It seemed like a good idea at the time. Studying the map for the August 21 total solar eclipse, I realize I was only about 300 miles from the path of totality (where the moon’s shadow completely covers the sun), or about a half day’s drive. I’d never seen a total eclipse before, so I felt I had to see this one. I could wake up early, drive south, and park wherever was convenient, like a freeway rest stop.
But what about traffic? There were predictions of gridlock, of half the country showing up and jamming the roadways. I might not even get close. (Of course, the other flaw in that plan was the getting-up-early part.) The obvious solution was to drive down the day before.
Where to stay? According to that modern oracle, the Internet, hotels and motels were already book to capacity, and at inflated rates at that. But this was a quick trip, only one night, so I could just sleep in the car. Cheap and foolproof! It had to be a good plan; a friend agreed to go with me.
We left the Dayton, OH area at 3 pm Sunday, two of us with a car loaded with snacks and drinks, plus some comfort items like flashlights, pillows and blankets. After a leisurely dinner in Louisville, KY with a friend, we arrived at a rest stop at the 62-mile marker on I65 in southern Kentucky. We stopped there for a break, my reasoning being we were only about 30 miles from the edge of totality, and I was getting tired, so this was a good place (with bathrooms) to rest for awhile. The fact that this rest stop was half empty was a good omen. No gridlock yet!
After a couple of hours of fitful napping, I decided this was the best we could do here and we should to press on to our target spot — the Tennessee Welcome Center on the state border.
It was still a long time to the eclipse — totality wouldn’t come until about 1:30 pm Central time — so we stopped at a 24-hour Waffle House for a good meal. Now we were ready for the long wait.
This is where the plan began to break down. The parking lot at the Tennessee Welcome Center was already filled at 2 am. A private security guard met us and said we couldn’t stay and recommend we drive to Gallatin, TN.
What’s a gallatin? I didn’t remember that name in any of my research. We were in the zone of totality, although not on the centerline of maximum eclipse duration, so the new plan was to stop at the best available spot.
After several minutes of driving on local roads off the next freeway exit, we saw a huge, empty parking lot and pulled in. There was more fitful napping until daylight, when I discovered this was the lot for a funeral home! I was sure that when normal business hours commenced, we would be discovered and asked to leave. Where to go? It would be nice to find a municipal park where other eclipse observers would be congregating. I took a look around, and right behind the funeral home was just such a park!
First we went up the road to top off the gas tank (and use the restroom), then we drove to the park. According to published hours, it opened at 7 am. It was only 6 am then, but the gate was open and there were already several cars parked there. So we slipped in to join them.
We were in Portland, Tennessee at a designated eclipse viewing area. It was a very nice park with a bicycle path, dog park, and new restrooms! The focal point was an old tobacco barn with concrete floors; part of the wall was pulled out on one side and picnic tables were placed inside. We met others from the Dayton area, as well as Michigan, Canada, and other parts of Ohio. A group of children made chalk drawings on the barn’s floor while we waited for the real show to begin.
First Contact, when the moon’s shadow first meets the sun, wasn’t until about noon, local time; it would then take about 80 minutes for the sun to become completely covered. The time passed slowly, with kids on the playground equipment, making chalk drawings, and the adults talking. But First Contact did come eventually, and we watched the shadow’s progress through our eclipse glasses and shields.
Everything was so subtle. We could never look directly at the sun (nor would we want to). The best we could do was to look indirectly, within our fields of vision, beginning at about 90% of totality. I took photos periodically beginning at about 50% of totality and they all look the same, with no obvious diminution of light levels. But the light’s intensity was gone, the colors were “softer”, and the temperature was dropping. One man said it felt to him like twilight, except the shadows were all wrong.
Then suddenly the light levels dropped to near-night at we were at totality. The sky was dark; I don’t remember seeing any stars, but I did see a planet. The sun was replaced by a black disc with a large white glow encircling it. The colors were pure. It was now safe to look directly at the most unusual sight in our world, one that has mystified and terrified humankind for millennia. We marveled at a faux ‘sunset’ on the horizon and passed around binoculars to take in the sun’s corona — that pure white glow.
All too quickly it was over (maybe two and a half minutes at this spot). The ‘Ohs’ were replaced by ‘Aws’ as the moon’s shadow moved on and the sun’s rays reappeared. Although it would take another 80 minutes for the shadow to break contact, most people were satisfied. They had seen what they came for, and nothing else would top it. There was an “I’m good” attitude as people said goodbyes, packed up their lawn chairs and their telescopes (there were some impressive optics) and headed toward their cars.
We did as well. It was earlier than I had planned, but we needed to start home, too. Tomorrow would be an ordinary day.
Those predicted crowds we hadn’t seen? We saw them now. People had trickled into the eclipse area all weekend, and now everyone was headed home. We did okay until about a mile from the freeway, and then it was stop and go. I made an ‘unwise’ decision by turning onto a local road paralleling I65 that seemed open, except it took us directly into local viewing areas. We were able to get on I65 at the next freeway entrance, but by then everything was near gridlock. We went about 30 miles in the first three hours, and didn’t get home until midnight, nine hours (with one stop) for a 310-mile trip. Freeways were crowded the entire trip.
But it was definitely worth it, the awe-inspiring experience of a lifetime. It was one of the most remarkable 33 hours of my life. I’m already thinking about the next eclipse. Fortuitously, it will be April 8, 2024, and Dayton, Ohio will be in its path! ( http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-tr-upcoming-total-solar-eclipses-20170821-story.html)
The top photo is my snapshot of totality. At left is one of the children’s chalk drawings on the barn floor with sunlight coming through gaps in the wall. Look closely, and you can see the crescent shape of the moon’s shadow in the sunlight. More photos are on my Facebook page.