August 21, 2017’s was the first U.S. coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years. Although it could be viewed as a partial eclipse from each of the 48 mainland states, most media outlets were focused on the narrow 71-mile-wide path of spectacular totality. I was working then as editor of an astro-tech magazine and wanted to help ensure that all in the U.S. who would not be in the narrow path that day knew they, too, could view the once-in-our-lifetimes event, at least as a partial eclipse.
The premise of the initial phase of the Pedaling Astronomer Project was that I would deliver telescope views of the Sun in each of the 48 states in the months leading up to the eclipse and explain how the event would appear from that location. But I was overly ambitious; I managed just 37 states before the eclipse. In truth, there was no eclipse-related reason to pedal the remaining 11 states afterward, but I doubted I’d have another chance to experience them by bike if I didn’t continue on, and so, I did.
I believed the journey had the potential to encourage others to consider trying what I knew to be two uniquely wholesome, life-enhancing activities: exploring new places by bicycle and observing celestial wonders through telescopes. I still believe that, and the project succeeded, to varying degrees, at both goals.
More than 40,000 people of all ages enjoyed their first views of the Sun, Moon and planets through telescopes carried on the initial journey, many of whom wrote later for advice on purchasing scopes of their own, and their ranks grow as the journey continues beyond the initial 48-state plan. Bottom line: Hearing breathless gasps of wonder, which so often accompany first telescope views, make every mile worthwhile.
Ah, but bicycles! There is something truly satisfying – more fundamentally human – about the pace of bike travel, a sense of connection I’d missed in earlier life. My bike continues to introduce me to fascinating people in whom I find lasting connections, people I’d never encounter ensconced at highway speeds in the glass-and-steel cocoon of an automobile.
Having retired from editor duties in 2018, I’m free now to focus fully on the continuing goals of the Pedaling Astronomer Project, although I still contribute articles to the astro-tech magazine and do freelance work for other publications, from time to time. Turns out, traveling constantly by bicycle is addictive, so I do, while still sharing views of the heavens along the way.
There will be another Great American Eclipse in April of 2024, and although it can be viewed as a partial eclipse from even more landmass than the 2017 version, I won’t be riding all of those many states, content instead to pedal the far-more-manageable 4545 miles (7316 kilometers) of the path of totality from Mazatlán, Mexico to Bonavista, Newfoundland.
I’ll be 70 that year and will reconsider whether it’s time, finally, to settle down. Until then, clear skies, friends, and may the wind be forever at your backs!
(For more on what inspired the Pedaling Astronomer Project, see Before and After.)