Chasing the total eclipse!

Near the end of totality, April 8, 2024

Back in August of 2017, John and I drove down to South Carolina and met up with his brother and sister-in-law and their friend (who came up from Florida) to view the total solar eclipse. We hung out along some back road in the path of totality to experience the event far from any crowds. The closest town was Hartsville, about 75 miles northeast of Columbus, SC.

John's brother Steve projecting the eclipse onto paper through his binoculars

Hundreds of eclipse projections on the ground, filtered through tree leaves

It was such a cool experience that I looked up the date of the next total eclipse (within driving distance) and marked it in my digital calendar with a reminder. Fast-forward to this year: Several months ago I started making plans to see another eclipse on April 8. John opted out because it is a very busy time for him with tutoring. So I decided to make it a solo camping trip.

I converted the band van into a camper van. That is to say: I cleared out all the music gear and replaced it with camping gear, with an air mattress in the cargo area for sleeping so I wouldn't have to set up a tent. I did take my guitar along, though.

I left home on Friday afternoon (April 5) and drove about 4 hours to Rocky Gap State Park in Maryland, where I had a reservation for two nights. I got there after dark, and it was COLD. I struggled to get a little fire going, contending with wind and a bit of sleet. My camp stove was suddenly no longer working, but I managed to cook a meal over the camp fire. Then I spent my first night ever sleeping in the van, and was so grateful to be out of the wind!

The next morning, it was so cold I didn't emerge from the van-coccoon until after 10. In the clear light of day I could see that I had a nice view of the lake from my site.

Since I didn't have enough wood for a fire and the camp stove wasn't working, I went for a late breakfast in Cumberland, MD. I'm sure it will be nice someday, but at the moment, the "quaint downtown" is a construction hellscape. But Cafe Mark was still open so I was able to get a much-needed coffee and breakfast burrito.

After brunch, I wandered around town a bit on foot. The highlight was the "Crossroads of America" mural.

Then I went on a quest to purchase a new camp stove, which sadly landed me at a Wal-Mart. When I got back to camp, I hiked over 5 miles around the lake. I was surprised and excited to see a loon!

I had dinner and a beer while listening to a bluegrass trio at the 1812 Brewery, noted as a potential place to play sometime.

I ended the day sipping hot cocoa and whiskey in front of the fire, admiring the starry night sky.

On Sunday morning I got up at a more reasonable hour, and made coffee and oatmeal on my new campstove. Before I left, I decided to make a raw music recording. I was sitting on my cooler at my campsite, and you can hear various birds and campground noises in the background, and wind gusts too. Not the greatest sound quality, and my hands were freezing, but I Iiked the setting and I wanted to practice this song, so here ya go.

Then I was off for another 3+ hours of driving to my campground in Allegheny National Forest, near Kane, PA, where I stayed two nights.

After finding my site and getting situated with firewood provisions and kindling, I went back into Kane to have a beer at the local brewery, and texted back and forth to compare notes with my friends Amy and Ray, who were on their own eclipse-chasing adventure.

I took advantage of the brewery's wi-fi to scope out several potential locations for viewing the eclipse the next day, cache some maps on my phone, and check the weather forecast. Cloud cover was a concern, but unlike Amy and Ray (who were heading to Ohio), I was not going to substantially change my plans to avoid it; I was just going to make the most of it, somewhere within an hour or two of my campsite.

Back at camp, I had no cell signal, but I had this gorgeous view a few minutes' stroll from my site:

The clear evening sky gave me (false) hope for a cloudless eclipse. I left camp the next day (Monday, April 8) before 10 am so I'd have plenty of time to drive around and choose a suitable spot in the path of totality. I strongly considered stopping at or near Allegheny State Park because it was such a nice spot on a lake with a cool dam.

But after exploring the area for a bit, I ultimately decided that under 2 minutes of totality would not be enough for me, and continued onward. 

I finally wound up at Long Point State Park on Lake Chautauqua (New York), where totality would last 3 minutes and 15 seconds. (I had an app on my phone to give this precise information.) The setting there was peaceful and uncrowded. As I was wandering around, deciding where to settle in for the viewing, I reflected on the 2017 eclipse. The thing I remember most vividly is the crescents on the sandy ground, created by the partially eclipsed sunlight filtering through the trees. I remember the FACT of having witnessed the total eclipse, and that I was emotionally overwhelmed by it, but for the life of me I couldn't remember the actual sight and sensation. I couldn't see it in my mind's eye, and I couldn't evoke the FEELING. It's as if I had read about it and seen pictures, but hadn't been there myself. It's so weird and rather troubling. I really wanted to experience it again, and try to anchor it in my memory.

Unfortunately, this time around, the clouds obscured the main event, but I was able to get a number of decent pictures of the partial eclipse. I had my cell phone on a tripod and used a special app to capture these photos. I also had a solar filter over the lens, most of the time.

No filter on this one. The clouds were thick enough at this point that I couldn't see the sun with eclipse glasses on.

Prior to totality, we had the occasional, fleeting clear view.

Skies cleared up about 10 minutes after totality, so I have loads of partial eclipse photos like this one.

Even though I didn't get to see the sun at totality, the effect was dramatic with the sudden darkness and a 360-degree "sunset". I and the people around me gasped a collective "Wow!" Someone across the lake sent up fireworks in the darkness.

The clouds cleared up about 10 minutes after the total eclipse had passed, and it turned into a lovely, warm late afternoon. The picture below was taken from the little town of Bemus Point, just a few minutes from the park, around 5:30 pm.

I wrote a poem about my eclipse experience. Perhaps it will turn into a song at some point, or perhaps it will just reside here on this blog.

The sun sets high; it’s mid-afternoon
The birds fall silent, with nothing to say
We gaze up at Helios, up at the moon,
but heavy clouds hang in the way

Gentle waves caress the shore
There’s a peaceful silence here
It’s beautiful but we all want more
We pray for the clouds to clear

Strangers united watch the skies 
with hopeful hearts and naked eyes
Clouds swirl and shift and tantalize
but never once reveal the prize

No crown for us, no diamond ring,
but a bowl of darkness and rosy fringe  
Fireworks erupt in celebration
We yearn for a glimpse, and sigh in frustration

Three minutes, fifteen seconds are over too soon
The sun again rises; still mid-afternoon
The clouds are laughing as they clear away
“You can have the partial,” they say.

The next morning before breakfast I went for a walk around the campground and beyond. Nice views!

After packing up camp, I drove along a scenic road nearby, seeing the Allegheny Reservoir from a variety of vantage points, and even took my bike for a little spin.

Then I headed homeward, with the goal of getting about halfway home by nightfall. I had not made a reservation, but I ended up staying in an efficiency cabin at Cacapon Resort State Park in West Virginia.

On Wednesday morning, after a leisurely breakfast, I decided to bike up to the Cacapon overlook. I am pretty sure that was the most strenuous bike ride I've done since my twenties! It was five miles of steady incline with only the occasional flat or dip to recover, and four of those miles were on gravel. I stopped to rest frequently to avoid lung collapse or heart attack, but I made it to the top! A couple in a car got to the summit about the same time, and were quite impressed with my feat. They were kind enough to take my picture for me.

Downhill was its own separate challenge, as I had to keep pumping the brakes to avoid careening out of control off the hillside. On my way down, I encountered two other cyclists on their way up. Good to see some other masochists out there. 

And then I headed home. By the time I got there, I had travelled over 1100  miles with all my meanderings.

It was a great trip, despite that one disappointment of totality denied. I'm thinking of Iceland in '26 to try again...

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