I have seen numerous, spectacular celestial events in my life, including the Aurora Borealis from Norway and St. Elmo's Fire from off the coast of Chile. I have witnessed several lunar eclipses from shore and asea, but never a full-fledged solar eclipse such as crossed America on the 21st of August.
Planning for the event began 6 weeks ago...my girlfriend from Rochester, NY had planned on traveling to East Tennessee to join me in witnessing this celestial phenomenon. I got us a pair of eclipse glasses while they were still only $1.99, and she picked up the T-shirts...
(T-4 hours to totality) We drove from Rutledge, Tennessee to Madisonville...along the way, we stopped at a convenience store for beverage refreshments and on the way out I suggested that we try the eclipse glasses...both of us donned them and looked up at the sky...as advertised, nothing but the full sun was visible through these ISO-certified lenses that were the equivalent of a Level 17 welder's shield.
(T-2 hours to totality) We had passed numerous roadside pull-offs, parking lots and even houses offering eclipse parking from anywhere between $10 and $40...eclipse glasses from $5 to $10 per pair. Many local businesses in the area had Police caution tape or vehicles blocking their lots with "NO ECLIPSE PARKING" signs prominently posted.
(T-1 hour to totality) I was looking for a particular event that the local Knoxville television station was broadcasting live from, but the availability of restrooms and refreshment facilities were limited, and the parking fee was $40. We agreed that was not the best deal we had seen, and drove back to the Madisonville Wal-Mart that we had passed 10 minutes earlier. The parking lot was almost completely full of RVs, minivans, SUVs, station wagons and even a semi-truck with an open spot next to it...we pulled in there and walked to the store for a much-needed restroom run and snack/soda reload.
(T-30 minutes to totality) We left the store with refreshments in hand, and the first thing that I noticed that is was demostrably dimmer outside than when we had walked in...when we got back to the car, we each put the eclipse glasses on and checked the progress of the eclipse...the moon was about 50% of the way to covering the sun...the image was stunning, to say the least!
(T-10 minutes to totality) Rather than craning my neck staring straight up to check the progression towards totality, I discovered that I could see the exact same thing (with the eclipse glasses on, of course) in the windshield of the Dodge Caravan parked immediately behind us. The truck driver climbed out of his cab, and we asked him to take a picture of us geeked out (see picture above). He explained that he was from Laredo, Texas and his company had cancelled his load pickup that day due to the anticipated traffic woes (great call, getting out of there was quite difficult!) I asked him if he had eclipse glasses and he replied "no"...the moon was about 90% across the sun by now and it was noticeably dimmer, but still daylight.
He put the glasses on and glanced skyward, and muttered "Oh my God, that's beautiful"...he handed me the glasses back and climbed into his cab.
(T-2 minutes to totality) The storefront signs began to come on, as well as the headlights of cars with the auto-on headlights. The parking lot was becoming noticeably darker by the second and the buzz of conversation was increasing...
(T-30 seconds to totality) The sun is a mere sliver in the afternoon sky. The temperature has already dropped by about 3 degrees according to the car's dashboard readout. I was no longer watching it via the Caravan's windshield, but staring straight up at the dark side of the moon.
Totality...A huge cheer and applause erupts from our fellow parking lot viewers...the eclipse glasses came off and I looked directly into the face of God.
Since the moon is not a perfect sphere, but one featuring hills and valleys much like Earth, the corona danced and darted about all around the silhouette of the moon.
(Totality + 2 minutes, 44 seconds) Michelle asks when the glasses need to go back on for safe viewing...I said as soon as you see the DIAMOND RING, put 'em back on.
(Totality + 3 minutes) The diamond ring has appeared and the glasses are back on. Another raucous cheer from the parking lot crowd and round of applause for sheer appreciation of a truly magical event...in which tens of millions of Americans from Oregon to South Carolina were all united as...Humans.