Leslie's Voice

Experiencing the Black Hole Sun: 100% Totality in Columbia, SC

Experiencing a total solar eclipse has been the #1 item on my bucket list for over two decades. I wanted it so badly that the morning of August 21st, 2017, when I woke up in a hotel room within the path of totality in Columbia, SC, I vibrated with excitement. My stomach fluttered with the same anticipation you might expect from a child on Christmas morning or an adolescent on a first date. I knew what to expect–in theory. I’d done the research. Booked the hotel months in advance. My husband, my dad, and I were all prepared.

Between the three of us, we brought s telescope, two sets of binoculars, two cameras, and a whole bunch of filters. We took this viewing opportunity seriously.

We decided to stay at the hotel that day to avoid traffic, and as we walked to breakfast in the lobby (donning our matching Planetary Society eclipse t-shirts), we peeked out of a window to check the grassy knoll in the hotel’s backyard. There were already people setting up, their tripods mounted on the grass, telescopes and cameras pointing to the clouds. We hurried through breakfast to secure a spot.

I went down to the knoll first, said hello to some of the people people scattered about, and settled underneath a giant oak tree while I waited for my husband and my father to come back down with our folding chairs and snacks. The baby smiled at everyone, and we all made small-talk, asking who had traveled from where, what sort of equipment they were using, if this was their first eclipse or not.

My husband set up our little spotting scope and had a talking app on his phone which called out what to look for and when based on our GPS coordinates and the progress of the moon slipping in front of the sun. The phone called out C1–the first point of contact–and a tiny arc of the sun disappeared.

Taken with my phone through the viewing lens of the telescope: C1. The eclipse had begun.

As the sun slowly disappeared behind the moon, the grassy knoll became more crowded. The baby fell asleep in a carrier–having refused a morning nap–and I stayed in the shade of the the giant oak, bouncing the baby gently as the little crescent suns speckled our faces and shoulders.

Despite the knoll becoming increasingly crowded, we were cozy and comfortable in the shade.

 

Periodically I’d visit my husband at his perch next to the telescope. The moon made its faithful trek in front of the sun, and we all waited patiently for the moment of totality to come.

About 15 minutes before C2–the “diamond ring” moment when totality began–the air got noticeably cooler. We lost what felt like 10 or 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and the world took on a bit of an eerie greyish-blue tint. All the colors were wrong, like being stuck in an unnatural Instagram filter. The insects and birds in the woods behind the knoll chirped and called to each other with their nighttime songs, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. My child woke up and looked around, puzzled, clinging a bit more tightly to me than usual.

And then, the unthinkable happened. A cloud. A big, giant, fluffy raincloud floated in front of our view of the eclipsing sun.

I would normally say the sun’s rays peeking out from behind this fluffy cloud was beautiful. But I was pissed. Big giant open sky–and then this one cloud is in our way of viewing the sun.

“Go away, cloud,” I said, removing my safe viewing glasses to stare up at the offending water vapor. “Go away. Move.”

We’d enjoyed a brisk breeze all day on the knoll, and I willed the breeze to blow the cloud away. We were 20 minutes to totality, and this giant cloud was blocking our view. Several people on the knoll joined my chiding of the cloud, and we lamented about how devastating it would be if the cloud remained overhead during totality. “Go away. Go away.”

I was anxious. We traveled more than 400 miles for this moment. And a cloud was going to ruin it.

And then, perhaps 90 seconds before the beginning of totality, success. The sun peeked through the clouds. A teeny, tiny crescent. I put my glasses back on, knowing that not only could the crescent permanently blind me, but it would ruin my eyes’ acclimation to the darkness, making it harder to see the corona.

About 15 seconds before the moon eclipsed the sun, my husband’s phone spoke out loud, alerting us to watch for shadow bands. I looked for something light-colored, and found the white top of a cooler next to us. I saw the bands, faint warbly shadows, dancing across the cooler’s top and pointed them out to my husband. We watched them briefly, and when the phone counted down, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1–we peeled the filters off to watch the diamond ring slip into totality.

This was one of a handful of photos my dad captured of the corona before he set his camera down to enjoy the rest of the experience without worrying about trying to document it.

Totality itself was breathtaking. No photos or video do it justice.

We could clearly see Venus and Mars against the navy sky. (Jupiter and Mercury were also out to play, but I wasn’t able to spot them.) The horizon (all 360° of it) looked like the beginnings of sunrise or sunset. The animals continued their nighttime songs. The wind blew briskly; it felt like autumn.

“Leslie,” my husband said, glancing at me from the telescope. “You have to see this.”

My husband took the baby from my arms so I could lean over and watch through the viewfinder. The corona was enormous–its spiderweb silk stretching out several times the diameter of the sun itself and dancing slightly. Breathing, as if it were alive. Around the edges of the deep blackness that was the moon, I could see bright orange fire-laden bands–solar prominences arcing in real time.

I pulled my face away from the telescope and stared at my husband, my mouth agape. He was pointing toward the black hole sun, and our infant child followed his finger to gaze at totality.

“It’s stunning,” I told him. He smiled at me. We kissed.

He then turned to the knoll. “Does anyone want to look through the telescope?” he asked? A small line of older children from families on the knoll lined up, and he focused on getting as many of them to look through the viewfinder and I took the baby back and stood at his side, staring up, willing myself to burn this moment in my memory forever, willing myself not to cry over its beauty because I needed perfect, unblurred vision for the remainder of these 150 seconds.

 

The diamond ring reappeared, and I yelled “Glasses on; protect your eyes,” as my husband cut the line for the telescope, replacing the filter and saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t let you look anymore.”

And then it was over.

The shadow passed over us, the sky brightened, the insects and birds quieted.

Everything went in reverse, but no one paid it any mind. We were all still high off of the experience of totality. We showed each other photos, traded email addresses, waved goodbye to each other and wished everyone safe journeys home.

While we were packing up our stuff, my dad handed me his camera, a slight smile on his lips.

My dad got the money shot–and didn’t even use a tripod.

He’d gotten the shot of a lifetime. “Worth the trip?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he replied. “Definitely.”

We’re already planning our trip to see the 2024 total solar eclipse.

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