TCHS Science Teacher Takes Trip of a Lifetime
The Great American Eclipse, as it was called by many, took place during the afternoon of Monday, August 21, 2017. It had been 99 years since a Total Solar Eclipse transected the entire span of our nation. And people all across the country planned eclipse parties, complete with commemorative clothing, and special eclipse glasses to protect their eyes from the rays of the sun as they gazed skyward during this spectacular event.
Here in the Tyler County area, as the moon passed in front of the sun at about 2:30 that afternoon, nearly 85% of the solar disk was covered. Eclipse watchers in this part of the country may have noticed a slight dimming of the intensity of daylight, and perhaps a degree or two of cooling of the air during the peak of the eclipse.
But anyone who wanted to experience the Total Solar Eclipse-and the changes in Nature that accompanied it-had to travel south to somewherealong a 70-mile-wide band of totality that stretched across the nation from Oregon to South Carolina.
One local family made the eight-hour trip to Tennessee to experience totality under a clear August sky. Joe Griffith, a science teacher in the Tyler County School System for over 40 years, knew for some time that he wanted to take his family to see the total eclipse. Joe and his family share their Total Eclipse experience below:
I read about this eclipse several years ago, and when I told my wife about it, we just marked that date on our calendars as a day when we would be somewhere in the pathway. My wife, Colleen, along with our children, Anna and Jesse, traveled to Loudon, Tennessee, with me for the big event.
Loudon is located about 30 miles south of Knoxville along I-75, so it was easy to get to, but the hotels in the area were all booked by the time we started to make reservations. All of the hotels in the path of totality were filled months or years in advance, so we stayed near Knoxville and drove on down the morning of the eclipse. All along the Interstate signs flashed “Do not park on shoulders or exit ramps during the Eclipse”. We got to the Loudon exit about four hours early, so even though traffic was slow and steady it was not that much of a problem.
All of the little towns in the pathway had festivities going on, but we didn’t want to watch the eclipse in a town, where lots of street lights would come on when it got dark. We wanted to be out in the country. Parking in town was $20 or more, and we also stopped at one large farm that had a huge eclipse party going on, but that would have been a $70 entry fee just for the four of us. We didn’t really want all of the music and foods and festivities. We just wanted to experience totality and then get back on the road for the eight-hour trip home since we had school the next day.
We have acquaintances in the Loudon area and considered watching the eclipse with them, but Monday was a workday.
Even if our friends had been home, where they lived was not especially good for viewing the sky from horizon to horizon. So we did what a lot of other people were doing-we just drove around until we found someplace to park and watch. What we found was a cul-de-sac around which were empty lots for sale.
We saw another family already tail-gating in the cul-de-sac and decided to join them. Their family of six came down from Toledo, Ohio. They had four kids, and they were also heading back right after the eclipse since they had school the next day.
It wasn’t long before another vehicle joined the impromptu party-complete with four adults and a fantastic solar telescope! This group came from eastern Virginia, near Washington, D.C. The man was a federal prosecuting attorney with a serious interest in telescopes and cameras. How great it was that he set up his telescope and invited us all to watch as the moon began to cover the sun! The sun appeared red in the filtered view through the telescope, and the image was also reversed. We got to see sunspots and a solar flare as we peered into the telescope.
Finally, a man and his energetic dog from the Loudon area pulled in. He, too, was just out driving around looking for a good spot to watch. That brought the number to 15 people and one dog, all gathered to watch the historic event at the end of a cul-de-sac surrounded by empty lots in rural Tennessee.
As the eclipse countdown continued into the afternoon, it began to get noticeably darker about a half hour before totality, and this brought out sounds of insects that thought it was evening. About 25 minutes before totality, Jesse made note of the fact that crickets were singing. And then about five minutes later, the cicadas started buzzing.
They all thought it was evening as it got darker and darker.
The folks from Toledo announced that the temperature had dropped to 74 degrees, a welcome respite from the hot Tennessee sunshine, which had pushed their digital thermometer to 94 degrees an hour earlier.
Looking through our eclipse glasses as the moon covered the sun, the sunlight was only coming from one side and it got smaller and smaller, and then suddenly it was gone
For the next two minutes and 20 seconds, the moon blocked the sun’s face. Only some streaks of light were left, radiating outward from the sun like flower petals from behind the black circle of the moon.
It wasn’t pitch black, but it was definitely dark. All around the horizon, was an orange glow similar to a sunset as light from beyond the path of totality filtered inward. But overhead was dark. We were all impressed that we could see stars as we looked at the darkened sky.
Seeing the sun at totality was a sight that left an impression on all of us watchers. We will never forget looking up there and seeing the dark moon across the face of the sun, with just a halo of light stretching out from the sun’s surface. We didn’t have special cameras to take perfect photos of the eclipse, but the mental image will remain with us forever!
During the time of totality, the watchers were able to take off their glasses to view with the naked eye. We soaked in the experience of the eclipse, with the halo around the sun and moon, the stars overhead, the sunset all around the horizon, the loud singing of the cicadas, and the coolness that came with darkness. Even the dog laid down during the peak of the eclipse as though it were evening.
But all too soon, the glasses went back on as the moon continued its orbit and the glint of the sun reappeared. Colleen noted that the first rays of the sun as it reappeared stuck out from the dark shadow like a diamond on an engagement ringIt was beautiful!
The cicadas and crickets began to quiet their song as the empty lots surrounding the cul-de-sac brightened and the hot beams of sunshine returned. Very soon the day became once again just another ordinary, hot and humid summer day in the South, giving no indication of the historic event that had just occurred.
It was wonderful to share the eclipse experience with some nice folks who just happened to stop at the same place we did. We will probably never see any of them ever again.
But with a long trip back home to return to school the next day, we didn’t linger for more than about 15 minutes after totality. We just wanted to experience the eclipse and then get back on the road. We passed out Moon Pies that we had bought to celebrate the event. Then the man and his dog left promptly, followed by the telescope group as soon as they disassembled their equipment. When we pulled out next, the Toledo family was starting to pack up for their journey back to the top of Ohio.
But it seemed that nearly everyone else who came to watch the eclipse had the same plan to head home right afterwards. We knew when we got to the entrance ramp and it was entirely backed up getting onto I-75 that it was going to be slow going for awhile. But what we didn’t realize at the time was that our 3-hour trip up I-81 to Wytheville, VA, was going to take more than five hours!
Traffic on the Interstates was incredibly heavy, the worst that the Tennessee Department of Transportation had ever experienced. The TDOT had prepared for traffic similar to that following a NASCAR event at the Bristol Motor Speedway. But race traffic was like a drop in a bucket compared to eclipse traffic! We cannot think of any man-made event that would ever bring out the amount of traffic that the eclipse did. Maybe evacuation for a hurricane, but nothing man-made. Everyone heading home at the same time!
We saw license plates from 23 states and even Canada as we drove northeast on I-81. Most were from folks heading home to Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. But only a small number were from West Virginia. Perhaps any from the Mountain State who were returning home did so by another route. Once we made the turn northward at Wytheville onto I-77, traffic was much lighter, as to be expected for a Monday evening.
We were hoping to be home by midnight, but it was 2:00 a.m. when we got to bed. Perhaps if we had come up through southern West Virginia on Rt. 119 to Charleston we would have been home by midnight. Still, the weather was perfect, and we found a great place to watch the eclipse with a great group of other people. Yes, the trip was absolutely worth it! We have wanted to see a total eclipse for a long time, and we can’t wait for the next one.
Avid eclipse watchers will not have to wait another 99 years for the next one, as a swath of totality will sweep from Mexico up through northern Ohio and on up into New England on Monday, April 8, 2024.
We plan to be near Lake Erie for that eclipse. But we will not be in a rush to head home next time. I-90 along Lake Erie will be jammed full, as will I-79 from Erie down to I-80 and all the way to Pittsburgh and beyond. We will not be anywhere near those roads! Our advice to anyone planning to go north in 2024, is to get there the day before, and stay until the day after. Or at least linger for several hours afterwards, and even then it might be good to find some back roads to drive home on.
Despite the traffic on the way home, all four members of our family agree that the trip was certainly worth it. We saw one car at our hotel that had a sign saying ‘Totality or Bust!’ That will be our motto for the Total Eclipse of 2024, ‘Totality or Bust!