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In the zone / August 24, 2017
About a month and a half ago I heard from an old college buddy: “Hey man, we’ve gotta go catch the eclipse.”

Until that moment I had no idea — eclipse? I remember seeing one as a kid. It was cool but hardly an earth-shattering experience. (No matter what the end-of-times crowd may say.) But hey, you get a phone call from someone you haven’t heard from in awhile, it behooves you to listen. And so I did.

And boy, am I glad for that.

On Sunday I drove down to Charleston, S.C. to meet up with my partner in eclipse-chasing who flew in from New Jersey. Our plan was to drive out to one of the barrier islands north of Charleston and put kayaks in the water, where we would paddle out to where people weren’t — hopping from island-to-island, along the South Carolina coast, where island resort communities slowly give way to undeveloped beach wilderness areas.

Nothing about this plan looked particularly sensible on the Monday morning of embarkment. The forecast was lousy: thunderstorms all day. Blech. Being in a kayak out in the middle of the Atlantic probably isn’t the best idea under such circumstances. Still, I figured we could beat a retreat if the storms came too close. And I know enough about weather along the coastline to know that the hour-by-hour forecasts popping up on my cell phone aren’t the most reliable pieces of information to live your life by.

So we decided to stick to the plan: push off from Isle of Palms, just north of the city of Charleston, and paddle along the chain of islands up the coast: Dewees, Capers and Bull. The former two islands are wholly undeveloped, while Dewees has some vacation homes (but no bridge leading out to the island) and long stretches of undisturbed shoreline. We got off to a late start and paddled a few miles to the far tip of Dewees before stopping for lunch. By then, the big show was about to start.

I put on my eclipse glasses. (Okay, here’s a short travelogue aside to your boredom or amusement: while I organized the lodging and the kayaks for this junket, I waited way too long before attempting to purchase eclipse glasses. Here in town, Walmart and Lowes were sold out weeks before I even thought to go shopping. So I did the next obvious thing — check the options online, where a pair of cheesy-looking cardboard glasses was selling on Amazon for the low, low price of $99. Um, no thanks. This prompted a slightly-panicked message to my college buddy, who put my worries to rest: He’d purchased glasses for both of us weeks earlier. However, this forward-looking act of organizational prowess was negated by the oldest travel boner in the book: my friend forgot to pack the goods for the flight down south. Oops.

(Because this is a story with a happy ending, shortly after arriving in Charleston, hours ahead of me, my buddy made his way downtown, where he stumbled into the Charleston Public Library just as the staff was giving away paper eclipse glasses on Sunday eve of the big event. He grabbed two of the last pairs left. Like I said, all’s well that ended well for us. Although perhaps the same can’t be said for library patrons who dropped by later in the day hoping to score their own set of glasses. Sorry about that, folks.)

Returning to our tale, and the far tip of Dewees Island: The eclipse unfolded slowly, the same way I remember from my teenage years: the moon bellied up against the sun, turning the great fireball into a crescent of ever-diminishing proportions. The sun reimagined as an alt-moon, if you will. At first the crescent was fat and cookie-like, then more conventionally moon-shaped, then thin as a blade of grass. The entire time I’m watching this, glasses on, I’m thinking to myself: Well, this is a neat sight. But the heavy dark lenses blocked out everything else in view, creating an effect similar to being inside a very dark planetarium. I saw a white crescent, a black background, and that was basically it.

Then totality happened.

“You can take off your glasses!” my friend shouted, noticing that I was a little slow to do so. He let out a war whoop. High above, the moon had shifted to completely block out the sun, save for the corona. The sun’s fiery surface reached around the charcoal moon and lit a ring of fire in the sky, cutting through a wispy cloud cover that was all that remained of the inauspicious morning forecast. It was safe to look at everything, the entire spectacle, unfiltered and unencumbered. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. This was the natural world in all its weird and eerie wonder.

For about two minutes, the One Ring blazed overhead: now I think I know where the art design for Sauron in the Lord of The Rings movies comes from. High and low, the effect was electric. Some credit must go here to South Carolina’s shoreline. On more than one occasion visiting the Palmetto State, I’ve been out on the beach when four different skies have converged as one: the sun setting in one direction, the moon rising in another, empty skies over the ocean, blackened thunderstorms raging over land. It’s a powerful sight. But not as powerful as seeing four such brilliant skies collapsed into three: on Monday, Aug. 21 at around 2:45 p.m., with the Atlantic yawning in the distance, the moon and the sun aligned to cast the world into near-darkness, punctuated by scattered rays of light reflected from puffy white clouds hugging the ocean horizon. As if on cue, almost at the precise moment of totality, lighting strikes erupted in the far distance, stinging the ground below. At least the weatherman got something right. All around one could witness a symphony of fire, arcing light, chaos and darkness. I don’t expect to ever see such a sight again, although one can always hope.

And one can plan: the next big eclipse arrives in 2024, when the sun and moon will do their tango on a path from Texas to Maine. It won’t be quite the historic spectacle of 2017 — the first time in 99 years that a total eclipse has traveled coast-to-coast across America — but it’ll surely be an event to catch if at all you possibly can. Book a hotel room, live out of a pup tent or a trailer bed for a night: just go. You won’t regret it. And say hello to folks in Cleveland and Little Rock, two of the closer destinations to us in 2024’s zone of totality.

As for the rest of Monday afternoon: we rounded out the day by paddling out to the next barrier island, Capers, before turning around and heading back to Isle of Palms. (Before I was able to complete the final stretch, an ocean wave swamped my kayak and I cleverly snapped my paddle in two, so I’m embarrassed to say that re-entry onto dry land was less than graceful — as you’d expect from someone swimming to shore with a swamped boat in tow.) Overall, however, the trip was worth every painstaking and not-so-painstaking effort, slip-up, best-laid plan gone awry, what-have-you. There’s no substitute for the full effect of a total eclipse. When 2024 arrives, try to find a spot in the zone of totality that best works for you. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

South Boston News
A fails-to-do-justice cell phone photo of the total eclipse over Dewees Island, S.C.

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