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Watching the eclipseMy friend burst into peals of laughter when she saw the DVD screen hanging in my car, suspended from multiple bungie cords.

My son had hung it in anticipation of the many hours we’d spend on the road during our solar eclipse vacation. Frankly, I was impressed he had gotten it to stay put.

“That’s how we roll,” I told her.

That DVD player came in handy as we sat in stop-and-go traffic after the eclipse. The doleful predictions of traffic disaster proved all too true. After three hours had elapsed I checked the odometer. We’d gone 85 miles.

“On the bright side,” I said to my mother in the passenger seat, “We don’t need to get gas.”

By the end of the night my mom was plying me with questions about every controversial subject she could think of, from statues in Charlottesville to transgender military policy, in a much-appreciated attempt to keep me from falling asleep behind the wheel. Four non-stop days of eclipse fun had worn us out. In the backseat the DVD player had fallen silent and the kids were sleeping. The littlest one whimpered, uncomfortable in her booster seat.

When I finally closed my eyes in my own bed, I saw an endless stream of brake lights on a dark ribbon of road.

The trip was worth the pain it took to get back. I knew I’d have to have something up my sleeve in addition to the eclipse in case the sky clouded over. So we visited a water park, an amusement park, and, best of all, spent a morning ziplining through the Smoky Mountains.

The views astonished me. We took turns jumping off platforms – some of them 200 feet above the ground – and flew the length of three football fields. The Smokies stretched to one side as the trees whipped by beneath our feet.

My kids impressed me with their bravery, hopping off the safety of the platform while grown men hung back. But watching them take that first plunge was difficult. I had let my kids get in line ahead of me without realizing that I’d be urging them to throw themselves out of a tree before I had done so myself.

I had the same strange thoughts when I buckled them into in the first car of a roller coaster and watched them pull away from the platform. I didn’t mind when I rode with them. But after I hurt my neck on the world’s fastest wooden coaster I let them ride tamer ones alone, and felt caught off guard by how quickly my mother instincts rose up when I saw their little blond heads tick-tick-ticking up the track.

Sunday evening we left our tourist digs behind and drove almost two hours to Athens, Tenn., a town in the path of totality. A month earlier I had picked the spot on the ultra-selective criteria that it still have two hotel rooms for rent on the night before the eclipse. Hunting for hotel rooms had been a frustrating endeavor. After three hours I became convinced that Jesus was being born again, since there was clearly no room at any inn. Finally I checked a dicey spot by the interstate and struck gold.

The non-smoking rooms had the smell of stale cigarettes and there were burn holes in the bedspreads, but it didn’t matter. The next day the eclipse would unfold directly above our heads.

The young woman behind the front desk extracted from me an additional $20 so that I could keep my car in the parking lot for a few hours past check-out at 11 a.m. “We don’t want to have to tow anyone,” she said. Totality wouldn’t start until after 2:30 p.m., and I was unwilling to let the moment escape over a parking dispute. So I coughed it up.

The next morning the hotel courtyard had a festive air. Travelers were setting up telescopes and tents to mute the glare of the sun. Before long the temperature reached 100 degrees. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
We peered through eclipse glasses that blocked all images but the dull orange globe of the sun. The kids quickly tired of staring at the sky and lay down in the shade. Just after 1 p.m. I spotted a nibble out of the edge of the sun. “It’s started!” I crowed.

For the next hour and a half we checked on the sun, analyzed how the environment around us was changing, and paid repeated visits to the man who had set up a thermometer to gauge the temperature drop. My kids dissolved into red-cheeked sweaty lumps on the grass. We trotted back and forth to the hotel lobby to use the restroom till an employee hung an “out of order” sign on the door. I glanced at the hotel parking lot. It was half-empty.

Before long it was undeniably cooler. The day around us darkened, but not into the rosy glow of sunset. The light was as yellow-white as ever, but there was less of it. I compared it to watching a video on a laptop screen tilted at the wrong angle. My mother thought it looked like a movie filmed with a color-muting filter.

When I estimated that about 86 percent of the sun was covered – the maximum we would have seen if we had stayed in Fluvanna – I told the kids to look around. “This is what it looks like back home,” I said. “Keep watching and tell me if you think it was worth it to come.” They glanced around, unsure.

Just before totality the bustling hotel courtyard grew still. The temperature had dropped 20 degrees. The light looked alien. So little was left of the sliver of sun that we could see the moon moving. Then suddenly the sun was gone. Darkness reigned for an instant, then as neatly as a flipped light switch, the corona shone out ghostly white.

Whoops rang out. Tears sprang into my eyes. The kids gasped and jumped to their feet. There was a hole in the sky. Rose-colored around the horizon, it stretched blue-black up toward a shining silver mist. The mist burned around a hole as black as pitch. Stars glimmered.

I thought of ancient people and the doom they must have felt when the sun disappeared into blackness. But I, armed with science and a pair of eclipse glasses, felt only elation.
Two and a half minutes is simultaneously an eternity and a fleeting moment. My family and I stood transfixed. I found myself dreading the instant it would be over.

In less time than it takes to describe, the edge of the moon suddenly glowed fuchsia and green, then a single ray of sunlight burst through a dip in the moon’s surface. Though it dazzled, it wasn’t bright enough to obscure the corona. Hanging in the sky was a ring topped with a brilliant diamond. With despair I put on my glasses and the sun came back out.

The courtyard was again flooded with light. I felt grief-stricken.

We ran to the car, sorrowful that we couldn’t pause to watch the eclipse unfold in reverse. On the highway, cars were already pulling to a stop.

I looked in the rearview mirror and asked the kids, “Now do you know why we came?”

“Yes,” they responded, eyes shining.