Everen Brown has chased eclipses to every continent. He’s seen them from a rural village in the African country of Gabon, the Gobi Desert, Easter Island and a Russian icebreaker in the waters around Antarctica.
And this week he followed the celestial event to Casper, the first place within driving distance of his Utah home.
“It never gets old,” he said Wednesday, surrounded by a small portion of his collection of space memorabilia. “Every eclipse is flavored by its location.”
For serious eclipse chasers, the days leading to the event are stressful, he said. People worry endlessly about the weather, about having the right equipment into the midday dusk, about being in the right location with the best view. Brown’s unfazed, however. This is his tenth eclipse after all.
Anxiety about the phenomenon — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people — was evident in the bits of conversations floating through the halls of the Parkway Plaza Hotel during the first day of AstroCon, the annual convention for astronomy fans organized by the Astronomical League. People fretted in the hallways about the early weather forecasts for the big day and the expected crowds.
But anxious chatter was also interspersed with excited conversations almost unintelligible to an outsider. Telescope salesmen bantered amicably about their trade, swapping numbers and acronyms with ease. People wearing a variety of eclipse-themed t-shirts (one of the most popular designs demanded “Where will YOU be on August 21, 2017?”) introduced themselves and gushed about the main event.
More than 900 people signed up for the conference this year — hundreds more than the usual attendance, said Charlene Bradley, one of the staff members in charge of registration. By noon on Wednesday, more than 600 attendees had already arrived in Casper.
The license plates in the parking lot showed the distances people traveled. Several Colorado plates were joined by the likes of California, Michigan, Maryland, Illinois and Florida. A map inside the registration room showed that some attendees have come even farther: Australia, Germany, Russia, Spain, Peru.
Along with field trips to local museums and a series of talks by prominent scientists and writers, including NASA’s own eclipse expert, attendees can browse dozens of booths set up in the exhibition hall.
That’s where Brown showed off his collection of space memorabilia for sale and tried to gauge others’ interest in a trip to Antarctica for the eclipse that will occur there in 2021. By early afternoon on Wednesday — only a few hours in to the conference’s four days — he had already gathered the names of several potential cruise mates.
The small portion of his stockpile — extras Brown doesn’t want and doesn’t mind selling — included Apollo 11 commemorative cups, postcards, Apollo 17 earrings, lapel pins, necklaces, magnets, even spoons. Brown couldn’t begin to estimate how many pieces are in his entire collection. Instead, he put it this way: A few years ago he bought 1,700 pounds of memorabilia from one man. And that’s only a portion of his collection.
But of all the trinkets he brought, he was most proud of a pin he designed himself featuring the “jackalypse,” the dark image of a jackalope eclipsed over the sun.
“I may have gotten a little carried away,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s a good way to have fun and destress.”
Other vendors hawked a variety of products, ranging from space-themed soap to high-end telescopes worth tens of thousands of dollars. In the opposite corner from Brown, a couple sold something a little different: real-estate for the avid astronomer.
Tom and Marla Simstad moved to a mountain range in rural southern New Mexico after retiring from real estate development in Indiana. There, they hoped to have access to beautiful night skies unfettered by unnatural light.
However, they feared that neighbors would eventually move nearby and pollute the night sky with their light. So they bought the entire mountain, all 170 acres, in the hopes of creating a haven for those who love to peer into the night sky.
“It’s just like a golf community, except for astronomers,” Marla said.
Since 2004, they have developed a number of home sites and are now joined by 12 other full time residents in their community, the New Mexico Skies Astronomy Enclave, along with 35 who are there part-time or have not yet relocated to the mountain. It’s not uncommon for landowners to build their backyard observatory domes before they put down foundations for their homes, Marla said.
Several fellow vendors walked up and said hello while the Simstads handed out pamphlets to the people who passed by their booth. The couple have met a number of people while traveling the astronomy convention circuit to promote their community. Those initial introductions later turn into lunches and real friendships, Marla said. Now when they travel to a convention or trade show, they almost always know somebody there.
“It’s really a community,” she said.