Panda Thoughts: Eclipse Postmortem / by Nathalie Ouellette

 Image credit:  George Lu  / CC BY | NASA.

Image credit: George Lu / CC BY | NASA.

As promised, this is a follow-up to my total solar eclipse adventure on (and around) August 21st 2017! You'll find my pre-eclipse thoughts and anticipations here.

Miraculously, I have somehow managed to transform myself from a completely hopeless night owl to a semi-functional adult who's able to work a 9-to-5 job in the last month. This made the prospect of waking up at 6am on Saturday, August 19th to begin our 16+ hour drive down to Columbia, Missouri slightly less terrible. Epsilon got dropped off at a lovely dogsitter's home, because trapping her in the car for that much driving seemed like a bad idea.

 Yeah I did. Image credit: Z. Morris.

Yeah I did. Image credit: Z. Morris.

 I'm so pale, I only go outside during solar eclipses.

I'm so pale, I only go outside during solar eclipses.

Getting across the Canada-U.S. border was a breeze, we were extremely thankful for our NEXUS/Global Entry cards. Our two noteworthy stops along the way were on the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. My Bucket List just so happens to include "Take a dip in every Great Lake", and I'm happy to say I'm now 4 for 5! We'll have to wait and see how and when I manage to check "Chase a tornado" off the list.

 A funny thing happened on the way to Tennessee.

A funny thing happened on the way to Tennessee.

We rolled into Columbia in the wee hours of the morning, extremely exhausted from the drive. (Full disclosure, my husband did the lion's share of the driving because he's awesome like that.) First thing we did was check the weather forecast for Monday, and it was not looking gOoOoOoOoOoOd lemme tell ya. We went to bed hoping for the best, but the forecast only got worst by the time we woke up on Sunday morning so we spent a few hours furiously trying to find a vacant hotel room eastward towards Tennessee. I got extremely lucky and grabbed what I can only assume was a last minute cancellation for a smoking room in Clarksville, Tennessee, just a handful of kilometres from the point of Greatest Eclipse! So we jumped back in the car and drove east for another 6 hours.

This decision was a little difficult, in all honesty, since we were worried the amount of effort we were pouring into this venture would raise the stakes to impossibly high for the big event to feel like it was all "worth it". At this point we were all in though. It's RIDE OR DIE. RIDE AND DIE? What do they say in those Fast & Furious car movies? Pretty sure it's the first one.

We finally arrived at the Kentucky/Tennessee border and set out to find our watching spot for the next day. We considered attending some of the events in Clarksville, or maybe even going to Hopkinsville, Kentucky aka Eclipseville, but after hearing that the little town of 25,000 was expecting over 200,000 people to descend upon it, we decided otherwise. We wanted our first eclipse experience to be a little more serene. We ended up finding an absolutely charming little park in Trenton, Kentucky, just 15 minutes North of our hotel and made sure to get there early enough in the morning to claim our spot.

 So I was pressing my eclipse viewer right onto my face. Was I  not  supposed to be doing that?

So I was pressing my eclipse viewer right onto my face. Was I not supposed to be doing that?

In the end we were only joined by a few other families, but the communal atmosphere was still present! We shared food, eclipse glasses, welder's masks and telescope setups. The eclipse started out as I expected. I had seen a partial eclipse before, but it's always nice to remind myself that, yes, there is indeed a moon orbiting the Earth and that, yes, it sometimes blocks the big shiny thing at the centre of the Solar System. The system works! As we got closer to totality though, things started getting a little freaky...

It was a sweltering hot day, the humidex must've risen close to 40°C, but the heat was definitely starting to let up. Shadows started getting sharper, you could see individual hairs on your shadow's head. Then daylight got sort of dim. Not really.... like nighttime, though. The best way I can describe it is like wearing sunglasses you can't take off. We were just minutes away at this point. Everyone got on their feet with eyes (and eye protection) pointed to the sky. The light was fading fast now, the Sun was a only tiny sliver through our lenses. We must've lost 5, maybe 10°C since the start of it. We were all quiet, which made the sudden onslaught of cricket noise all the more surprising. Street lamps turned on, stars and planets starting appearing in the sky, everything around us felt topsy turvy. The last of the Sun's crescent disappeared, and our glasses came off.

And there it was.

 This is the most true-to-life image of the total solar eclipse I could find online. Just imagine the sky a little lighter, and the corona eerily waving around, and you're  nearly  there. Image credit:  Conrad Pope .

This is the most true-to-life image of the total solar eclipse I could find online. Just imagine the sky a little lighter, and the corona eerily waving around, and you're nearly there. Image credit: Conrad Pope.

This... thing? It felt like I was witnessing something I wasn't supposed to see, that wasn't allowed to exist. Eclipse pictures don't quite convey the real life experience of seeing a total solar eclipse, because they're typically zoomed in on the eclipse itself with a black background. This was the real world all around me, the sky was an eerie blue grey, and there it was, the dang Sun... Except... not! It was this alien black star, a shimmering corona very softly flowing around it. And I was staring straight at it with my own two naked eyeballs. My husband was standing there with me, arms wrapped around me, and he saw the same thing I did with his eyeballs too! I felt goosebumps, tears slowly welling up in my eyes, and I couldn't even properly explain to you why! Truly, it was an emotional, spiritual, almost religious experience.

Now, I had read lots of stuff about what seeing a total solar eclipse would be like to prepare myself, and I was very much excited, but I'll admit I was skeptical. It seemed like it just couldn't be as good as these people were describing. When I think back on my own totality experience, I wonder if I've imagined the whole thing. Was it just a fever dream?? If I had read my own description here a few weeks ago, I probably would've been like "Alright, relax lady, you're clearly exaggerating". You might be thinking exactly that right now, and I guess that's the gift and curse of the eclipse. I don't think you can properly describe the experience to someone who hasn't experienced it themselves, but that will hopefully force them to find their way to a total eclipse one day, just to see if all the hype is justified.

And I hope you find your way to one if you missed this year's, because then this whole mess I just wrote might make a little more sense. ...Until then! Ride or die.