Taken just after the peak of totality, this photo was made without any special protective filters because the sun is totally blotted out by the moon. Here you can see the corona, the hottest object in the solar system, and a dot just to the upper left of the eclipse that is either a star, here visible during noontime, or a piece of electronic noise generated by my camera. I like to think that it’s a star. (Click on the dots below for more photos)
Taken just after the peak of totality, this photo was made without any special protective filters because the sun is totally blotted out by the moon. Here you can see the corona, the hottest object in the solar system, and a dot just to the upper left of the eclipse that is either a star, here visible during noontime, or a piece of electronic noise generated by my camera. I like to think that it’s a star. (Click on the dots below for more photos)
Apparently, planning a trip where the ultimate goal is to intersect with the Great American Eclipse along its very narrow “path of totality” requires a bit more planning than getting into the car with a valid credit card and a can of Pringles to munch on along the way. When you live in Maine, like I do, and the path of totality goes from Oregon to South Carolina, you had better bring along more than one can of potato chips. 

I found it useful to travel with my wife, who is an expert with the less important details, like where to stay, what to eat and where to buy fuel, while I keep us razor-focused on our goal. 

Besides keeping track of alternative routes, she often finds a free place to stay with a friend or relative and she offers helpful reminders to not get distracted by a “Fireworks Supermarket,” “The World’s Biggest Knife Store” or the “South’s Largest Adult Superstore,” all of which cross your path when driving south. When the deepest shadow of the moon will be racing across North America at 1,500 miles an hour and we want to intersect with it in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, for the 2 minutes and 40 seconds that it will be there, we must be ready and waiting.

Why Hopkinsville, when a total eclipse can be experienced anywhere along the 2,000-mile-long-by-70-mile-wide path of totality? There are a number of reasons. 

Hopkinsville is the nearest town to where the earth, moon and sun will align most perfectly, and this will offer a few more tenths of a second of totality than anywhere else along its path. It’s also where the media and hard-core crazies gravitate because they want to be at some “center” — no matter how thin the reasoning. 

Anyway, Hopkinsville can use the economic boost that 150,000 people can offer when they invade a typical small Southern town of 32,000 for a day and a half. 

And finally, who can resist being a part of what could possibly go down as one of America’s biggest traffic jams ever?

Timing is everything in eclipse planning and when you make hotel reservations in the path of totality you want to do that more than two weeks in advance. Hard-core eclipse chasers have been reserving rooms five years prior to the event. There may be rooms available, but your average $89 room will be pegged at $450 a night or more. Had I involved my wife earlier, she would have had all this taken care of in 2012.

Luckily, I was able to find normally priced accommodations in a nearby town called Huntingsburg. Yes, I know, Huntingsburg happens to be in Indiana, but it is only 135 miles from Hopkinsville. Sitting at home you might think that a 135-mile jaunt to your motel room is fine, but after a day of finding your way around a new town in 100-degree heat, 135 miles turns out to be about 130 miles too far. It’s just one of those things you eventually learn traveling, evidently. 

So let’s fast-forward to Hopkinsville, which has been overfilling with people for three days. It’s a fascinating, hot scene where all kinds of people are waiting in various encampments around town marking time until the moment of totality arrives. There are events to attend, a festival, complete with vendors, food trucks to visit and a few local restaurants with overflow crowds to be endured. 

The first thing you have to do when chasing down an eclipse is to find a safe way of viewing the sun. You can do this by employing some device that projects the sun/moon image onto a screen that is safe to view. This includes everything from pinhole projectors to watching the entire event on the Weather Channel. Alternatively, you can watch the events unfold directly with your bare eyes if you don’t mind burning out your retinas and going blind for the rest of your life, or, and this is key: you can wear protective eyewear. 

After visiting store after store that had sold their last pair of eclipse glasses days ago, we were simply given two pairs for free from a clerk at a gas station as a gesture to promote Oak Grove, Kentucky, a neighboring town that, even though it, too, is in the path of totality, missed out on the hoopla just because it exists a few miles to the south. We thankfully took the Oak Grove glasses and headed for Hopkinsville.

 Just before noon, the moon started its slow traverse against the face of the sun. The three-hour event would peak at 1:26 p.m. when the moon would totally block the surface of the sun for 2 minutes and 40 seconds. At first there was no noticeable change, but as totality approached, the light turned strange, the noisy cicadas in the nearby trees went silent and I got a powerful urge to strip off all my clothes and sing “Kumbaya.” 

Totality seemed to come on rather quickly. A cheer went up from the crowd. This was the time that you could safely remove the protective glasses and look at the eclipse with the naked eye. The site was fantastic — with the sun’s corona reaching out as far as the eclipsed sun was wide. Where I stood it was pretty dark, but it was a weird dark. I know this because I had my camera set on manual and to make photos of people watching the sky I had to keep adjusting the camera until it was on a nighttime setting. There was no light coming from the sun, but light was streaming in from the horizon — sort of like a twilight but from all directions instead of from a sunrise or sunset. 

The sun itself was a creepy disk of pure black surrounded by that hot, whitish halo of a corona, surrounded in turn by a fairly deep blue sky going to a lighter blue on the horizon. I don’t remember noticing the color but because I took wide-angle photos at different exposures during totality, I confirmed this later on. At the time I was too busy being blown away by an absence of sunlight at noon under cloudless skies to notice a lot of the details. 

Halfway through the totality experience, not 200 feet away from where I stood, a freight train barreled through town blowing its horn, making small children cry and people cover their ears. It was possibly the noisiest total eclipse ever. 

Totality seemed like it lasted less than a minute instead of two and a half, but as soon as a sliver of the sun emerged on the other side of the moon, things went back to normal. People whooped and applauded as if the trick really worked for the magician on stage. The same weird light sequence as before appeared again, this time in reverse — but after totality, even weird light seemed normal.

Children were still crying so I stopped singing and put my clothes back on.

The traffic jam we were warned would materialize before the eclipse never happened. People had been drifting into the path of totality for three days, so no one got delayed getting into town. 

However, the end of the eclipse triggered an instant mass exodus and it proved to be a prime example of how not to evacuate a town. Since the four-lane parkway was all stopped up, people took to the two-lane back roads to stop those up too. However, aside from a few fender benders we witnessed, it all seemed to go well — with a full tank of gas and a trunk load full of patience. My wife checked the internet for closer places to stay the entire time I drove the 135 miles back to our hotel room. I believe that distance was covered in less than six hours. She never found a vacancy.

So now we come to the question-and-answer part of our program. 

• Yes: Of course I would travel 1,300 miles one-way again to see another total eclipse. It is probably the single most spectacular celestial phenomenon that you will ever see that happens with any regularity on this earth. You have to personally witness one of these events to get a visceral feeling for what really happens and to appreciate the perfection of prediction that science and math have to offer. 

• A single word to describe the experience? 

It’s a great loss to the English language that the meaning of the word “awesome” has been diluted in the past few years to convey the significance of a skateboard move or the success of a toddler in using the toilet. “Awesome” used to be reserved for those moments in life where there were no words to describe an experience. Today we have to settle for “breathtaking,” “overwhelming” or “mind-blowing” when we should really be using the word “awesome.” 

• Last question: No, I will camp on stones in the rain rather than reserve a room 135 miles away. The next total eclipse will come through northern Maine and Baxter State Park on April 8, 2024. The are not a lot of rooms available there, so camping in the rain will be a good skill to acquire. See you there. Oh, one last tip: learn the words to “Kumbaya.”