On the Path of Totality

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drawing of traffic jam on interstate

I’m writing this from a traffic jam on I-95.

When we were choosing days on the schedule for Eclipse Week, nobody wanted the responsibility of writing a post the day of the eclipse. Because I have an overactive sense of duty, I signed up for this post, then joked that I’d be writing it on I-95, from the world’s worst traffic jam, on my phone.

Well, the joke’s on me; my phone died.

Surely no one can expect anything coherent from me, from the right lane of an interstate somewhere south of Fayetteville, NC. Instead, I present some eclipse impressions.

1. Traffic. The drawing that starts this post is from the worst traffic we hit on Saturday, on I-95 between Washington, D.C., and Fredericksburg. Here’s the thing, though – I think that may have been normal August weekend traffic. Apparently taking 2.5 hours to go 30 miles is not that unusual. (It was many hours after that traffic jam that my phone gave up its fight. Fortunately, I also brought a laptop.)

 

2. Eclipse party. For Monday’s eclipse-viewing fun, we consulted a list of NASA-affiliated events and chose a park in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, where the moon was supposed to cover the sun for a minute and 55 seconds of totality. Laura Penny, an astronomy professor at the College of Charleston, had coordinated more than a dozen parties at neighborhoods around the area, hosted by professors and students. Penny herself hosted ours, with her kids, friends, and mom, many of them in matching t-shirts. Here’s Penny projecting the image of the as-yet-uneclipsed sun through a telescope onto a piece of paper.

a woman, a telescope, a piece of paper

3. Clouds. For days, the weather report had been predicting a partly cloudy afternoon. Between 11:30, when we got to the park, and 1:15ish, when the moon first started to pass in front of the sun, it was cloudy more than it was clear. We watched the earliest phases of the eclipse through telescope projections and dark, NASA-provided eclipse glasses, then sat under a tree waiting to see if the clouds would let us witness totality. For weeks, people had been asking me if I was worried about the weather, and for weeks, I’d been shrugging and saying, “It’ll still get dark.”

4. Sun. Sometime in the hour and a half while the moon was working its way across, during a break in the clouds, I thought, wow, I’m hot, then realized it was probably because I’d been pointing my face directly at the sun for the last several minutes.

5. More clouds. A storm appeared in the north. The sun came out again when it had shrunk to a crescent. Penny pointed out the shadows under a tree and we all ran over, an excited gaggle, to see.

6. Totality. The quickest two minutes of my life. Afterward my friend Kate said, “I don’t know if the animals got quiet, because the people…” –went crazy. We went crazy. Somehow, just a few minutes before totality, the clouds thinned out. As the sun shrank to a tiny crescent, I pulled off my eclipse glasses and looked around me. The light turned gray, and faint, and features seemed sharper somehow.

The sun’s last rays shone bright, then winked out, and there it was, just like in the photos—a dark circle with a light ring around it, a dark gray sky. Face turned up, mouth hanging open, I made ecstatic, non-word sounds as tears streamed from the outside corners of both eyes. The other 30 or so people in the park sounded just as excited. We laughed and exclaimed. Penny pointed out Jupiter. A flock of birds flew over and there were shouts of “birds!!” because we knew they were supposed to act funny during an eclipse. Thunder and lightning. Then a bright light at the bottom right of the disk, a man yelling “it’s coming back!” and all of the glasses went back on.

7. Traffic, part 2. Did you know a Ruby Tuesday’s can run out of food? Or get close enough to running out that it closes early? I commend the McDonald’s at the interstate exit in Lumberton, North Carolina, where the staff were efficient and cheerful in the face of an onslaught of tired eclipse watchers (although most of us seemed pretty cheerful, too – my table with our matching facial sunburns, the large family in matching eclipse t-shirts, the assorted fellow nerds). And just a few more miles down the road is a Quality Inn with our name on it.

8. Wifi. I sure hope the Quality Inn has wifi.

Art: Drawings by me. My phone died and I had no camera, so…drawings. 

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3 thoughts on “On the Path of Totality

  1. So fun to share the experience with you! I’ve been quoting the guy who was there who told his wife it was kind of a nerd party when I talk about the day. It was such a festive time! Hope y’all made it back home. Until 2024!

  2. Heather, it did have wifi! (Whew.)

    René, we had such a lovely time! And we joked that the cop’s report back to the dispatcher was “…we’ve got a park full of nerds.”

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