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Meet the woman who turned her eclipse obsession into a career

Kate Russo acts as an "eclipse doctor" for small communities that suddenly find themselves in the path of a total solar eclipse.

by Kathleen Caulderwood and Laura Parker
Aug 9 2017, 11:46am

On a bright August morning in 1999, Kate Russo put on the special glasses she’d bought for the occasion and looked directly into the sun. She had traveled over 700 miles from Belfast, in Northern Ireland, to a coastal town in Normandy, France, to witness her first total solar eclipse.

The normally sleepy village was crammed with people eager for the eclipse: locals from neighboring villages, out-of-towners, tour groups, backpackers. All were looking for a viewing spot in what’s known as the “path of totality,” a narrow band of shadow cast along the Earth as the moon gradually covers the sun.

The eclipse lasted two minutes and three seconds. The moon’s disk obscured everything but the ring of plasma that surrounds the sun, known as the corona, and cast a kind of twilight. Russo’s first thought as it began was, “Oh yeah, this is cool.” But when “totality” hit — the brief darkness when the sun was completely blocked out — she experienced a moment that she says, without hyperbole, changed her life.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was an eerie feeling, like you’re in another world. I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I felt euphoric, for one, but I also had this feeling of uneasiness, like something is wrong. And as soon as it ended, the only thing I felt, the only thing I could think about, was ‘I’ve got to do this again.’”

Eighteen years on, Russo, 44, is now a bona fide eclipse chaser, a member of a small group of hard-core, dedicated enthusiasts who make it their life’s mission to follow and observe total solar eclipses. Russo has seen 10 total eclipses so far, traveling to places like Madagascar, Mongolia, Turkey, Tunisia, and China. She’s written three books on the subject, compiled from hundreds of interviews with other “umbraphiles,” eclipse addicts who chase the moon’s shadow.

And she’s managed to turn chasing from an intense hobby into a career: Russo is a kind of eclipse doctor for small communities that suddenly find themselves in the path of totality. She works with local councils, businesses, and community leaders to ensure that as many people as possible get the chance to experience what she did all those years ago. As such, her approach is both pragmatic and personal. Russo genuinely believes in the power of totality. As a psychologist, she wants to help people understand and communicate what they are feeling, and to make sense of their experiences — eclipses, she says, offer a rare opportunity.

The phenomenon affects people in different ways. Some describe feeling every emotion they’ve ever felt, all at the same time; others say a total solar eclipse is simultaneously the most beautiful and the most terrifying thing they’ve ever experienced.

“It is so difficult to communicate these things in words — there are just no words to describe how we feel,” Russo said. “I am sharing a very profound human experience. How can you not get excited about that?”

“I can’t wait until my time in the shadow. I will again feel like there is nothing between me and the universe.”

Recently, her focus has been on the United States, which is set to experience a total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Russo has spent the past year helping people living in the path of totality prepare for what’s coming.

The path for this eclipse stretches across 14 states, from Oregon all the way to South Carolina, but the majority of the 1,000 or so communities along the stretch are small; the two biggest cities are Kansas City and Nashville. Still, some 200 million Americans live within a short drive of the path, and eclipse tourism is expected to draw big crowds later this month.

Russo will be spending the big day in Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming, leading a small tour of 30 fellow eclipse chasers who are flying in from around the world. But the majority of her focus on preparation so far has been with a cluster of small towns in Nebraska, in the middle of the path of totality. One town, Ravenna, with a population of about 1,300 is expecting anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 people to visit during the eclipse — a bit of a challenge given that Ravenna has only one hotel with just five rooms. (Russo’s advice to the town: Set up dedicated campsites to deal with the volume.)

Even though total solar eclipses happen somewhere on earth once every 18 months, they don’t come around to the same place again very often. There hasn’t been a total solar eclipse in the mainland U.S. since 1979, which means anyone under the age of 40 living here has probably never had the chance to see one. Russo is excited to share the experience with a new generation.

“I can’t wait until my time in the shadow,” she said. “I will again feel like there is nothing between me and the universe.”

Russo grew up on a farm in North Queensland, Australia. She would spend summer evenings lying on the grass in her backyard, staring up at the cloudless night sky. Sometimes, her father would point out various constellations. “I remember reading a children’s story once about an eclipse and I suddenly thought, ‘I need to see one of these,’” she said.

In 1999, Russo had a job working as a pediatric clinical psychologist in a hospital in Belfast, but she couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d seen in France that year. She looked up the date and location of the next total solar eclipse, and, two years later, flew to South Africa. “Back then I didn’t even know there were eclipse chasers,” Russo said. “All I knew was that I needed to have this in my life. This would be just how I lived, chasing eclipse after eclipse, and the rest would fall into place.”

In 2005, she chased an eclipse all the way to the Galapagos Islands. Normally, a total solar eclipse attracts both the scientifically minded and the merely curious, but this time, the location was so remote that only a handful of eclipse chasers had bothered to make the trek.

Russo says she saves religiously so she can keep chasing. She lives frugally, keeps expenses down, and never spends money on what she calls “traditional” vacations — every cent goes into planning for the next eclipse. “For me, and many other chasers, it’s more about prioritizing spending rather than being wealthy per se,” she said.

Solar eclipses have fascinated humans for millennia. Before we understood them through science, they were seen as a bad omen, usually thought to signify the death of a king or the coming of war. NASA provides a handy guide of the history of solar eclipses as documented by astronomers, historians, and writers through the ages. Chinese writings from the Shang Dynasty describe “three flames” that “ate the sun.” The ancient Greeks dove a little deeper, attempting to document and even predict solar eclipses. Herodotus wrote of a philosopher, Thales of Miletus, who predicted a solar eclipse around 585 B.C. — the eclipse stopped a long war between the Lydians and the Medes, who saw it as a sign that they should make peace.

Later, astronomers used the phenomenon as an opportunity to study the universe. Helium was discovered when French astronomer Jules Janssen observed a total solar eclipse in August 1868, and British mathematician Arthur Eddington used the total solar eclipse of May 1919 to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The contemporary community of hard-core eclipse chasers is small — some 800 people in total, from all over the world. They stay connected via message boards and email lists and regularly share tips, observations, and advice. They count among them scientists, teachers, engineers, grandmothers, nurses, and artists. Most are working professionals who plan their lives, and savings, around the next total solar eclipse.

“It is a manifestation of the majesty of the universe and shows how puny and insignificant we are on this tiny planet.”

Terry Moseley, 71, who lives in Northern Ireland, told me that even though he knew a lot about the astronomy involved when he saw his first total solar eclipse (1997, Bulgaria), he wasn’t prepared for what happened. “I had seen many photos, and films, but no image or recording can convey what it’s like. It is, literally, indescribable,” he said. Moseley has now seen eight total solar eclipses, and has already begun making travel plans to observe two more, in Australia in 2023 and in the United States again in 2024.

“What still strikes me every time totality approaches is that nothing the entire human race, with all our technology, nuclear power, and so on, does can alter what is about to happen by even one microsecond,” he said. “It is a manifestation of the majesty of the universe and shows how puny and insignificant we are on this tiny planet.”

After connecting with the wider eclipse-chasing community, Russo realized that as a psychologist, she was uniquely placed to not only participate in the eclipse-chasing lifestyle but also spread the word about totality and its profound effects.

Russo maintains that if everyone could see a total solar eclipse at least once, the world would be a better place.

“I spent my clinical career sitting around the bedside of sick children, some of whom were dying, having intense emotional conversations with their families. The kind of insights you get at times of great loss are very similar with the insights you experience with totality — the only difference is that with totality, it’s an entirely positive experience,” she explained.

Russo maintains that if everyone could see a total solar eclipse at least once, the world would be a better place. She realizes this sounds naive, but her advice stands: If you have a chance to see one, go. “It’s not a necessary life experience, but it is one that will enhance your life,” she said.

In 2010, Russo took six months off work and began reaching out to other eclipse chasers, collecting stories and insights. She wanted to know what totality felt like to different people and why some people got addicted to the feeling. After a year, she published her first book, “Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser.” In it, she concludes that two main feelings occur psychologically during a total solar eclipse: The first is awe, and the second is something akin to a primal fear.

“You lose your sense of time, place, and person,” Russo said. “Suddenly, you can’t trust anything you thought you knew about the world, because you know the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, and yet here you are watching the sun disappear in the middle of the day.”

Daniel Lynch, a 33-year-old math teacher in Dublin, has been an eclipse chaser since the age of 15. His first total solar eclipse was the same year as Russo’s, 1999. An avid amateur astronomer, Lynch convinced his mother to take him to Germany so he could see the whole thing. “Unfortunately it was completely cloudy,” he told me. He resolved to see the next one to make up for the disappointment. Three years later, he experienced totality for the first time. “I can only imagine how humans a few thousand years ago must have reacted,” he said. “If I hadn’t known better, I would have been convinced that the world was ending at that moment. It was absolutely primal.”

In 2003, Lynch was part of a large group of eclipse chasers that boarded a Boeing 747 and flew from Australia to intercept a total solar eclipse over Antarctica. Window seats were sold at a premium while the center and aisle seats were heavily discounted because passengers had to rely on being able to look over someone else’s shoulder. “The air at 40,000 feet over Antarctica was crystal clear,” he said, “and our view of the corona, even through the window, was the best I have ever seen.”

People who have never experienced totality tend to talk about solar eclipses in scientific terms, Russo has found. But to her, the value of the experience is emotional. She doesn’t necessarily see herself as marketing the eclipse experience — it’s more like undertaking “eclipse outreach.”

The 2012 total solar eclipse’s path of totality crossed Queensland, Australia. Russo was overjoyed at the serendipity of it, but she soon realized no one in her hometown shared her excitement. Media coverage focused mostly on negatives: traffic chaos, the strain on local resources from the influx of outside visitors to the region, how much money was being lost on preparing for the event, and so on. “The message was that it’s more of a headache than anything,” Russo said.

Russo set about trying to change people’s minds. She began speaking to the local council, the mayor, and small business owners. She tried to pass on what she’d learned: that witnessing a total solar eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime event and a cause for celebration. She began contacting local media and doing interviews, trying to describe what totality feels like, in an effort to get people more excited. “I spoke at universities, cafes, restaurants, and organized meetings, conferences, private groups. I even went to shopping centers to get the message across.” After the eclipse, which Russo watched with her close friends and family, she received dozens of messages from people in the town saying that if it hadn’t been for her, they wouldn’t have bothered seeking out the path of totality. (In the end, an estimated 60,000 people viewed the eclipse in Queensland.)

A year later, Russo quit her job in Belfast and began focusing on eclipse planning full-time. She put together a white paper, a kind of Eclipse Planning 101 for small communities that find themselves in the path of totality. The paper covers everything from handling local media and resources (accommodations, food) to how to choose the best eclipse viewing site, teaching materials for local schools, safety practices (including acquiring and selling special eclipse-viewing glasses), and more practical things like arranging for automatic outdoor lights to be switched off.

Russo got the chance to put her skills to the test in the Faroe Islands in 2015. Working with a local tourism office, she organized an eclipse-viewing event in the town of Eidi, population 800, and invited some 140 international eclipse chasers to attend. Russo also brought in the BBC and the “Stargazing Live” show broadcast from Eidi during the eclipse.

“I’m not pushing any other agenda. I just want to share the most powerful human experience we can have, but the one that most people are not aware of,” she said. “I do laugh because after every eclipse, I often get people saying to me, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ As if I don’t do enough to convince people to go see it!”

During a hot weekend in June, Russo flew to Ravenna to help put the finishing touches on the town’s activities. The town is planning a large festival, a number of educational events and seminars, and general revelry for the weekend ahead of Aug. 21. A current NASA astronaut, Michael Fincke, is scheduled to speak. People around town refer to Russo as the “eclipse lady.”

People around town refer to Russo as the “eclipse lady.”

At one planning workshop Russo led in June, more than 100 people turned up. Most were just keen to hear Russo talk about her experience of totality. She gave a quick presentation on what would happen the day of the event, and then, slowly, began to describe what to expect as totality nears.

“The light will change, and you’ll feel the temperature dropping,” Russo told her audience. “Suddenly, it will feel like you’re on a movie set. This darkness will come toward you. It’s like that feeling before a big storm: You can sense something is wrong. It’s this feeling of uneasiness — not a nice feeling, but not a bad one either.”

“The primitive part of us thinks it’s wrong,” she added. “Totality is all about that. You see a hole where the sun will be.” Russo told the crowd to take specific notice of the feeling of insignificance that will accompany totality, the realization of how vast the universe is and how small we are by comparison.

When the workshop ended, a teenager named Mason Dennison approached Russo. He told her he’d been fascinated with space since he was little, and he just couldn’t believe that his tiny town would be playing such a big role in a once-in-a-lifetime event.

“I mean, I physically cannot find the words to describe how excited I am for this,” Dennison said. “God forbid I sound repetitive, but even if you don’t like it, it’s still going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. At the end of the day, it’s not about how you get there or what you have to do to get there. It’s not about any of that. It’s about the people, the feel, and the experience. And that’s what really matters.”

Laura Parker is a freelance writer based in New York. Kathleen Caulderwood is a video producer for VICE News.

CORRECTION (Aug. 9, 2:25 p.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly located Belfast in Ireland. It is in Northern Ireland.