Nature’s Grandest Event

On April 8, 2024, a Total Solar Eclipse will again cross the United States. This is the story of the Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017.

One astronomer predicted that the Great American Eclipse would be “the most photographed, most shared, most tweeted event in human history.” Many others predicted that it would cause the worst traffic ever seen in this country.

I have always been interested in astronomy. When I was in elementary school, my dad would take me outside on a cloudless night and show me some of the planets. I found it fascinating that we could learn about them in school and then actually step outside at night and go see them. I ended up getting my own little telescope in February 2013. But I knew that an astronomer’s checklist could not possibly be complete without witnessing a Total Solar Eclipse.

A few days before Christmas 2000, dad told me that there would be a partial solar eclipse on Christmas Day. He wasn’t sure how much of the Sun would be covered up by the Moon, and he knew it would not be much, but that if there were clear skies, that we would be able to see some of it. Sure enough, the first thing my family did after opening presents that day was to go outside for a while to see the partial eclipse. A few of our friends from up the street came by as well, not knowing what was going on. We didn’t have any solar filters or eclipse glasses, so we used some old film negatives to see the partially-eclipsed Sun (Disclaimer: I do not recommend using color film negatives to watch an eclipse. Yes, we could clearly see that part of the Sun was “missing,” but color film negatives do not offer protection from ultraviolet rays. Actually, if you’re even a few years younger than me, you may be reading this thinking “What the heck are film negatives?”). I remember it being really weird, just seeing the Sun with what looked like a small bite taken out of it. Again, it was only a partial eclipse, and the Sun was not covered anywhere near enough to make the surroundings the least bit darker. But it was something I would always remember, especially since it happened on Christmas Day, which, for a ten-year-old, was always one of the most exciting days of every year.

Another partial eclipse happened on October 23, 2014. I was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University at the time; as soon as my last class of the day ended, I grabbed my camera and solar filter and booked it to the top of a parking garage on Broad Street. This was going to be really tough to photograph, as it was happening right before sunset for those of us in Richmond; if I didn’t have a clear view to the western horizon, I would be out of luck. Fortunately for me, and a few others who came up to the top of the parking garage while I was there, we got to see the partially-eclipsed Sun just before it set in the west. I got a few photographs of it and headed home.

On August 21, 2016—one year exactly before the Great American Eclipse—I was in Stoughton, Massachusetts, visiting the wonderful group of brothers and sisters there. The day before, Jim had called me and asked me to guest speak for them. I spoke about Psalm 19, which begins, “The heavens declare the glory of the LORD…” and that the LORD uses the Sun, Moon, and Stars to show that he is in control of the whole universe. We went to the story of “the day the Sun stood still (Joshua 10:12-14),” and how it is quite possible that the entire Solar System stopped dead in its tracks when Joshua asked the LORD to do it, that it is never an inconvenience for us to ask him for something really big. I made mention the fact that in exactly one year, that there would be a total Solar Eclipse over certain parts of America.

That may have been the day that I determined to go see it. As I walked through the streets of Boston, camera in hand and photographing the skyline and the Charles River, and on the train ride back to Lowell near where my aunt lived, I gave some thought to where I needed to be one year later. South Carolina wasn’t too far away from Virginia; I could do it.

Daniel was the first one to tell me he wanted to go see the Eclipse. He and his family had recently moved down to Virginia from New York and I visited them in South Hill for a short weekend. We thought of inviting Rebekah, a great photographer who we both knew in the faith. She said she would love to, but unfortunately, she was going to be starting school in Canada around late August and would not be able to make it to see the Eclipse. I had also asked Nick a while back as well, and he actually fully planned to go, but about a week before the Eclipse, we were at King’s Dominion with my brother Stephen, and Nick let me know that he had to work the next weekend and would probably not be able to make it either, but I promised to give him a pair of Eclipse glasses so he could see the partial eclipse in Blacksburg.

In early May 2017, I had been at a Sunday School picnic and saw Kyle; he had said that his house on Lake Greenwood in South Carolina was in the path of Totality, and he graciously invited us to his place for the day of the Eclipse. I was glad that we would be able to plan on a place to go; otherwise at worst, we would have just tried to find a public area in the path of Totality where we could park and watch the Eclipse.

I also invited Dustin, who had also recently moved back to Virginia. We met up one evening at a local sports bar and talked about the upcoming Eclipse. “Are the stars really going to come out?” he asked me. I really wasn’t quite sure; obviously I had never seen a Total Eclipse, but had seen pictures and heard stories. He wanted to know what he would be missing out on, since he would be doing mission work in Cambodia at that time, and would not be able to make the trip to see it. But he tried to encourage me to ask a certain girl to go (I didn’t, but maybe I should have), and God bless him for that.

Exactly one month before the Eclipse, on July 21, I was driving out to Roanoke for my friend Josh’s wedding. I kept thinking, “One month from today, I’ll either be really happy or really disappointed (if I didn’t make it to South Carolina in time, or if the Eclipse was clouded out where we were).”

Just under a month before the Eclipse, I called Jordan and asked him if he and Kate wanted to go see it. He said they would be in Canada sometime around that day but were not quite sure. A few days later, he messaged me saying that he and Kate were available, and that we should plan for it.

So it was settled: it would be myself, Jory, Kate, and Daniel. I couldn’t have been more excited.

The weekend leading up to the Eclipse could have been better. I remember on that Saturday (August 19) I was sitting in a comfy chair inside 2nd & Charles thinking “at least tomorrow night I’ll be in South Hill with my friends, getting ready to go see the Eclipse.” Everything ended up being fine, thankfully, and I even met up with Rob and Jen and family at the Flying Squirrels game that night. From the upper level you can see Interstate 95; I wondered how many of those cars were headed south for the Eclipse, and I kept monitoring traffic throughout the weekend.

I left Richmond at 6:39 PM on Sunday, August 20. That whole day though, I was paranoid that I would forget something. That night, we went out stargazing in the backyard, but went to bed early enough to at least catch a little sleep before a very early morning.

4 AM came pretty quickly (actually, 3:55 AM; I got up then to take a shower to wake myself up; cold Keurig coffee wasn’t going to do it). We left the cabin right around 4:30. We didn’t need to bring much with us since we would only be gone for the day, although we would be traveling all the way to South Carolina and back.

For a little while during the drive on Monday morning, everyone else was asleep. Once everyone was awake we started playing some music. I saw the sunrise in the rearview mirror and thought “the Sun is getting ready to put on a show, and it doesn’t even know it.” Even while we were still in Virginia, and down through the Carolinas, there were LED signs on Interstate 85 which read, “SOLAR ECLIPSE TODAY.”

I was actually surprised at the number of cars on the road. In one way, I totally expected it—this was a huge event, and it had been publicized for a long time. Another part of me thought that because it was happening on a Monday, and because especially in this country, people stay so busy, that the Eclipse just would not attract all that many people.

We did run into a few backups, but nothing too major, and we always had plenty of time. I thought that once we got out of the Charlotte area, we would probably not run into any more traffic delays, and I was right. We finally stopped for some food and gas at a Hardees/truck stop in Enoree, South Carolina. My body clock was still screwed up and I felt like it was lunchtime. I went inside the convenience store and bought some Eclipse gum, thought of buying a bottle of Corona. The girl at counter didn’t seem amused (either she had no idea or didn’t have any sense of humor or did have sense of humor but thought “oh here’s another wise guy…”).

We arrived at Kyle’s place in Chappells, South Carolina, around 11:30 AM; plenty of time to spare before the Eclipse was to begin.

Soon enough was “first contact,” when the Moon just begins to cover the Sun. Over the next hour-and-a-half or so, the “bite” taken out the Sun became larger and larger.

I texted my aunt in Massachusetts, where the Eclipse was to peak at about 63 percent; I had given her a pair of Eclipse glasses as well before the left the previous weekend. She wrote back and told me that President Trump had looked directly at the Sun; I just rolled my eyes, and looked forward to a Tweet like: “The Sun is a lightweight, a total loser, I gotta tell you. Pathetic. It got all scaredy-cat and went and hid behind the Moon, SAD! Thanks to me, we negotiated and it’s coming back out. I’m doing a great job as President, trillions of people agree, believe me.”

The last few minutes leading up to totality were, in one word, bizarre. It was not dark, but dim. We could tell something was going on in the sky; even looking at the clouds on the horizon, we noticed that they looked different. Shadows were sharper than usual. Then the crickets started chirping; it was like they thought the sun was setting. Finally, we got to experience the “shadow bands;” they looked like little gray snakes moving on the ground. At that moment in the sky, the “diamond ring” was showing as the last of the Sun’s light shone from behind the now-visible Moon. A few seconds later, there it was: totality.

It was the most incredible thing that I had ever seen. No picture can do justice; you just have to see it for yourself. The corona looked like bright white cotton candy on a deep blue background. The Moon looked more three-dimensional than I’ve ever seen it; like a dark rock suspended in space (which it actually is, but doesn’t appear that way normally). All around us looked like a sunset. Some bright stars were visible in the daytime sky. There was nothing in nature that could be compared to it. Everybody there was witnessing something incredibly special; something that they had never seen nor experienced. I made sure to get a photo—the most important one I’ve ever taken—early on during totality, just so I could fully enjoy the rest of it.

Then, just like that, two-and-a-half minutes later, it was over. The moment totality ended may have been the most anticlimactic feeling imaginable. No one wanted it to end; it was a very helpless feeling. Daniel said it best, in one word: “Rewind!” Daylight returned, and all went back to normal. Even within half an hour after totality, people across the lake were going about their days (one was even mowing his lawn). We hardly even watched the last part of the Eclipse, although we did see fourth contact when the Moon moved completely off the Sun’s disk and bid the Eclipse farewell. I collected a few pieces of grass from where I was standing during totality, and kept my Eclipse glasses and bottle caps from the day.

We got back to the South Hill area super late that night. We were all exhausted, but we all agreed without any hesitation that this was all well worth it, and even started talking about the next one.

I got up on Tuesday, August 22, around 7 AM. Daniel was still asleep and Kate was in the next room asleep as well. Jordan was awake and in the kitchen; I put my stuff in the car and came back inside and talked to Jordan for a few minutes; he said, “This was a good thing that we did.”

It sure was. No one can ever take that away from us.

I left Jordan’s cabin near South Hill around 7:30 AM. As I drove home, I thought back to the previous day and what an incredible past 40 hours or so it had been. It was the same drive home from South Hill that I had always known, Route 1 to Interstate 85, to Interstate 95, to Interstate 64. When I saw the Richmond skyline, and drove past The Diamond, and everywhere else I was so familiar with, everything was the same as it had been, yet somehow, it was a little different.

As cool as the Eclipse was, it sure did come with a little depression afterwards; it was the coolest thing I had ever seen or done; I had checked off the #1 item on my bucket list.

A lot of people made the trip to see this glorious event. The media was quite clear that if anyone wanted to see the total Eclipse, they had to get themselves within the line. There was no other way to see it except in the designated area. People who wanted to see made the effort to go to the line of totality. If we want to see the glory of the LORD fill the earth (Numbers 14:21), we will get to see it, because we will put forth the effort. God shows us what we have to do, and there is no other way to eternity than by doing what he commands.

A Solar Eclipse is actually a very natural occurrence; there was not a sound; with everything going on, one may have expected that totality would begin with “KaBoom!” or “Shazam!” But in reality, Sun and the Moon were just moving across the sky in the path they had been; they did not have to change in order to make an Eclipse happen. The LORD does not change; with him there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning (James 1:17). He has a plan as well and it will happen. To the world and maybe even to us, what he does may seem “different,” but to him, it is all going as planned. Isaiah says that when God makes a plan, no one can prevent it (Isaiah 14:27). Just as the Moon and the Sun raced toward each other in the sky, and as certainly as it happened, God will do everything he has said he would do.

Even though most of North America only experienced a partial Eclipse, as a country, we may have broken the record for most people looking up at the same time. Here in the Richmond area where it was only a partial Eclipse, there were gatherings at the Science Museum and on Brown’s Island in downtown. Eclipse glasses were sold out almost everywhere. The great and vast majority of people went outside at some point that afternoon and looked at what was going on in the sky. There may have never even been a time on earth where so many people looked up at the same time. It’s a reminder of when Jesus ascended into heaven—forty days after his Resurrection—and the angels said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11).” For those few minutes of totality, very little mattered; all of a sudden, for those few minutes, everyone stopped thinking about their political feelings or whether their sports team won the night before, or whatever else. That’s what happens when you “look up.” The universe is much bigger than us.

It’s interesting how the only time we notice the Sun is when it’s being covered, either by clouds, when we can see less light on earth, or by the Moon during an Eclipse, and it takes center stage. But it’s always there, isn’t it? We just don’t really notice the Sun much because we know it’s there all the time. We may even take it for granted even though it’s the most important object in the solar system, this great ball of fire, some 93 million miles away. The LORD is always there; he is a very present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1); do we only notice him when it starts to get dark? One church in the line of totality had a sign that said, “Without God, your darkness will exceed 2 minutes 40 seconds.” He says, “Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).”

The Sun represents God and the Moon represents Jesus, who shows God’s light at night. Normally, we cannot look straight at the sun without our eyes being damaged. But during totality, you can actually look at the Eclipse with the naked eye; you don’t need covering for your eyes. The LORD says we cannot see him and live (Exodus 33:20). Jesus’ disciples asked him to show them the Father; the only way they could see God was through him (John 14:8-9). With Jesus, the Moon, as the mediator, we can look right at the Sun. A Total Solar Eclipse is the only way we can see the solar corona, the “crown” of the Sun. Very few people on earth have ever seen the corona, but one day in the future, the crown of God will be placed on Jesus, and all flesh will see it together (Isaiah 40:5).

“To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth forever: The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth forever: the moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth forever (Psalm 136:7-9).”

The next total solar eclipse visible to the United States will happen on April 8, 2024; one year from today. It will be visible in fourteen states, as well as parts of Mexico and Canada. After that, it’s a twenty-year wait for the mainland: we will not have another total Solar Eclipse here until August 23, 2044—visible only to Montana and North Dakota—but then it will be just under a year before another total Eclipse, on August 12, 2045, which will be visible to a lot more states. There will then be another one seven years later, on March 30, 2052, before a very long wait of over twenty-six years, but then the total eclipse of May 11, 2078 will be followed by another one less than a year later on May 1, 2079. The last total Solar Eclipse of the 21st century will happen on September 14, 2099; it will traverse ten states, ending in Virginia, and will go right over my hometown of Richmond. The good news is that these are just the total Eclipses that will be visible in the United States; there will be many other total Eclipses between now and then elsewhere in the world; you may just have to travel to some distant corner of the earth to see them. In the meantime, there is always something to see in the sky; a decent telescope is relatively cheap, between $150-200, which will allow you to see and observe all the planets in the solar system: you can see the ice caps on Mars, the bands of Jupiter as well as the Great Red Spot, the rings of Saturn, Neptune’s cool blue disc, and many other objects in the Milky Way, such as distant galaxies and nebulas. Lunar eclipses happen frequently; that is when the Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow and turns red for a few hours. I remember seeing the one that happened the night that the Red Sox won the World Series in October 2004 and some of the “Blood Moons” that were visible here in October 2014 and September 2015, and more recently, May and November 2022. There are a few meteor showers during the year as well. And, sometimes, if you are in the right place on earth, you may get to see the Northern Lights, another item on many peoples’ bucket list.

If you ever get a chance to see a total Solar Eclipse, you will not regret being there in the shadow. It’s nature’s grandest event, and very few people in the whole world have ever seen it. No matter how far you have to travel to experience totality, I can guarantee that it will be worth the trip. If you’re here in the United States, mark your calendar and make your plans to be somewhere in the line of totality for the Great North American Eclipse on April 8, 2024, which runs from Texas to Maine.

I can’t wait.