Two minutes. To what lengths will we go for something that lasts only two minutes?
For the eclipse, it is booking a hotel months in advance, taking a flight, getting an open spot, and tossing the dice that the two minutes will be cloudless.
Nashville was our destination, as it was for a million people. We chose twenty miles east of town for greatest totality. We met a man at the hotel who considered driving ten miles north of that for an extra thirty seconds of totality, a quest in the extreme.
The visitor center downtown distributed a sheet with the timing of the event, all in Central Time:
11:58 am – 1:27 pm: The moon crosses the sun.
1:27 pm – 1:29 pm: Totality.
1:29 pm – 2:54 pm: The moon moves away.
For the first and last events, keep your special glasses on, but for totality, remove them.
We bought two cheap chairs from the local dollar store and sat beside new friends beneath a shade tree. It was a hot day in the low nineties and shade made the wait comfortable. Although the hotel was crowded for breakfast with families in for the event, the grounds around it were not. Everyone seemed to have a different place to go, some to local family, some to a group gathering. For an eclipse, you need not seek a crowd. Anywhere there is sky will do.
At noon, on schedule, the moon nibbled at the sun. It became a slow, ninety-minute process as the changes crept upon us. Colors took on a hue seen at sunset, whites more yellow, dimmer. As the sun became a crescent, the light it cast through the tree onto the asphalt parking lot turned from round to crescent as the tight spaces between leaves acted as pinhole lenses. The temperature dropped ten degrees. Birds took flight, dipping along the edges of the grassy area as they do in late evening feeding on bugs and the crickets chirped.
The sun remained yellow, but now only a bright sliver, the last visible portion casting sufficient energy to warrant special glasses. At the appointed hour, that sliver disappeared. Totality.
Everything changed. No picture captures what we saw with our glasses removed. The sun became a new celestial body. Its corona, now seen for the first time, extended far beyond the limits I expected. The light was the intense white of a hundred full moons. Venus became visible as a bright light to the right. The darkness was as though sunset occurred everywhere at once with an orange glow on the horizon on all sides.
For those two minutes, we entered another, surreal world. All the senses dependent on the sun (light, time, warmth) were suspended. But our life in that world was brief as the moon slowly revealed the sun, yellow again as before, and the day warmed.
That evening, the local news reported from different locations in the area and the experiences of the people gathered. We learned that a cloud covered the sun in one location at the moment of totality, a risk we all took. Sure, they experienced the cooling, the color changes, the orange horizons; but, totality, that is the two minutes to remember. Lucky me.