We drove just over 1000 miles round-trip down the eastern seaboard to see the solar eclipse–yes, the total solar eclipse. The total eclipse of the sun. Not the Total Eclipse of the Heart. In our case, it was actually the Total Eclipse of the Park.
In casual conversation about a month ago, someone mentioned their family was traveling to Tennessee to view the total eclipse. I was taken aback, and asked to hear more. For all my sciencey interest and number of times I have listened to Neil Degrasse Tyson on StarTalk Radio, I had not considered traveling to the path of totality from our home in the Washington DC area.
When I retold the story to my husband, I suggested we could drive to the path of totality for the eclipse. What about a trip to South Carolina? “When will we have another chance to see a solar eclipse?” I asked. (At the time I did not realize it would be in 2024.)
Long story short, the day before the eclipse we were on a road trip to our friends’ house in South Carolina. Their home was approximately 1 1/2 hours north of totality.
Before, during, and after the eclipse, I continue to reflect (both in my head and out loud) on what prehistoric people’s eclipse experiences might have been like. They couldn’t predict an eclipse like we can today. They didn’t understand it was the moon passing in front of the sun. They couldn’t directly watch the progress of the moon across the sun with solar glasses and realize it was ramping up to one of nature’s most stunning displays (though they might have noticed the change in the sun’s shape with a pinhole camera in nature, by observing light passing through a small opening). They would just have noticed the eerie light change and then–BAM–day would become night and the sun would have looked like it had a hole in it. This must have filled them with terror. I think my kids actually got tired of hearing me present this scenario to them in different ways. There were brilliant minds–Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein–who broke barriers with their discoveries. But for most of the human existence, humans didn’t understand what in the world could have been happening. Ancient cultures have angry gods and punishment theories. It’s amazing to think that we have only been seeing images of our Earth from space since the late 1960s. We are so fortunate to stand on the shoulders of scientists who have come before us to understand our place–however small–in the universe.
Back to #SolarEclipse2017. Because my husband is a brilliant planner who wants to keep us safe and comfortable, he researched where we could go, and purchased tickets to a South Carolina minor league baseball team, the Columbia Fireflies, hosting the Total Eclipse of the Park in their baseball stadium. Our special tickets included a buffet lunch, lots of drink refills (which we needed as we sweated out our body weight in water), access to the game (about which I did not care), solar glasses, and a safe place to park our car. Also included: unlimited access to bathrooms, shade, occasional air-conditioning, and most importantly, order and organization. (Side note: it is hot in South Carolina, especially when the sun is shining on a mostly clear day in mid August. Another side note: if the sun is shining, even though you may die of heat exhaustion, at least you will have the perfect view of a total eclipse.)
So even though my smart, charming, and otherwise delightful children were cranky and exhausted from a couple of early mornings, long drives, and late nights, we were ready.
We had our solar glasses. (You might also have heard not to look directly at the sun. I’m not sure if you heard that. Did anyone else hear that?) I had ordered 10 pairs of solar glasses in July on Amazon (ours were not the recalled ones) and the stadium had tons that they gave away to everyone arriving. (I heard that they were selling for $900 on Ebay before the eclipse.) When I asked one of the parking shuttle bus drivers if he had his solar glasses, he shrugged and said no, that he was just driving the bus, so I gave him one of mine. I hope he watched it. At the very least, I hope he looked up during totality. (We walked to our car afterwards, so I never got a chance to follow up.)
The children participated in the least amount of STEM activities that we would let them get away with at the stadium, but generally they dragged around as begrudgingly as the minute hand on the clock. Finally, just after 1 PM, I put on my solar glasses and viewed the tiniest “bite” as the moon’s edge began to overlap the sun.
During the next hour and a half I laid down in a shady spot leaving my face in the sun and my solar glasses on, and watched the moon’s slow progress across the sun. I took breaks to rest my eyes, hydrate, go to the bathroom, check on my family, and remind my kids to keep looking up at the eclipse (NBD, it’s just a total eclipse and we drove hundreds of miles across three states to get here for it).
About five minutes before totality, as the second hand slowly ticked around our watches, the announcer called out that the game would be suspended so that we could all view the eclipse. The light grew strange, like at dawn or sunset.
I watched through my solar glasses until the tiniest sliver of sun vanished. And right when I expected to see the diamond ring effect, all went completely black through my solar glasses. I could hear people gasping and cheering around me. I whipped off my solar glasses and right where the glowing sun had been now hovered in the eerie night sky instead a black circle with white light shining around it. The sky was a deep blue. Instead of a warm orange sun and a bright summer day, everything was blue and dark. I had brought my binoculars all the way from home for the express purpose of looking through them at the total eclipse. Instead, I completely forgot about them. My husband took a quick family selfie. I snapped a couple of shots with my iPhone, but mostly I just wanted to stare at it. The temperature had dropped, which was a great relief. We could see a couple of stars winking in the sky. It was breathtaking.
Then, as we gazed, The moon slowly slipped to the left in its transit and there was an audible “oooooh” from the gathered crowd as the diamond ring effect appeared and everyone had to put solar glasses back on. (I mean, I did. Maybe some people suffered blindness, I have no way of knowing.) The shadow of the moon on the ground quickly skittered away and the light began to change again as if it were a sunrise in fast forward.
It was as if a spell had broken. All around me, people were packing bags, zipping zippers, and beginning to exit the stadium. But wait! I thought, there’s still another hour and a half to go in the second part of this eclipse. My solar glasses back on, I watched the moon continue to pass over the sun, creating a larger and larger crescent of sun. But people were hot. People were sweaty. I am not going to lie, people were ready to leave the total eclipse of the park. They had seen what they had come to see.
We left too. We rounded out the visit with about eight hours of driving in traffic–blasting the AC–towards my aunt and uncle’s home. As my husband drove, out of principle I kept my solar glasses on hand and continued to glance up at the moon’s progress during the first hours of our drive as it finished its transit across the sun. Finally, we arrived late that night at our destination after spending hours on the road with other eclipse watchers, all returning to our not-in-totality homes (or in our case, family’s home). We fell exhausted into bed that night and the following day had a lovely visit with family, including lots of eclipse discussions, and returned home Tuesday afternoon, tired but delighted.
How was your eclipse experience? Did you go blind? Were you hiding under a rock to prove you didn’t care? Or something in between? Do you have plans for the next eclipse across the US in 2024? I’d love to hear your take on this wonderful natural event.
Bonus photo by NASA: The International Space Station passing in front of the sun during the eclipse.