Squint a little, and this might have looked like an ordinary day south of Knoxville, Tennessee—but at 2:31 p.m., all semblance of normalcy had fled with the afternoon sun.
The total solar eclipse, the first in nearly a century to traverse the entire continental U.S., threw normally quiet east Tennessee into jubilant chaos. The nearby town of Sweetwater had braced for its population to more than double, thanks to thousands of out-of-towners eager to stare at the sun. Hotels had been booked up for months; local schools have closed for the day. (See the most mesmerizing pictures of the eclipse.)
Some entrepreneurial landowners offered up their hayfields and front lawns for sky-watchers—for a price. One high school we drove by advertised its parking lot for $10 a spot, offering the luxury of “(real) bathrooms.”
This bustling scene is playing out across the country today. National Geographic photographers, writers, and editors have fanned out nationwide along the eclipse’s path of totality, with the hopes of giving you extraordinary glimpses of a darkened sky afire. A group of National Geographic writers and editors, myself included, decided to road-trip down to Rocky Top to see the eclipse firsthand.
Sunlight dappled the road, and Bonnie Tyler belted through the car radio as we snaked our way to Tsali Notch Vineyard, our base camp for the day. The rows of grapevines and tents were within spitting distance of the path of totality’s center. The vineyard had estimated that it would host more than 3,000 people for the eclipse—one of the biggest events they’ve ever had.
Cars, coolers, cameras, distant guitar twangs, the smell of recently-cut grass: It felt like a bluegrass festival, but with many more telescopes. A message scrawled on one car window captured the mood succinctly: “Totality COOL!”
For hours, our crew in Tennessee feverishly tracked the sun, huddling within our canopy’s ever-shifting shadow. Beer and hummus flowed; I felt pangs of regret for having forgotten my Frisbee. The Sno-Cone stand temporarily ran out of spoons. (The amazing sights you can only see during an eclipse.)
But come 1:00 p.m. or so, all eyes flew up in a rush—the moon began its sunward lurch. I hurried to get my eclipse glasses. Astrophotographers young and old clustered atop the knoll near the front of the property, busy snapping eclipse sequences down to the second. I sat down next to one of them as he finagled his elaborately rigged camera.
Gordon Telepun, a plastic surgeon from Decatur, Alabama, has been to three other total eclipses: one in Zambia, one in Zimbabwe, one on a ship in the Mediterranean. He was thrilled for this one—not least of all because he and a programmer just have released a new smartphone app, Solar Eclipse Timer, that times this celestial ballet down to the second.
“Here’s what’s cool: We’re up on this knoll, [and] the shadow’s going to be moving more than 1,400 miles an hour, but that’s about 25 miles a minute,” he said to me. “The front of those mountains are about 30 miles away. We have a minute to actually watch the shadow leave us and go toward those mountains. That’s why I’m here.”
Just before 2:00 p.m., the sun became noticeably dimmer, the heat less oppressive. I snagged the last pre-totality Sno-Cone. It tasted delicious.
We dashed to the top of a hill near the back of the property, grapevines and forests behind us. Through eclipse glasses, the crescent sun looked like no more than a fingernail. Suddenly, we saw Baily’s beads, flashes of light peeking out through crags on the moon’s surface—then, the diamond ring, the final flash before the sun’s suffocation. The crowd roared and fumbled with glasses. (How much do you know about solar eclipses?)
Welcome to totality.
Like an otherworldly creature showing mortals its true form, the sun revealed its corona, its superheated atmosphere, with a ghostly flourish. A fog of light fringed the moon’s silhouette, spun into strings by the sun’s intense magnetic field.
The show’s scale was—and is—near-impossible to comprehend. Driving at highway speeds, it’d take nearly a decade to get from the sun’s surface to the corona’s outermost wisps. Such a car would need stupendous AC. While far less dense than the sun, the corona gets hundreds of times hotter than the sun’s surface, reaching temperatures of more than a million degrees Fahrenheit. It’s as if flames hotter than exhaust from the Saturn V rocket spewed from a vial of liquid nitrogen.
From this vantage point, though, the corona’s glow just invoked awe—and a twinge of dread, as if we had entered a weird, permanent twilight. It was easy to place myself among stargazers thousands of years ago: It makes total sense that cultures around the world thought that beasts, or a demon’s disembodied head, periodically gobbled up the sun.
The rush of darkness certainly felt like strange magic. The temperature fell considerably. Confused cicadas started their nighttime screeches. The humans, however, were far from anxious. For many in the crowd like me, this was their first total solar eclipse—and it was revelatory. The corona’s bloom drew a roar from the crowd—then, a hush. As precious seconds ticked by, we tried to take it all in, hoping to burn this moment into our memories (but not our retinas).
Two minutes or so after the last peek of sunlight, flashes of white crackled on the moon’s edge. It felt like no time had passed at all. As the spell unraveled, we scrambled to shield our eyes. Night yielded once more to day. (See the best—and quirkiest—maps of the solar eclipse.)
The stunned crowd, one by one, broke into applause.
Shaken, humbled, we attempted to return to mid-afternoon normalcy, zipping up our bags and trickling out to the parking lot. We walked in a giddy daze. I was beaming.
Why? Not only because what I had just seen was awesome; more than that, those three minutes had given me hope. As darkness fell across America, the universe gave us a beautiful gift: wonder.