If there was an award for debatably successful trips, we would be the winners every year. The smart money’s on us.
I have long been a science nerd, and what better outlet for a nerd than getting to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event like a full solar eclipse. We decided to go see it on a near whim, once I realized that we would be nearby the day before, in Statesville, NC, for a family reunion. While I was perusing the map, looking at all the places that would experience totality, I saw that we could hop down to Columbia the next day for the event. Trish was on board with it. Sold.
By the time we had decided to go, hotels in the area of the path of totality had all long been booked solid. Airbnb places were going for $350 for one room, and up to $800 for a whole place in Columbia. Good for those capitalist homeowners, I guess. My original plan was to stay in Statesville with family, but the more we thought about it, the more worried we got that traffic headed down to Columbia the day of the event would be too slow, and we might miss it. We began looking at other options. Periodically we would check for hotels in the area. Meanwhile, I was going through several iterations of plans involving camping, driving from Statesville in the middle of the night, renting an RV, and even sleeping in our car in the Wal-mart parking lot the night before. Nothing looked too promising, until around a week beforehand, we got super lucky, and found a dirt-cheap hotel in Sumter, SC, just outside the path of totality. We booked it immediately. Somebody must have canceled their booking just before we found it. Lucky us.
When we drove down from Statesville the afternoon before, the traffic was absolutely normal. There was just as much northbound traffic as southbound. We were expecting jams, but saw nothing like the apocalyptic traffic conditions we were told to expect. We headed straight for Sumter’s iconic Mount Vernon Inn and checked in. The lady at the desk informed us that we had indeed gotten lucky, as they had been booked solid for that night since June. We got our key and headed to our room.
Almost as soon as we entered the room, we exited the room. This motel was all kinds of disgusting from top to bottom. It probably hadn’t been renovated since it was built in the 70s. The floor was sticky, and it was carpet. It was a smoking room. The bathroom door didn’t close all the way. The air conditioner barely worked. I didn’t even want to touch the remote. We thoroughly inspected the bed for stains, dirt, hair, bedbugs, or whatever else we could find. The sheets seemed okay, but the pillowcases were coated in mystery stains. Before Judah had a chance to touch every grimy surface he could get his insatiably curious toddler hands on, we headed to Wal-mart to get new pillowcases.
I do not begrudge the denizens of Sumter for living there, but man alive, it was a sad town. Every building was in some state of disrepair, probably half of the shops were closed down, and the mall looked like the backdrop for a Mad Max sequel. The Wal-mart might have been the nicest place in town. We got our pillowcases and some disinfectant wipes, ate at the McDonald’s, and whiled away some time so that we could get back to the hotel and put the kids straight down to sleep before they had a chance to explore the fun new wonderland that was the Mount Vernon Inn and catch an incurable disease.
As soon as we got back, Trish occupied the kids while I inflated the air mattress and wiped down every surface I could with antibacterial wipes. We weren’t about to give the kids a bath in the tub, so we just wiped them down and put them straight to bed at 7.
Two hours later, everyone was miserable. I was itchy all over from the poor quality bedsheets (I hope). Neither kid was asleep or even close to it. Heavily Pregnant Trish (HPT) was too hot and nauseous to deal with Judah’s crying, clingy nonsense, and the air conditioner barely did anything unless you were standing right in front of it. HPT finally had enough and sent me back to Wal-mart to buy some fans. I gladly obliged.
I managed to bring back a couple of box fans and set them up at full blast. It was enough to calm everyone down a little. It didn’t make the air pleasant, since the heavy Southern humidity still hung around, but at least it was cooler. Eventually, everyone fell asleep.
The next morning, we couldn’t leave fast enough. HPT tried to take a shower in the morning, but the water quit working. It just slowed down to a tiny trickle. She threw the kids in the car with the engine running, and I threw everything into our bags, rolled up the blow-up mattress, and away we went. When I dropped off the key at the front desk, the lady casually asked me how everything was.
“Oh, uh … fine, thanks.”
What was I supposed to say? “Your God-awful excuse for lodging is a nightmare’s sweaty nightmare, coated in a visible layer of sickness and filth.” That wouldn’t have been very nice. Anyway, we were done with the place. On to better things.
Sumter and Columbia happen to be near Congaree National Park, and we had time to kill before the eclipse. A trip of ours wouldn’t be complete without some nature, so we wound our way from Sumter, down some pleasant country roads, to the park. Congaree boasts the title as the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States. Yes, that is a lot of qualifiers, but it’s still a special place.
The parking lot was already full at such an early hour. Rangers were parking people in the grass. Many people had clearly come to watch the eclipse from there in the park, which struck us as odd, considering the tree cover was so thick in virtually all areas of the park. I surmised that they must be there to experience the animals awakening and getting confused during totality. That’s the best explanation I could think of. You almost certainly wouldn’t be able to see the actual eclipse from there.
The only part we were able to do was a 2.5 mile loop on a boardwalk they had built out over the marsh. We had to go slow, due to a medical condition with my leg that caused blood clots in my right knee. The clots slowed down blood flow, which means that the lactic acid that builds up with use can’t be drained off quickly. Basically, I just had to walk slowly t0 remain pain-free. But it was manageable.
Judah remained strapped into the stroller for most of the way, and Shiloh went back and forth between sitting and bounding around. All four of us were drenched with sweat from the moment we left the car due to the weapons-grade humidity, although the temperature itself amongst all those shade trees was okay.
The park itself was beautiful. The area we explored was a very unique-looking area. It was mostly giant cypress and pine trees and some low grasses and flowers, and that was about it. The area gets flooded multiple times a year, which chokes out anything that wants to grow tall and can’t handle it. As I explained it to Shiloh, “in this forest there’s only big stuff and tiny stuff. The flood waters won’t let any medium stuff grow. That’s why it looks like this.” I pointed out all the “twirly dress trees”, AKA cypress trees, so nicknamed by me for the fact that they flail out a little at the bottom, like a dress. Gotta make it relatable for her so she’ll remember it. At the visitors center, Shiloh had been given a small piece of paper with some of the indigenous fauna on it, and she wanted to find as many as she could. All we managed to see was a few butterflies. The area was surprisingly devoid of animal life. But it was still nice.
We had kept a close watch on the time, and we hurried a little bit towards the end so we would have enough time to get lunch and head to a park in Columbia to watch the eclipse. It wasn’t far away, but I wanted to get there in time to set up, and watch the moon first cross in front of the sun.
We ended up getting a Bojangles tailgate box and found a spot in a field amongst the crowd at the park and set up camp in the shade. From then, it became a waiting game. We ate some and let the kids run around and play for the hour and a half leading up to totality. Periodically, we would don our special eclipse glasses and glance up at the sun to see the progression. It was all fascinating.
Totality was nearly upon us. The entire time we were in SC, we were worried about the cloud cover. It seemed like the only spot along the entire path of totality over the US that was expecting cloud cover was South Carolina. And the clouds were expected to get worse from west to east. We were right in the middle of the state, and the clouds were definitely there, but we couldn’t go much further west in time. So we just had to hope for the best. For nearly the entire time leading up to totality, the clouds stayed away from the sun. But, like cursed clockwork, right as the moon moved over the sun completely, a cloud moved over it to cover the eclipse completely as well.
Everything went dark within a few seconds. Leading up to totality, the sky had dimmed a little, but in the last few seconds before the moon moved over the sun completely, it was like someone hit a dimmer switch, and the light dropped off dramatically in an instant. It wasn’t completely pitch black. There was still light enough to see, and there was a 360 degree sunset all the way around the horizon. It was a fascinating spectacle. The crickets were chirping at full force, night birds began calling, and you could even feel the temperature drop.
Everyone was booing the clouds. The whole of totality lasted around 2 1/2 minutes, and, perhaps three seconds before the moon moved off, the cloud parted just enough to catch a faint glimpse of the whole corona of the sun glowing around the moon. Then, serendipitously, as the moon moved off, so did the cloud. We saw it, but just barely. It wasn’t enough to get a good picture, and Trish wasn’t entirely certain that she even saw it at all, but for maybe three seconds, we all “saw” the eclipse.
And that was it. As the moon moved off, God turned the dimmer switch back up, and daytime returned. With mild applause, the crowd began to disperse. The celestial event that gripped the whole nation had come and gone, and we only kinda saw it. In seven more years, the US will be graced with another full eclipse. Maybe we’ll all get lucky then. To rub it in a little more, one of Trish’s friends had gone down to Charleston, which was expecting around 70% cloud cover, and she got an excellent view of the whole thing. But, that’s life.
We headed back to our car and decided to just drive straight home from there. We knew the traffic would be terrible getting home, but it was the best choice. We all piled in, coated with a visible layer of sweat, dirt, bug spray, sunscreen, and more sweat, and drove what should have been a three hour drive in just over six hours. Once we hit the highway, we didn’t see any South Carolina license plates. We saw plates from virtually every state on the east coast, but no locals. It was a grueling mass exodus, but at least the kids remained mostly pleasant for the journey. HPT had to sit in the back to entertain them for a while, and managed to keep them mostly calm and not whiny. By the time we got home, we had been in the car for around 13 hours over the past two days. We were exhausted, disgusting, and in need of a good night’s sleep. Was our trip successful? I guess so. Fun? I suppose. Was it us? Definitely. And that’s what made it great.