas of prehistoric creatures loom outside and an impressive collection of New Spain artwork is on display within — there were other events all over town. For the total eclipse, more celebrations will most likely be added, and all of them will be larger and spread out over at least three days, since April 8 falls on a Monday.

A little over an hour away in the small town of Junction, Macy Brooks, the organizer of the Texclipse Music Festival, is also planning to go bigger in April. Her event, which on Friday and Saturday offered music, a chili cook-off, roping, and songwriting, salsa and margarita competitions, will run again from April 6 to 8. Ms. Brooks wants to expand by luring more-famous music groups to the festival, adding activities like bull riding and offering a camping site with a shuttle bus. She will also be hosting Elope at the Eclipse: For a $100 fee, which does not include the marriage license, couples attending the festival can tie the knot with an ordained minister and a photographer on site.

Josh White, an owner of Arrowhead Creek, a vineyard in Stonewall, is planning for a relatively quiet event at his winery in April. Depending on staffing, it will offer 250 spots, first to its wine club members and then to the public.

“We don’t want it to be crammed, though we can probably fit about 1,000 people on this property,” Mr. White said.

He also hopes to set up yurts in a cozy, wooded nook along the Pedernales River on the winery’s grounds, but to make all that happen, he may need to procure portable toilets all the way from Oklahoma. “It’s going to be wild,” he said. “There’s been town hall meetings where they’re talking about a potential for no fuel, because this is a small town and there’s a potential for tens of thousands of people” to show up.

Other wineries in the area, such as Meierstone Vineyards and Grapetown Vineyard & Farm, are already offering reservations for camping spots, as are places like Cave Without a Name, a cavern in Boerne. Ms. Davies, of the Hill Country Alliance, said that the state parks would start opening up their campsite reservations at the beginning of November. If you opt for a more rural location, “you may want to have cash on hand — or checks,” Ms. Moore advised, in case an overtaxed internet infrastructure affects the ability to use credit cards.

A resident of Kerrville watched the annular solar eclipse from his backyard on Saturday.Credit…Brandon Bell/Getty Images

If the allure of snagging a front-row seat to a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event isn’t enough to outweigh any potential hiccups or hardships, there are more perks to being in Texas in April: “It’s peak bird migration, and it’s bluebonnet season,” Ms. Davies said.

‘You will get hooked’

Mr. Worde, of the Astronomy Club of Asheville, is heading to West Texas in April. He will set up his equipment — four telescopes, one with an eyepiece and three others outfitted with cameras and mounts that track the sun — at a family ranch there. Mr. Walker, the eclipse chaser from Portland, will head to the Hill Country city of Kerrville, which on Saturday hosted a festival and a NASA broadcast booth at a local park. Both the festival and NASA will return in April.

Mr. Walker partly chose Kerrville because he wants to get as close as possible to the eclipse path’s centerline for the best view. On the edges of the eclipse’s path, “you start to lose a lot in terms of the number of seconds of totality,” Mr. Rao, of the Hayden Planetarium, said.

To experience that breathtaking moment of totality, try to stay mobile, Mr. Rao advised, because the skies could unexpectedly get cloudy. That means eclipse travelers might want to reserve rental cars soon, before they sell out or get too expensive.

“Make sure you can move around and go a few hundred miles in any direction of the totality path so that you can get that clear view of the eclipse,” Mr. Rao said. Hedging his bets, he has booked refundable hotel rooms in Dallas; Little Rock, Ark.; and Syracuse and Plattsburgh, N.Y. Ten days before the eclipse, he will use choose the location with the most promising weather conditions and, he said, “hope that I’m right.”

If you’re able to make it, the consensus among eclipse chasers is to go witness the event, wherever you can. There will be other eclipses around the planet, but the next opportunity this good won’t come to the United States until August 2045.

“People say, ‘Should I spend X number of dollars to go see an event that’s only going to last three or four minutes? Should I go through all the trouble of traveling and spending for a hotel and a rental car? Should I do all of that?’ Yes! Because you will remember that event for the rest of your life,” Mr. Rao said. “You will not only remember it for the rest of your life, but you will get hooked. This is a bucket-list event.”

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