My wife likes the beach. Every year, around her birthday, we plan a trip to the beach. This year, the beach trip was almost certainly (and did not) happen. For the first time in decades, a total solar eclipse was going to be visible over large swats of the continental United States. When I first looked at the map for viewing totality, the closest town in which the totality will be visible was hours away from the Washington D.C. area. What is an astronomy geek supposed to do?
Drive to South Carolina. So everyone agreed to go to South Carolina for this year’s “beach trip.” The problem was, we didn’t book lodgings early enough, so we ended up staying near Charlotte, North Carolina. An even better idea. Several cities that are going to experience totality are within two hours of Charlotte. Columbia, Greenville. Charleston. Now, Charleston was more than two hours away, but choice is always good.
Unfortunately, we didn’t head south early enough. Once the window for driving down Interstate 95 essentially closed (on the Saturday before the eclipse) – the probability of encountering heavy traffic on Interstate 95 driving southward becoming a near certainty – it was time for another spur of the moment plan. We ended up driving westward and then south (going south via Interstate 81). Unfortunately, my idea of a rather easy commute was shattered by numerous accidents on Interstate 81. The roughly six hour or so drive took almost three hours more to complete.
Still, we got to Charlotte on Saturday evening and had a great dinner. We forgot, however, that things don’t quite work the same way in the South as it does in Northern Virginia (and points northward). It’s been decades since a majority of places (to eat) were closed on Sundays. We were looking forward to eating good Southern style barbecue. Fortunately, we found a Greek deli and had the most southern of all cuisines (Greece is actually south of Northern Virginia).
We left Charlotte early Monday morning and headed down to South Carolina. As there were predictions of cloud cover in the eclipse area, we ended up heading towards Greenville to minimize the chances of clouds blocking our view of the eclipse. Then a new idea popped up. Why go to a city when you can go to the South Carolina high country to watch the eclipse. We headed towards Nine Times Preserve (owned by the Nature Conservancy) to watch the eclipse. Surprisingly, the traffic to this part of South Carolina was fairly light. Traveling the highways on the North Carolina/South Carolina high country was immensely pleasurable and relaxing. Traffic, what traffic?
Unfortunately, there are no “facilities” at Nine Times Preserve so we decided to stop by Table Rock State Park for a quick refresher. Even at 8AM, all the parking spaces near the park visitor center were in use The state troopers were directing people to other parts of the park to park and set up for the eclipse. We were able to head down to Nine Times Preserve suitably refreshed.
Well, Nine Times Preserve was a nice, isolated, quiet area. Very few people were in the preserve. There’s an eclipse in a few hours, why so few people? Well, for one thing, the parking spaces in the preserve were either tree line or there were power lines hanging between towers nearby that could block the view of the event. Intent on photographing the eclipse, I decided to head towards the Jocassee Gorges Land Management area. To our surprise, the was a big lot on the side of the road (Cherokee Hills Scenic Highway) where people set up their telescopes and cameras. And there was enough space for us to park. And the view was going to be relatively unobstructed.
It was a warm summer day in South Carolina. There were clouds in the sky, but the eclipse was a few hours away. Still, those weather apps on the mobile phone proved invaluable in monitoring the weather around our little spot of South Carolina. A half hour before the eclipse, there was a chance that some clouds would ruin our best laid plans.
The eclipse started with everyone staring at the sun (with their official eclipse glasses that were made in China), waiting patiently for the occlusion to start. It was a slow process and people went about their other tasks – conversations started, snacks consumed. Soon enough, some clouds threatened to cover the rapidly diminishing solar disc. Somehow, the clouds, like the Red Sea, parted and we eclipse seekers were able to go to the Promised Land (okay, we got to see totality).
What a sight it was. I wanted to capture, on my camera, the moment when the totality phase first began. The diamond ring effect is the first indicator of this phase of the eclipse, as the last part of the sun is covered by the new moon. A few seconds later, Baily’s Beads became visible, which marked the beginning of totality. We had traveled far enough south that totality lasted two and a half minutes. I would glance up in the sun in total amazement, then get back to the camera to take more pictures.
Two and a half minutes seemed like an eternity. It also seemed like it only lasted a millisecond. Totality was over sooner than we really wanted. Baily’s Beads reappeared. Then the diamond ring was back. A few seconds after that, totality was over. Two and a half minutes of utter amazement. It was dark (not pitch black). We could see the corona illuminating the darkened sky. It was eerily quiet. The creatures of the earth, in unison, reveled in the fact that in the middle of a nearly cloudless day, we could not see our own shadows. For a moment, people from all parts of the East Coast (we, in this spot in South Carolina came from points north, west and south) were joined in watching one of nature’s true wonders. A shared, almost supernal experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives. For two and a half minutes, we were not Virginians, North Carolinians, South Carolinians, Pennsylvanians, Georgians. We were men and women looking up, staring intently on a disc that we have known for all our lives and that now, for a few brief seconds, was transformed to a mesmerizing display of the sun’s hitherto invisible chromosphere. A shared experience. A shared humanity.
The traffic driving back to Charlotte was significantly heavier than the traffic going down to this little spot somewhere between the towns of Sunset and Salem South Carolina. It mattered not. The traffic will be forgotten. The inconveniences will be forgotten. The excitement of the moment, the memory of the experience, the pictures of the eclipsed sun will remain for the rest of our lives.
And, there is going to be another total solar eclipse that will be visible in the United States in seven years. Road Trip!
A fantastic birthday present. For my wife. And for everyone who saw it. A grand revelation of our place in this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy, in this universe. That we can gaze upon the stars, marvel at the sights, and have the knowledge to know of what is about to happen, and yet still be in awe of what we are seeing, can be an epiphany. A rebirth, of sorts. Though we are mere creatures privileged enough to see a total eclipse of the sun, we are left with the knowledge that this world we all live in must be cared for to the outmost of our abilities. I hope that my children and their children and the generations yet to come will have the same sense of wonder that we, a small cadre of humans on a small spot in South Carolina, experienced. And that they will be able to stand on the same collection of interstellar dust, a planet called earth, breathe clean mountain air, and gaze upward towards the heavens.