The clouds rolled in, the mosquitoes came out, the swallows took to the sky after the mosquitoes, the horses stampeded, somebody yelled “There it is!”, everybody scrambled for their cameras, and the three minutes we were supposed observe in complete, Zen-like silence the totality of the first full solar eclipse to cross the USA in 99 years was shot to hell. So much for dignity and grace. But the crowd at the Cataloochee Ranch got some awesome photos of one of the biggest celestial shows of the century.
Perched high in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the Cataloochee, a log-cabin resort with free-range horses to boot, was smack in the line of fire as the Moon’s shadow swept across North America. And the horses really did take off running, the story that animals act weird during eclipses is actually true. My guess is that they think it is night, and are probably Never having seen an eclipse, of course I was going to get a good seat. And, nearly a mile up in the sky, “vantage point” takes on a whole new meaning.
And in a really cool turn, the ranch brought in a Cherokee storyteller brimming with legends about eclipses. The Smokies are the native habitat of the Cherokee, and their roots go deep into the land. And the sky. To the Norse, an eclipse was a celestial wolf eating the Sun. The Jews thought it was a fish. And in the Cherokee realm, it was a huge frog. Only chanting the rights songs and prayers would prevent the Sun from being swallowed whole.
What I could not control, what not even the Cherokee could, was the weather. What had been a clear-as-a-bell sky the day before was a patchwork of white, fluffy clouds on the day of the eclipse. Picturesque to be sure in the Smokies, but it is NOT the kind of weather conditions one wants when something is happening above them. No, they did not clear in time.
But here’s the funny thing: The clouds, which were not thick, added a “landscape” to the sky. The Sun still shone through, even when just a fingernail, and the water in the clouds created a trippy rainbow effect. So instead of having the same black dot that everybody else in the USA saw, I had something that was actually a little more primordial and mysterious. It was really kinda cool. Additionally, the clouds lessened the blinding light that even a nearly obscured Sun radiates, so I was far less worried about frying my camera’s sensor, or that of my iPhone, than I would under a clear sky.
I was surprised, in fact, just how much the sun can be blotted out during an eclipse and still give full daylight. It was maybe 80% covered before the day noticeably dimmed. I was also surprised by the 360-degree dawn. On a flat plain, the horizon is about 2.9 miles out; but a being mile up in the Great Smoky Mountains means it was maybe 86 miles. I could see out of the Moon’s shadow and into daylight. It was magnificent, but strange.
And then, presto! It was over. The mosquitoes vanished, and the swallows with them. I’m guessing the horses were weirded out for the rest of the day. Although the eclipse was four hours from start to finish, totality was all of three minutes. I would have been scrambling for the camera even it had been a clear day. And it didn’t take much of the solar disc to be revealed for full daylight to be restored. The power of light, indeed.
And the good news is that we don’t have to wait another 99 years for another full eclipse to sweep across the nation. Another is scheduled to hit in just 7 years, starting in Mexico and shooting north to Montreal. Apparently, one lucky town in Illinois that sw the Great American Eclipse will also see this next one, making a what was hailed as an “once in a lifetime event” a twofer. Book your hotels now.
And this time, maybe I really will just sit back and enjoy the silence.