Well, it’s 2:38:29.9 pm EDT, EclipseFest is over

I am an astronomy dude but I don’t remember exactly when I learned a solar eclipse was going to be visible from the United States in August 2017. I knew about it by at least ’09 or ’10, Kristen says she remembers me bringing it up when we were still dating. But it was far enough out that despite my excitement, I couldn’t actually even get the exact year it was happening straight. Just a mysterious “sometime in the future” year, which is any year that is sufficiently far enough out to seem mildly fantastic. (Did you know there will be a year 2024? Wow! Amazing.) At some point I internalized that the eclipse would happen in 2017, when I would be 40, as if either of those things was ever actually going to happen.

Well, as it turns out, they both did.

What follows is a travel recap of our trip to see the eclipse and subsequent Tennessee/North Carolina mountain vacation last week. Read it…or don’t!

Vacation stops

Vacation stops in western NC and eastern Tennessee, including shaded path of 21 August eclipse (from eclipsewise.com).

Eclipse Pre-gaming:

We solidified plans to travel to see totality last year, booking something off VRBO in Highlands, NC. Our general plan was to find a good place to see the eclipse Monday the 21st, then spend the week in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Asheville, NC. We landed on Highlands because (a) it was quite close to the center line of totality–how far you are from the center line determines how long totality lasts, much more so than where you are along the length of the path–and (b) we actually found an available place there. It wasn’t extraordinarily hard to find a rental, but it was our third or fourth try before we got a confirmation. This was last fall–the eclipse wasn’t at all on the national radar yet but my fellow astronomy peeps were obviously already on it, and rental proprietors were starting to get wise. The mild difficulty prompted me to get some eclipse glasses ordered as well.

Because I am not smart, none of that got me thinking there might be crowds or traffic for this first-time-in-four-decades phenomenon. So in the months leading up to it I figured we would just drive from our base to wherever good weather might be that day. That presumption slowly shifted to anxiety as dire predictions of cataclysmic traffic or record crowds turned up in the news. But I went back and forth on worrying about human factors. The media thrives on disaster porn, but ultimately it was hard to believe conditions would be especially awful. I saw a few different maps trying to show the nearest point on the eclipse path from anywhere within a day’s drive. (This was an especially thorough estimate.) Since it crossed the entire continent, there were not going to be any real pinch points. It also became clear that oft-quoted figures like “200 million people within a day’s drive” didn’t really mean anything. It’s not like all 200 million were going to go. Or even 20 million. The estimate at that link thought even 2 million would be a lot, but probably getting down to the right order of magnitude at least. (Some cursory internet research suggests no major sources have bothered to follow up on putting together actual numbers, presumably since no one died or was stranded in traffic for two days or something else horrific. Also it’s just hard to figure out.) I mean, I am the kind of guy who’s into this sort of thing, and I am friends with a lot of people who are into these sorts of things, and maybe 1 person in 20 that I knew was going to travel. It’s still a lot more than a normal day but actually probably less than a busy holiday.

In spite of this coldly reasoned logic, I definitely experienced what a friend of ours termed “eclipse anxiety”. What if the estimates were wrong? What about the weather? Traffic? Gridlock? What if the towns are unprepared and there’s no food, no parking, overwhelmed plumbing, gas shortages, looters, eclipse-crazed bears? Another person we know was taking four days’ worth of food along just in case. I mean, none of this seemed reasonable, but when nothing’s definitive, anything’s possible.

Sunday, August 20: Pre-eclipse Day

Most of that worry seemed misplaced when there was no traffic or any real crowd impacts Saturday. We still packed enough food and snacks to cover us for at least a few days, but didn’t bother to leave especially early Sunday or anything to beat a potential rush.

The bulk of this day was a relatively boring drive from Raleigh to Highlands. It took longer than anticipated, but that’s just because I had never driven further west than Asheville while I’ve lived in The NC, and my mental model of the state is that it pretty much ends there. It doesn’t! It’s actually quite a bit longer, with several more hours of mountainous slow-driving state beyond. But traffic was light and we made pretty good time.

Our place was cool, a nice little rental above a garage called the Treehouse. Our host Mike gave us a bunch of good food recommendations and also vouched for the quieter-than expected atmosphere of the town over the weekend, mostly easing our concerns about traffic or parking for the next day. We were about two miles up a mountain from downtown and were thinking we’d even walk in if necessary, but it wasn’t going to be.

After dinner we took a drive into town to get familiar with the layout and scout out a good eclipse-viewing spot. They were setting up something called EclipseFest in a park, with a band and various tents, but with no assurances on the quality of the local band, we settled on a small, quieter lake close by with an unobstructed southern view. We took a hike up to a local attraction known as Sunset Rock, which as the name implies is a good place to watch a sunset. Basically it’s a big rock at the top of small mountain, under half a mile hike but moderately graded, that faces west. But it’s pretty cool. It was certain to be a fantastic eclipse-viewing spot but would likely be overcrowded, and also you’d be spending all day on a big rock with no cover, so we ruled it out.

Having arrived in and returned safely from town, with no evidence of mounting apocalyptic local or national conditions and an improving weather forecast, I went to bed with optimism for eclipse day.

Monday, August 21: Eclipse Day

We woke up to a less optimistic forecast, but clear skies to start. Clouds were expected to roll in starting about mid-day, with 30-40% coverage expected during totality, up to rain in the evening. Nothing really mattered after 2:38, though. This was our eclipse timetable:

Start of partial eclipse (C1) :
1:07:14.3 EDT
Start of total eclipse (C2) :
2:35:56.4 EDT
Maximum eclipse :
2:37:13.3 EDT
End of total eclipse (C3) :
2:38:29.9 EDT
End of partial eclipse (C4) :
4:01:24.9 EDT


A bit of clouds wouldn’t be a huge issue. Most of an eclipse is pretty long, actually. Almost an hour and a half of the moon slowly subsuming the solar disc, before just two and a half minutes of totality. Then another hour-plus of the moon sliding off. So the full experience requires most of the afternoon. If clouds come and go, no problem. As long as you get a break at 2:35. This is what I told myself as cover for my seeping anxiety.

We had brunch in town–it was very quiet, plenty of parking, no crowds at all. EclipseFest was being set up and all the townies had some spiffy tee shirts for sale marking the occasion, but I couldn’t get one because they were down to the dregs of the youth sizes only. We set up camping chairs after that, maybe around 11am. Still plenty of space to be had but people were starting to stake out turf so we did the same and settled in to wait for a few hours. By noon or so, a large enough crowd of idle bandwidth users had gathered that phone service started degrading and we could only get blips of weather or news updates. This was a problem because it coincided with the clouds starting to get pushier. They overtook the sun at some point, and only got worse from there.

By first impingement, a bit after 1pm, things were looking grim. We had almost total cloud cover except for a spot off to the west. Clouds totally obscured the sun. There was no need for eclipse glasses. There was barely a need for sunglasses. I even felt a couple of raindrops. Bitter, teasing raindrops. I began mumbling about the hugely wrong “30-40% cloud cover” prediction; admittedly I lost my cool, as I usually am a steadfast defender of the science of meteorology (one of the laziest willfully ignorant jokes I can think of is the one about how weatherman is the only job where you can be wrong that much and still keep your job–they ARE right! they are using models and that’s the most right they can be! conditions change, is all). Basically I was angry at the atmosphere. Anyway K and I started wondering if we should take some action by heading west to try to get out from under the clouds. Of course, that being balanced with the haunting thought that we could go west, the clouds might just follow us, leaving brilliantly clear skies where we had waited around all morning. I mostly still couldn’t get any data on my phone, but managed a meager blip of updated radar data that made it seem like we should go for it, and the roads were clear. So we made the call.

We got out of the greater Highlands area and saw some blue skies from a Dollar General parking lot maybe 10-15 minutes away. In fact, they sky started looking promising enough that we finally actually needed the eclipse glasses. We tossed our layin’-about blanket onto some nearby grass and got our first glimpses of the eclipse happening, at about 50% coverage. We promised that we would patronize the General afterwards for use of their space. (Not that they cared. The employees were outside themselves, smoking cigarettes in a roped-off corner of the lot.) The parking lot started filling up as other cars materialized from the same cloudy direction, although conditions were already deteriorating again, and some people went further west. One guy bought ice cream bars at the store, but had extras since he could only get a minimum of a whole box rather than individual treats, so he shared with anyone nearby, including us. So at least, if we stayed cloudy, at least we scored some ice cream.

We overhead someone say that they had a GPS radar and it looked like the patch was blowing over, but that seemed hopelessly optimistic, the sun was completely gone again and things weren’t really improving. We had about 15 minutes left until totality, but with no phone signal, all we could do was guess what might happen. I proposed that rather than continue to chase the sun, we go back to Highlands, or hopefully even somewhere clear along the way, with the hope that maybe if the clouds were moving west, going back east they’d pass right over us. (Also I didn’t have a good handle on how much further west we could actually go and stay in the zone–although I determined later that we were nowhere near the edge. From the map above I think we were basically right at the NC-Georgia border.) At the very least, we’d rule out the potential humiliation of hearing that Highlands had gone clear without us. Kristen agreed, but mostly had fallen into despair. On the way back she likened the situation to the Carolina Panthers’ tremendously disappointing defeat in Super Bowl 50, when they rolled in with a 17-1 season record plus playoffs, only to play a thoroughly shitty game when it meant the most. So was the season worth it after all? Was anything? It was hard to disagree.

No good spots turned up on the way back, so at about 2:25 we found ourselves in a small parking lot back in Highlands with a bunch of other people hoping for the best. There was nowhere else to go, nothing else to try. It didn’t look good. Kristen couldn’t even muster the enthusiasm to get out of the car. We were going to have to settle for the darkening, but nothing else.


It’s easy to recall times when things went terrifically wrong. You remember with painful clarity when you dropped your phone off a bridge, but not the 4,000 times you didn’t. A lot of people in the North Carolina mountains planned as much as us, did everything right, are good humans, wanted to see it just as much. They could have been ten miles north, south, east, west, and had very different experiences. Our neighbors traveled separately to a nearby town: they didn’t see it. Maybe we’d have seen it fine from the Dollar General parking lot, maybe our decision to head back saved us. I don’t know if the eclipse chasers we intersected with there ever made it to sunlight. I don’t know what happened to the nice man who gave us ice cream. Many of them likely didn’t get to see totality.

We did.

With less than five minutes to go, the sun peeked through what had been an imperceptible gap in the clouds. It was down to a narrow sliver of light only, though town hadn’t gotten much darker at all. That was maybe one of the bigger surprises to me about the whole thing. I imagined it getting darker throughout the eclipse, then gradually lighter as the moon cleared away. But really nothing seemed to change until just the last few minutes, when it suddenly faded to an eerie mid-day twilight. All the bugs perked up and started into their nighttime chirping routine.

The moon choked off what was left of the sun, and we were at totality. We saw it happen. We did it. Dark moon, gauzy solar corona. I felt like I could hear a hum, which is ridiculous, or if anything it was my dangerously high blood pressure. My arms went up like the Panthers scored that Super Bowl winning touchdown that never actually happened.

The two-and-a-half minutes of totality went by in about ten seconds. I looked at it. I looked at Kristen. I looked around. I looked back at the sun. Repeat. I knew all our iPhone pictures would be trash but I took them anyway. We did get some good ones of each other in semi-darkness. A random woman nearby didn’t realize she could take her eclipse glasses off, I told her it was OK. (She probably was going to do it anyway.) She volunteered to take a picture of us, and she kindly took what was by far the worst picture ever taken during an eclipse. Then, the flash of the diamond-ring effect, and it was over. Glasses back on, moment gone forever. Someone in the parking lot had been playing Revolver and timed it so that “Good Day Sunshine” came up just at that moment. Not exactly right in concept but well played, IMO.

To be continued. But that was the best part.

Coming up: eclipse aftermath, the Smokies, the postmodern horror of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville, and home.

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