If you tried to explain the Sun to some sort of subterranean mole person who had never once ventured outside, you might show them a picture.
They would look at it, and probably say something along the lines of “Wow! Sure looks bright. We certainly don’t have anything like that down here.”
But if you then took them outside on a warm, summer day and told them to take a quick glance up at the Sun, their reaction would be far, far different.
“OH MY MOLE-GOD! What IS that thing?! It’s so bright! My God, it physically hurt my eyes to see that! I can feel it’s warmth on my skin! Geez, it’s going to literally burn me if I stay out here for much longer, isn’t it?
“That is NOTHING like the picture you showed me. Wow.”
That’s what it feels like to explain a total solar eclipse. I can show you pictures or even a video. I can explain what it looks like. But until you’ve stood in a field on a bright, sunny day and experienced what happens when the moon fully blocks out the sun — you simply can’t understand the magnificent, transcendent beauty.
I’m not one to expose my more tender, vulnerable emotions to the public, but I feel obligated to tell you that looking up to the sky and seeing what I saw on August 21st quite literally brought me to my knees, filled my eyes with tears, and made me laugh deliriously at the incredible experience happening around me.
You MUST see a total solar eclipse in your lifetime.
Seriously, this is not a recommendation. I need you to promise me that you’re going to do it. If you’re reading this, you must go and experience this in person as soon as you can. Do whatever you have to do to get there. Walk if you must. Save your pennies. Stop eating out for a year and put that money towards a flight. GO.
And don’t settle for anything less than the absolute closest you can get to the center of the path. The closer to the center, the longer totality you’ll experience. A few seconds may not seem important, but I promise you, you will cherish those fleeting moments. Spend the entire day out there, the lead-up is important.
Most of all, don’t bother trying to take a picture of it — unless you’re a hobbyist photographer with a nice camera, it won’t do you any good. The image won’t be nearly the same. It won’t help you remember, nor will it help someone else understand.
Instead, turn the camera towards you and simply let it roll, selfie stick style. Because the only way you can possibly show another person what it’s like to see a total eclipse is to show them your face as you saw it happen.
The Many Faces of Eclipse Day
Despite growing up in the South, I somehow seem to always forget just how oppressively hot summer below the Mason Dixon is. Eclipse day was so muggy and hot that no amount of water or Gatorade would make you feel comfortable. In some ways, the heat actually enhanced the experience. The Sun was making one last effort to make its awesome power known.
Gallatin, Tennessee was our viewing spot — a small town north of the city with a massive park that had been preparing for this day for years. Hundreds of cars filled the parking lot, but we were directed to a large field in the back that I have to imagine not a single person spends a moment in on any other day of the year.
It was perfect.
11:59 AM, first contact. Through our eclipse glasses, we could see a tiny sliver cut from the Sun — the Moon making its first appearance. Across the next hour and a half, the world began to change in ways that were hard to describe. It was slow at first, but as 1:27 PM — the beginning of totality — drew closer, the changes became more rapid and pronounced.
30 minutes out, there was palpable excitement. Our hearts were racing as we checked the sky with increasing frequency. One ill-timed cloud, and all our planning would have been for naught.
One minute out, it all began to happen. Quickly.
First you see the shadow bands — the wispy, smoke-like shadows that dance across the ground immediately before totality.
Seconds later, it began to go dark.
Cheers erupted from all over the park. Repeated exclamations of “Oh my God!” burst from some around us. Others simply screamed.
And then, it happened.
That bright mass of unfathomable energy that had burned my skin countless times, forced me buy dozens of pairs of sunglasses to protect my feeble vision, and powered life itself was gone. I looked up into the sky where the sun was supposed to be and saw something that no words or photograph could ever describe.
High in the sky was a black hole so dark and ominous that you immediately understood the panic and terror that gripped ancient civilizations during an eclipse. Around that hole was a beautiful glow of gas and light, radiating with alien energy.
I cupped my hand over my gaping mouth and fell to the ground. It was euphoric.
Before that moment, I could count on just two fingers the moments that I had experienced anything that resembled this kind of strange mix of euphoria, wonder, and importance. One was the moment my wife and I said “I love you” to each other for the first time. We were teenagers — I was 18 and she was 19. The next was again with her — the moment immediately following our wedding ceremony. In that moment, I knew the world was now different — it was a strange sense of happiness and responsibility that I’ll never forget.
When people get married, you frequently hear others ask them if it “feels different.” I always ask, because I desperately want to know — did you feel it too? That feeling I can’t describe, do you know about it?
Most of the time, people respond with “It feels exactly the same.” I don’t know if it means anything, and I certainly don’t want to imply that something is wrong if they didn’t feel it. Maybe it’s just that the feeling is too strong for small talk.
I’ve only known a couple of people who have experienced something similar. But when you find them, it’s like finding someone in a foreign country who grew up on the same street as you. They know. They understand!
After totality ended, we panted like we had just run a marathon. On the video I took of my reaction, I heard myself incredulously asking everyone around me “Did you see that? Did you SEE that?!” It was, of course, a ridiculous question. We had all gone to great lengths to be in that spot on that day to see that thing. Of course we saw it.
What I desperately wanted to know was “Did you feel it too? That feeling I can’t describe, do you know about it?”
We laughed, hugged, and went back to lay on our blankets in the shade. When my heart rate had finally returned to a normal range, I grabbed my phone and took a quick glance at Twitter. I was hoping to see other people expressing what I just felt — more members of the club. But I found none of that. I saw people making jokes. I saw people outside the path of totality saying the whole thing seemed overhyped. I saw endless pictures of Donald Trump looking at the Sun, sans protective eyewear, accompanied by endless jokes about his cognitive function.
I put my phone down, more annoyed than I perhaps should have been. I expected to find a different place, but I found the same world I left behind.
The rest of the field cleared, until we were the only people left. Except for one older woman, who sat on a bench behind us, alone. She was not reading anything, not doing anything, not waiting on anyone. She just sat there and stared off in the distance for a good half hour.
I walked over to throw something away in the nearby trash can. “That was something else, wasn’t it?” I asked.
Did you feel it too? Do you know about it?
She turned her head slightly to meet my eyes and smiled knowingly.
“It certainly was.”