Ever since I was young there was always one day that I looked forward to the most in each year. The magic that exists around November and December was always a time when I felt enthusiasm and feelings of well being would well up the closer we got to December 25th. I remember many a Christmas Eve night too excited to sleep, and making an unscheduled all-nighter. The sight of Christmas lights, the sound of carols being hummed or sung by me and others. If we were lucky we would have white snow covering the ground for the week surrounding that momentous day. On a few rare occasions we would actually see snow falling on Christmas Eve. I always love seeing the snow fall through the twilight and street lights.
On August 21, 2017 an event occurred that is still confusing, and wonderful at the same time. For this fleeting moment, 49 seconds to be exact, I was fortunate enough to take part in an event not seen by the continental US in 38 years.
As an avid amateur astronomer I knew this day was coming for quite some time. I had read articles, books, even watched videos online of previous events that had taken place for lucky travelers who experienced these events all over the world. They all had one resounding thing in common. Everyone talked about how you had to experience totality. Descriptions like “The difference between totality and a partial eclipse was like dying and almost dying”. I was unsure what I should expect, but I knew I wanted to see this act of Nature for myself.
After many years of being a photographer my goal used to be to capture any and all memories and it caused me to experience life from behind a black box with a lens. As the years have progressed I have spent more time with my camera left on the table and worked on experiencing more of life first hand. This being said, I wanted to ensure that I got the best experience of the 2017 Solar Eclipse. I had pre-planned knowing that I would setup my gear. Cameras, telescope, laptop, goto mount, and a table to hold all the equipment. I know this may sound counter to my previous statement. But I knew we would have enough setup time that by the time the event started all I would have to do is click a mouse button which freed me up to watch the eclipse with my own eyes sheltered by special glasses that allowed full-time viewing of the orb in our sky. In retrospect I know if I hadn’t taken the pictures I got I would still be wondering if it was all real.
This is all said to show that I tried my best to prepare for the unknown. We had planned our trip knowing that the line of totality lay between Oregon and South Carolina. I have relatives that live just 30 miles north of the line of totality in South Carolina, and graciously they allowed us to stay for a few days, of which I am eternally grateful. I had planned to go with just my father and eldest son. With the addition of my wife and youngest son we decided to make it a mini vacation. It was nice to be able to do other things with my loved ones and not stress about the upcoming event.
As the day approached the forecast was beginning to look bleak with most of the eastern side of the state to be covered in clouds which meant we would be unable to see any of it. We had a choice of driving 300 miles west, or picking a spot and hoping that we would get lucky. Just 30 miles south of our location would be enough to get us into the path of totality. For those who don’t know, the closer you get to the center line of the path of the eclipse the longer it lasts, this particular one was up to 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Our location we picked was only allowing for 49 seconds of totality, so we had to get it right.
The News reports we heard had the estimates in the millions for people who would be traveling to see the eclipse, we even saw traffic signs in North Carolina warning of traffic delays. We set out the morning of the 21st at 7:30AM to give us ample time to reach our destination. We were surprised that we saw little to no traffic. Maybe everyone else was scared away by the weather reports and had went elsewhere. We pulled into the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart in Georgetown, SC The lot was mostly empty but we saw a couple people setting up lawn chairs. For the next 5 hours we waited in the lot, did some shopping, ate breakfast and watched as the clouds covered the eastern sky.
This was the sky at around 9:30AM, as you can see it wasn’t too promising.
With the sky as covered as it was we decided to have some brunch. From this point on everything started to turn weird. We noticed that the parking lot had started to fill up consideralby in the last 45 minutes and time had started to act funny. I say it acted funny because we knew we had 3 hours till the moon’s first contact but it felt like minutes. Time seemed to compress. Once the moon took the first bite at 1:17PM we knew that the next few hours were going to be hectic (this was why I planned to let my equipment take care of the pictures). At around 1PM the clouds started to part revealing the sun
Looking through the telescope allowed us to see this moment shortly before the others could see anything happening with their own eyes. You can see the “bite” in the upper right of the sun.
I had read articles about how ancient civilizations had viewed the eclipse as impending doom. From shooting flaming arrows at the darkening sun to banging drums and making noise to scare away the perceived dragon swallowing the sun. When you see the sun starting to darken live it creates a moment of disbelief. All my life I had known the sun was up in the sky, sometimes behind clouds, other times just beating us down with it’s heat, but nonetheless it was still there. However when you start to see something covering it up, even knowing the science behind what is going on, you start to question everything you know. It was the oddest experience, time was compressing, the sun was disappearing, and the daylight was starting to appear a little different.
For the next hour we watched as the Sun became less and less. The moon had started it’s dance, but was quickly taking over the lead.
In between monitoring my equipment and looking at the sun we started to notice that our shadows had started to get sharper. Our shadows started to appear as black outlines on the ground as if they had been drawn with a marker.
There were moments where clouds would obscure our view of the sun, but within a few minutes we would be back to a clear sight of the sun.
It wasn’t long until the sun became but a mere sliver in the sky and surprisingly when we looked around it was still daylight, at least it appeared that way since our eyes had had almost an hour and a half to adjust to the growing darkness.
Even with just a small sliver of the sun showing it was still too bright for us to look at with the naked eye. I had known from reading that the next leg of the journey was the infamous Diamond Ring, this is when the sun has just enough of a last ditch effort to extend it’s light rays towards us and it creates a “pop” of light.
A blink of the eye and the Diamond Ring was gone. We were left with a giant white ring in the sky.
Of all the places I’ve been, roller coasters I have riden, all the Christmases I have experienced, nothing comes close to the feeling you get under the giant ring that used to be our sun. The moment totality hit it felt as if I had been transported to another place. People around me were cheering, clapping, laughing, and crying. The area was illuminated by a strange light that came from nowhere and everywhere all at once. It didn’t feel like dawn or dusk. In fact it didn’t feel like anything, at least nothing I had ever felt to compare it with. I felt like I was grounded and floating at the same time. The normal sounds of busy people, and traffic, nature, they all stopped. All you could hear was the laughter, cheering and tears of immense joy. It was another time and another place, it was like a dream while being totally awake.
And 49 seconds later we were brought back to reality with the second Diamond Ring.
And that’s when we knew it was over. I kept my equipment running to take pictures but I was left with a feeling of contemplation. Wondering what I had just experienced, remembering my place in the universe, that I was but a mere speck in the grand scheme of things.
It has taken me almost a week just to sit down and share my thoughts on this experience, and even still my mind is wondering. Christmas comes once a year, Total Solar Eclipses don’t. It has been 38 years since anyone has seen this spectacle in the lower 48 states. It was one of those events where I know where I was and what I was doing on August 21st 2017. Did you experience the same thing?
I know I cannot wait for the next one in 7 years. The total Solar Eclipse line of totality travels a mere 70 miles from where I am now, and it promises to be even bigger, with totality lasting up to four and a half minutes. I know where I will be April 8, 2024, I might even plan an event for the next one and bring you guys with me.
Let me know your thoughts, or experiences.