What is a Total Solar Eclipse?
Chances are, you know about it as much as I do. So much has been written and talked about the Great American Eclipse that happened on August 21st that it is now deemed as the most documented astronomical event in history.
A solar eclipse is a rare phenomenon. In some words, it is a miracle. It is one of the most beautiful things one could ever experience if you love nature. All of it is true and sometimes beyond what words could describe. For me, watching the eclipse was one of the most cherished childhood dreams. But to make this dream a reality, it took some careful planning and a bit of a rebellion against everyone’s judgments.
I’ve always been fascinated with the stars and the celestial objects. Can you tell me who is not? Everyone who had geography in school would have wondered about the stars, the planets, and the galaxies. If you were into history, you would have found that scientists like Copernicus and Galileo were persecuted for proposing Heliocentric models, saying that the planets revolve around the Sun. Sci-fi movies have pulled us to the cinemas as kids and even as adults. If religion ever affected you, you know how they are against doing anything during the time of an eclipse and how astrology has an effect on our lives. No matter what you have been doing, you cannot deny that you haven’t been impacted by the Sun or the stars.
Choosing the solar eclipse over a mountain expedition
My love for stars and celestial objects were re-ignited during my mountaineering days (especially on Everest), where you find enough time to gaze at them. They appear so close and clear to you up there, something that you miss down in the plains. After returning from Everest I bought a basic telescope. Now you know why I couldn’t miss this Total Solar Eclipse! I had a few mountaineering goals ahead of me and I was training for it but I couldn’t miss this opportunity. I had to choose between a mountain expedition or a solar eclipse and I chose the eclipse because the mountains will always be there, but a rare event like this doesn’t come around.
My journey chasing the total solar eclipse started with my application for the US Visa. Pretty much everyone including my interviewer at the consulate was surprised to hear about my reasons to travel to the States. 27 hours of travel later, I found myself in the “Land of the Free” and the immigration officers at the airport were also surprised with my reasons. I felt I was the odd one at first but I learned that there were people who prepared for it a year ahead in advance. A wave of relief passed through me when I found out that I was not the most outlandish person out there!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
My family in the US took the over the responsibility to book a cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. These mountains fell under the path of totality of the Great American Eclipse with the longest duration of 2 mins 41 secs on the day of the eclipse. The night of August the 18th, we drove 1000 miles from Texas to Tennessee hoping for clear skies the next morning. However, when we reached, we were welcomed by thunderstorms and my heart began to sink. I had planned so much for this moment and all I could see were clouds that day. And to make you feel bad it was mid-summer! It wasn’t how I wanted it to be.
I was reminded of Albert Einstein, who chased a solar eclipse to prove the Theory of Relativity for 4 years, failing in one of the attempts due to similar clouds which hid the eclipse, at this very path in 1918. It was a heart breaking moment for him! For me, the next total solar eclipse is two years away on the border of Argentina and Chile. If life has taught me anything, it is to live this moment because anything can happen in the next. A million thoughts ran through my mind. Until suddenly I saw the clouds disappear like someone up there was clearing off the skies with a vacuum cleaner! It was bright and sunny again.
We did some white water river rafting later that day followed by some much-needed rest. The next day, we took a hike up one of the waterfalls. By now, the entire group of us had figured out that I am a compulsive hiker and some had avoided participating in any physical activity at all while some made it on their very first hike. Kudos to them! We were all eagerly waiting for the eclipse the next day. Most schools remained closed for the big day and huge traffic was expected everywhere. Flight tickets had soared up closer to the date. I recollected memories of a total solar eclipse similar to this in India in 1999, where I witnessed the partial eclipse from my hometown Hyderabad in India.
A day before this eclipse, the internet was all about its pros and cons. The rarity of this celestial event was not to be missed at all. But a lot of noise was also made to avoid it. At times like this, I look up to the wisdom of Neil deGrasse Tyson who said, “The internet landed in our laps without creating a curriculum that empowers you to know when someone online is full of sh*t. If you are alone with your own view, that has no correspondence to the objective reality and you type it into Google search, it will find every other person like you who thinks the same way, giving you a false sense of perception that you are actually on to something. That you have some deep insight into the world that no one else has. This is delusional!”
I had to have my own experience with it. I did not want to succumb and read to know one more person’s opinion on the internet and judge me over my curiosity of such mysteries of nature and the Universe.
It was time, the eclipse had started. I waited patiently for the miracle to unfold in front of my eyes. It wasn’t just 2 minutes and 41 seconds of the blackout, it was every single moment from the beginning. The number of airplanes in the sky surprised me. NASA was even chasing the eclipse from a jet! It was stunning to see the Sun getting covered by the moon like it was eating it slowly. Like the Chinese legend of dragons eating the Sun. It’s amazing how far we have come from such beliefs. The Sun cannot be experienced like this every day. Strikingly, there was no change in the intensity of daylight, but the temperatures did drop a few. It made me ponder about what we could do if we had control over the Sun.
Everything people said about the confusion for other species in nature was true. Everyone but humans were confused. The stars appeared slowly and the sky was in shades of blue, orange and pink before darkness took over. The slow change in the colors and the climate was beyond what words could describe, something I had never experienced before. The only word that came to my mouth was “wow”, “wow”, “wow”, “wow”, “wow”…until I was rendered speechless. This was right out of a sci-fi movie happening in real life. It felt like nature’s version of a time-lapse video going from day to night and back to day in a span of 10 minutes!
The Sun’s corona was beautiful and everyone welcomed it with a huge round of applause! I feel blessed to have witnessed all of this nature’s glory live in front of my eyes. Everyone felt ecstatic. I wish it lasted for some more time but it wouldn’t wait for anyone just like time waits for no one! The dragons had to throw up the sun again (like the myth goes) and the moon had to continue in its path. The time it took for the moon to cross the Sun and to make way for sunlight again was very short for an event this big. As these celestial objects continue to revolve and rotate like always, I know we will all once again go back to our monotony of life and take them for granted.
So, was it really worth traveling this far for those few minutes? Yes! Totally. It is moments like these that give us a fresh perspective on life. It is moments like these that remind us how small we are in the infinite Universe.
Would I travel again to see something like this? Yes! If possible, YES! For these celestial entities that govern our days and nights…and our lives…it is absolutely worth traveling and experiencing moments like this…and being grateful for this Universe.
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Did you get to witness this eclipse from where you were? Share your memories below.
* This is a guest post by Neillima Pudota.
Neillima Pudota is a mountaineer, the first woman from Andhra Pradesh, India to climb Mt. Everest. She is also a passionate Pinkathon ambassador and a barefoot runner, a certified yoga practitioner and an avid explorer of all human possibilities.