In August 2017, my daughter and I embraced our Dork side and journeyed a thousand miles from New York to Tennessee with the hope that we would witness a total solar eclipse. A thousand mile in exchange for two and a half minutes of midday darkness.
I’m 68 now. In 1979 I was 30. Back then I missed seeing a total eclipse in Portland Oregon due to cloud cover. (What! It rains in Oregon?) Total cloud cover. However, if I had a car back then, or friends who had a car, I could have traveled less than 100 miles due east, past Mt Hood and into the eastern Oregon desert. There I could have been out of the clouds and into the sunshine. My opportunity came this year with the August 2017 eclipse that would pass only 950 miles to my south….and, I had a car.
I have a big science streak in me, a nerd lurking in my brain. When activated I immediately start researching. Fortunately, all total eclipses are totally predictable. After thousands of years at scratching their heads at the wonder of the sun suddenly being slowly devoured and regurgitated, someone predicted an eclipse. A very sharp Greek named Thales of Milete is credited with predicting that a total eclipse would occur on May 28th, 585 B.C. He nailed it.
Historians suggested that he probably borrowed the science, if not the whole prediction from the Egyptians but at least we can credit the Greek, Herodotus, with writing a good story about the prediction and the effects. The 585 BC eclipse occurred during a battle between the Medians and Lydians in Central Turkey. It so impressed the troops that they lay down their swords and made peace.
The path of the total eclipse of August 21st, 2017 was predicted long before I was born. The eclipse shadow would first show up on the shores of Oregon, pass through the eastern Oregon desert, and proceed through the middle of the country exiting on the Atlantic shore of South Carolina. Not for another century would an eclipse travel the entire length of the US.
Deciding where to go to see the eclipse was my first task. I felt I could only afford to drive there from New York. That limited me to Tenessee on one side of the Appalachians or South Carolina on the other. After reviewing probable cloud cover for August I decided on Tenessee.
I picked interstate 81 as the best route even though it seemed to have lots of little exclamation marks that indicated construction and delays.
It was about then that my daughter offered to join me and help me drive. Her rationale for coming seemed thin. “I don’t have a job yet so I have nothing else to do,” she said, looking bemused at my charts and graphs showing weather trends and highway routes. “I think we should just get in the car and drive.” She softened when I remined her she could potentially see a dozen more eclipses in her lifetime while I might get one more shot in 2024. The 2024 eclipse will come through Rochester NY – only 2 hours away.
Besides the weather and construction delays, there was one other problem I knew I would have little control over – the mass migration of millions of people.
I read on the internet that so many people would travel to view this event that the numbers would affect the National Energy Grid and the grid would have to be adjusted. It was also predicted that many people would wait until the last day and pack the highways, creating the first national traffic jam.
I decided we would leave on August 17th and stay in Harrisburg PA, Roanoke VA, and reach Knoxville TN on the 2oth to stay with my daughter’s friends. We would have to hope for clear weather south of Knoxville where we would camp at a TBD location.
Nephophobia is fear of clouds. I was a candidate for nephophobia by the time we left. I knew we were taking a big chance that, after four days of sleeping in strange beds and camping out on site, we would see nothing worth talking about simply because of one cloud. I didn’t want to see the eclipse by the side of the road in the middle of a traffic jam on an interstate. I envisioned finding a camping spot in a farmers field.
“Fear of traffic jams” has not yet been given a phobia name. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to see the eclipse by the side of an interstate. I could see that someone might be tempted to crane their head forward over the dashboard to get a good look. After all, we are the country that invented the drive-in.
I envisioned finding a camping spot in a farmers field. Envisioning has often made things happen in my life and this trip was no exception.
America a land of entrepreneurs. Freddy Crabtree is one of them . (I did not make up his name). We were fortunate to find his field advertised on Eventbrite – an app that was helpful in finding rental space to park in the path of totality. Forget hotels they were booked months in advance. Freddy owns a field in Tennessee which lies within one mile of the exact center of the line of totality. The closer one is to that center, the longer the eclipse, we would experience one of the longest eclipse periods – about two and a half minutes of totality.
When we arrived there was just one large RV at the other end of the field. Freddy had thought to cut the grass. His cows grazed in peace across the rural road, unaware of the coming darkness.
I set up our little yellow tent towards the south-west end of the field. We were really early. There was no traffic jam on the 20th. People who arrived the morning of the 21st reported the roads were very busy.
Some people brought a ton of cameras and equipment. The guy on the right was all professional.
He showed me his computer screens which were filled with figures on orienting his telescope.
I nodded at the incomprehensible mathematical calculations.
Fortunately, an actual astronomer was in the crowd and I was able to
openly display my ignorance. He explained the sun is 400 times larger than the moon but exactly 400 times further away as seen from our perspective here on earth. This makes them appear to be the same size. Say what? This link explains this fact with graphics a child can easily understand. I got it.
We all had our eclipse glasses that helped us look right at the sun. So nerdy!
Eclipse day! After a night of uncomfortableness in our tent, my daughter and I awakened to a day filled with way too many puffy clouds that covered about 40% of the sky. Feeling full-fledged nephophobia I wandered around checking out the displays.
One featured a typical projection onto a white sheet of paper but a father got creative and projected the image on his son’s baby blanket which had a field of stars fabric.
An enthusiastic guy with high flying drone told me he would be taking photos from 2000 feet to capture the shadow as it moved across the field. “You need to be up that high to
see the whole shape,” he explained. He told me he would send the video he captured. I have not heard from him yet.
We were all set, I took a few more still photos that show some of the changes in the light as the sun began to fade.
There was not a cloud in the sky! This was the beginning.
The colors in the above photos are true to life. Notice how the shadows under the trees appear to be painted on the grass. I took a video of what happened next but it exceeds the space I am allowed in this blog. I will try to edit it down.
Suffice to say no photo can really capture an eclipse experience. The temperature begins to drop. It becomes noticeably cooler. The night insects begin their chorus. A flock of birds went over us heading for a safe place, I assume from nocturnal predators. During the eclipse, one could see about 4 planets in the “night” sky. There appears to be a sunset quality to the light around the entire horizon – not just to the west. Since the path of totality is about 70 miles wide and we were in the middle, I suppose I was seeing sunlight on all the horizons.
They say animals behave strangely at this time but the cows seemed relaxed. People who normally live in the city were cheering and applauding in the middle of a farmer’s field near midday – so I guess that was odd, but not really when you consider this extraordinary event.