My sister had already taken the day off for the total solar eclipse when I first heard about it during our nine day journey through Northern California and Oregon in May. I had noticed the eclipse tchotchkes in airport gift shops, and in Yachats, Oregon, citizens were already bracing for the influx of eclipse tourists. But in Norfolk, Virginia, with a mere eighty-six percent of the sun destined to be chomped away by the moon, this eclipse business wasn’t yet a big deal.
Inspired by my sister’s excitement, I began to think about the possibility of traveling to see this “once in a lifetime” total eclipse especially when I saw that my hometown of Maryville, Tennessee, was in the path of totality. I was incredulous. Other than being the home of the Sam Houston School House and being the birthplace of Lamar Alexander, Maryville, in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, doesn’t enjoy much notoriety.
My husband Bob thought an 86% eclipse was completely sufficient, but he unenthusiastically agreed to go along. I didn’t mention to Bob that as much as I wanted to see totality, I most wanted to see it with my two older granddaughters. Just in case this trip actually came together, I ordered eclipse viewing glasses that fortuitously came packaged in a group of five, and checked in with my sister-in-law in Louisville, Tennessee, to make sure we would have a place to stay if needed.
As I expected when I broached the idea of taking the grandchildren, my husband, a retired Marine Corps officer, ever an advocate for preparation for the most degraded conditions possible, delivered a two hour litany of absolutely everything that could go wrong finally declaring he had thought all along that it was a bad idea for just the two of us to go. In his opinion, subjecting the little girls to the likely discomforts of this trip, elevated the threat level status to irrational. His main concern: traffic. He balked at my suggestion that that our daughter Emily, the girls, and I could make it a girl trip. Bob leads only from the front, never from the rear. He was going.
With Emily’s mother-in-law generously agreeing to stay with Baby Andrew, the eclipse chase was officially on.
Once in a Lifetime Experience #1
We hit the road early Sunday morning taking Highway 64 to Interstate 81 for the drive to Abingdon, Virginia where we planned to spend the night. The drive that normally takes six hours took eight—better than we had hoped for. And we arrived with enough time for the girls to swim in the hotel pool. We ate a fantastic supper at El Bigotes Mexican Grill, went to the grocery store for a few more food supplies, and bedded down for the night. We were on the road early Monday and cruised into Knoxville with so little traffic we wondered where everybody was.
The bridge from the library to the Green Belt
We still had not decided where we would watch the eclipse. We had the offer of the back deck of a lake house with a perfect view, but everything I had read, suggested that it is best to watch with a large group of people. So in spite of the sweltering heat, we settled on the Blount County Library’s Viewing Party which extended beyond the library grounds to the Maryville Green Belt, a fitness and pleasure area with a paved path that meanders along a lazy stream through miles of town. We staked out our plot under a shade tree and the waiting began. Largely thanks to four year old Dori, we met people from Oklahoma, New Jersey, New York, and local people too. We heard languages we could not identify.
We checked periodically as the moon moved into the
Shadows dance on a lawn chair outside Nashville, TN
alignment that would result in totality. We marveled at the changing light. At the increasing volume of cicadas’ song as darkness fell, the colors of the corona. At Venus or was it Regulus? On the Green Belt we gasped, screamed, laughed out loud and cheered. Tears welled up in eyes. And then the gleam appeared on the edge of the big black ball and suddenly light returned, the cicadas quietened, the street lamps extinguished. Filtered through the leaves of trees, little crescent shaped shadows scampered on the ground.
With last looks to the sky and spirits elevated to a celestial sublime, we packed up with a new objective: To drive as far north as possible. We hoped that would be Hickory, North Carolina, where we would spend the night and be home by noon on Tuesday to reunite Andrew with his mother and sisters and relieve Parkie of her child care duties.
Once in a Lifetime Experience #2
And everything was looking great until traffic came to a stop on I 40 East at exit 64. We had seen a sign indicating an accident at exit 66. Four long hours later we snaked past the accident that had involved a tractor trailer at the worst section of highway possible: lanes were already closed for construction and traffic both entered and exited the highway at this juncture. It was a once in a lifetime traffic nightmare. Thanks to Bob’s Marine Corps mentality, we had topped off the gas tank, we had food in the car, and we had all been to the bathroom. His only comment: “This is what I was afraid of.”
Thanks to the iExit App, which you should download on your phone immediately if you don’t already have it, we were able to locate a hotel in Morganton, North Carolina, and make reservations from the car. We pulled into our hotel at 11:30, far from our hoped for destination of Hickory and exhausted from the four-hour stop and go. We were checked into the last two available rooms. Still far from home, we didn’t make it to Norfolk until almost 5 PM on Tuesday.
Not quite total.
And I would do it again even knowing what the trip home was like. Totality is that amazing, and even Bob agrees.
After countless car classroom lessons on the twirling and whirling of our planet and its moon around the sun, eight year old Harper can explain it pretty well. Dori can tell you what she saw and that it is called a solar eclipse.
I picture a day at school in the future when Dori will look up from a science lesson and exclaim, “So that’s what we were seeing the day the moon ate the sun!”
copyright Susan A. Motley 2017