sMy doubts first set in when my alarm went off before 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. Was seeing the total solar eclipse worth sacrificing sleep over, let alone spending hundreds of dollars and an entire day traveling to the far corners of North Carolina for an event that would only last a couple of minutes?
From accounts I read, it seemed the answer was a resounding yes. Bill Kramer, the founder of Eclipse-Chasers.com, that watching the moment of totality was like "the eye of God suddenly looks down on you and says, 'What's up?'"
Everything I read made it seem like seeing a total eclipse in real life would change my life—or at least inspire a visceral and emotional reaction. So, I figured that this would be my best chance to see if it's all worth the hype, since this solar eclipse is the first time a total solar eclipse has touched the lower 48 since 1979, and the next one won't happen here for another seven years when the moon's shadow will cross from Texas up to Maine on April 8, 2024.
But on the way to the airport early Sunday morning, I doubted it. During my two-hour flight from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina—and even more so on my two and half hour drive farther into North Carolina—I doubted it. Would it be worth spending my weekend traveling toward something that could be ruined by cloudy weather or a slight drizzle?
As if the eclipse hadn't been completely hyped up yet, once I arrived in the small town of the fervor became even more intense. While most typically come to Brevard (pronounced bre-VARD) to see Pisgah National Forest's 250 waterfalls or go mountain biking on the extensive trail network, it seemed like everyone here had one purpose now and it was the eclipse. Signs hawking $40 eclipse parking were scattered throughout town, while the woman checking me into my room at the wore a T-shirt with a cartoon version of one of the town's famous white squirrels watching the solar eclipse on it.
While this part of North Carolina experienced less than 100 seconds of totality today, I chose this little-known corner of the Blue Ridge Mountains to experience it at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) just up the road in the even smaller town of Rosman alongside NASA astronomers and a couple hundred amateur astronomy enthusiasts.
While PARI used to be a NASA satellite tracking station during the infancy of the U.S. space program and part of the Department of Defense during the Cold War, it currently is a nonprofit science center open to the public, where anyone can learn more about astronomy.
I figured if anyone could make me appreciate the importance of what I was about to see, it would be the scientists here, who have been planning for this event for the last 20 years.
I've seen a solar eclipse once before in my life. By chance, I was on vacation in Paris with my family on August 11, 1999 when a total solar eclipse passed over a large section of Europe. What I remember most about it, though, is my mom handing me a pair of glasses and telling me that I could go blind if I took them off. I don't remember it getting dark outside, or the birds stopping singing, or having a terrifically emotional response to it. It looked cool, but I hardly remember much of what it looked like.
This time it was totally different. PARI is set on two ridges, so our 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains was lovely even without such a cosmic coincidence. When the moon started to move over the sun, the skies were clear and the crowd that had gathered there started ooh-ing and ahh-ing. And then the clouds moved in. While it was a welcome respite from the stifling humidity, it covered up our entire view of the eclipse. Moving toward totality we'd have seconds where we could see it peeking through the clouds, but when totality approached the forecast was grim.
The eclipse—and the magnificent corona people had waxed poetic about in the accounts that I read—were completely blocked by clouds.
But it didn't matter.
Because as totality occurred, the entire sky went dark. Not just twilight dark, but completely black outside with barely a sliver of peach-colored sunlight right on the horizon.
Like pretty much everyone I talked to in North Carolina, John Sinclair, the curator of meteorites and minerals at PARI, had never seen a total solar eclipse before either.
"We didn't get the number #1 show," Sinclair said, but that didn't matter to him. "It was incredible, I was totally amazed at how dark it got."
Some were lucky enough to also see the "diamond ring" as the eclipse comes out of totality. "You get a really bright spot with the outline of the sun," as Sinclair describes it. "It's like a diamond is sitting on the edge of the sun."
Don Cline, the president of PARI, has been planning for 20 years to see today's eclipse. Even though he knew very well that there was only a 25 percent possibility of getting a clear view of the moment of totality, he wasn't disappointed.
"We ended up seeing parts of it and during total we were able to see Jupiter," Cline said.
Others saw stars, some saw birds fly by confused by the sudden darkness, and others felt the temperature drop.
Even though the clouds blocked my view of the corona, I was too overwhelmed by my unexpected emotional reaction to the sight of the dark sky in the middle of the day to even take in even those small details.
Curious to see why this time was so different, I realized that where I watched the 1999 solar eclipse in Paris was just out of the path of totality. While I saw the moon take a bite out of the sun that day nearly 20 years ago, I didn't experience the sudden darkness in the middle of the day that I saw in North Carolina today. The difference was literally night and day.
If you weren't in the path of totality today, I must agree with this quote from Annie Dillard's total eclipse essay that was republished by The Atlantic:
"A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it…What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know."
The next time a total solar eclipse will pass over American soil will be on April 8, 2024 and you bet I'll be somewhere in the path of totality again. In fact, I'm already looking up flights to Buenos Aires for the world's next total solar eclipse on July 2, 2019.