Travel dates: August 20-21, 2017
For the past few days, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what, exactly, makes a total solar eclipse SO incredible. If you didn’t see the eclipse yourself, you’ve no doubt observed that those who did seem to have been universally awed and overwhelmed by it. Probably people who didn’t see totality themselves felt even more left out the next day than those of us who don’t watch Game of Thrones feel on Monday mornings.
I went into the eclipse with expectations in check. I was excited to see it, but I was willing to be satisfied with, “yeah, that was pretty cool.” I was completely unprepared to be so blown away by it. But I was. It was eerie and sublime and awesome in the truest, most literal sense of the word. It was probably even life changing, at least in the sense that future eclipses and seeing them are going to play a big part in our travel plans going forward (even if I’m not quite ready to sell the house and become a full time eclipse chaser).
But why?! I’d be hard pressed to assign any particularly deep meaning to eclipses (and assigning deep meaning is not something I generally have trouble with). I mean, we can talk about how tiny we are compared to the big old universe and all that, but, when it comes down to it, eclipses are really just exciting cosmic coincidences.
But, then again, the Grand Canyon is just a bunch of erosion.
So here’s what I’ve got: in this age of photography and video and mass production, it’s really hard to be genuinely surprised by anything anymore. When I saw Crater Lake this summer, it was beautiful, it was breathtaking, it very much lived up to the hype….but it didn’t surprise me. I’d seen so many photos of it, and it looked….like it did in the photos. Don’t get me wrong: I recognize and appreciate that seeing something in real life is a different experience than looking at a photo or watching a video…but it’s usually a difference more of degree than type.
Seeing photos of the eclipse beforehand didn’t and couldn’t have prepared me for the real thing. It just can’t be captured accurately or fully in a photo or video. Aside from the technical limitations of cameras, a total eclipse is so immersive and so….weird; it just doesn’t work. And normally, looking back at my own pictures or other people’s of places I’ve been is a way to bring myself back there and relive the experience. Eclipse pictures can’t do that; the only way to return to that experience is to actually see another total eclipse. And I fully intend to. Let the 2024 planning commence!
No, for real, I mean it: I’m going to talk right now about getting ready for the 2024 eclipse.
I’ve got a few thoughts, based on what we liked and didn’t like about our first viewing experience.
Here’s Dave’s video about the eclipse and then one about the park in general:
We went to Vogel State Park in the northeast corner of Georgia. Only a little bit of Georgia was in the path of totality; we were lucky to only need to go a couple of hours to get there. We’d camped at Vogel before; you can read the full campground review here. This time we had a pull through site in the front section of the campground; I had talked in my original review about how these spots seemed more cramped than the ones farther back along the creek. I still think this is true, but for eclipse purposes our site was great–just a short walk from the main festivities and an open area for eclipse viewing. It was also very handy that there was a pull-through available, since Dave had to come up by himself to set up camp while the rest of us took care of some things back home. As you can see, our actual site was very spacious, but it did have the main road out of the campground right on one side, and several other sites very close on the other side:
*Totality is a total necessity: Atlanta got something like 97% totality, but we drove north to make it to 100%. Honestly, we never really considered not doing this; we’ve been planning an eclipse trip for at least two years. But not because we really knew what we were doing–it just kind of sounded like a good excuse for a trip. Because 97% sounds really, really close to 100%. Turns out it’s not even close to the same thing. With a partial eclipse, you get to see (with your special glasses) the moon partially covering the sun and the sky will darken somewhat and the light will get kind of cool and freaky. But it’s impossible to overemphasize how much different totality is from the few seconds before and after it. It’s much darker, you can see stars and planets, and you can actually take off your glasses and look at the sun/moon and see the corona. And it’s AMAZING. Now that the eclipse has happened this is pretty common knowledge I think, but I remember being kind of surprised to learn that you could take the glasses off and look during totality just a few days before the eclipse. Milo didn’t realize it until the day of the eclipse. And apparently we forgot to explain it to Abe at all, because he was kind of freaking out about wanting to keep his glasses on during totality, and I had no idea why, but then we watched the video Dave took afterwards, we could hear that he was saying, “no! I can still see light!” So I guess Abe thought we were trying to trick him into blinding himself by telling him he could take them off. Sorry, Abe! Anyway, though: you want to get to the path of totality. I feel an almost religious fervor about convincing people of this now.
*Beat the crowds: Vogel was probably not the perfect choice for eclipse viewing (for reasons that I’ll talk about later), but one thing that was great about it was that it never got overwhelmingly crowded. They were controlling how many people came in (we heard they were capping it at 2000) because there’s just not that much room for people to park there.
The parking lots and a few grassy overflow areas were totally full, of course, but we wandered down from our campsite (where we could see the sun well through the trees) to an open field down the hill about 10-15 minutes before totality, and we had plenty of room to hang out and watch:
It was a very hot day, so we were glad not to have to set up right in the sun and sit there hours beforehand. I can’t imagine battling the crowds at a free-for-all citywide kind of event. Although I will also say that it was cool to be with some other people. It made it feel very universal and communal and all that. I didn’t even mind the hippies with the drum circle. Of course, it helped that we were camping there so we knew we had a parking spot and weren’t going to be shut out. Which brings me to….
*Plan to make a trip of it; don’t try to drive the day of the eclipse: We drove up the day before the eclipse and there was no traffic or crowds to speak of. We weren’t able to stay the night after the eclipse, though, so our plan was to hang out for awhile and let the day trip crowds clear out, have some dinner, then pack up and go (we reserved the night of the eclipse so we wouldn’t have to leave our campsite early, even though we knew we weren’t staying). It took us nearly four hours to make what should have been a two hour trip home. We were in stop and go traffic for many, many miles. Dave realized and pointed out, too late, that plenty of people were driving back to the Atlanta area from farther away than we were, so there really was no way to “wait out” the traffic without staying another night. For 2024, we’re hoping to be able to incorporate the eclipse into a longer trip and stay in one location for the actual eclipse at least until the day after.
The more totality, the better: We had about a minute and a half of totality at Vogel; if we’d driven another hour or so we could have had two and a half minutes. This did not sound like a big deal at all beforehand; I figured there would be a sort of diminishing returns thing going on: first thirty seconds are great, and then you get a little bored maybe. But it turns out that 1. it would take a really long time before looking at the corona got old and 2. there’s a ton of other stuff to look at, too. Stars, planets, streetlights, listen for animals thinking it’s nighttime, etc. etc. In retrospect, a little more driving for that extra minute of totality would definitely have been worth it. We will take that into account when picking a destination for 2024 (and the longest totality for 2024, if I remember right, is over four full minutes. So that will be quite cool).
Consider keeping the camera put away. Or not: I don’t have any good pictures of the actual eclipse to show you. I decided beforehand against buying the special filter for my camera or doing any research on how to take good eclipse photos. I figured that I only had a minute and a half and no time beforehand to practice, so I’d leave the photography to people who knew what they were doing. I don’t really regret this, but I did get a little jealous about the fabulous photos I saw other people post. So maybe next time, with 4 1/2 whole minutes to play with, I’ll try to figure out what I’m doing and get some good shots. Although, let me emphasize again that, while cool, even really great eclipse photos don’t really capture what you see in real life. So I guess I’m saying either decide in advance to make taking photos a priority or decide not to…but definitely don’t expect to point your camera at the moon during totality and get something amazing. Because this is what you get:
This was a quick, eclipse focused trip, but we did fit in a few other things. (You can also get some ideas for things to do in the Blairsville/Vogel area in this post from last year’s trip). On the way up, we stopped at nearby DeSoto Falls for a quick hike. The story is that a shield from DeSoto’s expedition was found here. There are two waterfalls to hike to; if you do both, the total hike is right at two miles, so a great hike for kids. It’s a Forest Service site, and there’s a $3/day parking fee, or you can use your National Parks pass. There’s also a campground on the site (no hookups–it looked to be primarily tent campers) and pit toilets available.
At Vogel, we were excited to check out the Civilian Conservation Corps museum that was closed during our last visit here. Vogel was built by CCC workers in the 30’s. This small museum is open only on weekends; it has great exhibits about the history of the CCC, and, when we were there, a very knowledgable volunteer to answer questions and provide more information:
After the eclipse, we took a walk around the lake and to see the waterfall at the other end. The eclipse seemed to give Abe a big burst of energy; he complained less on this hike than any others in recent memory:
It was nice to be back in the trailer again after a few weeks at home. And Gus was very glad to have the dogs with us for this trip after leaving them behind for the summer: