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Minnesotans plan travels to middle America for best view of total solar eclipse

A total solar eclipse was visible from the Northern tip of Australia on Nov. 13, 2012 at 3:35 EST. The light halo visible around the edges of the moon is the sun's atmosphere, the corona. Photo courtesy of Romeo Durscher

ROSEVILLE, Minn.—Mark Connolly is chasing shadows.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Connolly, who will be driving from Roseville to Missouri with his wife and three grandchildren to see a solar eclipse Aug. 21.

He will be part of what's expected to be a big migration in U.S. history — as millions of Americans travel to see the shadow of the moon cross the continental U.S.

The last time a solar eclipse could be seen coast-to-coast was 1918, and the next one will be in 2024.

Why would anyone travel just to stand in the dark for less than three minutes?

"Because the hair will stand up on the back of your neck," said Ken Fiscus of Albert Lea, Minn., who has seen two other eclipses. He will be leading a caravan of about 70 eclipse watchers for a one-day round-trip.

"For all the wealthy people in the world who know what the good stuff is," said Fiscus, "this is No. 1 on their bucket list."

The websites of the Minnesota Astronomical Society, NASA and other groups describe why this eclipse will be so watchable.

The total eclipse will travel from Oregon to South Carolina along a 70-mile-wide swath. The partial eclipse will cover a much broader area—with Minnesota, for example, experiencing an 80-percent blockage.

In the total-eclipse areas, the moon slowly starts to block the sun about an hour beforehand. To casual observers, a partial eclipse is no more dramatic than a cloudy day.

What it looks like

But no one can ignore a total eclipse.

As the moon slides into alignment, the sky seems to shudder.

The last rays of sunlight flicker like the wavy patterns at the bottom of a swimming pool. The so-called "shadow bands" are caused by the same effect that makes stars twinkle — the light is bent by the undulating atmosphere.

After a minute or two, the flickering stops — and everyone looks up.

The sun is gone. It is replaced by a phenomenon called the Diamond Ring — a ring of fire with a flare on one side, caused by the sunlight streaming through the mountains of the moon.

Then — in seconds — day becomes night.

The stars and planets pop into sight. Witnesses say they don't feel like they are standing on Earth, but floating in space with the pieces of the universe at arm's length — Earth, sun, moon, planets, stars.

"It's a hole in the sky," said Fiscus.

Then, two minutes and 40 seconds later, it will be over.

As many as 7.4 million Americans will travel to see it, according to GreatAmericanEclipse.com. That doesn't include the 12 million who are already living in the path of the eclipse.

"It is going to be the largest traffic jam the nation has ever seen," said David Falkner of Blaine, who is driving with his son to see their first eclipse.

Minnesotans on the move

Many Minnesotans are going to the nearest location — northern Missouri. Others are going farther, to increase the chances of clear skies.

That's why Clayton Lindsey of Woodbury is driving to Casper, Wyoming. He is the president of the 450-member Minnesota Astronomical Society, traveling with his immediate family to meet up with other family members from Peru. He knows of groups traveling from Japan to see the eclipse.

"This is a great opportunity," Lindsey said.

Total eclipses are rare. They swoop across the planet, usually over oceans. The last one on the continental U.S. was in 1979, seen in Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Washington—and it was mostly spoiled by clouds. Minnesota was bisected by a total eclipse in 1954.

Few people are as dedicated as Fiscus, of Albert Lea. His caravan will be leaving at 1 a.m. for Pawnee City, Neb., and returning that night.

"I told my 75-year-old mom: You are going to go. I didn't give her the option," said Fiscus, who will be riding in a 55-passenger charter bus.

"It's the most beautiful sight in nature. Period. Exclamation point."

To see the eclipse

The solar eclipse of Aug. 21 will start at roughly noon in the Midwest, depending on the location. It will travel across Lincoln, Neb.; Kansas City, Mo., and Nashville. In Minnesota, the sun will be 80 percent blocked by the eclipse. Eclipses should never be directly viewed without protective sunglasses. For information, visit eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov and greatamericaneclipse.com.

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