Burgess Falls, TN and the Great American Eclipse
Chasing Totality (the Great American Eclipse, August 21, 2017)
The moment the sky went dark and the moon gently danced in front of the sun, I was hit with unexpected emotion. My eyes began to water, and my heart began to race with simultaneous shock and awe.
I had seen dozens of photos, read stories, and logically knew what was about to happen – yet somehow I still found myself completely overwhelmed, and unprepared, in the most amazing way possible.
To be completely honest, this moment had been so built up in the recent media, that as the seemingly elongated hours of the morning drew on, I’d become nervous that the eclipse was not going to live up to the "hype," that it would fall short of expectations, or worst of all that I would leave our five-day road trip to chase the moon completely underwhelmed.
Our original (and seemingly well thought-out plan) had us arriving at Albert Mountain in North Carolina on the day of the eclipse. However, while out to dinner the night before in Athens, GA, we became weary of the worsening weather outlook. Cloud cover has the ability to completely obscure and ruin viewing of the eclipse.
We took out our phones and scanned the weather along other driveable destinations in the eclipse’s path of totality. When it became clear that Tennessee had its eyes on clearer skies, we frantically started to look for a place to stay. We finally came across the last available hotel room in all of Chattanooga and the surrounding area (literally)– so we booked it. Suddenly, our relaxing dinner out became a mad rush to box up our dinner (before it even hit the table), grab eclipse day supplies (food and water for the next day), and get to Chattanooga (a four-hour drive, not in the original plan).
The next morning, without a lot of sleep and before sunrise, we hit the road again. We were headed to Burgess Falls State Park in Sparta, TN. The park was scheduled to open at 8am, so we figured we would arrive at 7am in hopes of making it in before the park reached capacity. This was highly anticipated due to the eclipse.
When we arrived, we found the park rangers already letting cars into the park (I suppose this was easier than allowing a massive back up onto the main roadway). Luckily, we and about the next 5 cars behind us, slid into the park before the rangers closed the entrance.
Eager and excited, we quickly found a place to park and to set up our “eclipse hub” – a small tent filled with snacks, water, and eclipse supplies (eclipse glasses, binoculars, an eclipse info pamphlet, and cameras).
With several hours pending before “go time,” we began the morning with a hike along the parks four tranquil waterfalls. The hike concludes at the largest of the waterfalls, a mesmerizing 136-foot fall, splashing into the gorge below. This trail ends with you across from, and level with the top of the waterfall, a butterfly-producing perspective if you look down.
The lookout leads to an additional trail, which brings you closer to the bottom of the waterfall. The beginning of this trail is marked with a sign, “Steep Trail. This is not an easy hike and is very strenuous.” This had me pause, but I figured, "We’re fit. We can handle it."
We began down the occasionally-somewhat-steep stairs, and arrived at the end of the trail about 2 minutes later. The hike was moderate in difficulty at best. This made me wonder how many perfectly capable visitors turn away at the sign instead of taking the additional trail. So, my advice to you if you ever visit Burgess Falls, is to take the “steep” trail to the edge of the gorge – it truly doesn’t live up to its warning sign, and you don’t want to miss out on the view.
Even being at capacity, the park did not feel crowded. As the eclipse drew near, everyone gathered near the parking lots, where the canopy gave the largest opening to the skies. There was a tailgating vibe in the air, and everyone was welcoming and friendly. Our common desire to chase totality immediately bonded us. As different as everyone was (it was fun to scan the diversity of license plates in the parking lot), today we were all seeking the same thrill in the sky.
As the event neared, the anticipation was palpable. The moon began to cover the sun slightly, everyone taking a glimpse through their eclipse glasses – an orange ball, with just a slice missing, amongst a deep sea of black. Spectators also flocked to the generous projector and telescope owners, trying to get another perspective. The projector was actually quite spectacular. It provided a zoomed-in look at what was happening that was also safe to look at with the naked eye. We checked back here frequently as the moon continued to cover the sun.
About 10 minutes before totality, visible changes in our environment began to occur. Afternoon swiftly turned to twilight. The ground became covered in overlapping crescent moon-shaped shadows. Even the sounds shifted to an eerie premature nightscape ambiance.
Then, as quick as a snap, the environment changed again, this time to nightfall. I laid back on the blanket, took my eclipse glasses off, and looked directly at the moon covering the sun. The sky was even dark enough to see other stars nearby. For a second, the observing crowd was silent (quite literally star-struck). Then the community burst into cheers.
Somehow anticipating what was about to happen, “knowing” what to expect, at this point didn’t mean anything. I felt like I suddenly better understood the phrase “you have to see it to believe it.” No story or photograph could substitute for this moment. It was dreamlike.
The image that was most striking to me, was the corona. You often see this aura in eclipse photographs – a somewhat hazy ring around the moon. However, the corona was anything but hazy. Instead, it was crisp, with pointed and curved rays extending away from and around the moon. I was completely captured by this because as far as I was concerned, no photograph I'd seen had gotten this “right.”
After the quickest two minutes and forty-five seconds I’ve ever experienced, the environment snapped back to twilight, which remained for another 10 or so minutes before the sky returned to its natural bright and sunny mid-afternoon.
In that moment I craved for just another minute. I had been eager to “capture” my experience. I took a couple of photographs, looked through the binoculars, and even attempted a selfie with the eclipse (you can imagine how poorly that photo turned out).
I definitely understand how people can get hooked on chasing eclipses, and I can only imagine that each one is a unique experience. Where you are and who you are with definitely has an impact. As for my husband and I, we may have caught the itch – we are already planning for 2024 (the next eclipse to sweep across the US). And as I dream of 2024, I know one thing for certain. When the skies go dark, all I am going to do is lay back, look toward the moon, and take it all in.