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The day the prairie went dark

Maybe the chants of “Go away clouds!” did the trick.

Or maybe it was just luck, but most in attendance at Homestead National Monument of America on Monday didn’t care.

One way or the other, the sky was mostly clear as the solar eclipse cast a shadow on the thousands of spectators cheering for darkness.

It was touch and go for a while, though. Cloud cover moved in and out during the 15 minutes before total darkness at around 1 p.m., and there were some rain showers during the day.

But through some stubborn lingering clouds, a ring of fire was visible in the sky, filled with the dark circle of the moon.

The skies could have been clearer for the 2 ½ minutes of totality, but you’d never know that from looking at the smiling faces beneath the protective eclipse glasses.

“I was hopeful we would see it, and we saw it at the right time,” said Homestead Park Superintendent Mark Engler. “I think everybody is having a good time and people were in awe. It was fun to see the crowd roar, and there was a roar, when it happened and we were in totality. I think the lights reflecting off the clouds was really spectacular. We would have rather had it clear, but it was still pretty cool.”

Engler declined to estimate just how many people saw the eclipse from Homestead, but said the attendance was significant.

The bus system to transport visitors to the Homestead from Beatrice had been running at capacity since it began Monday morning.

“We see our transportation systems operating at capacity,” Engler said. “The minute that we rolled into action at 6 a.m. the system was already at capacity and then our second wave of buses came on at 7 and that was our final wave. It’s been operating at full capacity ever since. Some people are finding their ways of walking into the monument, so I expect it to really be a record-setting day for the number of people who are in the monument.

“I think it’s pretty cool that while people may be wishing those lines would go a little faster at the bus stops and all, they’re being very cooperative, and for the most part, think this is part of the excitement of the whole event of totality.”

By mid-morning, a Beatrice Fire and Rescue worker said there were 1,200 people in line at the Gage County Fairgrounds for the shuttle service to Homestead.

By about 10 a.m., the overwhelming demand prompted the Homestead to announce a recommendation that visitors consider a different viewing site due to the traffic going to Homestead.

Jeff Olson, with the National Park Service office of communications, said the Park Service was eager to get involved in the eclipse and has been outlining activities for the weekend over a two-year period.

“The eclipse is a big deal to me and a lot of you,” he said. “A lot of people are here visiting. The National Park Service has been working for almost two years in the run up to the eclipse. Homestead is one of about two or three big parties that we’re throwing along the path of totality. There are actually 21 parks in the National Park System that are in the path of totality and seven national park trails.”

Engler said the years of planning paid off as visitors from around the world traveled to Gage County to witness the event, which was more than the eclipse. There were also several NASA officials who gave presentations, cast members of the “Ready Jet Go!” children’s TV series and Bill Nye “They Science Guy” participated in a variety of events.

“I think that the overall program is one that’s very family-friendly,” he said. “I think it’s going to leave a positive impression on folks. I hope that everybody has patience with the transportation systems. There have been a few times when we wish we could have done better, maybe were able to hold more individuals. I think overall, for the most part, people are OK with it and think it’s all part of the experience.”

Alaskan couple ties the knot under the eclipse

The planning was the easy part, but actually getting married proved to be a little more difficult.

Sarah Bollwitt and Morgan Jones got married during the total solar eclipse on Monday in Beatrice, but the path to their wedding day took them thousands of miles from home and several venue changes.

Bollwitt and Jones knew they wanted to get married during the total solar eclipse, the only problem was, the eclipse wouldn’t reach them where they live in Homer, Alaska.

Bollwitt, a native of Seward, wanted to come back to Nebraska to get married. They could have done it at her parents’ house in Seward, but Beatrice had a full minute more of eclipse totality.

Her best friend in high school, Suzanne Clabaugh and her husband Nate, offered their home in Beatrice for them to get married, which the couple accepted.

The two took a plane from Homer with their daughter, Sidney, and were off to Nebraska.

Their plane was delayed for 18 hours in Anchorage, but luckily, Jones said, they had some friends and family they could stay with.

“Sounds worse than it was,” he said.

They arrived in Nebraska on Aug. 17, Bollwitt’s 35th birthday, and headed to Seward where her mother had a wedding reception all planned out. After a hamburger feed this past Friday and a rehearsal dinner on Saturday, they were going to have a small get-together for their reception on Sunday.

Sunday, had other plans. The Big Blue River began to flood in Seward. They moved the tables and lighting to a nearby park, but the roads to the park were quickly closed, also due to flooding.

That’s when they moved it to Bollwitt’s parents’ home. It was lovely, her mother Sue Bollwitt said, but then they received more bad news. Seward lost all water pressure on Sunday afternoon.

“No water, no flushing,” Sue said. “Suddenly, two Port-a-Potties arrived and saved the day. Not only that, but suddenly we felt like we were kings in our palace. We had water, ice and port-a-johns. What a wonderful thing.”

They had the reception and headed off to Beatrice on Monday morning, though Sue began feeling unwell and had to go to the emergency room along the way, she said, thinking she might be having a heart attack.

“I got checked out, I'm good to go,” Sue said. “That was part of the travel on down here. We still made it down here with time to spare. It is meant to be.”

They made it to Beatrice and their friend, Irene Williams, officiated the ceremony. It was William’s second wedding, but it went much better than her first one, she said.

The sky was cloudy, but through eclipse glasses, guests could still make out the moon’s shadow. At the last moment, the clouds began to part and what looked like a diamond ring shone brightly before the halo around the sun appeared and the sky plunged into darkness.

The guests cheered.

It was a difficult journey to get to their wedding day, but they had done it, Jones said, and it was a pretty amazing experience.

“The clouds were in, but we still saw the corona and Venus came out for a minute,” He said, holding Sidney in his arms. “It was one of the coolest things that I've ever seen.”

Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ draws crowd

Thousands of visitors gathered at Homestead National Monument on Monday to witness the total solar eclipse.

One of those people generated more attention than most.

If you saw a crowd of people huddled close, with cell phones in hand ready to capture the perfect selfie, chances were Bill Nye "the Science Guy" was at the center of it.

Nye is the head of the Planetary Society and hosted a children’s show in the 1990s.

Nye, who previously hosted a presentation at Homestead in 2012, demonstrated throughout the morning on Monday how to properly view the eclipse. Methods included the preferred eclipse glasses, which many people brought, to the less conventional homemade viewers constructed of cardboard.

He described to the crowds just how rare solar eclipses are, and said for many it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“It really is a spectacular thing,” he said. “It depends on what you call the next time, but this eclipse where you go from Pacific Ocean to Atlantic Ocean, on estimate, is every 375 years. It’s probably the only one you’ll see unless some extraordinary advances are made in medicine.”

Nye has witnessed three other eclipses in his life, two partials and one total. He said the other total solar eclipse he witnessed occurred while he was in a jungle, where the landscape didn’t offer quite the same opportunity that Beatrice did. He said the flat area, with no hills to block the view, provided an optimal location.

He added the overwhelming interest in the eclipse across the nation and world highlights people’s natural curiosity and fascination with science. And while interest in science and spending for it fluctuates, Nye described it as a pendulum that will swing back around.

“When you say ‘Couldn’t we be spending that money somewhere else?’ Well, yeah,” he said. “But the fraction that we spend exploring space is tiny. If you stop exploring, it means you stopped being curious.”

Nye also said the economic impact would be clear and highlighted revolutionary changes brought forth by science, even here in Nebraska.

“The technology of agriculture has advanced so much just in my lifetime,” Nye said. “We grow so much more food. Just the corn stalks are so much closer together than when I was a kid because we developed these species of corn that grow that successfully, let alone genetically modifying the corn to resist pests.”

Nye stressed that science brings out the best in people and that when we explore the cosmos, we learn more about humanity’s place among the stars, while also advancing technology and academic achievements.

“It’s very reasonable that we will discover evidence of life on another world,” he said. “We might even find something still alive on Mars, or Europa, the moon of Jupiter with twice as much sea water as earth. In the same way that an eclipse is a profound thing - I claim that when you see a total eclipse, you’ll never forget it - if we discover life elsewhere, it would change human history.”