On Sunday, our solar eclipse adventure began.
Alex and I hit the road that morning with what we called our “skeleton plan”–a loose framework for what we wanted to happen over the next couple of days. We had no confirmed place to stay on Sunday night, just a tent in the trunk of Alex’s car and a spot on the map where I knew I wanted to watch the eclipse on Monday afternoon. Everything between was all part of the adventure.
First, we stopped at a water park in Charlotte to escape the scorching heat. (Slides!!) After several hours in the sun, we ate at a nearby hole-in-the-wall pho restaurant and found a bar that was streaming Game of Thrones. It was a great experience–the bar gave out free popcorn and pizza and the crowd was really into the episode. The streaming froze several times and each time a huge wail would run through the place as we commiserated together.
When we were eating at the restaurant, we started researching campgrounds near Spartanburg, where I went to college and wanted to spend the night. I had looked up public campsites weeks back and nothing was available across the entire state of South Carolina–so I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful that evening. But Alex saw a KOA site pop up on the phone and encouraged me to call. When I did, they had one spot left–in their Overflow section. I booked it immediately and we drove the hour and a half south, setting up our tent just after midnight. It was the perfect spot.
We awoke the next morning refreshed and ready for the eclipse. Since we were in Spartanburg, we grabbed some breakfast and took a quick tour of the Wofford campus, which has grown from 1,100 students during my time to about 1,600 today. They’ve done a great job of expanding the campus and keeping a Southern, polished vibe to the buildings. It was fun to return more than 10 years after my graduation.
I started getting antsy so we plugged in the GPS coordinates for the spot I had selected: an isolated stretch just south of Princeton, SC, which is an hour south of Spartanburg. This spot was in the Path of Totality, or 100% sun blockage. Ninety-six percent coverage in Durham or even 99% in Spartanburg wasn’t going to be enough–I wanted to stare at the sun without any eye protection.
We took local highways on the drive down, and the scenery was beautiful. As we got further out, we saw a few cars that had stopped in various places to watch the eclipse. It was great to see other people who had the same idea–but I wanted to be nowhere near them. I wanted to be alone for this gorgeous and bizarre experience.
So we kept driving and driving until we saw a small paved road leading into a field. We parked the car in the shade and waited for someone to come upon us, but it was just Alex and I, the field, and the crickets. We put some chairs in the middle of the road and watched the moon begin its slow path across the sun.
For the next two hours, no one else came by. The clouds started building in the sky, so we would sit in the chairs and take in the eclipse whenever the sun peeked out from the clouds. It was a bright day, and I kept looking out over at the vast fields to see if the world was getting any darker. It seemed like a slight dusk was settling over the earth, but the sun was still incredibly strong.
Then, 15 minutes before total coverage, the clouds went away and gave us the clean blue sky we had hoped for. As we looked through our glasses, the sun became a banana, then a fingernail. I was surprised how bright the day remained even though the sun was 96% covered up. Though the fields around us began taking on a hazy, dusky hue, we still had the impossibly bright sun shining down upon us. It felt like we were specimens in a terrarium.
About two minutes before the sun was completely covered, we heard a donkey begin braying hysterically in the distance. It called for half a minute, then suddenly quieted, which was followed by a rush of insect screeches in the bushes. Nature was fully aware of this strange shift in time and light. Small ripples of light unlike anything I have ever seen before appeared on the road, glimmering for about 10-15 seconds.
Suddenly, the skies around us began to darken. It was an accelerated sunset, as if the day was folding up in just a matter of moments. At 2:38 and 40 seconds in the afternoon, it became that still, quiet moment when dusk topples over into evening–and now there was a giant black hole surrounded by a hot white rim in the sky.
We took our glasses off and could hear people cheering in the distance. But I barely registered them as I kept staring at the impossible thing above us. I remember looking up and actually feeling an undercurrent of mild horror at the spectacle. Something in the cells of my body knew that this moment was unnatural and wrong. Annie Dillard wrote this about a 1979 solar eclipse: “I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.” But during this brief moment, I was also flooded with amazement and awe. I remember looking back and forth, back and forth, between the sun and the skies around us, the clouds pink from this brilliant, dramatic sunset.
I carefully watched the time for when we would need to put our glasses back on. The moon would completely block the sun for only 2 minutes and 39 seconds, and I knew we had to be ready for the moment when the corona of the sun would blaze freely again. In the final moments of the eclipse, I tried my hardest to commit the image to memory. I hope I dream it again someday.
And just like that, the whole thing was over. The moon resumed its creeping path across the other side of the sun, and we watched it with our glasses for a few minutes. As we drove north, we couldn’t believe the luck that we’d had–we were completely isolated in that field for hours, and the clouds had parted just long enough for us to see the total eclipse. It was everything I had hoped for.
Another solar eclipse will pass through the United States in 2024… we’ll see where that adventure may lead us! :D