America woke up Monday ready to turn its eyes to the sky.
The day of the Great American Eclipse had finally arrived.
But even as celestial bodies moved to align in the sky, terrestrial-bound bodies were scurrying in a mad last-minute scramble for the best vantage points to witness it.
Procrastinators dashed from store to store in search of eclipse-safe glasses. Scientists nervously checked and rechecked their equipment at observatories and research airplanes across the country. Authorities braced for still more traffic as millions converged along the 70-mile-wide path of the total eclipse.
For millennia, on days just like this one, our ancestors have been filled with awe, fear and wonder. Eclipses have spawned myths, altered belief systems, reshaped the way entire civilizations saw their world.
On Monday, many were looking for something similarly profound as they broke out lawn chairs, dragged their children outside and clutched their safety glasses in giddy expectation.
As it approached, this eclipse seemed different, more intimate somehow. It will be the first in a century to cross the continental United States, coast to coast, and the first since the republic’s foundation that will pass directly over only this country. It felt – at a time of political division and upheaval – like a personally addressed note from the universe:
Hey, America, forget the other stuff for a second. There are bigger things in this galaxy. That overshadow us. That can unite us.
Just look up.
What’s to come
The physics behind the eclipse are quite simple.
Today, following a course charted before the dawn of history, the moon will pass between the sun and Earth and cast a shadow onto a wide swath of land.
At 10:15 a.m. Pacific time, the shadow of that total eclipse will first make landfall on the tiny town of Depoe Bay, Ore. (population 1,398). From there, at a screaming speed of 2,100 mph, the eclipse’s shadow will zip across America on a 3,000-mile path, cutting through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina. Finally at 2:49 p.m. Eastern time, it will disappear off the coast of Charleston, S.C.
The whole thing – the wonder, beauty, craning of necks and searching of souls – will be over from coast to coast in just 90 minutes.
Even people not on that path, however, will see a partial eclipse of the sun – like a cookie with a bite taken out of it. The closer you are to the path of the total eclipse, the bigger that shadow will be.
Veteran eclipse-chasers – the same ones who have been nagging us for weeks to secure eclipse glasses (they have darker filters and are absolutely necessary to avoid eye damage) – describe the experience in almost apocalyptic, rapturelike terms.
The sky darkens. The temperature drops. And where the sun should be, people will see instead a black circle, ringed by a halo of light. That halo, called the sun’s corona, consists of a writhing mass of exceedingly hot gas in the sun’s atmosphere, invisible under normal circumstances.
Mike Kentrianakis, solar eclipse manager for the American Astronomical Society, calls it “the most gorgeous natural wonder you will ever see.”
“It unlocks you,” said Kentrianakis, who has witnessed 20 eclipses across the world. “It is so visceral. It is the meaning of the word awe, awe-struck.”
For many Americans, this may be their best shot at seeing a total solar eclipse in their lifetime. About 12 million people live along its path, and many millions more are flocking there.
On Monday, frustrating weather in some parts sent would-be watchers on last-minute road trips. Clouds were forecast in the Southeast, especially around Charleston, and throughout the Midwest. The West was faring better, but smoke and haze was causing concern in parts of Oregon.
Many rural towns along that route have been preparing months, even years, to deal with the sudden crush of humanity.
In the little city of Casper, Wyo., officials have set up first-aid stations throughout town and stocked up on blood donations and medical supplies. They made sure automatic lights in public parks and baseball fields wouldn’t turn on accidentally during the darkness and ruin viewers’ experiences.
They studied the airport protocols at Augusta, Ga., to figure out how the similarly small town manages jumps in air traffic and visitors during its golf tournament. Nearly 200 private jets are expected to arrive in Casper by Monday morning. (The largest is a 737 and rumored to carry a Saudi prince.)
All weekend, roadside warning signs flashed the same message: “SOLAR ECLIPSE. AUGUST 21. PLAN AHEAD.”
In Bryson City, N.C., an Appalachian town with a Native American history that dates back more than 10,000 years, eclipse-minded tourists ambled down Main Street, some of them still looking for special protective glasses.
“Why? You need a pair?” the Dollar General store clerk replied when a customer asked if he had them in stock. Dollar General didn’t have them, but this particular clerk was in possession of four pairs and was willing to part with them.
“I heard there’s some kids selling them over at the brewery,” another customer said.
It took Rose Gilbert 11 hours to drive herself, her husband, their three daughters and her octogenarian parents from Columbia, Md., to Nashville, where they rented a house with a view of a lake and a wide open stretch of sky.
They don’t own telescopes and have never before planned a vacation around celestial movements. But this eclipse was different.
“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people,” said her husband, John.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Rose said.
“Suppose it’s cloudy?” asked her father, Carl Landi. He had been skeptical about this endeavor since she first proposed it more than a year ago.
But Rose was undeterred, “Then, we’ll get in the car and drive.”
Logistics and traffic
On Monday morning, all along the eclipse’s path, businesses closed down. Schools sent their students home early – or asked them not to come in. Restaurants announced awkward closings between noon and 3 p.m. A billboard outside the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., asked: “We live on a planet that circles the sun and you don’t believe in miracles?”
Carbondale, Ill., had the feel of a carnival. Hotel rooms were booked solid, restaurants were packed, the line at the Dairy Queen extended far out the door. Laws banning open containers of alcohol had been temporarily suspended for an eight-block stretch of the main drag. Kids got their faces painted with pictures of the sun, then smeared the images by running through the cooling sprinklers set up all over town. The owners of the local tattoo parlor said they’d fielded 20 calls from people wanting to get an eclipse image inked into their skin.
In Nashville, locals compared the eclipse mania to a fever. It started almost imperceptibly – a date on the calendar, a one-minute preview on the nightly news. Then came the special sections of the newspaper, the cartons full of cardboard solar glasses in every storefront and posters of the sun in every window. The obsession grew and grew. Now the entire region was half-delirious.
“I’ve heard some pretty apocalyptic sounding things,” Nashville resident Melanie Cochran said. “Cellphones dying. Power lines overloaded.”
All four nationwide carriers – AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint – were deploying portable cell towers to boost cellphone capacity in targeted areas along the eclipse path.
State highway authorities from 14 states carried out plans they had been coordinating for months in anticipation for what could be the largest traffic jam in U.S. history.
Among authorities’ biggest concerns: drivers stopping on the interstate or shoulder to see the eclipse, which in addition to being a safety hazard could cause widespread gridlock.
In Newport, Ore., on the town’s historic bayfront – where the smell of fish warehouses and the sound of forklifts mixed with the persistent barking of sea lions – the street was teeming with eclipse T-shirts, coffee mugs and postcards. One shop hawked “eclipse moon pie” scented candles. Another sold incense and Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” shirts. A placard from a dog food store read: “Advice from a solar eclipse. Don’t be afraid of the dark.”
Even the local marijuana store was advertising “eclipse specials” on quarter-ounce containers of cannabis. The store, an employee said, had installed an extra ATM to accommodate the expected surge of eclipse watchers.
‘There are bigger forces’
For many scientists, however, it was a morning filled with anxiety.
A small team of researchers prepared to fly aboard a Gulfstream V jet across Kentucky, racing to follow the eclipse as long as possible.
“We’re looking to identify emission lines in the corona in the near infrared region,” Edward E. DeLuca, a solar physicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, said in an interview earlier this month.
The scientists will have with them a spectrometer sealed inside a vacuum chamber and chilled with liquid nitrogen. Once they are above southern Kentucky, they will have only a four-minute window to get the data they need from the ghost of the missing sun.
In another experiment, dubbed EclipseMob, 150 crowdsourced citizen-scientists are operating custom-made radio receivers across the country. By recording changes in the radio signal, researchers said they hope to collect data on the ionosphere – the region of the atmosphere where, miles above Earth’s surface, cosmic and solar radiation bump electrons free from atoms.
Such experiments, scientists note, follow a long tradition of eclipse-aided breakthroughs.
During an 1868 eclipse, French astronomer Pierre Janssen discovered the element helium. A 1919 eclipse helped prove Einstein’s theory of general relativity, changing our understanding of the laws underpinning the universe.
But even among amateur eclipse watchers, there were hopes for new insight and discoveries of their own.
“This is one of those days to kind of sit back and humbly realize our place in the universe,” Anthony Sgro said. As head of a remote boarding school in Georgia smack-dab in the middle of the eclipse’s path, Sgro decided in recent weeks to delay the start of school year to encourage his students to go out and soak in the spectacle.
“There are bigger forces in our lives than just what we think of day to day,” said Sgro, head of the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. “There’s something much bigger going on in the universe than me or my school, or our nation or our little world.”