6. Experience a Total Solar Eclipse

(This post is part of my series 40 New Things at 40.)

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It was the kind of thing that you can’t really plan, not completely anyway. I was just lucky enough to be in the path of a total solar eclipse that happened while I was 40. So I’m counting it! The hype surrounding this “Great American Eclipse” (so called because the moon’s shadow crossed the continental U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina) was incredible. Schools and businesses in my area were closed for the day, partly because everyone wanted to be free to see the eclipse and partly because authorities had no idea how people would react to the sky going dark in the middle of the afternoon. Would people driving simply stop in the middle of the road to gawk at the sun being blotted out, or run their cars off the road in surprise (even though the media had been telling us for months that it was coming)? Would animals run wild, not comprehending what was happening? Would there be mass hysteria?!

Okay, I’m being a little dramatic, but this is not far off from what you would’ve heard on the news in the days leading up to the eclipse. It was a BIG deal. All you really need to know is that there was an Eclipse Cruise that featured Bonnie Tyler singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (a song that saw a 3000% increase in plays on Spotify the day of the eclipse) during the roughly two minutes of totality. And in the Charleston area, where I live, we were the very last place that the shadow of totality would cross before it went out over the ocean. We were told to expect tens of thousands of people coming from out of town to see this rare spectacle. I was off work that day, my husband wasn’t, and the boys were with their mom, so I made plans to go to an Eclipse Party in West Ashley with my friend Marjorie.

At the last minute, my husband’s boss decided to close the office for the day. I asked him if he wanted to go to the party with me, but he was perfectly happy to stay home and off the roads. He thought we were crazy to drive in the “eclipse traffic.” But Marjorie and I planned ahead and left early enough to give ourselves plenty of time to get there. We wanted to enjoy the hour and a half of growing darkness leading up to the two minutes of totality. The atmosphere was electric when we arrived at the party. There was a DJ playing (of course) “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Black Hole Sun,” and other songs that fit the day’s theme. There were vendors selling every kind of souvenir imaginable emblazoned with the date and logo of the Great American Eclipse. Kids out of school for the day jumped in bounce castles or chased each other with water guns. It was August in Charleston, so the heat index was near 100 degrees F. But we all would have stood outside with our eclipse glasses on a lot longer to watch the sun slowly disappear, if not for the clouds.

Storms were moving in all over the area, and visibility was low for all the people who had traveled to see the eclipse. (My stepsons were heartbroken that it was raining during totality at their mom’s house and they couldn’t see anything.) Marjorie and I sat inside a local restaurant eating lunch and drinking beer. The TV over the bar featured The Weather Channel, and a reporter in downtown Charleston interviewed a man who had come from New Jersey for the eclipse with his family. He spoke for all of us when he said, “We wanna punch the clouds right in the face.” We watched the TV coverage of totality in other states, as the shadow moved closer and closer to us, and wondered if we would be able to see anything at all when the big moment came. Every few minutes we’d wander outside, put our eclipse glasses on, and look up, trying to catch a glimpse of the crescent sun through the heavy cloud cover. Most of the time, we had no luck.

With ten minutes to go before totality, we decided to go outside for good and hope for the best. We stood with the crowd, looking up. The temperature had noticeably dropped, and when the clouds did clear from time to time, we saw eclipse shadow bands. The air felt . . . different. Was it my imagination, or one of the weird eclipse phenomena I’d been reading about so much lately? Only about two minutes before totality, the clouds blocking our view of the sun cleared. A cheer went up from the crowd. Marjorie and I looked at each other with giddy smiles on our faces. We were going to experience totality after all! We stared through our eclipse glasses at the last small sliver of the sun, and I took my glasses off long enough to snap a quick photo with my phone (though it didn’t nearly do justice to what we saw with our eyes.)

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The clearing out continued, until we were able to see a dusky blue-gray sky around the what was left of the sun. The light was like evening only somehow crisper. The sun was disappearing! We were mesmerized, unable to take our eyes off it. For a split second, we saw Baily’s beads and then, the dazzling diamond ring effect. Marjorie and I both gasped at that, then looked at each other for moment, wordlessly asking, “Did you see that?!” There were gasps from the crowd around us, too. The lights in the parking lot came on, their confused sensors thinking it must suddenly be nighttime and not almost 3:00 in the afternoon. The sky was an unearthly shade of purple as we removed our eclipse glasses. Birdsong that we had hardly noticed only moments before now became glaringly obvious in its absence.

All the people went silent, too, for maybe half a minute. And then, in the utter strangeness of this moment, we did what I have since read that many others did, and what our ancestors must have done long before they knew enough to predict eclipses. We howled. We stood under the afternoon shadow of the moon and howled like animals. I don’t know who started it, and I don’t remember making a conscious decision to do it. We all just . . . howled. Maybe it was the eerie feeling of losing not just the visible but most invisible solar emissions as well. It brought out something strange and almost primal in us. I wanted more time in that strange shadow, but all too soon, totality was over. The sun’s light began to grow again.

It was definitely a unique experience. I’ll never forget what it was like to see a total solar eclipse, or where I was, or who was there to watch it with me. The rest of the day after we returned home from the eclipse party, I kept thanking God that we got to enjoy it. And I thanked God for making the moon just the right size and distance from Earth (and from the sun) to make this phenomenon possible! Even though I am 40, being part of this got me in touch with my childlike wonder again. I won’t be able to see another total solar eclipse in South Carolina until I’m 75 years old. At that point, I don’t think I’ll have the energy to be making a list of 75 new things to do at 75. But there are a few other total eclipses in the continental U.S. between now and then. And knowing what I know now, I believe the experience would be more than worth the effort to travel.

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