If there is one thing I would like to say about experiencing a totality, it is this: a total solar eclipse is one of the very few things in life that no matter how overhyped they are, they provide an intense, emotionally satisfying experience.
I believe that the reason for this is the following. The most exciting experiences in life for me have been the ones that I find myself slightly outside my comfort zone. For example: working on a new project at work; trying to understand a concept about how the world works; tasting something unexpected at a good restaurant; conversing with differently-minded people; visiting a new culture; learning a new skill; and so on. I like being challenged.
The sun is the ultimate comfort zone. There is nothing that works more clockwork than the sun. Every day since we are born, we know the sun will rise and set (even behind clouds), independently of where we are in time and space (on earth). It’s a settled phenomenon that we never bother to challenge: the sun is always there and usually looks the same. It’s the floor we always stand on.
A total solar eclipse makes that floor collapse for a few brief minutes. It violently forces us outside this ultimate comfort zone – making the sun disappear.
Last October, my friend Andreas asked me if I was interested in travelling to the US to watch the August 21, 2017 eclipse. Even though I initially hesitated, I thought it was a good opportunity to reach the path of totality with relative ease. I also decided to attempt to take photos of it.
Over the next 10 months I spent a couple of hours every week preparing for the event. I booked flights and hotels; I read about other people’s experiences; I studied books and weather maps; I looked at photos; I planned my photographic setup; I bought gear; I tested over and over.
On August 19, I flew do Denver, CO from London, with two suitcases – one full of eclipse gear, and one half-full of clothes. The next day we drove to Rock Springs, WY, about 6 hours north from Denver. At 2am on the morning of the 21st , to avoid traffic, we began the final 3-hour drive towards the path of totality. The moon’s shadow was only going to be 70 miles wide, and to maximize its duration (140 seconds for this case) we really had to be within a thin 10-mile strip.
We started setting up the equipment at 6am, expecting the eclipse to begin at 10:20 and totality to occur at 11:39.
These few hours between 6am and 11:39am were some of the most stressful in my life. The issue: clouds. While you can watch the eclipse on a cloudy day, to admire its full detail and beauty such as the sun’s corona, you do need clear skies.
While Wyoming had some of the best chances in the country for clear skies during eclipse day, it had rained the night before, and the last-minute weather predictions were not ideal for our chosen location. When the sun rose at 6:30am the sky was hazy with about half of the sky covered in clouds. We kept watching the cloud movements, hoping for a clear morning – but nothing.
The stress levels went up as the day went on. As I was setting up the gear I couldn’t stop thinking that all this 10-month preparation would be in vain due to the clouds. By 10:30am, as the eclipse had started and I had started taking the first few shots, a heavy layer of hazy fog was between us and the sun. I could still see the sun’s disc, but without any detail.
By 11am the stress had become disappointment and acceptance. While half of the sky was clear, many clouds covering the area were totality would occur.
And then, 10 minutes before totality, as if by magic, the clouds went away. There was a large blue area in the sky, with the sun right in the middle of it. The eclipsed sun became crystal clear, with a bright blue sky background. As this eclipse was going to happen high in the sky (around 50 degrees above the horizon), the sun and the moon were far away from the hazy regions of the sky near the horizon.
At that point, we realized that not only we would experience a cloud-free eclipse: we would experience a spectacular eclipse.
Disappointment quickly became excitement. In the last few minutes before totality, I did a final check on all 3 of my cameras (one telephoto for the sun, one wide angle for timelapse, and one for video) and started recording. Everything was computer controlled (thanks Xavier) so that I would only have to worry about watching the totality during these 140 seconds. I then grabbed my binoculars and waited.
At 11:39:19, totality happened.
Now, this is the part of the story that words and pictures do not do justice. The human eye is equivalent to a 160 MP camera that can observe 10 orders of magnitude difference in brightness. Even on a typical modern computer monitor, you can – at best – watch a 20 MP photo of the eclipse with 256 brightness levels.
In the first few seconds after totality, there was a lot of screaming and shock from the crowds. Then there was silence, and I observed all the unique totality features that I had read about. They were all there: The black hole in the sky instead of the sun; the spectacular corona, sun’s streamers, extending in space multiple times the sun’s diameter; the dark sky; Venus and the star Regulus; the 360-degree sunset.
About 30 seconds in, I sat on the ground, always staring at the sun, thinking that it was very like what I had imagined based on the photos I had seen – albeit at higher clarity.
Over the next 60 seconds, the visual experience became an emotional one. My brain was trying to comprehend what my eyes were witnessing. It was weird. Weird in a “I’ve never seen anything like that I my life” way. Weird in a “How can the sun possibly look like that” way. Weird in a “I am exposed to the solar system” way. It was intense – even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I was way, way outside my comfort zone. It was like floating in space, looking at the eye of God.
At about 90 seconds in, I was overtaken by the emotions and started crying. I just sat there, on the ground, still, not even looking at the sun, as totality ended and the sunlight returned.
Looking back, I now realize why eclipse chasing is so popular. You get to travel to new places, it requires months-long preparation, it brings people together, it offers a lot of drama until the last minute, and it has a beautiful climax. For me, I would place that emotional experience of that eclipse second only to the birth of my daughters.
There exists is a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, TN. However, the experience when you visit it is nothing like the experience of visiting the original one that is built atop the Acropolis in Athens. It’s not as emotional. This is partly due to knowing that the Nashville Parthenon is a replica; but I think a stronger reason is because it’s built on a flat field. It just sits there. There is no climbing the Acropolis; there is no effort involved. In contrast, when you reach the Athens Parthenon you have this feeling that you “earned” it: you did the effort of climbing the Acropolis, and the Parthenon is your reward.
This combination of effort and reward is what makes total solar eclipses such a satisfying experience.