For two minutes you understood what the hype was about, and then it was gone and you were left to go about your day.
That’s pretty much the summation of my experience travelling to Nashville, Tennessee, for Monday’s historic solar eclipse: a sublime two minutes that felt like exactly what you wanted but still impossibly short.
I was sent by my editors to chase the eclipse in Nashville predominately because it was the most convenient locale in the path of totality (the 70-mile wide stretch in which the moon completely covers the sun) logistically, but conveniently it also may have been the liveliest major city along the path.
Not only was it solar eclipse weekend, but it was move-in for the 12,000-plus students at Vanderbilt University and their families and the first preseason home game for the Tennessee Titans.
Based on conversations with locals, it seemed like most of them were excited for the Titans game than the solar eclipse. Most businesses had signs saying they would be closed for a 20-minute period around when the totality was occurring, but it didn’t seem like anything was shutting down for much longer than that.
The traffic I experienced was heavy, but not crippling as some expected for such a big event. It probably helped that the path was so wide and many out-of-town travellers were able to stay in exurbs of Nashville proper.
Those out-of-towners I talked to were, perhaps obviously, more excited.
Nashville mayor Megan Barry told the local Tennessean newspaper that close to a million people came to the area for the eclipse. On the day of, I headed to a farm just northwest of downtown in the small town of Joelton for a better viewing experience and met a larger number of those travellers like me.
There were people that travelled from Minnesota, hauling specialty camera equipment in order to capture the phenomenon. There was a young couple from San Jose, California, who decided to come to Nashville to avoid the California crowds that went to the path of totality in Oregon.
I was even told by the owners of Hachland Hill retreat, where I watched the eclipse, that a group of Canadians showed up at the front gate that morning asking to watch despite not buying a ticket for the event in advance (after some negotiation, I was told they were welcomed to the party).
But most of the people in attendance were simply locals from Nashville who took the day off of work to view the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
While the build up wasn’t perhaps the moon mania I had expected, the two minutes of pure darkness themselves certainly lived up to the hype.
The feeling of being surrounded by sunset like purples and pinks instead of the one side like a typical dusk was beautiful but disconcerting. The insects increased their chorus to dusk levels almost immediately and lightning bugs emerged from the trees around the field.
While you understand on a higher level what’s going on, everyone I talked to afterward said they did feel a bit destabilized on some instinctual level by the sudden disappearing of the sun. As if your internal clock just got thrown for a loop.
For those two minutes you understood why people chase these kinds of events around the world.
But then, it was kind of just… over.
I mean, clearly it’s not as if the sun was going to be trapped behind the moon forever, but the crowd of more than 300 people around me breathed a palpable “what now.”
There was, at the event I attended, an after-party with eclipse-themed foods, a band, and a live painting of the eclipse that was later auctioned. But many people that came for the viewing slipped out soon after.
I even heard that the Canadians slipped away to make it a few miles along their long trip home.
In the end, I understood why the event was so special — those two minutes are something I will remember for the rest of my life — but I also understood why for most of the travellers I talked to this was part of a bigger trip. To experience Nashville, to go on a late summer road trip with the family, it seemed the eclipse was the focal point of the travel but not the singular reason.
But hey, if there’s a better excuse to get to a part of the country you’ve never visited before (and I highly recommend visiting Nashville), than a historic scientific phenomenon, I don’t know one.
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