“The dreamer in me got us here but the pragmatist may win out on the path of totality.” That’s what I texted my friend Beth a few days before the big eclipse.
It started as just another one of my brilliant ideas. Or hare-brained schemes. In the spring, I started hearing about this event. A total eclipse of the sun visible in the US for the first time in 98 years. My interest was peaked. Then I heard that it would be on my daughter’s 17th birthday. It seemed the fates were aligning. We decided we would all go and my parents would join us, so as a family of 8, we needed a house and got something kind of last minute near the beach, with access to a pool and enough bathrooms and bedrooms. It was not technically in the path of totality, but within driving distance.
Just before I left New Jersey, people had started talking about the eclipse up north. Apparently you could see it everywhere in North America, but it would only be a partial eclipse. Officially, 75 percent in New Jersey. I was surprised it would be so high and reasoned that if we were that much closer to the full eclipse, we might not need to be in totality to see the difference. But while we were in South Carolina I read (and repeated, ad nauseum) this quote:
"This is one of those rare events where being close is not good enough," said J. Kelly Beatty, senior editor of Sky & Telescope. "A sun that's 99% covered is vastly different than the one that's 100% covered. Like I say to people, it's like being on a first date versus being on your wedding night.” (This is from cnn.com)
On the other hand, a day trip up to Folly Beach, the southern tip of the Path of Totality (we’re starting a heavy metal band by that name) revealed a problem: parking. I know we have a lot of traffic in New Jersey and commuting is a pain, but in Madison at least, we don’t worry about parking. In most of the places we visited, which were beach communities and cities, it was a huge problem Folly was a giant no-parking zone dotted with leather tanned blondes waving you into their grassy, bumpy lot for $15, cash only. And this wasn’t even eclipse day.
The other quote I also kept repeating — like a parrot with multiple personality disorder — was, “Imagine 20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation.” This was said by Micheal Zeiler, who space.com says is a noted eclipse cartographer Many clever headline writers referred to it as a potential Traffic Apocalypse. Would it be worth the traffic and pain of finding parking? Could we just find a good parking lot along the way and wait there three hours? (totality was at 2:46 or so, but the event lasted from about 1 to 4 pm).
At dinner the night before, our waitress added what came to be the final nail in our Path of Totality coffin.
“They are predicting clouds tomorrow.”
I don't think she's a meteorologist, but her forecast was correct.
A key contingent of the family made a decision: if anyone wanted to try to drive into the Path of Totality they could. But some of our family was going to stay at the beach in front of our house. I believe the phrase “path of totality, schmath of totality” was used.
My lovely daughter, who was the birthday girl, decided we should all be together. What if the sun didn’t come back out or all the gators went on a killing spree? We’d want to be together for that.
So, we stayed put. And it was cloudy. We spent the beginning of the eclipse on the beach, laying down and gazing at the sky with our eclipse glasses. Every so often, the clouds would thin enough that you could see the moon’s progress across the sun. We even had a natural warning system to open your eyes and look (through eclipse glasses of course): a loud woman a bit up the beach from us squealed “I can see it!!!” every time it came into view. It was pretty cool. I told the kids that during a partial eclipse (The one I remember was in visible in New York in 1994) the light looks very silvery and strange. But in this case, most of the time the clouds obscured even that.
Finally as the moon almost covered the sun, the clouds parted a bit. The light became silvery and it began to get dark. Thunder boomed to the west and lightening bolts were visible. It got as dark as twilight, and all but a very small sliver of the sun was visible. My mom and dad made their way to the beach from their viewing porch at the house to be with us. The view to the north revealed an ominous darkening sky. It was awe inspiring and a little scary. Would we be enveloped in this darkess? Would we ever emerge?
It was just long enough, pondering the coming darkness, for the moon to continue on its path. the skies began to lighten. Blocking the sun had made it noticeably cooler. Totally bearable. We headed up the beach farther than we’d ever been, because usually it would either be too hot, or too close to night time (you have to take a marsh-crossing boardwalk with no railings to get off the beach, and some of us saw an alligator on the way once.) We found an amazing tidal pool full of live clams, flounder and some tiny fish we pretended to strand feed like dolphins. A young fisherman on the ocean said the fish weren't biting and blamed the eclipse. We kept checking in on that too, glancing upward with our glasses each time the clouds parted, just to be sure the sun was still getting bigger.
We didn’t fight, or sweat, or wait in traffic or not find a parking spot. Still, it does kind of feel like the one that got away. Now, in 2024, there will be another total eclipse of the sun. I’m going to try to get Path of Totality a strategically located gig that day. Anyone want to join the band? We need a cowbell player or two. Must not mind being in Dallas or maybe Toronto or Detroit, or maybe Montreal on April 8.