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Chasing the Shadow: For experienced eclipse buffs, totality can happen much more than "once in a lifetime"

An atlas of upcoming eclipses is open to a page showing all the total and partial eclipses covering the earth from 2000 to 2050
Scott Fybush
An eclipse atlas illustrates the paths of upcoming eclipses through the year 2050

There’s a reason you’ve heard total solar eclipses described as a “once in a lifetime” event, because for most people, they are. At any given point on earth, it can be a century or more before the sun, the moon and the earth all align again to create the shadow that we’ll be experiencing any day now.

But if you're a determined enough traveler and you're fortunate enough to have the time and resources, a total solar eclipse can be a many times in a lifetime experience. Kate Russo has made a career of it, with 13 of them on her resume so far.

The stakes are high. Hotels and flights need to be booked years ahead. Some of the most famous eclipse chasers lead tours, so there's an entire group depending on them. And as we know all too well here, the weather is never certain. When I talked to Russo last October at the national eclipse conference in San Antonio, she had a plan to lead a team of researchers for next week's event.

“We just need to make sure we find a place where we’re good if we need to relocate in the days beforehand. And so not sure where that would be, but it’s likely to be in Texas," she said.

But a few days out from the big event, just as Kate has arrived in Texas from Australia, the forecast now looks like the prairie sky there might be cloudy, while we’re in line for clearer skies up our way. If you're not good with uncertainty, eclipse chasing might not be the hobby for you.

In the eclipse chasers’ Facebook group - yes, that’s a thing - you'll see a few hardy souls already on the road coming our way. A handful have multiple plane tickets. At least one chaser is flying here from Europe and won't even leave the Rochester airport so he can catch his return flight an hour later.

Most chasers don't have that much flexibility, so they’ll be in the same situation my family was in seven years ago in Kentucky: we picked a hotel near - but not in - the line of totality for the night before, then made a decision the morning of the eclipse about where we’d drive for the best weather chances.

People like me are an added stress for transportation planners like Jim Stack at the Genesee Transportation Council. He’s already expecting hundreds of thousands of cars heading our way from New York City and DC, many of them all clogging the same road where eclipse chasers will be repositioning in search of clear skies.

Eclipse day will be a challenge all along I-90, which runs right along the line of totality from Ohio to Central New York and is likely to be one of the busiest roads in the country that day.

If you have to wait until eclipse morning to drive to the best spot, Stack hopes you'll at least get moving early.

“Leave in the morning, leave before lunchtime and get where you're going. Get settled, get established, have a nice comfortable place to sit and be prepared for the elements" he says.

That advice worked for us in 2017. Little Marion, Kentucky was away from the busy interstate traffic but still a pleasant spot to experience totality. And even there,clouds threatened the sun right up until the big moment and settled in not long afterward.

A lot of chasers who were only an hour or two away from us weren’t as fortunate

Let’s face it, we’re already awfully lucky to have totality headed here, no travel required.

“I don’t think anyone from your region should consider going elsewhere," Russo says. "You know, stay home and enjoy it. It’ll be great.”

And if you get hooked on the experience? Maybe you'll find Kate - or me - under the shadow in Spain in 2026, Egypt in 2027, Australia in 2028 and 2030, and so on into the century.

You'll hear Scott in various capacities on WXXI either as a reporter, or hosting Morning Edition or All Things Considered.