For most of the morning, about 150 people who gathered to watch Monday’s solar eclipse at the Atascadero Library passed the time chatting and milling around without gazing skyward much at the thick clouds obscuring the sun.
Like others, Joe Carro, president of the Central Coast Astronomical Society, had almost given up on a clear view.
Then, right at the peak around 10:17 a.m., the clouds parted, revealing an orange crescent obscured nearly three-quarters by the moon.
Captivated, the crowd erupted in “ooohs” and “aaahs.” Children and adults alike pointed at the sight.
“We were leaving because it was too cloudy, but then it became really bright, “said Joseph Yawe of Atascadero. “This young man said, ‘Come back, let’s watch.”
Thirteen-year-old Raven Parker, who attended a talk on astronomy two weeks ago in advance of the eclipse, said afterward that she was thrilled by her experience.
“I got to see the orange, crescent-shaped sun and it was very bright,” Parker said. “ I was surprised by how bright it was. I love astronomy.”
Carro was pleased with the number of people who showed up for the event — especially once the marine layer broke in its fortuitous window.
“The turnout was wonderful,” he said. “When the clouds parted, it created a lot of excitement.”
The library distributed viewing glasses, and the astronomical society had four telescopes on hand to give everyone a chance to glimpse the eclipse up close.
About half of those in attendance were children, thanks to the fact that Atascadero kids don’t return to school until Wednesday.
Savanah Hibbert, 11, of Atascadero was unfazed by the cloud cover while waiting earlier in the morning.
“This isn’t just about the eclipse,” she said. “It’s about the good vibes from the eclipse.”
Closer to the coast, clouds shrouded the vantage point at Cal Poly and Cuesta College for much of the morning.
At Cal Poly, an estimated 500 people gathered to watch the sky, including about 250 at the peak of the eclipse and 100 watching the NASA livestream inside Baker Center classrooms.
Kevin Coulombe, a Cal Poly physics instructional support technician, told the crowd at 9 a.m. that the cover was unlikely to burn off. But then conditions changed.
“Just after peak eclipse people screamed when the sun became visible through the marine layer,” said Kevin Thompson, another Cal Poly physics instructional support technician. “For less than a minute, about 10:23 a.m., the partial eclipse was visible.”
Cloud conditions had improved by about 11:30 a.m. and for the final 15 minutes of the eclipse, people were able to watch through the telescopes as the moon finished crossing the sun, Thompson said.
At Cuesta College, spokeswoman Lauren Milbourne said about 200 people gathered in a courtyard. She said the clouds parted for only a couple of moments. But it was a rare opportunity for those who came to visit the Bowen Celestial Observatory on campus, which typically isn’t open to the public. Cuesta astronomy professor Patrick Len was on hand to answer questions, display a 14-inch telescope, and encourage visitors to sign up for classes.
“There were some fleeting moments when people could see the sun,” Milbourne said.
Those who ventured east experienced similar conditions to those in Atascadero.
In a rural area on eastbound Highway 41 west of Creston, people parked their vehicles on both shoulders of the road to catch the partial eclipse, through sometimes thinning layers of clouds. Kids were seated in truck beds. Some people wore welding goggles, peering upward.
The last time a total solar eclipse was visible across the entire contiguous United States was June 8, 1919. And it hasn’t been since Feb. 26, 1979, that a total eclipse was visible from any location in the mainland U.S.
“This had such a sense of community and brought people of all age groups,” said Ann Little, who attended the Atascadero viewing party. “Once the clouds parted, there was a sense of awe, something almost spiritual.”
A total solar eclipse will take place again in South America on July 2, 2019.
Sarah Linn contributed to this report.