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The Solar Eclipse That Wasn’t: Fieldnotes From The Path Of Totality, Rochester, New York

We traveled to the place where I grew up to watch the total solar eclipse. It was kind of like that scene in Spaceballs where they’re combing the desert.

Viewing solar eclipse
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ROCHESTER, New York- If you didn’t know where the sun was, you wouldn’t have known where the sun was.

This basically sums up what Solar Eclipse 2024 was like for people in Western New York.

The elusiveness of our nearest star wasn’t because it was covered up by the moon crossing in front of it as perfectly as a quarter landing inside of the red dot in that old carnival game but because of the dense cloud cover that was built up in front of it.

My father actually had to work out where the sun was as we stood out in his yard looking up at the sky. He pointed to the east and proclaimed that the sun rose over there. Then he pointed to the west and proclaimed that that was where it set. Then he aimed his finger somewhere in the middle and said, “That is where it should be about now.”

I would like to say that there was a slight illumination behind that thick wall of aerial diffusion but I could have just been kidding myself.

It was all clouds everywhere, and these were not the friendly type of fluffy clouds that politely move aside and give way to the sun every once in a while. No, these were those big thick muthas that cover the entire sky like a fat bouncer blocking the door of an exclusive club.

Solar eclipse 2024 in Rochester

As I morbidly predicted earlier, going to Western New York to observe this natural phenomenon that only happens every five to ten generations would be a bust:

But as I thought about all the people going there, kind of marveling in the temporary relevance of the region that I grew up in, I suddenly burst out laughing. All of these motherfuckers are going to go all the way to Western New York to watch a once in a generation event and there’s a really good chance it’s going to be cloudy. I do not have any advanced knowledge of meteorology or have even checked a weather report but I grew up in this region and I know that it’s cloudy just about every day this time of year.

For weeks, the local media in Western New York was abuzz about the hundreds of thousands of people who were expected to travel there for the solar eclipse — invading hoards who would gobble up all the hotel rooms, pack the restaurants, and clog the highways. A special task force of 15 state agencies had been planning for this event for a year and a half. Day after day, the public was ceaselessly warned, riled up, and put on notice about anything and everything related to solar eclipses.

And then …

Nothing.

Nobody showed up.

I first got the impression that maybe things weren’t really going to be the way they said they would be when I drove from NYC to northeastern Ohio the day before completely unimpeded by traffic. This part of Ohio was also in the path of totality and was slated to receive an influx of visitors. Then I drove from Ohio to Rochester — right through the heart of what was supposed to have been packed highways — and there was hardly anyone else on the road.

So much for 71 sold out football games getting out at once.

It turns out that the modern solar eclipse traveler is wiser than local media wanted to let on, and most of them were competent enough to read a weather report and realize that if they continued on their course to Rochester they wouldn’t be able to see shit. Or perhaps they just came to their senses and were like, “Are we really traveling to a place that has 200 cloudy days a year to watch a cosmic event that requires clear skies?”

The weather reports also said other locations along the path of totality would have clear viewing, such as Vermont and northern Maine, so that’s where the crowds went instead, unceremoniously ditching Western New York.

The one event that put Buffalo and Rochester on everyone’s map for the first time in generations was usurped by the region’s infamously horrible weather.

Imagine that.

But the local media didn’t give up the ruse, and local restaurants ending up stocked with extra food and had all hands on deck to serve the un-materialized masses.

It was disappointing.

But it was the kind of disappointing that Western New Yorkers are well used to.

I really appreciate that people still care about solar eclipses. I was actually surprised when I found out that traveling to see them was a thing. While we could all have just stayed at home and watched the absolute best shots of the eclipse in real time being beamed to our various screens, for some reason we still feel the need to be there, to feel there, to experience there.

There is something ancient about our fixation with solar eclipses. They’re just something that humans have always gotten excited / amazed / freaked out about.

5,000 years ago some human etched a rendering of a solar eclipse on a stone in what is today Ireland.

In 1302 BC, an eclipse over China cause the emperor to eat vegetarian food and do rituals to bring back the sun.

On May 28, 585 BC, a solar eclipse ended a war between Lydia and Media in Greece because it equally freaked out both armies. In ancient Greece, solar eclipses were interpreted to be communications from the gods, and apparently they felt the gods wanted them to stop killing each other.

It is said that a solar eclipse appeared during the crucification of Jesus.

It is also said that a solar eclipse happened just before the birth of Mohammed. However, according to the Hadiths, Mohammed didn’t think too much of this, stating that “the sun and the moon do not suffer eclipse for any one’s death or life.”

On August 2, 1133, a solar eclipse in England led many to believe that it portended that the France-bound military campaign by King Henry I would fail. The king died and England descended into civil war.

While it was cloudy and visibility was just about 0% we did not pack in our eclipse party. My Chinese sister brought over her boyfriend for the first time to meet my family and my wife and younger daughter were there. We gathered around a picnic table that was set up in the middle of the yard, ate chicken wings and hot dogs, and threw around a football.

Solar eclipse 2024 in Rochester

We put on our solar eclipse viewing glasses for no real reason and laughed about how we couldn’t see anything out of them. We joked about the media hype and the government warnings and anyone foolish enough to travel there for this (i.e. me). We took bets on where the sun was in the sky. We jested about how if we had stayed in NYC we could have viewed 100% of a 90% eclipse rather than 0% of a 100% one.

And then it got dark. Fast. The birds stopped chirping. We got quiet. The joking and the mocking ceased. There was this tingly, eerie feeling that permeated everything as we realized that we were experiencing something … something celestial … something raw and real that had gave no qualms about our lives and deaths … something that would only happen here once in our lifetime …

The next total eclipse that will happen in Rochester, New York won’t be until 2,144. We will all be dead by then.

What’s the chances of a total solar eclipse happening in the place where you grew up during your lifetime? It’s slim. So slim that it was worth the trip back, to check in with my family, to experience something that’s ultimately meaningless beyond its rarity. Although we couldn’t view anything of the eclipse, we were there for it, altogether. And that’s what really matters.

For three minutes and 38 seconds the moon was completely in front of the sun and we stood there motionless, silent in the dark. Then it quickly got light again, the birds came back, and we returned to our football, our chicken wings, and our self-disparaging jokes — life, as usual.

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Filed under: Natural Phenomenon, New York

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

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  • Rob April 10, 2024, 1:56 pm

    An eclipse is a reminder that there are things bigger than us out there. I know it’s not the only one, a good storm, hurricane or even a small earthquake are good reminders that Mother Nature is charge. But to have the sun stop shining for a moment is a good one too, even in cloudy skies.

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    • VBJ April 10, 2024, 6:14 pm

      Right on! Very well put.

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