If you've gone on Twitter, Facebook, or even checked Google today, you know one thing is for sure: solar eclipse mania took over America. But, not all eclipse experiences are created equal. Although everyone saw a type of eclipse today, only the denizens — and visitors — of 14 states across the country actually saw a total solar eclipse, as opposed to a partial one.
In the path of totality, the moon completely covers the sun. Among those 14 astronomically lucky states in the total eclipse path, only one of them was actually on the East Coast: the great state of South Carolina.
Although I'm a native New Yorker, my friends convinced me I needed to see the Great American Eclipse down South. This is what it was like to experience the high anxieties and peculiar joys of chasing the total eclipse.
Three Full Days Prior To The Total Eclipse: Call, stalk, and Google search what feels like every Walmart, Lowe's, and Best Buy between Maryland and South Carolina for eclipse glasses, which protect one's eyes from staring at the sun's harmful rays. Of course, every single store is sold out. In fact, the glasses are such a rarity, the answering machines of some stores simply announce, "We are out of eclipse glasses," before we even got to speak to an employee.
August 21, 3:40 a.m. Take a shower and start packing up my suitcase at the North Carolina Airbnb cottage my friends and I stayed in. As the complete opposite of a morning person, this is torture. But we're all convinced we need to get to our chosen viewing locale, Sesquicentennial State Park in Columbia, South Carolina, the moment it opens at 8 a.m. That way we can secure a good parking spot and prime viewing area. Considering the fact we would later see cars parked miles from the heart of the park, we were right. Sesquicentennial was so packed, people simply refused to walk to the viewing party, and instead set up camp on the site of park roads.
4:45 a.m. At last, the car is completely packed and we hit the road to Columbia. It is spookily dark on the road.
7:55 a.m. Arrive at Sesquicentennial State Park. The welcome sign is already flashing "Campground Full." Thankfully, we didn't drive over three hours for nothing since we're only looking to enjoy the park — not the campground. Everything goes to plan as we score a solid parking spot and seating area, despite the fact Sesquicentennial is already buzzing with extremely prepared eclipse fans: Chairs are everywhere; picnic tables have been claimed; tents have long been set up. I'm fairly certain a wedding party has arrived. It's not even 8 a.m. yet. Clearly, the people of South Carolina do not play when it comes to celestial events.
8:55 a.m. We finally get our hands on some eclipse glasses thanks to a very helpful park ranger named Stacey. She emphasizes how imperative it is we do not let the lenses get scratches as they could lead to eye damage while looking at the sun. We are so nervous about harming the glasses — or having the hot items stolen — we hide them in the glove compartment for an hour. Eventually they wind up in my chair's cup holder and never move from that spot until the eclipse is nigh. No one is blaming me for ruining eclipse day.
12:30 p.m. Hours of waiting go by, since we arrived at Sesquicentennial a full six hours before the eclipse is expected to appear. I hop on the bathroom line early to make sure I don't miss the main event, which should start in earnest around around 1:30 p.m. and reach totality an hour-and-ten-minutes later. The bathroom line is packed, and I learn I'm surrounded by women from Virgina and the Carolinas.
1:15 p.m. The kids behind me start screaming, "I can see it!" I panic, thinking I'm missing the apparent eclipse of the century. Yet, I put the glasses on and nothing major is happening. False alarm.
2:00 p.m. After five hours of pure, near-blinding daylight, the sun disappears behind the clouds, which appear out of nowhere. With the clock officially starting on the eclipse — the moon has officially begun covering the massive star — and the mood goes from joyous to truly bleak. After all of this preparation on hundreds of people's parts, is it possible the clouds will completely obscure the eclipse?
2:20 p.m. The progressively eclipsed sun finally peaks out from behind the giant gray clouds. The crowd is so happy; they break out into applause, as if someone just scored the winning goal at the Super Bowl. There are hundreds of people here. Despite the cloud cover, the remaining light looks eerie, in the same way it usually appears right before a huge storm hits.
2:24 p.m. Just as the clapping begins, it ends. The clouds are back and they're seriously threatening everyone's chance of actually seeing the eclipse.
2:34 p.m. People have been screaming, and dogs have been wildly barking for about 10 full minutes. Everyone is so on edge, they're clapping the moment a spare ray of sunshine peaks through the clouds. Since the applause is seemingly "working" (or it's just well-timed to weather patterns), the massive crowd continues, holding onto the hope their vocal adoration is the only thing that will help them see the eclipse today. It feels like Ty Pennington will pop out at any second to scream, "Move that cloud!" with us. Hey, at least this all "works" and the clouds stay at bay for the time being.
2:40 p.m. Babies are literally crying as the last of the sun is covered up by the moon. The wind is blowing, the light is at that creepy level you only see in vampire movies, and everyone is kind of screaming. One man behind me can't stop talking about "the diamond effect," which is that famous "bead"effect we expect to see during an eclipse. The mood is both terrifying and exhilarating.
2:44 p.m. Seeing the actual eclipse itself, after all of this buildup, was otherworldly. The image of the total eclipse looks far too much like the ominous The Strain promotional photos, but, this time it's actually real and right in front of me. I try to take photos and videos for my Instagram Story, but nothing does it justice. It literally looks like a black hole was ripped into the sky and there's an impossible shimmering light around it.
While the sky is filled with this haunting black orb, it is truly quite dark here. Although I expected to be surrounded by pitch black night, the actual effect of totality is much closer to wintertime twilight, where some pinkish rays of light remain visible. The scene is beautiful, haunting. In the background, you can hear everyone hyperventilating.
2:55 p.m. We walk to the car still dumbfounded. We drive past everyone trudging along to the long walks back to their cars. My friends and I are already debating whether the upcoming April 2024 eclipse, which will be visible in Buffalo, New York, will ever live up to this perfect summer memory of the Great American Eclipse.