Tales of Totality: The Great American Eclipse, part IV

It’s almost here…the first total solar eclipse to grace the mainland US in close to 40 years! While this is a big one for the USA—visible as a total solar eclipse in 16% of the country and as a partial eclipse everywhere else—we know that not everyone is going to be able to make it to the path of totality.

Even for those of us who’ve traveled to see this astronomical phenomenon in its full glory, chancy weather and the threat of clouds mean that nothing is a guarantee. To that end, the Physics Buzz team is deployed across the country to bring you coverage of totality—from our home base’s (College Park, MD) Eclipse at the Ellipse event to the relative wilderness of Idaho Falls, selected for its relatively low incidence of cloud cover this time of year.

Because of course we were nerds about this.
Image Credit: eclipse2017.org

That means that our readers on the east coast will hopefully get a preview of the eclipse, roughly an hour and a half before it comes their way courtesy of Dr. Becky Thompson. PhysicsCentral editor Stephen Skolnick is in northwestern Tennessee, and contributor James Roche is in South Carolina—and all three of us will be bringing you firsthand accounts of our travels and experiences on the way to the path of totality.

SS: It’s Sunday afternoon and our party just got settled at a coffeeshop in Nashville after driving past the city last night to Clarksville, TN—a projected drive of ten hours from College Park, MD that ended up taking close to a full sixteen hours, landing us there squarely at 2 AM. Traffic was worse than expected, but nowhere near the disaster levels expected for people making the journey today.

A friend has family that just bought a house in Clarksville, so we’re staying in a house that until very recently appears to have belonged to a sweet old woman with a taste for kitsch, and which may or may not now be haunted. Pictures to follow.

Although we’re already in the path of totality, the duration of a total eclipse here is only around two minutes—although the whole event including partial eclipse will be much longer from beginning to end. Tomorrow, the current plan is to drive north into Kentucky, to a city called Hopkinsville, where the total eclipse will stretch out to a full two minutes and forty-one seconds. An alternative that’s on the table is to get to one of the state or national parks in the area, where we can be around nature to see the famous “pinhole camera effect“, as leaves cast strange crescent shadows. I know BT has similar plans that she’d love to talk about! We may get caught on the road, we may miss seeing totality because of clouds, but whatever happens it’s sure to be an unforgettable time tomorrow. Check back on this page for updates from me and our other contributors! In the meantime you can check out parts I, II, and III of Physics Buzz’s eclipse coverage—for now, we’re going browsing in Nashville’s various used record stores to try and find a copy of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

JR: I’ve spent the day at Falls Park, eating, drinking, and navigating swarms of out-of-towners posing for selfies in the middle of the sidewalk while effectively blindfolded by cheap eclipse glasses. Next to us at the Mexican restaurant was a Floridian group in matching “I blacked out… in Greenville, South Carolina” shirts. Spirits are high.  My friend’s one-year old daughter has no patience for the extraordinary, so she will be left in daycare for the event itself.  The rest of our group will be at City Scape Winery from noon til the end of the eclipse around 4 pm. I’ve got my Solar Eclipse Timer app synced to my location, I’ll be setting up my GoPro to capture the scene and snapping a few shots during totality, but for the most part, I’m leaving the photography to the professionals, as I encourage you to do as well. I’ll be busy enjoying the spectacle while keeping an eye out for Lizard Man. I will update this post with any identifiable pictures of either. Have fun out there and be safe!

The Lizard Man thing reminded me—I was doing a little research today on Hopkinsville, where we’re hopefully headed tomorrow, and one of the first things that came up was “Hopkinsville Goblins“—so we’ll keep an eye out for some of them as well. We’re planning on getting on the road around 7 AM, to hopefully avoid getting caught in traffic.

BT: Made it to Rexburg Idaho! There are so many places selling eclipse glasses and t shirts. Many people offering their front yards for “camping” and parking is a steal at $50. We drove around and checked out our original idea of a spot, Beaver Dick County Park. A local astronomer was giving a lecture to all those camping there tonight. We heard that seeing it from one of the two local buttes would be cool so we drove around to check them out. We found a small parking lot and a trail head up to Mennan Butte. The current plan is to get to the parking lot at 5:30am and hike to the top of the Butte. Supposedly from that high you can see the shadow moving across the lower land. Weather looks sunny and beautiful. I’m posting from my phone in the middle of nowhere so please excuse the terrible formatting. Here’s hoping this goes well!

BT: On the top of Menan Butte after getting the last parking spot at the trail head. Quite the hike to the top. Now sitting here with about 1000 of my new best friends waiting for the show!

SS: Okay so it turns out the “Hopkinsville Goblins” were supposedly aliens, and this is in fact the cultural origin of the phrase “Little Green Men”. So every year, on the anniversary of the day these aliens apparently landed, there’s a festival to commemorate the event—the “Little Green Men Days”—that just happen to coincide with the solar eclipse this year. We have found ourselves, and I never thought I’d type this phrase, at an alien fair in rural Kentucky during an eclipse. What?!
SS: We’re something like 20 minutes into the partial eclipse here in Kelly, KY—just outside of Hopkinsville. Still an hour ’til totality; pictures of the sun on a digital camera still come out round, rather than the crescent that a glance through eclipse glasses reveals.

SS: It’s about 4:30 Eastern, 3:30 our time, and the sun has been back to its old self for a while now. The totality phase is long over, but it was a visually arresting sight while it lasted, to say the least. The sunlight’s intensity didn’t start to dim noticeably until the moon was about halfway across the disc of the sun, but in the minutes leading up to and following totality, it was an uncanny effect. Ordinarily, when the sun sets, the light of day fades as sunlight streams through more atmosphere, growing redder when higher-energy wavelengths are scattered. Here, though, it faded without reddening, as if the sun was on a dimmer switch. Soon, the clouds on the horizon did take on a reddish cast as the land around us was plunged into darkness.

I was a little shocked when Matt, the friend who drove us all out to the “Little Green Men Days”, began to pack up almost immediately after totality…to me, it felt like leaving a show at intermission! But Matt had a friend who’d gotten stranded around Nashville by the traffic—a megabus never showed—and who he needed to go pick up. Fearing gridlock, he felt we had to get moving, so we ended up watching the sun return through the window of the car.

Matt’s friend lucked out in that he never quite made it to Nashville, though—apparently a cloud moved across the sun ten minutes before totality. By the time it passed, the height of the eclipse was over.

JR: We arrived at the winery at 11:45am, sweltering in 93 degree heat. After picking up our drink tickets and eclipse glasses, the 300-strong crowd settled wherever they could find shade around a central field. A few photographers spent the first half hour setting up expensive-looking equipment, and I made a makeshift tripod for my GoPro out of chopsticks and an alligator clip. Clouds threatened early, but cleared completely with about an hour and a half to totality.

When the sun was about half-covered by the moon, we noticed the Cicadas chirping and the temperature dropping to somewhat manageable levels. I turned my binoculars around to make a projector, which drew a spattering of people interested in my ramblings. As you can see in the video, a sliver of sun was enough to keep the surroundings bright until totality covered us in shadow. Even in totality, the sun’s corona washed out the camera’s image of the dark side of the moon, but it was clear to the naked eye. When it hit, all I could say was “wow.” (about 30 times.) I took one quick pic holding my phone up to the binoculars, and enjoyed the show. It was nothing short of amazing. My advice: DO NOT MISS THE NEXT ONE IN 2024!

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