So, there was an eclipse yesterday. And although I usually keep this blog pretty focused on my craft, there are so many people I want to tell my eclipse story to (I’m a writer: I write) that I’ve decided to share it here.
I figure, Annie Dillard wrote about her experience of totality, why can’t I?
First, let me say that if you haven’t been in totality yet, however weird you think a total eclipse of the sun would be, it is weirder than that. According to my friend, who read the relevant essay, Annie Dillard wrote that totality is to a partial eclipse what marrying a man is to merely kissing him—kissing generally comes before marriage and is obviously related to it, but in no way even approximates what marriage is like. Annie Dillard is precisely correct. Having kissed men and being married to one, I can say that the comparison in no way diminishes the worth of either partial eclipse viewing or kisses. Kissing is indeed a lovely thing to do. It is only that the other is so totally more as to achieve a difference of kind rather than degree.
Yesterday was also my fortieth birthday, an event I decided to greet with excitement, rather than the more traditional dread. After all, getting older is what happens as long as you go on living, and living is a good thing. Anyway, the increasing amount of salt in my pepper is coming in silver, rather than grey or white, and I’m going to look awesome with silver hair. And, I get a total eclipse of the sun on my birthday, so how cool is that?
I arranged to view the eclipse from Siler Bald, on the Appalachian Trail, with several friends whom I hadn’t seen in way too long. My husband couldn’t join us because of unrelated prior commitments, but I brought the dogs down with me—Una, the aging but still spry and cute beagle, and CurlyQ, the now definitely geriatric Lab/pit mix (she has a retriever’s thick, brown coat and fondness for water, and a pibble’s sweet loyalty and stocky, muscular body). Much discussion of logistics ensued, as you can imagine. We had initially assumed that Siler Bald, being a steep, two-mile hike from the nearest road and not well-known, would be an excellent but nearly secret viewing spot, but that was before a local paper spilled the beans. We decided to hike in two days early, to claim a spot, but then car trouble delayed us by several hours and we elected to camp at the base of the mountain and then go up only one day early. So we had a varied, if rather populous, little vacation on the mountain.
A ”bald” in the Southern Appalachians, for those not in the know, is a meadow on or near the top of a mountain. There are several of them, of varying sizes and shapes. Trees can grow on the balds, and would, except they are kept at bay by mowing or grazing. The balds predate European conquest, so while they were likely created by people, the record of why they were created has been lost. Some believe them to be a natural phenomenon, but my money is against that at this point.
Our first night was cold. I had not brought a tent, only a tarp I chose not to use, and the dogs had never slept out before without a tent. They were anxious, and barked at neighboring campers and especially the campers’ dogs through the night and then all morning. The thin-coated beagle shivered violently until I brought her in bed with me. Then we kept each other warm. The night throbbed with insect song, both like and unlike what I hear at home, and the stars shone spangled through gaps in the canopy as I fell asleep. By morning I was stiff and in pain in several different places (I am, after all, turning forty) but the light of the new day revealed wildflowers visited by bees and hummingbirds and a fascinating mix of familiar and, to me, exotic trees and shrubs, from northern species, like striped maple, to southern species, like great rhododendron.
After breakfast, one member of our party ran up the mountain to snag us a campsite isolated from other dogs (to prevent barking), and the rest of us moseyed slowly along at a pace CurlyQ could manage, taking time to filter water from a trailside spring and to admire mushrooms. Two miles, and close to three hours later, we arrived at the top, and CurlyQ lay down and slept as immovable as a rock until nearly dinner time.
Siler Bald itself is long and relatively narrow, climbing hundreds of feet from the high Snowbird Gap to the much higher summit, like a curiously isolated ski slope. The Appalachian Trail crosses the lowermost portion of the bald, and side trails run up to the summit and sideways to a separate, and much smaller and flatter meadow with a large and stately oak tree in its middle. We camped in the forest on the edge of that meadow. Around us, in the clearing, and up along the main bald as high as the summit, clustered other people’s camps, and hikers, children, and dogs wandered freely, finding and chatting with acquaintances old and new, reading books, and playing catch, in much the same way as they might have before a large outdoor concert, except this time the star of the show would literally be a star—our sun.
After another cold, yet much more comfortable night (I borrowed a hammock), I woke to a huge and distant buzzing shortly after dawn, the massed hum of flies drawn to dung, mosquitoes, and aerial drones observing the historic occasion. The festival went on as before, the tent city swelling as the day progressed until, by our count, there were over 160 tents and maybe a thousand people. The mood remained upbeat and friendly, and insects, birds, and the everywhere dogs went about their day like normal. The weather was hot, though pleasant in the shade, with intermittent piles of high, stormlike clouds.
There was no indication anywhere, except in the behavior of well-informed humans, that an eclipse was imminent, and yet the moon was already in the sky, invisibly, moving ever closer to the sun.
Remember that solar eclipses are caused by the moon blocking our sunlight. If you hold your hand, palm towards you, up so that it blocks the sun from your face, you’ll see it is impossible, from that position, for the sun to shine on your palm. In just that way, an eclipsing moon must be dark, hunting the blue day unseen, like some celestial shark.
But our clocks and our astronomers could tell us what our eyes could not; the day was special.
We packed up our camp and again sent up an advance scout to find a spot on the hillside and set up a tarp to shade us and to shield the dogs from all the things they might otherwise bark at. My friends, despite not having dogs themselves, were excellent with mine, wonderfully considerate of their sweet but sometimes nervous doggishness.
We ended up a little more than halfway up the hill, our view encompassing at least a third of the horizon, the land stretching out below us like a rucked and rumpled nubbly green carpet, row behind row, all uninterrupted green out to the hazy distance. People around us talked and strummed guitars, talked about astronomy, and grilled aromatic meat over small campfires. A band of children battled each other with toy swords and worked together to create a network of tunnels and forts in the thick brush bordering the bald. A few enthusiasts set up telescopes and specialized cameras and cardboard camera obscura observatories. A nearly uninterrupted line of ever more people marched steadily towards the summit, looking rather like a train of porters hired on to some Himalayan expedition.
And the moon, invisible, approached the sun.
At the appointed time, we used our eclipse glasses to look at the sun and saw a little, seemingly inconsequential, chip on the side of the disk. Clouds massed across the sky and departed, eclipsing the sun in their more ordinary way, and we joked that our massed willpower would surely move the clouds away in time. Yes, I thought, but what about the will and the wanting of other people on other mountains? One person’s clear sky is always another’s shadow.
Another look through the glasses, and the chip had grown. The sun now looked like a cookie with a bite out of it.
Through the glasses, it is impossible to see anything but the solar disk, except for a vague luminosity, similar to those patterns of color and paleness that form and move behind closed eyelids in the red and personal dark. That luminosity might have been the corona, but it also might not have. Nothing else. Even the sun looked like a dull orange circle and no more. To look at clouds and trees and mountains and each other, we had to take our glasses off, and we spent more time looking around than up, both to save ourselves a crick in the neck and to avoid boredom. Nothing special, yet. Had we not been forewarned, we could not have known the bite out of the sun was even up there, let alone growing.
Eclipses are not like lunar phases. On the moon through an ordinary month, the curve of the shadow follows the nearest edge, so that a nearly full moon is missing a crescent of darkness, and the edge of that crescent grows flatter and flatter until a half moon has a perfectly straight edge. But the edge of eclipsing darkness never changes its shape, it is always curved, the edge of the otherwise invisible moon in front of it, so it is difficult to tell when half the sun has been covered.
Around the halfway mark, though, the air seemed suddenly cooler, though I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just a passing, random cool breeze. Then I noticed that the light of day had gone watery, like the sun in winter. Again, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t imagining it. But the edge was definitely off the day’s heat.
“Is it getting cooler?” I asked.
“Yes,” they others said.
“How much, do you think?”
“Well, it was supposed to be in the 80’s today, and I think it’s in the 70’s now. I’ve heard it’ll get to 65, like, just for a second.”
“I’m thinking,” said another, “whether I’d be able to tell anything was happening yet, if I was just out hiking and didn’t know about the eclipse.”
“If I was out hiking,” I said, “I’d notice. Because I’d be aware of the weather, and with the temperature drop, it feels like a storm is coming in, except it doesn’t look like it.”
It did look like something, though. The sun had shrunk to a thin crescent, and the light…it was hard to tell that it had grown darker, though obviously it must have, because the sunlight was still direct and still the color of ordinary daylight. And yet it was getting hard to see, as though there were something wrong with my eyes, or maybe there was some sort of thick, gummy substance darkening the air. That the darkness might be caused by a lessening of light the mind resisted, resisted strongly, because under normal circumstances, direct, mid-day sunlight and lessening illumination can never happen together. Yet here they were. Circumstances weren’t normal.
The festival was growing quiet, ordinary conversation ceased, whatever everyone on the hill had expected to be thinking and feeling being shoved aside by respectful, spontaneous awe. People spoke in whispers, neighbor to neighbor, or not at all. The temperature was still falling, each slight breeze cooler than the last.
My beagle stood up and looked around, alert. Our other dog, CurlyQ, did not react at all, simply slept the justified sleep of the ages, but Una was up and aware. And yet she did not look at the sky. She did not seem frightened, and she did not bark or bay. She just looked around. As a domestic animal, she was used to lights going on or off and sudden changes of temperature for no clear reason, but human behavior is literally her bread and butter, and she is exquisitely attuned to our species. I suspect she noticed the humans were acting strangely and wanted to know what that meant for her.
The denser crown up on the crest of hill clapped, cheered, and we did not know why. Could they see totality already as it came to meet us? Had they started “The Wave”? Had someone done a trick?
The passing clouds had long since stopped, paused, as though indeed by our wishes, for although a large cloud hung in the sky near the sun, it never passed over. It was thin and ignorable and so we ignored it. I’m not even sure it was there the whole time. Maybe it left or evaporated somehow.
“I’m starting not to like this,” I said, to no one in particular. Intellectually and emotionally, I was fine—fascinated by circumstance, glad and excited to be exactly where I was—but viscerally I felt a nervous nausea rising. The crescent had shrunk to a thin nail pairing of sunlight and the land around us had grown so dim as to be undeniable by even the most stubborn intuition, and yet the colors of daylight remained, though perhaps with a slight reddish shift, and the combination lent the scene a weird, hypersaturated darkness, a terrifying unreality, a camera trick for a monster movie, and not a very believable one.
“That cloud went dark!” I said, and indeed a large, puffy cloud low on the horizon had suddenly lost all its whiteness, becoming a pale, dull grey almost right before my eyes. Totality. I was looking at totality from twenty miles away as it rushed towards us across our planet’s skin.
“Three hundred, sixty-degree sunset colors!” someone shouted, and, yes, the clouds around as much of the horizon as we could see glowed yellow and pink around their tops and the surface of their woolly, piled bulges. The sky behind them had turned a smoky, pinkish orange. The land lay cloaked in dimness, range upon range, as far as the eye could see.
“It’s going!” someone almost shrieked, and I pointed my protected eyes upward to watch the arms of the crescent shrink and shorten, pulling rapidly into themselves, melting, the center swallowing itself, squeezed out, until….
There was nothing at all visible through my eclipse glasses. Complete blackness.
I ripped my glasses off, and a round, black hole hung near the top of a clear, midnight blue sky, pearlescent fire wreathing it, the pale, glowing flames undulating with barely perceptible, yet breakneck speed, each hundreds of times longer than the diameter of the whole Earth.
A few of the brightest stars stood out, but the land did not look like night. The horizon was still burnt orange, the clouds just outside the edge of totality still pinkish, and our hill itself was still bathed in full, albeit weird, color, the green and brown and straw of the recently shorn meadow, the green of the trees, the people and their multi-colored tents and sun shades crowding around in light incredibly still recognizably sunlike but dim as the land of the dead. It did not look like night. Even the brightest moonlight is not enough to allow the eyes to process color. It certainly wasn’t day, though.
One of our neighbors had started up a short eclipse playlist, and, predictably, the depth of totality was soundtracked by “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” a song I absolutely hate for its catchy and romanticized maudlin pain.
“I’m sorry you have to hear that song on your birthday,” someone said.
“It’s to be expected,” I replied, vaguely.
“Happy birthday!” someone else said.
“Thanks!” I replied. “Please don’t mind the fact that I’m sobbing.”
And I was. I was sobbing in terror, my arms tingling, my hands trembling, and yet I was not afraid in the ordinary sense of the word. I had no intellectual worry, not even any self-consciously irrational paranoia. Emotionally, I felt nothing at all, except a vague, eager curiosity. There was no fear, except I had all the involuntary physiological signs of a greater fear than any I had ever known. I learned later that the other people in my group felt wonder, or awe, or a great sense of beauty, but none of them felt terror, nor did I experience any of the enjoyable things they later reported. To feel a feeling, truly, the intellect and the emotions, as well as the body must be engaged, and while I had no fear, despite my full-body terror, I could feel nothing that was not fear, either.
People around us, all over the hill, were crying out in what sounded like shock and wonder, not everyone, just sprinkles and jets of sound here and there. Sometimes people clapped, though maybe that was later, it’s hard to remember clearly. Of all the hundreds of dogs among us that day, not one barked or howled or in any way acted odd. Wildlife had long since been frightened silent by the mass of humans. Of all the species present on Siler Bald that day, the only one I saw or heard acting strangely was ours.
I could not look at the sun/moon itself for very long, I found I could not quite trust that it was safe to do so. The thing so wholly looked like something dangerous, though, again, I was not really frightened by it, nor did I even really perceive it as a hole in the sky, nor was I appalled by it in a conscious way, and yet the only way to accurately describe the terrible singularity of it is as dangerous, as appalling, as a hole in the sky, a maw gobbling the world.
Not trusting that I could stare, and not wanting to miss the other parts of the show, I kept glancing between sky and land sky and land, sky and land. And every time I saw the land, it was that sickly, greenish dimness. Every time I saw the sky, the corona flared silent and silver above in a way that memory insists must have had a sound, a low, breathy roaring, or perhaps an ominous, long drawn-out chord, or an inchoate, wordless vocal track, singing.
I shivered, though whether from cold or from fear I do not know.
The cloud that had gone dark went light again, and someone shouted, “it’s coming back!” I looked up with my glasses and a speck, then a lump, then a crescent of light stood forth and grew rapidly. The world was day again, the clouds brightened rapidly to white, except for a darkness off in the other direction, behind the trees that I could not be sure I really saw, and then could not be sure was really gone.
The sun was still a mere crescent above us, the air must have been dim, yet in contrast to stark totality, everything seemed normal, and hundreds of people immediately began packing up their stuff and walking down the mountain, like the crowds leaving a stadium after a concert. We hung around a little longer, sometimes looking up at the sun or out at the brightening day. I walked over to the edge of the trees, something I had not taken the time to do as the crescent waned, and saw, as expected, crescents of sunlight like piles of giant fingernail clippings, cast by the pinhole gaps in the leaves above. I could make my own crescents by holding up the tiny gap between my curled first finger and the palm of my hand, like a constricted OK sign.
We packed up our stuff and headed out, intent on getting my friends home at a reasonable hour and maybe meeting with other friends in Ashville for a late dinner. On our slow, CurlyQ-paced way down, I used my glasses three more times to check the progress of the sun. That last time, it was almost whole once again, just one chip missing from the one side.
I have not used my glasses since, though I may, you know, just to be sure that the sun made it, that it’s really round again. A curious thing is that, looking back on the eclipse, even from less than an hour after totality had ended, I found I could barely remember it. The unreality itself seemed unreal, inconsequential, and I retained only fleeting snatches of disjointed memory, like a dream upon waking.
I do not feel utterly changed by the experience—I do not feel changed at all, except that now I am forty, rather than thirty-nine. The terror has been and gone, leaving nothing but shreds of largely intellectual knowledge behind. I have spent the bulk of today, when I could have been doing other things, writing down this account, stitching together those shreds of memory into a narrative, so I can remember and understand what the hell happened.
A post-script, which I hope will be funny at some point, is that we might as well have stayed on Siler Bald and watched the run return to roundness and then slept there, because our efforts to return my friends home last night—let alone to meet anyone for dinner in Ashville—came utterly to naught. The human response to the bizarreness of the sky was almost equally incomprehensible, and we’d underestimated it badly—as had tens of thousands of other people, as we all hit the same highways at the same time, trying to go home, and failing. It took us five hours to creep some sixty miles, and we made better time than some. Firefighters, their firehouse on our route and likely blocked in by the traffic jam, stood handing out bottles of water to unprepared motorists. Cell phone calls to find a place for dinner proved fruitless, partly because cell service itself was patchy, since everyone was online at once, and partly because the restaurants we did call were running out of food. The line at a gas station bathroom where we stopped took forty-five minutes for a desperately dancing little girl to traverse. Long after dark, the ordinary dark of night, we still crept slowly forward, tempers fraying, when an ambulance, lights flashing, came up behind us. We all crammed ourselves down into one lane somehow so it could pass, and felt like weeping for the poor sick or injured person inside and their family.
Even after we escaped the jam, traffic remained rush-hour heavy even well after midnight. Every single hotel room but one was booked. Rest stops along the highway spilled over with cars, people sleeping in their seats because there was nowhere else to go.
And then our car—my car—stopped working. Its power to accelerate evaporated. This had happened twice before, once recently, once last year, apparently due to overheating, but this time we were running along fine in cool weather on a fast, nearly flat road. It’s coolant levels were fine. And the car would not re-start even after it cooled down, not until we’d waited over and hour and a half. Three hours later, it happened again, and this time we sat on the side of the road for almost four hours trying various solutions and mostly failing (this is how we know there were no hotel rooms available), until suddenly the car started to work again. Dawn was coloring the sky by the time we approached my friends’ house. Sun returning.
I am told the problem actually exists in the transmission. I am nine hours’ drive from home, without a reliable vehicle, and no clear certainty when I will get one.
I would willingly go see a total eclipse again.