Two Minutes and Thirty-Seven Seconds
Even in a remote wilderness, the solar eclipse draws a crowd
At the time I wrote this text I hadn't looked at any of my photos from the eclipse. And honestly, I don't really care how the photos turned out.
"But Liz!" you might say, "You're a photographer! You went through all that trouble to get to the path of totality, to hike up a mountain! Don't make excuses for your crappy photos."
But in honesty, no, photos weren't my goal because anyone and everyone was looking at the sky taking the exact same photos, whether it was with their iPhone or their DSLR or some super fancy amazing setup specifically for solar photography. Let me clue you in: I didn't have any fancy set-up. I didn't even lug around my 70-200mm lens for a closer view of the sun. I knew I was going backpacking into the wilderness and I didn't want to carry the weight. Quite honestly, I just wanted to go out there and see something I'd never seen before.
I suppose that's the motivation for much of my life: try something new, explore a new trail, run through a different neighborhood, visit another city. Every time I come back to this scene in The Incredibles where the superhero-dad-in-hiding turns to the neighbor's kid in the driveway and asks, "Well, what are you waiting?" and the kid answers, "I dunno, something amazing I guess."
"Me too, kid. Me too."
Some photography requires just the right setup, just the right lighting, just the right variables, just the right whatever, but that's not how I operate in the backcountry. I just want to watch, to identify some small moment and capture it forever.
Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds is hardly enough time for that.
Like my approach for all important events I planned for the solar eclipse at the last minute. (I'm not "Last-Minute Liz" for nothing!) I found some snappy map showing the path of totality and the increments of time spent in the totality. Clingmans Dome would get about a minute and ten seconds in totality. Black Balsam Knob outside Brevard would get about forty seconds of totality. The longest time in totality was two minutes and thirty-nine seconds and it passed through the Unicoi mountains. I traced that line of maximum time and found a name I recognized: Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.
I'd never hiked here before, but I was determined to maximize that time, so I looked for more information. The definitive guide to Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness was sold out at REI and wouldn't arrive in time from Amazon, but I found some info on Bob Stratton Bald (too easy for the day hiking horde to access) and the Hangover, a rock outcropping with 360° views that was annoyingly far from any trailhead. Perfect.
And so, after an agonizing hike up Slickrock Creek Trail and an early morning jaunt along an unmaintained ridgeline trail I met up with my fellow purveyors of backcountry pain to bake on a rock for several hours and watch the sun disappear for a moment.
It was crowded, as expected, but not quite standing-room-only, and the big fluffy clouds that rolled across the sky were a welcome respite for those several exposed hours on the lip of the world, although as it approached the time of the eclipse we watched those clouds apprehensively. The morning was festive in a way, and most of us chatted in a way hikers do - where are you from, what do you do, your favorite or most recent hike, how did you find out about this little-known spot, where are some cool places you've been, which trails did you take, and other similar ilk.
As usual I tried to listen as much as I could. There were the two guys who drove down from Boston, one in a Harvard systems biology shirt, and both were biologists. They'd been hiking in Acadia a few days before and they exchanged trail stories with another guy who'd hiked in Acadia in December.
"There's this one point where you can watch the sun rise over the ocean, and it's one of the farthest-most east points of the United States, so from there you're one of the first persons in the country to watch the sun rise."
"Yeah," the guy in the white shirt whose sleeve looked like it had been attacked by a raccoon in the night replied. "I watched the sunrise there two days before Christmas, and when I hiked back it was lightly snowing. Amazing."
Then there was the young woman in a Georgia Tech shirt with a narwhal tattoo and her friends Ben and Anne (or was it Anna?) who invited me to play a game of portmanteaus ("I'm thinking of something you might bring on a backpacking trip and something related to English food. - No, no, yes! 'Towellington', that's right! Like 'towel' and 'beef wellington!'") but all I could think of were lame things that I could see like "headbandana" (headband+bandana) or nerdy things like "rhododendrite" (rhododendron+dendrite) so I just laughed and guess while others came up with words.
There were others too - a man who perched on the tallest bit of rock and smiled down at all of us below him as if he were king of the mountain. A younger man settled in beside me and pulled out a New Yorker and distractedly flipped through the pages. One crowd claimed a rock outcrop facing west and put up umbrellas and rebuffed anyone who tried to claim a spot on their rock ("we're saving that for our friends!") while a gregarious crowd settled on another bit of rock and swapped stories about adventures and mishaps on their adventures from breaking a collarbone while mountain biking to getting a nasty bash on the skull and bruises around their neck when they were whitewater kayaking and their helmet flew off and choked them with the chinstrap and left their forehead exposed to some rocks. I listened when I could, more than a bit jealous that they were a whole group of adventuresome friends while I once more was just alone in the wilderness. Alone, but surrounded by others, waiting for something amazing.
What did I expect to see? I'd seen the photos of the dark moon in front of the sun with a shimmering halo, but I wanted to see the environmental things of which you don't usually see in photos - twilight in all direction, and crescent shadows and just that enigmatic quality of light. I wanted to experience it in nature, and see how the natural world might react - whether the birds really would freak out (they didn't) or the bees would return to their hive (they did), or if maybe a bear would lose its mind and come charging to the rock ledge roaring and flailing in confusion (it didn't, but I still had my camera ready just in case). I wanted to feel the air grow cool, to feel that tingle of chill knowing how vital the sun is to our life on this little rock.
And yet it's so hard to look back and describe the eclipse itself, how it stayed bright until the last minute, how we were all worried it would be blocked by clouds but just in time the clouds scattered and the temperature dropped and the bees disappeared and suddenly it was twilight in all directions and Venus shone brightly against a royal blue sky. Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds was hardly enough to take it all in. It was hardly enough time to glance in all directions, to gape at the halo of the sun's corona wrapping around the moon, to capture the delight and awe on my fellow onlookers' expressions. Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds was hardly enough time at all before the world burst again into light and the crescent shadows danced over the rock and everyone packed up their things to retreat down the trail.