Our Fossil Fueled Total Eclipse Vacation

Aug 30, 2017

A description of a 5th wheel trailer tow to Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming from New Mexico to observe a Total Eclipse of the Sun and to take in some other tourist attractions. Total gasoline consumption, energy use, carbon emissions, and money cost are outlined in this unusual blog.

We had been planning for The Big One for a long time. The Big One is of course a Total Eclipse of the Sun crossing the continental United States. The last totality so do so was in early 1979, I was just getting into amateur astronomy at the time, and I missed it. I was not going to miss this totality over a simple matter of it taking place a mere several hundred miles north of where we lived.

Our living circumstances have changed since 1979; we are now retired, and own our own home. We have a 9,000 lb. 5th wheel trailer. My wife (who is in charge of such matters doesn’t want to do any primitive camping). Since we bought the 5th wheel trailer to enable us to attend events without renting motel rooms, and to have the ability to cook our own meals while on the road, taking the trailer to witness the eclipse was a given.

Six months in advance we reserved our camping ($315). The week prior we made all the local arrangements we needed to make, like hold our mail, having our son transported to work while we were gone, and laying up supplies both for the trailer and at home.

Ford recommends using higher octane gasoline while towing, so we do. We had just put four new tires on the truck so we were not worried about them. We had also replaced two of the tires on the trailer and had a new spare tire so we were not in too bad of shape there either. This latter item turned out to be significant near the end of the trip.

We left Radium Springs, New Mexico for point’s north on Thursday August 17th, 2017 in our GVW 15,000 lb. rig camping in northern New Mexico. We made 279.5 miles on 31.88 gallons of gasoline to Santa Fe, NM where we fueled up at a Sam’s Club. This turned out to be significant later on also as I had trouble getting our rig in and out of this station having to ride over a few curbs with the trailer tires. We tried to plan on fueling stops that had lower priced gasoline and to not empty the 36 gallon gas tank too low.

We made Saint Vrain SP in northern Colorado on the second night. Then on the third day we headed northwest to Sterling, Colorado camping at North Sterling Lake SP. This was our staging area for the eclipse which was passing through Nebraska. We were worried about the weather prospects, which we studied avidly. Sunday was a day of rest for us preparing for the eclipse. I set up my gear for a practice run outside the trailer then packed it all into the truck.

Weather concerns caused us to move our eclipse plans further west to highway 29 in western Nebraska to an area several miles south of Agate Fossil Beds. We had experienced severe traffic congestion heading north while passing through the Denver area, and had heard about large crowds in Wyoming, so we had ruled out the Glendo, Colorado area out. Turns out we made a good choice because we only encountered a few thousand folks lining the roads north of Mitchell, Nebraska on Highway 29 north. We got set up on a ranch road several miles south of Agate Fossil Beds.

The ingress stages of the eclipse were familiar to me having done a dry run on an annular eclipse in Northern New Mexico in 2012. We were however totally unprepared for totality to say the least. Apparently this was a brighter than a normal totality as the Moon’s shadow on the Earth was not that large, so we only saw Venus in the dimmer daytime sky during totality.

However the apparition of a dark hole in the sky where the Sun should be, and white corona extending for more than a few diameters all around this with streamers was magnificent. The quality of the light cannot be described by me. Suffice it to say it was as if for two and one half minutes one had stepped off this planet on to the surface of another alien world.

I had been taking pictures with a 102 mm Mak. I had switched my DSLR from a 250 mm lens to an 85 mm lens (with no filters) for totality. I did not want to be caught up in exposure values and focused on the camera during the precious minutes of totality. I took four bracketed shots of the corona and that was it. I only thought about my binoculars near the end, and made a move towards the table to pick them up, but totality ended before I could reach them.

Hey what can I say, I was a total eclipse virgin, but I am no longer one. We oohed & awed during the totality, and our only impulse when it was over was a firm golf clap for an invisible audience. We were god smacked. The mind just cannot be still during such an event, thinking sequentially, or thinking in any kind of ordered fashion seems to be a near impossibility.

The next stop on our eclipse vacation was a visit to Car Henge near Alliance, NE on the way back to our campsite. Then we pulled to a new campsite the next day called Cedar Pass in South Dakota. The campsite was in the middle of some badass scenery, called appropriately enough the Badlands. From there we visited Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments. We left a day early after determining the distance from this campsite to Saint Vrain SP in Colorado was too far for a one day pull.

We booked a campsite in Wyoming called Keyhole SP. It took us half a day to pull there then after we set up we headed out to see the Devil’s Tower Mountain made famous by the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. We had rigged up a small flying saucer we could hang from a fishing pole for a photo op at the mountain. We enlisted the aid of a couple strangers in doing this whimsical photo op, who were positively jazzed about helping us with it. The lady who took our picture, wanted one done of her using her camera, and we obliged her of course.

From Keyhole it was thence home, which took three more days of traveling and two more nights of camping. It was an exhausting trip to say the least. Dealing with all the activities, changes in routines, the dog, work to set up, and hook up as well as driving wears you down. We were probably only operating of about 6 hours sleep a night. We were still recuperating some few days after getting back home.

About 60 miles from home, after 2,740 miles of trailer towing, we had a blowout. A tire shredding event is a more apt description really. We were pulling out of a roadside rest north of Socorro, NM after eating lunch and we heard a loud bang like a gunshot. We did not associate it with our trailer at that time, so we drove on.

We got off at Elephant Butte (Exit 79), so I could get coffee, and when I got out I could see that the front driver’s side tire on the tandem axle trailer was completely shredded. A stranger helped me change it, and we made it home safely. I think the second set of curb pull overs at the Sam’s Club in Santa Fe done in the already weakened sidewalls of this older tire.

We made it home in the afternoon of Sunday August, 27th, 2017. Needless to say only some things got off loaded from the trailer and the truck, but the trailer stayed where we parked it for the night. In the morning we moved the trailer to its parking spot, unhitched the truck, and parked it in the garage. The next day we filled up the gas tank on the truck after hearing about possible gas price increases resulting from Hurricane Harvey.

Over ten days we pulled a 9,000 lb. trailer (with a 6,000 lb. truck) 2,800 miles, and drove the truck unhitched for a total of 592 miles. We consumed a total of 284.66 gallons of gas towing, and 40 gallons of gas not towing. As you can imagine a GVW of 15,000 lbs. with 100 square feet of frontal area is neither fuel efficient, or cheap to operate. Total fuel cost ran to $757.14, with $647 of that being for towing and $110 of that for not towing.

Total energy consumption was 36.28 million BTU’s, with 31.83 MBTU for towing, and 4.47 MBTU for not towing. In case you’re interested that amounts to 3.17 tons of CO2 output for the whole trip, with 2.789 tons being for towing, and .3896 tons for not towing. This is certainly not an environmentally friendly trip carbon emission wise.

We calculate that our Ford Cmax Energi is saving us 500 gallons of fuel a year over just operating a single vehicle (our 18 mpg Ford F 150 XLT truck not towing) which amounts to 4.9 tons of emission offsets. By taking in other tourist destinations after our Total Eclipse extravaganza we potentially saved some energy and emissions over what a separate trip to see these attractions would have entailed.

Could an electric drive tow vehicle have reduced the environmental impact of such a trip like this? You bet it could. How such a rig would be designed, and operated remains speculative at this juncture. I like the German idea of overhead lines for trucking (which they are just now experimenting with).

A truck with even a 200 kWh battery pack at this juncture would be very expensive to buy and still would not have the 300 miles of range we get from a 36 gallon gas tank. Possibly some batteries in the trailer itself, with and electric drive assist built into the trailer would be useful. Charging on the road as well as at campsites would be of critical importance. Weight and aerodynamics are both items that would need serious attention also. Such an electric truck and trailer combination as well as the supporting infrastructure for it doesn’t exist yet.

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