It was March of this year when I started to pay attention to the Great American Eclipse. It didn’t have a name then. In fact, unless you were paying attention and looking for info on it, none of the mainstream media were mentioning anything on it until about a month out. And while it was great and in America, there are a few qualifiers that came with that title and on some level it didn’t matter.
I plan things. I’m into logistics. I love puzzles, be it jigsaw or bar. Or even to figure out where they moved the soap in a supermarket refurbishment. I find these things mentally engaging. So when I focused on the Great American Eclipse, it was a puzzle. Could I go and see it? How would that work? Where to see it? What about the weather? After all it was the great American Eclipse because it was the first one in 99 years that crossed the entire continent from coast to coast. (Mind you, there have been others, several in fact in my lifetime, more on that later.) So I started searching and researching for where to go and how to get there. And the chances of cloud cover while there.
I do have a life and a busy one at that, so it wasn’t until May that I actually started getting serious about going somewhere to see it. I had to make sure I had no work during that time. I had to see if the spouse could get off work. I had to see if our child would mind not being home for her birthday. As awesome as it would have been to give her a total eclipse for her birthday – it wasn’t on the same day – but we’d most likely be traveling for it.
Airfare wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t expensive either — about $300 a person round trip to fly to Nashville. I had found a hotel in Lebanon, TN, a city on the centerline of totality. Flying in and out of Nashville was an option. I booked the hotel.
And then I booked a another hotel in Greenwood, SC.
Because of weather. Because if I was going to go through all this effort, I didn’t want cloud cover to be a factor. If there was a hurricane coming up the Carolina coast, I wanted another option. Both had 48-hour cancellation policies. By 48 hours out, I’d be comfortable with knowing if there would be a major weather event affecting the plan. I had my options in place which allowed me to dive into the details and figure out which way was best.
Next was deciding driving or flying. Flying was quicker and more expensive. Driving was cheaper and much longer but we’d get to see parts of the country we’ve never seen before.
We decided to drive. We generally get along as a family and it could be fun. Google maps said it was a 12-ish hour trip to either location. I put an alert on the airfare to hedge my bet.
And I watched the airfare rise as we got closer and closer to the day. It peaked on the Friday before at $2400 per person for a round trip from Newark to Nashville.
We decided to go with Greenwood, SC because of weather. Not on the coast and not in the mountains. And according to various weather sites, one of the places that had the best chance that the cloud cover would be low to nonexistent.
Knowing that the best laid plans are often screwed up due to traffic and construction, we planned a stop for each leg of the the trip. We traveled in 8 hour segments, stopping midway through our trip down: total travel time of 16 hours.
When we got into Greenwood, it was a relief to finally get out of the car. They weather was looking good and we were starting to get excited. The hotel and all the hotels were booked with eclipse followers — umbraphiles. “Not a single room open” is what I overheard at the front desk of our hotel. Most were booked a year out, according to a local.
There’s not that much in Greenwood. Lander University, a small state liberal arts school and a mix of fast food restaurants, car dealerships, and regional chains. But being South Carolina, there is barbecue. The front desk recommended The Smokehouse. My spouse started planning how to either get them to open a branch up north or having the pulled pork shipped back.
Game Day. I wake up really early. How early? Before 6 a.m. More like 5 a.m. I had practiced and tested my gear before we left and now I did it all again while waiting for breakfast to open. I was one of the first ones at the hotel breakfast at 6 a.m. There were a few other early risers at the breakfast and we had a great conversation. My follow umbraphiles at the shared table were from Texas and Philly. I heard the southern twang and northern steccato. I heard German too! This was big for this small town.
I had every intention of viewing the eclipse from the parking lot of the hotel. But that was not right. This was not an event to keep to yourself. This was an event to share and be with people. This had to be a shared event. Group participation was required.
Greenwood set up a viewing party by the spray park in town with the brick farmers’ market arcade building being the center. There were maybe 200 people. The local radio station was there playing an eclipse playlist, Credence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon on the Rise, The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, et al. Other local businesses had booths with food and drinks, there were t-shirts for sale, about 15 photographers with tripods set up, but most were people hanging out and having fun waiting for the moon to make its appearance. The morning had brought fair weather clouds, but as we got closer to the eclipse, they faded away. Blue skies baby!
Local SOMA peeps, the organizers in Greenwood were giving out eclipse glasses for FREE!
The cheer went up from the crowd when the the station made the announcement the eclipse had started. This was a good thing, since the Smithsonian Eclipse app was hanging due to traffic. I was using it to confirm the timing or totality and to safely take off my glasses.
I have been through two previous partial eclipses: Once in the early 1970s and again in 1994. Not special eclipse glasses. The first one was viewed via a pinhole viewer and the second in 1994, well, I viewed through a doubled over piece of 35mm negative. I don’t recommend the second. I suffered no eye damage, but why risk it? I don’t recall any of the hysteria over staying inside, but then, in 1994, the internet was only a baby and email address were only numbers.
The light grew eerie as the moon slid over the sun. The luminance started to fall off slowly, at first. It was if someone had turned the screen brightness down. Colors became desaturated. The breeze picked up and the temperature dropped. The shadows became crescents mimicking the moon’s path across the solar disc. The crowd grew quiet as totality neared. Our daughter pointed to a point of light in the sky to the right of the sun and asked what it was. I told her it was Venus. The night sky was appearing.
My focus sharpened on the sun. The sky started to turn a violet blue. And then it happened. The Diamond Ring and Bailey’s Beads! The crowd gasped and cheered! I cried. It was was unlike anything I have ever experienced. The corona popped out from a black disc. and for just over two minutes, it was nighttime at 2:39 p.m. If standing on the beach makes you feel small and standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon makes you feel tiny, well a total solar eclipse really cements just how incredibly insignificant a single human is in the larger universe.
And then just as quick as it started, it was over and the light grew and the temperature rose. The world returned to normal. As if nothing had happened.
We eventually went back to our hotel and the family chilled for the rest of the day. I, of course, edited photos. Bucket list item checked off!