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Eclipse: Totality or Bust

September 6, 2017

When I was 9, I observed my first eclipse.  It was a partial, it was uneventful, and I missed recess.  Lowell Elementary School herded all the squirrely children into the library and gym because they didn't trust little kids not to look at the sun.  (They're right, kids are stupid and I totally would have burned my retinas by gazing into the sun).  

 

As the librarian held up a cardboard sheet with a hole in it, a handful of kids huddled around to watch a dime-sized shadow on the floor obscure part of the nickle-sized sun spot on the floor; I couldn't believe what a let-down this all was.  I thought it was supposed to be a grand event - something astrologically magical and arresting.  I was disappointed.

 

 (photo from The Verge)

 

Fast forward a couple decades and here we are again.  For weeks leading up to the eclipse the interest and chatter steadily increased with news stories and blogs stirring up the public's fascination.  

 

Scientists and eclipse-trackers repeatedly told the public what a treat we were in for - how exciting it is - that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  The path of totality (total obscurity of the moon in front of the sun) would cut a path from coast to coast, from Oregon to Georgia, for the first time in about a century.  

 

I thought, what the hell, I'll give this another go, but, I'll do it proper this time.  And so, on a whim, and I raced down to Tennessee with a couple friends to be in the totality path to observe the Aug 21st 2017 eclipse.

 

 

The Crowds

As I attempted to secure lodging, it was clear the rest of America wanted to see the eclipse and had certainly planned out their excursion much earlier than I had.  Hotels, campsites, and airbnb's within the totality path were all booked months in advance.  I settled for something 2 hours from the path and hoped for the best.  

 

Originally we wanted to watch the eclipse in a national park or forest; ideally with visibility in all directions, but after arriving in TN we realized that a legion of other humans had the exact same idea and we quickly scrapped our plan.  

 

We needed an open field, preferably somewhere quiet, without the horde that has descended upon rural Tennessee.  We brainstormed and came up with several ideas before nixing them:

 

1. Side of the highway?  No, all the traffic and noise would interrupt our experience viewing the eclipse.....we didn't drive 14 hours one way to watch on the side of the road. 

2. Trespass on some farmer's hill/field?  No, we didn't want to tempt fate in gun country

3. Elementry school field?  It would be a poetic bookend to my first experience, but, it didn't seem the best option

4. Rural cemetery on a hill?  AHA!  Yes!  This is perfect!

 

Driving from our airbnb to the cemetery tucked away off of some back roads was supposed to take 1.75 hrs, but, it dragged on to 3 hrs.   And it took even longer coming back (so long that we were forced to stop for barbecue and brisket, so, not so bad in the grand scheme).  Even though we left a bunch of extra time, we just made it to our spot before the eclipse began.

 

And what do you know, we had an entire hill and field all to ourselves (if you don't count all the dead beneath us).

 

 

The Eclipse

We set up our picnic, found our silly eclipse glasses, peed in the bushes, and prepped all our camera gear.  We were ready for this thing!

 

(Denise, sporting her really-cool, not-dorky-at-all eclipse glasses)

 

(Our cemetery on a hill, complete with James relaxing under a tree,

out of the heat, as the eclipse is about to begin)

 

At 1pm EST, from our vantage point, the moon began its slow path across the face of the sun, cutting into the right side of he sun and would eventually exit on the left.

 

As it began, a wave of disappointment washed over me: the sun seemed just as strong and bright and nothing seemed to have changed.  I thought, "what's the big deal....seems like every other part of the day".

 

Nonetheless, I began my observation and documentation.

 

(Myself, viewing the path of the moon - photo by Denise Cook) 

 

 

The Totality

But, after more than an hour, we began to notice changes:

 

• The temperature was dropping; quite considerably.  It was a sweltering, humid, sweat-dripping 92 degrees around 1pm, and now, at 2:10, it was dramatically cooler, perhaps around 74.  It was cool enough that my arms and legs were cold and I needed my flannel.  

 

• The world appeared to lose contrast...as if it were bathed in a grey blanket.  Details were dull.  There was less light.  I was squinting.  It was surreal.  

 

I cannot describe this sensation in justice.  The dullness of it.  The lack of color and contrast that normally made the world "pop".  It felt other-worldly.  

 

Indeed, the best way to show what it felt like is with this clip from Agents of Shield: 

 

 

 • With 10-15 mins left until totality, with the sky darkening at a quick pace, insects, birds, and mammals all started to sing their evening songs.  The buzzing and the chirping was incessant. Coyotes and dogs were yelping. Birds swooping and calling.

 

(15 mins left before totality)

 

With the cold air descending, the ever-darkening sky, and the incessant insect and animal noise, the moon completely blocked out the sun.  

 

Totality.  

 

(Seconds before the beginning of totality)

 

 

The sky went completely dark above us, with an amber and golden ring of 'sunset' around us ON ALL SIDES.  A 360 degree 'sunset'.

 

 With the darkened sky above we could make out stars.  

 

My stream-of-consciousness that I blurted out while experiencing the totality:

 

"OH MY GOD!! WHAAaaa?!?!?! HOLY (expletive). (more and more expletives of excitement and amazement). THIS IS SO WEIRD!  And amazing!  WOW!!!!  OH WOW!!!"

 

 (Totality.  Fuji Xt-1. 200mm. F22 1/60 ISO200. On Tripod w shutter release)

 

 (Nikon D610. 14mm. f4.5, 1/125, ISO 800, hand held)

 

 (Fuji Xt-1. 200mm. F22 1/60 ISO200. On Tripod w shutter release)

 

 

 

 

(The totality is ending, the sun is peaking out from the other side of the moon) 

 

After driving 14 hours from Philly to rural Tennessee, and then 3 hours from our airbnb to our cemetery on a hill, and waiting 1.5 hours for the moon to cover the sun, in a mere 2.5 mins, the totality came and went.  

 

And it was gloriously worth it!

 

Conclusion

The total eclipse was powerful and I can't wait to see another one.  Little 9-year-Lindsay would have indeed thought this experience was magical.  34-year-old-Lindsay certainly did.  

 

My main take away is this - totality or bust; watching a partial is nothing, experiencing a totality is existentially profound.

 

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