They are right when they say there is nothing quite like a total solar eclipse. I had seen an annular eclipse in my senior year of high school as it cross over Vermont. Wandering out there with our physics teacher, looking through glasses, it was pretty cool, but it was nothing like the Sun going out.
Eclipse day for us was in Springfield, TN, as my friend’s Nick and Heather were living there, and it was deep in the path of totality. We made plans to visit in May, booked our hotel then, and framed a trip around this so that we’d do four 8 hour driving days on our great eclipse road trip. Down through Cleveland to visit family, and up through Virginia on the way back to break up the drive.
On the way to Tennessee on Friday, my friend Jack was still sorting out his plans. He and his son were going to be sleeping in their car wherever they went. The weather where he was originally headed was looking dicey, and I said “well this is where we’ll be, I make no promises, but I can offer you use of our hotel shower.” Friday evening they decided they would join us. They arrived Sunday about 9am. In addition to bringing their wonderful selves, they had brought a solar filtered scope, a hydrogen alpha scope, and a camera rig to shoot the eclipse, and a shade tent.
We scouted a location at Nick and Heather’s apartment, a flat grassy section near the apartment complex dog park. First contact was just shy of noon for us. We started setting up all the equipment at 10, were in a good state by 11.
First contact. The moment when you stare through those eclipse glasses and say: “wait, is that side just a little flat now? Maybe I’m imagining it. No, I really think it is. Yeah, that must be real.” As the eclipse grows, your brain does this funny thing and enhances the boundary. The silhouette of the Sun seems to glow brighter than the Sun itself.
After about 20 minutes, and our pacman shape ever growing, I realized we’re never going to break for food (the original plan), we should bring it back down here. So I headed back upstairs with Nick, prepared a bit of our picnic food that we’d gotten the night before, and headed back provisions in hand.
A shade tent is a glorious thing when watching an eclipse on a 95 degree sunny day with few clouds. We would spend time inside the tent, drinking water, having a snack, then popping out to see how things were progressing.
With our little camp setup, folks from the complex started stopping by. Including a number of kids. Jack’s a pro at the sidewalk astronomy outreach, we introduced people to the scopes, what they were looking at, and kept them pointed and in focus. One of the kids came back out with popsicles for everyone as a thank you for letting everyone see through those scopes.
It was never going to get cold in Tennessee, but once we got past 75% coverage, the beating hot 95 turned into “a reasonable warm day to be outside”. Maybe we dialed back to 80. The sky lost it’s deep blue, and was just a muted version of itself. Everything was muted in an erie way that you can’t quite describe.
As we closed in on second contact, a cloud creeped in over the Sun. It kept going away, coming back, going away, coming back, with lots of, “is that it?”, “no”. Then just before totality the cloud cleared, it went black, one of the neighbors yelled, “we’re in!”. Everyone took off their glasses. And we stared at a hole in the sky with the giant wispy corona spewing out from it.
Pictures don’t ever really capture what the eye sees. Most of them show a small ring around the Sun. But this was a sun flower. The corona extended at least the radius of the Sun again. It wasn’t uniform, it was sweepy with a few petals poking out. It was amazing. Everyone was exclaiming in different ways, processing this true wonder of nature in a way personal to them.
Venus, Jupiter, and even dim Mercury came out to meet us. I was so focused on all of those I didn’t really take the time to look for other stars. But given Mercury was dialing in at magnitude 3, there should have been plenty.
We got about two and a half minutes. It’s not enough time. Not enough time to soak in this totally bizarre experience. It was about a minute longer than our daughter (not quite 3) was happy with. Both the dark, and the black hole in the sky definitely got her scared. She was not the only one, we heard another boy crying in one of the apartments behind us.
One of the neighbors gave us a countdown for the event ending. As hit the end of the countdown, I looked down at the 2 trees in front of us. No shadow, no shadow, no shadow, then with what appeared to be a swoosh… 2 shadows. Like they were dropped back into place in a cartoon.
A child crying… my child. “I want to see Venus! I want to see Venus!”. Venus is a night sky friend, we’ve been finding it in the sky for nearly a year. Everyone was talking about how you could see it during the eclipse and now Arwen was upset that they didn’t also get that chance. But at magnitude 4, Venus was easy to see even back to 90% coverage. We spent some time pointing and looking, and calming down. She’s at the age where I don’t know if she’ll remember all of this later when she’s grown up, but maybe there will be flashes of it.
And as the Sun returned, everyone dispersed. I spent the next hour helping Jack pack up and put things in his car. We all ended up back in the nice AC before the even was properly over, taking a last look at a 15% eclipse before going inside for more food and to crack a few beers.
Jack and son stayed a few hours to let the worst of the traffic clear, then headed off back to Virginia. The google map from that day is amazing. We fortunately had all the food we needed in the apartment for dinner, so dined in, made our goodbyes at about 7, headed to our hotel, and even started watching the PBS eclipse documentary that aired that night. Though after a few pictures of totality were on the screen Arwen proclaimed “that is too much for me, please turn it off.”
My plan for avoiding the traffic was leaving the day after. However, there were really more people out for this event that did the same. Our 9 hour driving day, turned into 12 hours of driving thanks to constant stop and go traffic on the I-81 corridor in Virginia. We did get to our Tuesday night lodging that day, at 11:59pm. So we also get to have a traffic story for our eclipse adventure.
There really is nothing like a total eclipse. I’m now excited for 2024 (less excited about New England April weather). And, we’ll see if we consider destination adventures to see another one along the way. I was exciting to share this with my daughter and wife, and friends both old and new. What a great end to the summer.