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29 Aug 2017

Total eclipse – Last Monday, HJ and I were in the Virgin Falls State Natural Area, near Sparta, Tennessee, to see the eclipse. This wasn’t the only thing we did during our trip down south—we spent five days in Kentucky beforehand (most of which was spent visiting various distilleries) and a day in Alabama afterward—but this is the part I want to talk about today. It was my first time seeing a total eclipse, and it was quite an experience.

“We were all running around like ants, if ants could stare up at the sun as they ran and shout excitedly to each other.”

Virgin Falls was chosen because it was close to the center of the path of totality and also because it provided a beautiful environment in which to wait for the eclipse. Early on Monday morning, we met my friend Mark (who had driven down from Michigan the day before) in Bowling Green, KY, and together we drove down to Tennessee. We did have a scare when Mark’s very old van sprung a leak in the cooling system and began to overheat, but the problem eventually sorted itself out somehow and we made it down to Tennessee safely. Once at the park, a ranger directed us to a place called Welch’s Point, an overlook that he said would be less crowded than the areas closer to the park entrance. After spending quite some time driving down an unpaved rode, kicking up clouds of dust in our wake, we arrived at the Welch’s Point parking lot and set up camp. The overlook offered great views of the valley below, but the rock itself was already covered with chairs and blankets, so we decided to just set up near the grassy parking area. When the big moment came, we figured, we were all going to be staring up at the sky anyway. We did take time to admire the view from the point,; Mark posed in his floppy hat, with his very cool walking stick in hand.

The plan had been to meet up with our friend Paul, who was driving up from Alabama, but when we arrived at the park we discovered that cell phone coverage was dismal. This is something I’m still trying to get used to about the States—in Korea, there is nowhere you can go and not get a signal, but there are quite a few places in the States where you are just plain out of luck. At any rate, we tried sending off some messages to let Paul know where we were, but we had no idea of knowing whether he received them. I was bummed at having come all that way only to have to see the eclipse without Paul.

That wasn’t the only thing that was bumming me out, though; although the skies had been crystal clear and free of clouds on the drive down from Bowling Green, once we arrived at the park we saw massive, billowy invaders on the horizon, threatening to obscure our view. Sure enough, the clouds began to crawl across the sky toward the sun, eventually blotting out its light. It was still early, but I was convinced that we were going to be completely clouded out. Mark was more positive, maintaining that things would clear up in time. I waited, hoping he would be right.

At noon, roughly when the partial eclipse was scheduled to begin, the sun was still obscured. Not long after, though, there was a break in the clouds, and we got our first glimpse (through our eclipse glasses, of course) of the sun with a little chunk out of it. Then another cloud rolled in and the sun was lost again. Fortunately, it looked like this cloud would pass soon, and the sky behind it looked clear and blue. Sure enough, before long the sun came out once more. That alone would have been enough to lift my spirits, but then I turned to see Paul walking across the grass toward me. After exchanging happy greetings, we had a quick conference and decided to head back toward where Paul and his family were, closer to the entrance of the park. The sun was shining as we drove off, but we still had an hour before the real show began.

After what seemed like quite a drive—we drove slowly in an ultimately futile attempt to avoid kicking up dust on all the eclipse watchers gathered along the way—we arrived at the grassy area where Paul had parked his car. He, his wife, and his daughter had a small area all to themselves, and we pulled out our chairs and set up camp with them. By this time the sky was clear and blue, and it looked like Mark’s optimism would win the day after all. Mostly we sat and talked, as the hour-and-a-half leading up to totality wasn’t all that exciting. I did take some photos with my camera using the “eclipse filter” I had bought in preparation, resulting in the following shot.

As I commented at one point while looking through the eclipse glasses, it pretty much just looks like the moon, only brighter. So we stole the occasional glimpse at the diminishing sun through our dark glasses, but more interesting than the sun itself was the way the light came through the trees. On a normal day, when most of the sun is not obscured by the moon, leafy canopies cast dappled shadows on the ground. These are pretty enough as is, but during a partial eclipse the light of the sun coming through the spaces between the leaves turns into crescents, as the leaves form natural pinhole cameras. This is easier to show than to explain:

As the totality drew nearer, we noticed that the air was growing considerably cooler. I neglected to mention that it was very hot down in Tennessee (as it was in Kentucky and would be in Alabama as well) during the middle of the day, but as the sun waned it became quite comfortable. And so we watched and waited as the temperature gradually dropped and the light gradually grew dimmer. It all felt rather crepuscular, but the sun was still high in the sky and the shadows, though increasingly muted, fell straight down instead of stretching out. As totality approached, we spent more and more time staring up. Below, from left to right, is Mark, Paul, and then me.

We were not the only people in the area waiting for the eclipse, of course, and as the sliver of sun grew thinner and thinner you could hear people getting excited. As we waited, though, I saw a rogue cloud steal across the sky toward the sun. I watched with dread, wondering if the totality or the cloud would hit first. Mark remained positive, and he turned out to be (mostly) right. We saw the diamond ring—that last gleam of the light at the edge of the moon—and then the sun disappeared. It instantly grew dark, although not quite as dark as night. The brightest stars could be seen overhead, and there was a 360-degree “sunset” on the horizon. The temperature dropped suddenly along with the light, and the night creatures began to sing. I just stood staring up at the sun, my eclipse glasses now off, saying something inane like “Wow! Would you look at that!” Everyone, of course, was already looking at it.

Then the rogue cloud moved in and covered the eclipsed sun, but we all still stood staring up at the sky. By the time the cloud cleared, the second diamond ring had already passed and it was time to put on the glasses again. I have no idea how much of the totality we actually got to see—it felt at once like a very brief time and a very long time. I do not have any photographs of the totality to offer you, though; I had decided in advance that I wouldn’t be shooting anything during the totality. For one, I did not want to waste my time trying to take a photograph. There is also the fact that no photograph would have ever come close to conveying what it was actually like to be there and see the sun fully eclipsed by the moon. I wanted to be in the moment, not miss the moment trying to record it. Besides, there are plenty of photographs of total eclipses available that are far better than anything I could have taken.

Before we left on our trip, I had read quite a bit about total eclipses. People apparently have very strong reactions to them; some people see one and then become “eclipse chasers,” dedicating their time and money to seeing as many eclipses as possible. I’ve heard viewing a total eclipse described as “looking into the eye of God” or “seeing the clockwork of the universe.” Some talk of weeping with joy after seeing an eclipse. Others have written about how total eclipses changed their lives. So I wondered how I would react when (if!) I saw my first total solar eclipse.

I was definitely excited, along with everyone else there. We were all running around like ants, if ants could stare up at the sun as they ran and shout excitedly to each other. I remember thinking that I understood why eclipses were seen as such terrible and frightening omens by people before they understood the science of what was going on. Even knowing the science, it was still an awesome thing to see, and I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like it. It was definitely too short (especially with that dastardly cloud coming in to obscure the view), and I definitely want to see another if I can.

But I did not weep. It did not really feel like looking into the eye of the God or seeing the clockwork of the universe. It certainly did not change my life. Yes, it was definitely one of the coolest things I have ever seen, but I’m not sure if it was the absolute coolest thing I have ever seen. I would put it up there with swimming in waters filled with bioluminescent plankton off Otres Beach in Cambodia, or even watching dolphins swim and leap in the water alongside our boat in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. Not because an eclipse is in any way similar to those things, but because it inspired in me the same sense of childlike joy and wonder at the beauty of the world we live in. If the eclipse changed my life, it did not do so in a profound way; perhaps it did so in a small way, reminding me that there are still many things yet to experience, and that life can still surprise and delight me.

And, in that spirit of playfulness and delight, let me end with an amusing photo.

We weren’t the only ones enjoying the eclipse!

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