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The Beauty and Lessons of a Cloud-Covered Total Eclipse

Hundreds of people waited for the total solar eclipse at the High Hampton Inn & Country Club near Cashiers, North Carolina. Photo by Dustin Renwick

By Dustin Renwick

On a day when millions of Americans could have reasonably started any conversation with comments about the weather, some people were left not talking about the sky, but to it.

“No, no, no!” someone in the party of four yelled from their reclined positions at the edge of the lake.

“Go away,” a woman pleaded.

“Shoo!” another shouted.

Thunder blossomed as beastly clouds bellied into the valley. Hundreds of shadow seekers gathered on the tee boxes and hilly fairways and golf greens glistening from rain that passed through 30 minutes before solar eclipse totality. I sought winter stars on a summer afternoon.

The morning had arrived in full sun on the forested houses and winding mountain roads of Cashiers, North Carolina. Puffy daubs dotted the air by mid morning and stacked into a thick cloud deck by lunch.

My friend Quinn and I had agreed around midnight Saturday to head south for an event that captured our curiosities. We left Washington, D.C., at 1 p.m. Sunday, endured the crush of cosmic traffic, and hopped out to the welcome of a friend’s family at 1 a.m.

Twelve hours later, I cursed what I couldn’t control.

“A pox on all your houses, clouds,” served as my restrained insult. The invective escalated from there.

Quinn looked up at the indifferent atmosphere as we walked toward a peninsula. The eighth green at High Hampton Inn & Country Club provided an open view amid the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and access to three elevated points on the golf course where we could run to the light if we found ourselves in unwanted shadows.

We discussed driving to another town, but the satellite imagery of cloud cover proved inconclusive. White splotches on the screen moved with no definitive weather front. Plus, we considered the added specter of cars clogged on twisted, tree-sheltered roads.

For the most part, cities and small towns across America adequately prepped for this first coast-to-coast totality in 99 years. Yet the problem with a spectacle as specific as an eclipse is its brevity.

The same quality that imparts rare feelings of awe also makes the whole production particularly vulnerable to fickle movements. Breezes and bits of water vapor can wreck years of controlled planning and persistent anticipation.

Clouds on any other day could scuttle along halfway to the Azores or evaporate above the trees in the next county. Either event would pass without mention among the Earth-bound.

On August 21, though, mistimed drifts thwarted the aspirations of anyone waiting for the sun to disappear with more celestial force. The opposite held true, too. One punctual clearing in a stubborn, shoving throng of lofted gray matter elicited the adulation of silver-spectacled masses.

“Blue patches,” Quinn said, in a stunned voice that suggested a personal favor.

“Shh,” I whispered. “You’ll scare them away.”

Cheers echoed from the picnics and parties on the adjacent hills when the puzzle pieces overhead shifted and a changing glow bathed the area. The moon marched its orb toward a full overlap.

Then 10 minutes before totality, rising winds propelled a blockade of low, slate rain-bearers. Only a pair of portholes remained to view any open sky.

“It’s getting darker,” said a man in the group behind us, outfitted with two golf carts and a red cooler that matched the snapping flag on the eighth hole’s pin.

“It’s just the damn thunderstorm,” one of the women replied.

I fiddled with my phone to record the moment totality consumed us in whatever form. I expected the sort of gradual sweeping that night brushes across a landscape. Nope. Crowds cheered across the cove, and Quinn laughed uncontrollably at the abrupt loss.

“Whoa,” I said. “Whoa, that was fast.”

“That was so fast,” Quinn repeated through giggles.

“That is so bizarre,” said another woman.

Observers around us had faded to featureless silhouettes. Lights from the inn’s stairs down to the docks reflected off Hampton Lake. The scene matched the duskiness we saw again around 8:40 p.m. in the midst of 12 hours on the road north through an annoyingly sunny afternoon, starry evening, and cloudless overnight leading into the approaching D.C. dawn.

“Seeing a partial eclipse and saying that you have seen an eclipse is like standing outside an opera house and saying that you have seen the opera,” wrote Jay Pasachoff in his 1983 astronomy field guide. “In both cases, you have missed the main event.”

Instead, my friend and I showed up at the listed time to find the doors at our particular theater locked. I’m normally levelheaded, but my stomach roiled with hope and despair during the rain-sun-cloud sequence that preceded an unsuccessful totality show. I had dedicated weeks of location research and weather reading, skipped work, and surrendered to stultifying traffic in fervent pursuit of a two-minute rendezvous. All this effort culminated in a mere tease, a sidelong hint of grandeur.

Many people treat failure as a negative variable best managed, mitigated, or outright avoided. Instead, failure is the dark matter of scientific knowledge—unseen but holding the universe together.

Pasachoff is an astronomy professor at Williams College and a National Geographic Society grantee. He conducted research on the sun’s corona during a visible totality in Salem, Oregon. Pasachoff viewed his first eclipse in 1959 and has witnessed more than 60 since. The weather hasn’t always cooperated, but “you get a story every time,” he said.

“Plunge ahead,” he advised for situations where circumstances skew from the plan. “It’s a good thing about science in general. There’s always something new to do, some new goal.”

In this framework, failure is not the product, but part of the process, and it remains a necessary element in the ecosystem of success. By eliminating one option, we move closer to an answer. Failure focuses a person’s determination for further exploration and provides a contrast for later triumphs.

Even obscured totality struck the scene in blue twilight tones. My eyes wandered west with my feet tethered to the firm grass of the eighth green, and I saw a shining Venus surrounded by a void of dark turquoise clarity. Not a star, but enough to sustain me until 2024.

 

Comments

  1. Becky McKee
    United States
    September 27, 4:01 pm

    Hey Dustin. I love this blog of our shared eclipse experience. So sorry it was disappointing. One silver lining for us is that we got to meet you and get reacquainted with Quinn. You may never want to set foot in this area again after what you experienced, but in case you do, the door is always open.