It was an epic journey — one he had anticipated for almost 40 years. The framework of the trip was carefully planned, but there was more to the experience than he could have predicted.
Larry Berz, planetarium director for the Francis Malcolm Institute in Easton and astronomy instructor at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, knew where he wanted to be on Aug. 21 to view the Great American Eclipse of 2017. He studied the path of totality and selected Alliance, Nebraska.
Little did he know that he would leave the remote Nebraska town as a local celebrity.
A loyal member of the Limestone Rotary Club, Berz contacted the Rotary Club in Alliance and found a host for his visit. From Aug. 17 to Aug. 25, he was the guest of Steve Brittan, who, with his brother, owns an insurance agency in Alliance.
“He was the perfect host,” Berz said. Brittan drove five hours from Alliance to meet Berz’s plane in Denver. The return trip through the Sandhills of Nebraska was astronomical in its own way.
“Imagine the moon with grass,” Berz exclaimed. “Western Nebraska is expansive. Life is expansive.”
When the lights of Alliance came into view, the car was still 50 to 75 miles away from the town.
“It was a remarkable journey,” he said, describing the landscape as an “ocean of land” that could go on forever. “I went for an outer space experience and found the inner-space terrestrial experience very moving.”
Berz spent days acquainting himself with Alliance, a city similar to Presque Isle in size, with the residential flavor of Fort Fairfield. He and Brittan made daily trips to the Dairy Queen where the waitress fixed her eyes on him and said, “You have an uncanny resemblance to Albert Einstein.”
He said people were terrified by the prospect of thousands of eclipse-chasers descending on the small rural community, some retreating to their basements and even away from town. But the city and its businesses were ready for the influx of visitors, with clerks wearing eclipse T-shirts and stores and restaurants stocked with necessities.
“I wanted communion with people,” he said. His Rotary contacts led to even more. He was invited to be one in a series of speakers on the eclipse, delivering a presentation at the performing arts center titled “Toward the New Frontier: U.S. and the 2017 American Total Solar Eclipse.”
The town designated three sites for viewing the eclipse and Berz was unequivocal in his choice: Carhenge, an assemblage of 1960s cars, painted gray and erected just north of Alliance to replicate Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain of England.
“Carhenge (carhenge.com) was the only place to go,” Berz said. He and Brittan arrived early, anticipating the kinds of crowds townspeople feared, but they estimated that no more than 1,000 people — professionals and serious hobbyists, along with last-minute scramblers — were scattered across the site. Parking was not a problem, once they paid the $50 fee.
They had awakened at 4 a.m. to fog and rain. “I laughed,” Berz said of the chance the eclipse would not be visible. “I told God to take over. There’s no way it can clear up.” By 9 a.m. the sky was cloudless.
“This happens all the time,” Brittan said, laughing as they set up two folding chairs with a table of snacks between them. “It was like a tailgate party,” Berz said.
At 10:20 a.m., the magic began. “It was mesmerizing, hypnotic,” Berz said. “Suddenly you were caught up in something beyond you.”
The sky turned steel gray-blue. Using welder’s glasses to view the rapid acceleration toward totality, he saw the sun take the shape of a banana, then a fingernail, as the moon moved between it and earth.
“I looked to the west and saw the shadow of the moon approaching, 60 to 100 miles wide at 2,000 mph. I felt seasick, nauseous, as though the western earth were folding in half. I was fighting the universe. I had to let go and let the universe rule.”
At 11:49 a.m. it happened. “The power of the lunar shadow was like a tsunami. I turned from the darkness toward the sun. I took off my glasses. No textbook could describe it. This was not an intellectual exercise. It was an eclipse of your life.
“The corona, extending in fingers was so beautiful, tender, yet furious, seething, sizzling. The black moon saves you from the full power of the burning sun. It was a tremendous encounter.”
People were screaming, yet Berz felt alone, embraced by “celestial wonder [that] overcomes terrestrial fear.”
In two and a half minutes, the totality ended as sun and moon moved apart. The rim of the horizon became reddish brown, “like a universal sunset,” and by 1 p.m. the event was over. Alliance began to reclaim its identity as a remote railroad town in the Sandhills of western Nebraska.
Yet, its citizens will remember the man from northern Maine “seen walking around downtown enjoying the events in his blue NASA jumpsuit,” according to the local Time-Herald newspaper. He so impressed the woman who lent him her guitar to play during his presentation at the arts center that she asked him to autograph her instrument.
“As a member of the Rotary Club and self-proclaimed ambassador of Easton, Maine,” the Alliance Times-Herald reported, “Berz encouraged residents of Alliance to join him for the 2024 total solar eclipse that will be passing through his hometown in Maine.”