Eclipse Observations Sweetwater, Tennessee
Finding a Sweet Spot
We arrived in Sweetwater, Tennessee on Sunday, August 20, 2017, the day before the eclipse. Our viewing plans had been made well in advance. The preceding September, I reserved the hotel for the family stay and ordered NASA recommended safety glasses.
Sweetwater lies east of the Mississippi, beside one of the faster moving interstate highways, and within a reasonable driving range of our home. Most importantly, Sweetwater happens to rest nicely within the band of totality projected to sweep across the nation on August 21. The choice would not be without risk however. Sweetwater also nestles in a valley along Sweetwater Creek and amidst the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The key risk would be the weather. Rain or even the cover of clouds could spoil an otherwise cosmic sight.
We approached Sweetwater circuitously, driving through Virginia and South Carolina, and looping south into Georgia, before turning north into Tennessee. Days in advance and all along the interstate highways, digital traffic signs throughout South Carolina and Georgia warned to expect heavy traffic and delays on August 21, the day of the solar eclipse, and to plan accordingly. By contrast, the day before the eclipse, few signs warned of potential heavy traffic along the interstate through Tennessee toward Sweetwater. While the availability of advanced warnings may have varied, the states united in trying to keep the roadways safe: none would allow drivers to park their vehicles on the highway shoulders.
We stayed in a hotel near the interstate, anticipating that the view from the field behind the hotel would be just as good as, or maybe better than, the view from among the crowds in downtown Sweetwater. The town would be hosting a festival day, with the likelihood of abnormally large crowds and scarce parking. At the center of town, numerous booths would offer food, drink, local crafts and products, and commemorative memorabilia. Some opened early to increase sales before the big day. Local news media also had set up their temporary stations downtown. Signs had sprung up along the roads into town, offering eclipse day parking for as low as twenty dollars to as much as thirty dollars. Others had set up temporary blockades to prevent interlopers from parking their vehicles.
On the day of the eclipse, the morning dawned to already heavy traffic going into town. The hotel manager had blocked both entrances to the hotel parking lot, to better control access and to preserve the ability of paying customers to enter, exit, and park.
In Sweetwater that day, the eclipse would begin around 1:00pm and extend some three hours. Complete totality would last about two and a half minutes, beginning at 2:32pm.
The Moon Eclipses the Sun
For the first hour, one could barely perceive the cast of any shadow against the round sun and the commencement of the solar eclipse. As time passed, looking through the (NASA recommended) safety glasses revealed a barely, but later increasingly, crescent sun. Around 15 minutes before totality, we could see the daylight dim slightly. About 10 minutes before totality, we could feel the air grow noticeably cooler and see the light dim further. The closest I can describe it, the light resembled the effects of an automatic dimmer triggered inside an artificially lighted room, but instead the daylight dimmed to dusk and beyond, outside in an open field. Unlike dusk, when the sun often casts horizontally slanted golden light and shadows, the dimming light seemed tonally of a cooler cast of color and directionally, abnormally vertical. Crickets and other insects first began to sing as they usually do in the evening dusk. Then the insect sounds dimmed, too, and quiet fell across the field. As the umbral cone (the area the moon totally blocks the sun) approached within a minute of our location, the light noticeably dimmed and we observed the crescent shadows cast by the sun through dappled leaves of a nearby tree or the casting of any combination of light and shadow (such as splaying the fingers of one hand to allow partial light to fall against the other hand’s palm).
Then the moon completely covered the sun. The shadow thrust us into an immediate and more intense twilight, with stars becoming visible. Actually, the most prominent light to appear in the sky turned out to be the planet, Mercury. During totality, one could clearly see the sun’s corona casting a white ring around the blacked-out sun. We agreed that the sun’s corona at totality was unbelievably real and extraordinary. Incredible. You could observe the solar prominences emerging from the corona which appear like white streamers radiating from the sun, or like the effects of static electricity on short filaments of hair. The surrounding area appears similar to what it looks like on a clear night during a full moon. After two minutes, the sun’s rays began to emerge crescent-like from the umbral cone, and within a minute daylight begins to brighten. The crescent shapes cast by the juxtaposition of the moon’s shadow and exposed sun flip direction and the moon continues on its orbit. Daylight returns and the eclipse comes to its end.
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