Hearing predictions of massive traffic jams, we launched our adventure toward totality on the back roads. Zigzagging our way, Bill and I and our friend Jo crossed the French Broad River in downtown Marshall, hurdled a couple of mountains as we cut south through Sandy Mush, wound over toward Trust and then down through Luck. Only the 12-mile stretch between Waynesville and the Blue Ridge Parkway was congested. We moved slowly then, but we moved. Luck had followed us.
As if we had timed it perfectly all along, we drove up Miracle Mountain (if there’s a better place to watch an eclipse, I don’t know it) and arrived right at noon at the home of the parents of our friend Missy. Her mother had prepared a bountiful Southern lunch of cold cuts, pimento cheese spread, pickles, iced tea—and Sun Chips and Moon Pies. Delightful!
Well-fortified for our viewing, a small crowd of family and friends coasted just a bit down the mountain to the home of Missy’s sister, with an expansive yard and panoramic Blue Ridge view. We set up our camping chairs, pulled out our stylish eclipse glasses (I had bought ours online four months ago in anticipation), and waited. It didn’t take long before the tiniest morsel of sun disappeared at its upper right edge.
Eclipse comes from a Greek word meaning “the abandonment.” I tried to imagine the first person thousands of years ago to catch a reflection in a pond or lake of the sun slowly disappearing. Did s/he stare up at the sky, transfixed, blinded? Or race to spread the terrifying news? Who paid attention to the tale s/he told? And what did they all do when day turned to night in an instant and it seemed the world was ending?
The moon, moving at about 2,288 mph, nevertheless seemed to crawl across the sun’s surface. We watched and chatted and waited. The kids played in the shade under a big oak tree. It seemed like such a normal day.
Then a breeze began to stir, and the temperature dropped slightly. The air hummed with an electric glow. A dog down in a neighboring holler howled, and a choir of crickets tuned up as a small flock of swallows darted erratically in the sky. We called the children back and all gazed as one, skyward.
When the last thin sliver of sun disappeared and there was nothing at all to see but bleak, all-encompassing emptiness, I took off my eclipse shades. A veil lifted, a curtain opened on the world. I thought I had prepared myself, but I was utterly stunned by the spectacle in the heavens. I had never seen anything as black as that moon, nothing so startlingly white as the corona of light shooting out around it. The clouds draped across the mountains at the horizon were pink and peach and gray. A planet blinked on over our right shoulders.
The Cherokees, gathered joyfully in ritual and celebration just 16 miles from where we sat, beat on drums, trying to scare away the giant frog swallowing the sun and devouring the light, according to an ancient legend. I just wanted to sit in the intense silence. To take it into every pore.
Though I didn’t think it possible, flashes of light even more dazzling than the corona appeared: “Bailey’s beads,” the amazing phenomenon of sun bursting through the spaces created by the valleys between the mountains of the moon as it slips away from the edge. I felt elation and awe, followed quickly by a twinge of disappointment. The beads were the signal to put the glasses back on immediately.
Our two minutes were over. The moon’s shadow raced on toward the South Carolina coast. And then the day was as it had been, a hot summer afternoon on Miracle Mountain, sipping tea and eating Moon Pies with friends. But we all agreed: Our solar-lunar encounter had been stellar.