Gayle Riggsbee shrugs off scientific curiosity in explaining his travels across thousands of miles, from the coast of Africa to the Big Island of Hawaii, to see four solar eclipses.
“It’s mostly an adventure, an excuse to go somewhere with your friends,” says the Weddington amateur astronomer. “The Big Island, that would have been an adventure even without the eclipse.”
So would sharing a cruise ship with former astronauts Neil Armstrong and Scott Carpenter and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, as Riggsbee did on the Africa trip in 1973.
But then he matter-of-factly describes the fleeting wonders that appear just before and after the moon covers the sun.
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That’s when a filtered telescope can detect Baily’s beads, made when rays of sunlight skim the mountains and valleys of the moon. And the “diamond ring” of light around the dark moon is set with a single brilliant beam. Visible on light surfaces on Earth are an effect Riggsbee hasn’t seen: the faint, undulating lines of black and white called “shadow bands.”
Then there’s the cosmic coincidence that the moon, which is inching away from Earth over time, happens to be close enough now to just cover the sun, but not its wispy, outer atmosphere, the beautiful corona. Just when humans, a blip in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history, happen to be present to marvel at it.
“Right now, we’re just in really an ideal time,” he says.
Riggsbee’s next journey will be a short one – to Irmo, S.C., near Columbia, for Monday’s total solar eclipse.
The retired machine designer, who’s 85, has built telescopes ever since he stumbled across a book about them in college. He’s the longest-tenured member of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club, which named its observatory in rural South Carolina for him.
It takes two trips to create an eclipse chaser, says Riggsbee’s friend Spencer Rackley IV, the retired computer programmer from Charlotte who booked 30 rooms in Irmo two years ago.
The first trip is typically casual and local, he says. The next one begins a lifelong pursuit.
Rackley, 65, was a science nerd growing up, the kind of kid with a chemistry set and three-inch telescope. On a Saturday morning in 1970, he and a bunch of high school buddies jumped in a car and headed to Florence, S.C., to see their first solar eclipse.
“It was amazing,” Rackley recalls. “The thing that shocked me the most was the shadow coming up. You see the sky just getting darker and darker, and all of a sudden that thing just slams over you. You’re sitting there shocked, essentially, and looking up at the sky and there’s this black hole – the blackest black you’ve ever seen -- with this white corona around it. It just stuns you for a moment.
“The first question out of your mouth when you see a total eclipse is, ‘Where’s the next one and how do I get there?’”
The answer led Rackley to a cruise to Mexico in 1991, to Aruba in 1998 and to Paris in 1999, always finagling ways to pay for the trips. He so pestered radio’s John Boy and Billy, who were giving away trips to Aruba years ago, that he now does a Tuesday morning astronomy segment as “Astronerd” on their Big Show.
“Believe me, someone who has not seen (an eclipse) before will be so struck by one or two things that they’ll miss everything else,” Rackley said. “That’s why people keep coming back. You see the second one, you’re an eclipse chaser.”