Keeping true to an eclipse quest, despite the complications

Stephen Berr and his wife, Barbara, were featured in the Times Herald as solar eclipse chasers. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

John Lennon wasn’t thinking of my family’s trip to see the Great American Eclipse of 2017 when he wrote “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” but the sentiment is apropos nonetheless.

Allow me to explain.

My father Stephen Berr is a retired science teacher who has been chasing eclipses for decades. About two years ago, he began organizing a family trip to see the astronomical phenomenon. 

After consulting with experts, my dad decided that the ideal place to see day temporarily turn into the night would be Driggs, Idaho, a town of about 2,000 full-time residents famous for growing the barley used to make Budweiser among other things.  

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A lovely place, it is not easy to get too, which is why my dad arranged a tour bus to pick up the eclipse chasers in Salt Lake City for a four-hour bus trip.

Fast forward to the present. In April, my dad became seriously ill with complications from pneumonia that nearly killed him. He has just released from rehab a week ago. Thank God, he’s okay. Unfortunately, it was no longer feasible for him to participate in the adventure that he had spent so much time planning because of his health problems. However, he took some comfort in knowing that my wife Marci, my son Jacob, and I could enjoy the experience in his place.

Dad’s plans, though, were for naught.

My wife got an alert Friday afternoon on her iPhone that our flight to Chicago was delayed because of the weather, which would make it a huge challenge to make our connection to Salt Lake City. Flights were sold out with eclipse travelers, so rebooking was impossible. We headed to the Philadelphia International Airport hoping the stars would align in our favor.

We checked our baggage, went through security, and bought some sandwiches to eat on the plane. Soon after we got into our seats, the crew announced that the plane would be delayed for a half hour as it awaited its “window of opportunity” ahead of the storm. When we explained our situation to the crew, we were told that Southwest would do its best to help us. Of course, the airline couldn’t offer any guarantees. About 10 or 15 minutes later, the crew announced that there would be further delays and that no one would make their connections. We had no choice but to leave the flight.

Not suprisingly, we were crushed. Marci and I had to comfort Jacob, who was sobbing hysterically. My mom and dad felt awful. My cousins, who were going to Driggs, felt bad for us too. I wondered what to do because hotels throughout the path of total eclipse had been booked solid for months. After doing some research online, we decided to find a place on the path of totality (the scientific name for a total eclipse). Much to my surprise found a room in Clinton, Tennessee, outside of Knoxville.

We figured that a 12-hour car ride was doable, though exhausting. The only hitch to the plan was that we needed to get our luggage. I headed back to the airport Saturday night expecting them to find them on the few flights between Philadelphia and Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, only two out of our three bags were there. My son’s suitcase somehow never made it on the plane.

Dejected, I headed home arriving at 1 a.m. Marci, who was skeptical about the eclipse trip from the start, suggested that we head to the beach instead. I countered that it was still feasible for us to travel to Tennessee, provided that Jacob’s bag comes back early Saturday. We arrived at the airport, hoping for quick and easy pickup. Alas, like everything else associated with this trip, even something as simple as that didn’t go right. My son’s bag was nowhere to be found. He was devastated.

The overworked employee at Southwest’s baggage claim area was helpful and filled out the necessary paperwork to arrange for it to be delivered after it showed up, which it did yesterday. We grabbed some clothes for him with the expectations that we would augment his wardrobe in Tennessee.

It’s one thing to talk about undertaking a major road trip. It’s quite another thing actually to do it. There was bumper-to-bumper traffic in Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley. There were so many cars from New Jersey and Pennsylvania that I felt like I never left home. We arrived in Clinton, Tennessee, at about 12:30 a.m.  My son got up about 7 a.m.  My wife and I are dogged tired.

The next challenge is figuring out where to go to see the big event. Crowds are huge everywhere.

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