Eclipse 2017: A Quest for Totality

Much like a watershed map describes how runoff flows from mountain to ocean, a drivershed can be used to detail a vehicle’s travel path between two points. I recently saw an analysis computing driver travel times from every US county to the Great American Eclipse’s path of totality.

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The shallow rapids of the Congaree River roll through Columbia, South Carolina.

It concluded the largest “driveshed” in the US was Interstate 95, which intersected the path of totality in Santee, South Carolina. This destination represents the quickest drive for 75 million Americans living along the Eastern seaboard. The 12th most convenient route ended in Columbia, South Carolina, only one hour west. Needless to say, I was expecting a lot of company for my own journey.

Despite the odds, I was on a quest for totality. The last total solar eclipse to pass across the United States was 1979, and the last coast-to-coast total eclipse was about 100 years ago.

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Photographers from around the country descended on Columbia, South Carolina hoping to get the perfect shot. For many, this was their first attempt to photograph a solar eclipse.

My alarm went off at 4:00 am. I was packed and ready to go. Streetlights were still on when I rolled out of my driveway in Savannah. I only had a basic idea of where to head at this point: north on I-95. Traffic was much lighter than expected, so I turned inland after reaching I-26. The cloud cover forecast in Charleston was enough to scare me from the coast.

As I drove west, the sun began to rise. Flat land slowly gave way to rolling hills. Thick fog covered the highway, and doubt clouded my mind. Three hours after leaving home, I arrived in South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia. Despite an urban population of 500,000+, I wasn’t all that familiar with this region of the state.

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Damned three miles up river, the elevation difference between canal and free-flowing river is easy to observe here.

Home to the University of South Carolina, capitol building, and a variety of companies, I found the downtown core buzzing with students, government employees, and countless tourists. Thirty-story skyscrapers lined Main Street and well-preserved historic buildings housed breweries, restaurants, shops, and hotels. Everything from the bridges to street lighting and crosswalks to facades looked freshly constructed. Nevertheless, there was a real charm to the place–in a small town kinda way.

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Families and children stay cool and protected thanks to misters and free ISO-certified solar viewing glasses provided at the park.

Temperatures were racing towards the mid-90s with a humidity percentage to match, so I began asking locals for their recommendations on where to view the big event. It began looking like a bit of of a free-for-all, so I used Google Maps to hone in on a location. I eventually landed on Riverfront Park, a reclaimed canal and trail running along the Congaree River. I managed to find a nook along the bricked embankment wall, adjacent to future apartment buildings. It had the perfect southwest viewing angle, but pesky clouds remained.

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New apartment buildings are soon to open on the eastern bank of the Congaree River.

Throngs of people began piling in–I was lucky I found a place to park! License plates from across the country were visible in the lot. Coolers and lawn chairs exploded over pathways and tucked themselves under shady trees. The water horses ran constantly and water bottles were liberally passed out. Photographers adjusted settings, children played on monkey bars, and eager space nerds prepared for their Superbowl.

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Visitors laden with telescopes, cameras, blankets, and coolers stake out their eclipse-watching spot.

I streamed NASA’s coverage of the eclipse for all around me to hear. Out little cohort was brimming with anticipation as cities in Oregon, Idaho, Nebraska, and Tennessee all began to experience moments of total and complete darkness. You could hear cheering and commentary unlike anything I’ve heard on NASA’s livestream. Over 4.4 million viewers were reported, enough to crash some of their online operations.

After 80% coverage, the sun dimmed and my brain struggled to gauge time of day. The colors around me appeared different, but it’s hard to describe. I blinked hard to adjust.

City streetlights flicked on, crickets and birds chirped–there was an energy in the freshly cooled air. The crowd began to roar taking notice to their new surroundings. Horns honked on a distant bridge. Little children ran circles around their parents, tugging on t-shirts and sun dresses, declaring it the “coolest thing they’ve ever seen!”

Science was winning!

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Immediately before and after totality, the sun’s rays create crescent shadows.

And then it happened. For approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds in Columbia, South Carolina, the moon’s umbra covered the Earth. I dropped the glasses from my face. I was in awe. At totality, the sky was a vibrant midnight blue hue and a perfect sphere appeared directly over the sun.

The most amazing and distinct ring of white hot light emanated from the moon’s edges, almost personifying the sun. Like a god, hovering above us, the very source of energy for our existence was temporarily paralyzed. One can only imagine how ancient civilizations reacted to such an event–humanity under siege.

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Witnessing absolute darkness during midday. Taking this photo was a bit of a scramble, making minor adjustments despite hour-long planning.

And just as quickly as it disappeared, the first beam of light returned. The coveted diamond ring! A glowing explosion on the moon’s rim. Glasses returned to faces. People “ooohhh” and “ahhhh”, hooped and hollered. I actually got goosebumps!

Across political boundaries and geographic distances, I’d like to think we all felt connected for those few moments. Americans in Oregon, Nebraska, New Jersey, Mississippi, and everywhere in between experienced a special moment that none of us will soon forget.

On my drive to Columbia that morning, I listened to a podcast exploring why we listen to the news. If you truly boil it down, why do us humans choose to stay engaged with the world around us? Why do we continue on this turbulent journey, listening to stories of tragedy, sadness, hope, and inspiration?

There were many ideas put forth, but I ultimately believe it’s for narration. Each one of us gets only so many days on this Earth, and it’s important for us to have a sense of narrative throughout our lives–like memories on a string. This solar eclipse is a great example of finding our own narration in a larger context. It helps us reflect on our place among the people of this Earth.

It was a time to remember the most basic physical principles are at play well beyond our immediate realm. The celestial bodies above that we look upon with such awe; they move and shift and align too. They were set in motion and continue to move as the laws of the universe dictate. And for a brief moment, there appears to be order out of chaos. And in some way, I think us humans find that terrifying and comforting all at the same time.

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