My Eclipse Experience

04Sep17

The last time a total eclipse passed over the continental United States was February 1979. I was in college and used a pinhole projector to view it from my front yard. From my vantage point in Rhode Island, it was a magnitude .70.

I was awestruck.

It’s been 38 years, but when I learned that another total eclipse would pass over the country this summer, I knew I had to experience totality. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event

Planning

I spent a year planning my umbral experience. I looked over all the maps, weather projections and event listings. I read scores of articles from experienced eclipse-viewers. I located resources to provide information on locations, events and weather. Ultimately, my goal was to locate a place that provided cloudless skies and good highways running east and west (in case I had to get out from under clouds).

I considered going out west to Wyoming or Idaho, where clear skies were almost a certainty. When I factored in my budget, I realized I could not realistically travel that far. I needed some place that was within a couple of day’s drive from Massachusetts. That brought my planning to the east coast.

I looked at South Carolina, but the unpredictable weather near the coast was a non-starter. As I traced the path of totality backwards to the west, I briefly contemplated trying a location in the Great Smoky Mountains. This might provide an elevated view west of the mountain range where I could see the moon’s shadow racing across Tennessee. But I quickly dismissed this idea when I looked at long-range weather patterns. They’re called the smoky mountains for a reason.

I finally settled on the area that included Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois. This area met my criteria, and included the largest city in the path of totality – Nashville. Once I saw the cost of flights from Boston to Nashville, the idea of driving was done. It was faster, cheaper and easier to fly and rent a car, than to drive.

My family decided to join me and we started making plans in earnest. When I travel, I like to factor in some extra time in case of flight delays or cancellations so we planned to arrive the Saturday before the eclipse. Nashville is a city of 600,000 people. It has thousands of hotel rooms, restaurants and entertainment venues. We’d have something to do while we waited.

We booked rooms, flights and the car way back in February. I think we beat the rush because the hotel rate was very reasonable – about a third of the rates that were being charged a few weeks before the eclipse.

I ordered our ISO-compliant eclipse glasses and a set of maps. On one map, I traced out the path of totality through Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. Based on the highways and last-minute weather forecast, I could use my map to adjust our viewing point to ensure we could find clear skies.

As it turned out, I was not the only person planning to view the eclipse. Over a million others chose Nashville as their eclipse-viewing site. When we arrived two days before the big event, the airport was insane. The car rental agency had pulled in cars from all over the country but still could not keep up with demand. They couldn’t find our car, so they just handed us the keys to another (larger) vehicle and sent us on our way.

Every hotel room in Nashville was booked. The restaurants and bars were busy and both special “eclipse shows” at the Grand Ole Opry were sold out.

I did not consider that all these great east-west highways would end up being bumper-to-bumper in the days and hours leading up to the event. Those million-plus visitors to the Nashville area pretty much meant we weren’t going anywhere in case of poor weather. It was Nashville or bust.IMG_4764

I watched the weather reports closely with fingers crossed. The forecast was mostly sunny with some clouds bubbling up from the afternoon heat. The TV weather forecaster suggested the eclipse might slow the formation of those clouds.

Experiencing Totality

At 11:58 CDT I put on my glasses and looked up at the sun….nothing. I waited a few minutes and checked again, and now I could discern a small, curved chunk missing from the upper right quadrant of the Sun.

It was happening. Over the next hour or so, I checked back regularly and, as the the moon obscured more and more of the sun, I made note of some interesting changes happening around me.

I was sitting in the shade under some trees and noticed the projection of the partial eclipse on the ground. All over the bricks at my feet were tiny images of the partial eclipse. The leaves were acting as pinhole projectors. This was my second time in the penumbra but this was going to be dramatically different. No pinhole projector for me, I was using my glasses to watch this celestial event directly and this time, I was in the path of totality.

With about 30 minutes to go, I noticed a busy breeze kicking up. I did not notice a dramatic temperature drop, but I think the eclipse prevented the usual temperature climb in the early afternoon. It didn’t get cool, but it never got hot either.

I had friends in Oregon and Wyoming so I kept up with their experiences on social media. They posted pictures of the 360 degree sunset and totality. The moon’s shadow was sweeping across the country at 1,800 mph. I was getting really excited.

Things started to look…a little….weird as we got closer and closer to totality. The quality of light changed. There were crisper shadows and a slight dimming of the light around us. It felt like there was a very slight yellow cast to everything.

The place we were observing announced that they had turned off the light sensors so our view should not be obscured by a host of street lights turning on during the eclipse. About two minutes before totality, it was looking like dusk. It was getting darker by the second. The lights at the shopping mall across the street came on, which elicited a roar from the crowd.

As the moon’s shadow raced towards us, nearly upon us, I realized the cicadas had stopped their incessant chirping. That sound is so ubiquitous, it’s absence was obvious. As the moon fully blocked the sun, it was as if someone had turned out the lights. The difference between 99% and 100% is dramatic – it has to be seen to be believed.

We were in the umbra. A huge cheer went up from the crowd – and then it was quiet as people stared, slack-jawed at the sight above them.265510main_aug1totality1_full_full-0

The sky was dark blue – not black like at night but still quite dark. I scanned the sky for planets and stars. I was hopeful to see Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter in addition to Betelgeuse. We had some clouds overhead and I could easily find Venus but the other objects were either not visible or hidden behind the clouds.

The image of a total eclipse is incredible. It looks just like the pictures but it’s real. It’s hanging in the sky overhead. I can only imagine how terrifying this must have been to the ancients who had no understanding of what was happening.

Totality is fast – we were expecting about 2 minutes and it goes by in what feels like a few heartbeats. The first rule of observing a total eclipse, from many different sources, is “Don’t photograph the eclipse” just experience it. That was good advice. Two minutes is not much time…and it feels like it’s over in a fraction of that time.

Near the end, a large cloud slowly obscured the sun, costing us about 20 seconds of totality. And then, even hidden behind that cloud, the lights came back on. It was over….the light returned. It was that fast….back to 99%, 98%, 97% the cicadas started their infernal racket again…and all returned to normal.

Suddenly, everyone around me was talking. I heard snatches of conversation: “wow,” “awesome,” “unbelievable,” “incredible.”

And it was all those things. A total eclipse is something to be experienced. It’s hard to explain how it feels – you really just have to be there.

Aftermath

I teach eclipses as part of Lowell’s 8th grade Planetary Science unit. I’ve taught eclipses every year I’ve been a teacher. It’s a standard I enjoy teaching, and now, I can’t wait to teach it again.

I feel much better prepared to teach this learning target having experienced a total eclipse. It’s not that I’ll teach the content in a different or better way, but now I can infuse those lessons with my personal, first-hand experience. It will add an emotional component to, what many students consider to be dry content. My experience can serve as a hook to ignite my students collective imagination.

I will encourage them, as I encourage everyone, to get into totality. We have another total eclipse in the United States in 2024. And this one will pass through Northern New England – not too far to go for a once-in-a-lifetime (maybe twice) experience.

Go – get into the umbra. Experience totality. Marvel at the grand beauty of these unique celestial mechanics.

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