We’re travelling to see a total eclipse of the sun in the USA. On Monday 21st August 2017 millions of people in the USA will see the moon completely obscure the sun. A stripe of shadow will pass across the land from the Pacific northwest all the way to the Atlantic coast in South Carolina.
This family holiday has been a very long time in the making, and it’s mainly happening because we have relatives in the USA to visit, but it’s almost here.
It’s just the lights going out, right?
I’ve found it a bit hard to convince some friends that it will be worth seeing. After all, it goes dark for two minutes in the middle of the day, and then it’s over. Most of my friends witnessed a very deep partial eclipse in the UK in 2015. That was impressive and the sun was covered around 90%. The day cooled, the birds went quiet. It went a little dim. However it wasn’t even dark enough to make reading a book hard and people who said it would be “like dusk” here in Yorkshire were proved wrong. It was not even a hint of what a total eclipse is like.
I’ve seen a total eclipse before and I know what we are in for. In 1999 we travelled with a large group of friends on holiday to the Champagne region of France and witnessed a total eclipse. The trip was organised by Andy who had seen a previous total eclipse in the Caribbean and he knew how thrilling it would be. In any case, it was difficult to resist the idea of a holiday with friends, drinking champagne, eating French cheese, seeing the sights.
On that holiday we visited the eye-popping cathedral at Reims and paid to tour the Champagne caves of Mumm. We drove around little villages looking for signboards outside people’s homes. Where we saw one, we knocked on the farmhouse door and asked to buy Champagne from the growers. They invited us in to taste their homemade vintages and we purchased bargain bottles from the backs of their garages and barns. These farmhouse vintages are like no Champagne we had ever tasted before. It’s smooth, fruity and like a party in my mouth. I will never buy an ordinary supermarket Champagne again!
Waiting for Totality
On the day of the eclipse we drove to a nearby village on the centre line. It was an unremarkable, modern concrete place but there was a little green park area and we set up there. My husband had an old telescope and a large piece of white card. We used this to project the image of the sun onto the card and watched as the moon crept across making a crescent shape. We probably watched this for an hour, and used eclipse glasses to view the sun directly too. A few clouds came over and we became worried. Some of our group jumped in a car and drove a few miles further, hoping to get out from under the cloud, but a dozen of us stayed.
The Sun in Eclipse
In the last minutes before totality, the light dropped quickly. The clouds dissolved. The street lamps came on; the birds went silent; the stars came out. I was watching through my eclipse glasses when the crescent vanished. Suddenly it went dark; I was completely blind. I whipped off my glasses and there it was: an insane halo of light around a black hole. The sunbeams were streaming out in every direction as if the sun was furiously screaming that it wanted to be seen. I turned to look at Natalie and I will never forget the look on her face of such complete astonishment, and I knew that my face reflected hers.
The halo of light was like blonde hair being electrocuted! You know a Van de Graaff generator will make your hair stand on end with static electricity? It was like that but far more rigid, and the beams were not all perpendicular to the sun. I have never seen a photo which does justice to this halo. It is extremely hard to photograph because of the high contrast between the black sky all around and the power of the sun, however well it’s hidden. I do think the 2017 USA eclipse will produce some great photos because there will be so many people and they will be using modern equipment.
Taking Photos of the Total Eclipse
In 1999 we were using colour film and a zoom lens which was only 105mm. The camera was a Canon 50E. We got three shots. When the film was developed in a high-street shop, they made prints for us which did not turn the sky completely dark and so the halo is just a smudge of light. I should probably find a pro lab to reprint them so I can see what is really on the negative.
The Return of the Sun
As the two minutes of totality ticked by, dots of light began to peep through the valleys at the edge of the moon. These are called Bailey’s beads and they are visible for split seconds. Then with a rush, it was light again. The darkness was gone in a breath.
When the light came back I experienced euphoria. I never knew before what that word really meant but it was powerful, delightful and crushing at the same time. Forty minutes later I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and asleep in my hotel. I woke that evening and just sobbed. I remember my husband was in a black mood. It really messed with our heads.
We got over it in no time and enjoyed the rest of our holiday. It wasn’t until after we had booked our trip to see the 2017 eclipse that I really thought about how my children might feel to see it. They might be scared silly. So I thought I would speak to my friends from that 1999 trip and see if their memories are reassuring. Come back next week to read what they said about the Eclipse and their memories of this trip to France.
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