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August 22, 2017

The Great American Eclipse

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The trouble with a total eclipse in North Georgia is that it attracts Atlanta traffic. US 23 figures as a fine road to the Appalachians; we’ve taken it to Tallulah Gorge for hikes without a hint of delay; but add every third Atlantan with an interest in astronomy and you’ve got yourself a mess.

I drove up from Atlanta to get inside the celebrated “path of totality”: in essence, the streak of moon shadow — actual interposition of the moon between us and the sun — which moved so fast it crossed from northern Oregon to Charleston, SC in less than 90 minutes. Probably it was the most impressive shadow to darken in the North American continent in my lifetime: To me, it was worth fighting the traffic.

Having packed a sandwich, water, chips, eclipse glasses, and a large peach (ironically, it came from California, not Georgia, the latter’s winter having been so mild it failed sufficiently to diminish the population of parasitic insects, thus depreciating the peach crop this year), I took to I-85 at about 9:30am and made the hour-and-45-minute drive in four hours. Some of that time was dedicated to a problem I had not anticipated: Round about Cornelia, GA, I pulled over for a quick stop. (Mind you: I had gassed up the vehicle before departure and therefore faced no worries under that head, but there remained the inevitable call of nature.)

I don’t know if you’re ever entered a rural gas station with simple natural plans in mind, only to discover that the line for the restroom exceeds 20 minutes, snaking around through the rows of junk food like a sweaty, overfed human serpent. Well, without wasting too much time on description of feelings, I can record that it is a bit of a letdown. Or maybe a thwarted letdown. Call it what you will.

In due time I pushed on. On the north side of Tallulah Gorge, folks commenced to stable their motorcars at the nearest green space, so I did the same. The crowd was diverse: Families, young folks, old folks, college kids, two local school buses letting out a crew of chattering children. A kindly middle-aged black man warned me off from the red ant pile near my car. A car with Colorado plates honked fraternally at my Coors (brewed in Golden, CO) tee shirt.

With 30 minutes to spare until totality, I walked past the state park ranger station and had a look around. There was a certain awkwardness: why the hell are we all just standing around, looking up at the hot sun? The occasional moment of skepticism creeps into the mind: what if nothing happens? Did the scientists measure precise celestial motion correctly? What if NASA miscalculated? Are we quite sure we haven’t all been taken for suckers?

And then, right in the middle of the Southern August heat and humidity, at the height of the day’s sun, a noticeable drop in temperature. A girl off to my left announced it: “Hey, do you feel that? It just got cooler, Mom!” And she was right.

Presently I became aware of the weirdness of the shadows. They didn’t seem quite right. The edges should have been crisp and stark, but instead evidenced a strange fuzziness. Indeed, the light in general gave the impression of the kind of haziness I associate with that post-thunderstorm soft glow you get when the sun returns after heavy rain. Crickets and cicadas cut loose with their evening noise.

Those specialized sunglasses they give you have an odd effect: Sure, they allow you to see the gradual eclipse of the sun, by staring safely straight at it; but they prevent you from taking a full glimpse of the world around you. So you find yourself hurried by events. “Holy moly, look at the sliver of the sun!” someone exclaims — and for good reason, for with the aid of those glasses the sun is receding rapidly from view. But then, right next to you: “Dad, the light seems so weird!” This is absolutely true: look back down to earth, remove the glasses, and glance around. The weird decaying light, now joined by a crackling energy, was approaching something like twilight. I noticed a few newer model cars with automatic headlights lit up. The thought stole into my mind that probably some poor soul, going about his business down there on US 23, somehow oblivious to the astronomical events and infuriated by the inexplicable traffic, suddenly found himself facing more terrifying mysteries: the sudden approach of evening six hours early.

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“Mom, look, you don’t need the glasses anymore!”

Truer words have never been uttered. A pulsating shimmer crossed the world. It took our breath away. Hearty cheers for the darkness from crowds down by the highway. What in prior times would have inspired inexpressible terror and revulsion now drew applause and a joyful sound.

For around two minutes, we’re all spellbound by the magic of the heavenly bodies. Every visible horizon suggests a magnificent imminent sunset — or sunrise. Venus and (I think) Jupiter sparkle, clearly visible at midday. But the sun itself hangs black in the sky: deep, astounding black; the absence of light where it should always be. Those very planets are visible precisely because the sunlight they reflect is blocked from us by the moon.

Then the sunlight returns, a sudden shaft of brilliance: the diamond on the ring of the corona. Twilight has given way to mid-morning, and within minutes to something very close to full sun. A mere fraction of the sun’s light is more than adequate to light the world.

As we amble back to our cars, the earlier awkwardness has been replaced by comradery. “That was so cool.” “Just awesome.” “Really amazing.” “What an experience that was.” Strangers exchanging feeble superlatives, wholly inadequate to the task of description; but if language fails, hearts are full, and even the prospect of more hours fighting traffic to get home does not discourage us.

[All photos courtesy NASA]