Chad’s Great American Eclipse Chase: Part 9—First impressions, and the experience of totality

This series details the eclipse-chasing exploits of our President and CEO, Chad Dorsey, as he heads down to Tennessee on a quest for the total solar eclipse. See the whole series.

Wow. That’s pretty much all one can say after an event like that. Once an eclipse has passed, it’s hard to capture it in words. We’ve had almost a full day since the event, which ended up so filled with plenty of excitement and recounting of individual experiences that there was barely a second to log experiences in one way or another. We’re off to another day shortly, so I’m posting some main impressions here, and will return with a few more in-depth posts about the event, how it unfolded, and some musings on various details.

Partial phases and setup

The atmosphere here at the Fairvue Plantation was calm, but buzzing with activity. A band was scheduled to play for a viewing party across the eclipse timing, and people were busy gathering and setting up chairs and tables all over. In the end, there were surprisingly few people in attendance, but we were able to share the partial phases with many of them.

We set up telescopes to project the partial phases on a card so they could be easily seen by many. There were several sunspots visible on the face of the sun, and it was great to watch the sun’s disc be slowly eaten away by the moon. First contact, at 11:59 local time, started the excitement buzzing around the whole group. The remainder of the early partial phases went by slowly, with people watching the projection and trying to capture digiscoped images through the telescope we had set up for direct viewing.

Late partial phases, pinhole projections, and shadow bands!

Shadow bands
A screenshot from our video of shadow bands immediately before totality

During the later partial phases, about a half hour or so to totality, things really got going. The trees all aroundus projected readily visible images, patterning the sidewalk everywhere with miniature crescent suns. Guests arriving for the party or relocating from the special Eclipse Brunch were awestruck at the zoomed telescope views. We spent some of the time looking at the great DIY Sun Science app, developed by colleagues of our Sherry Hsi at the Lawrence Hall of Science, trying to decipher the various filtered views and predict what the Sun’s corona and prominences might look like when totality hit.

As the minutes moved on, the light became extremely eerie. We kept telling each other to stare at the ground, and marveled together at how weird things felt. The light seemed almost yellow, with the world feeling stripped somehow of its usual vitality. In the ten minutes or so prior to totality, we quickly grabbed a sheet from the cottage and extended it in the hope of perhaps seeing shadow bands. This was rewarded with one of the big successes of this particular eclipse — shadow bands were clearly visible across the length of the sheet, dancing quickly and then disappearing, then returning again. The video below  captures them if you squint carefully, though as we noted before, they’re particularly difficult to photograph. They returned once again in the moments just prior to totality, and then…

The Rush of Totality

…darkness was upon us! In a literal rush this time. In discussion afterward, it seemed to all of us that totality’s darkness moved in with an unexpected ferocity, catching us almost by surprise (more than almost, in my case, as you can see in the video above). Then, totality. And the screaming. And the staring. Oh, the staring – what an amazing sight. First impressions? The corona was compact, but had some large lobes in different places. Prominences were almost not visible at all initially, but were visible through the telescope, which I moved into place during the later phases of totality. A line of prominences was visible along about 1/4 of the disc, light red rather than the fiery red points of the 1991 eclipse we saw in Baja.

Diamond ring effect
A capture of the diamond ring, shot through our scope in Gallatin, TN

The darkness during totality was much less than in the 1991 eclipse — it was dark out (the automatic lights on the cottage turned on mid-way through!) but it didn’t feel or look like night time to me in particular. Instead, the total eclipse felt as if it were suspended in the sky during a dusky evening, like a pearl hanging above a dim landscape.

And then—it was over. Way faster than anyone expected, or certainly wanted. I had read reports from veteran chasers in the days prior stating that no matter what, it would feel like it was 8 seconds long. That was about exactly right—when we went around the group afterward, we pretty much all agreed that was how long it felt. This feeling of brevity shouldn’t have been surprising—after all, this was almost three times shorter than our experience in Baja—but it was still just way, way, way too short.
But exciting. Oh, exciting. The joy of seeing totality is hard to match or better, but in this case, I found a way, by being able to share it with the next generation. I’ll write more in a more comprehensive post soon, but nothing I write can capture the unbridled feeling of totality as well as the emotional reactions and almost primal disbelief of those experiencing it. Still to come: video of our group experiencing totality…

4 thoughts on “Chad’s Great American Eclipse Chase: Part 9—First impressions, and the experience of totality

  1. Hey Chad –
    Just wanted to say that we were in totality as well yesterday – in Agate, Nebraska, with a group of friends – and a whole bunch of “new friends,” who became immediate family after experiencing the eclipse together. Eager to share impressions with you when we’re both back in Boston!! I’m already looking forward to 2024!

  2. So great to hear that you made it, Andee! Great to know that this eclipse has generated so many new chasers! Would love to compare notes sometime—and definitely prepping for 2024, if not one before that!

  3. Hi, Chad. I especially appreciated your movie showing the shadow bands. Although I saw total eclipses in 1972 and 1998 — and was lucky with the weather both times — I was not able to see shadow bands. The white sheet you put on the ground helped a lot. Good show!

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