by Jim Boyle
Two Elk River High School seniors passed up on their chance to get their Chromebook, school schedule and locker combination for a chance at seeing Monday’s awe-inspiring solar eclipse.
They were among millions of Americans who dropped what they would have been doing on Aug. 21 to find a prime vantage point for the first total eclipse of the sun visible from the contiguous United States since 1979.
What made this celestial spectacle even rarer is it moved on a trajectory exclusive to America — from the West Coast to the East Coast — for the first time since 1918.
Minnesota’s viewing parties were a bust with cloud-covered skies, but 17-year-old Elk River residents Jessica Holmquist and Noah Haaf made their way to Nebraska to give themselves a better vantage point. They did, however, have to worry their trip to Grand Island would have been a bust.
Holmquist decided to a week before and convinced Noah, her boyfriend, to come with her. The high school student with an interest in nature and outdoor photography was an easy ask. Haaf said he and his girlfrend like going for hikes, like on they went on at Gooseberry Falls.
Holmquist’s dad, David Holmquist, came up with the idea to go to Nebraska, but Jessica didn’t jump at the idea.
“He really wanted to do it,” Jessica said. “I was thinking, ‘I have work and cross country, so I can’t do it.’ He kept telling me how cool it would be.”
“But then I kept thinking about it and thinking about it, and decided I might as well.”
A solar eclipse happens when the moon comes between the sun and the earth at just the right moment for a total solar eclipse. The path of totality is only 70 miles wide, but the rest of the country had the potential to see an eclipse.
The Holmquists and Noah headed west first before heading south. They left at noon on Sunday and arrived in Mitchell, S.D., about 7 p.m. to join one of Jessica’s cousins and his wife for the journey to Grand Island.
They stayed in a cute little cabin that had the charm of Nightmare on Elm Street.
“It had the loudest door,” Jessica recalled. “It scared me every time it opened while I was in bed trying to sleep.”
The group left the cabin a 5:30 a.m. under overcast skies, but little was made of the clouds on the ride. They were all in, no matter the weather.
More than four hours later, it was still cloudy.
“It had been cloudy the whole way, but I didn’t want to bring it up,” Jessica said. “It seemed like a sensitive topic.”
By 10:30 a.m. the skies began to clear, and any uneasiness lifted. They arrived at Grand Island at 11 a.m. The initial thinking was they would pick a side of highway to watch from, but they found Ashley Park on the edge of town.
“It seemed like a normal day at the park,” Jessica said. “There were maybe 100 people, but the park was big enough where it wasn’t crowded.”
It was 11:36 a.m. when all that was anticipated began to unfold.
‘Stop talking everyone,’ Jessica said, as she observed the moon move in.
Noah had been snapping pictures but was frustrated when nothing in his viewfinder met his expectations of spectacular.
Then things were getting interesting.
When the sun was eclipsed entirely by the moon and darkness fell, the mood intensified. Darkened skies went black — and then there was brilliance.
“It just happened,” Jessica said. “It was the coolest thing you could ever imagine. It got extremely dark and then it looked like the sun was rising from every direction around us. Some people even lit off fireworks.”
“It lasted all of two minutes,” Jessica said, but the smiles when thinking about it were still wide on Tuesday afternoon when an exhausted pair sat down for an interview.
They had left Grand Island at 2:30 p.m. Monday, and didn’t return to Elk River until nearly 3 a.m. A combination of construction and traffic from the eclipse turned what was normally an eight-hour trip into a 12-hour trip.
Even at midnight, when there was no road construction, the group was in stop-and-go traffic. ‘Are you serious?’ Jessica said aloud to her travel partners.
Jessica and Noah still got up at 6:30 a.m. for a timed four-kilometer run for their cross country team.
They sensed their coach, Mike Niziolek, wanted them at practice on Monday, but he was the one who responded to the Star News request to help find someone or some group that was planning a trip to see the eclipse.
Niziolek said, “It is special when young adults explore and ponder interesting natural events occurring in our world.”