In the Path of an Eclipse: Really Dark, Kind of Weird, and Definitely Goofy-Looking

In my corner of the world, we have a very exciting event coming up. If you’re in the US, and particularly if you are anywhere along the line from about Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina, you’ve probably heard about the total eclipse we’ll be witnessing on Monday, August 21.

It’s a pretty big deal, worthy of donning goofy-looking glasses and taking a few minutes out of your day to say, “Huh. It’s really dark out, which is definitely kind of weird.”

The reason we’re all so excited is that a total solar eclipse hasn’t been visible in the Continental US in 38 years. It’s also pretty cool that the path of totality will hit nine different states with more than 10 million people living within the moon’s full shadow. Another 28 million people live within 60 miles of that path, and everyone in the US should be able to see at least a partial eclipse.

eclipse glasses Steve
I was going to model the glasses myself, but they were pretty goofy-looking. Instead I enlisted the help of my buddy Sock Monkey Steve, who never seems to mind looking goofy for a good cause.

Though not all of St. Louis is directly in the path, a good chunk of it is, including about 1.3 million residents, and the hundreds of thousands of people that will be clogging the roads to get to the perfect viewing spot, causing all the rest of us to be late for work.

And why not? It’s not like this happens all the time. In fact, St. Louis has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1442, when St. Louis didn’t exist yet, so technically, I suppose it’s never happened in the city before. It’s an event that’s worth experiencing, and one that’s certainly worth remembering.

Because you never know when it might come in handy to call on a memory like that. Like, for example, if you happen to have the unfortunate experience of getting conked on the head only to wake up in the court of King Arthur in June of 528, it would be useful to know that on the day the king has decided to execute you, you will be in the path of totality of a historical eclipse.

This is what happened to Mark Twain’s 19th century Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan. A man suddenly out of time and facing public execution, Hank drew on his knowledge of the disappearing sun to convince the court he was a great magician, even greater than Merlin, and that were he not given back his life, he’d never allow the sun to return. It’s an amusing scene in which Hank has to use some misdirection and not all that clever stall tactics to get the timing to turn out right, since he doesn’t know precisely how long the eclipse will last. But it eventually all works out, and Hank gets to live on to destroy history another day.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, don’t panic. Just remember your eclipse dates. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court trailer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I know Hank’s story is not exactly historical, but it was written in the 1880s so maybe you can cut me a little slack on this one. The scene also may have been inspired by an actual historical event from February of 1504, when Christopher Columbus used some old-timey Google magic to convince the natives of Jamaica to continue supplying his shipwrecked crew long after the actions of said crew had pretty much convinced the natives they didn’t much want to.

Because Columbus knew something the natives didn’t know, that the full moon was planning to hide behind the earth for a little bit on the night of February 29. All he had to do was to claim this temporary disappearance as a sign from his angry God. Suddenly he had a native population that was more interested in helping the crew survive until help arrived.

Lunar Eclipse
Columbus’s old-timey Google magic came from a widely used almanac by astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg (or Regiomantanus). By Camille Flammarion – Astronomie Populaire 1879, p231 fig. 86, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And if it worked for Columbus, it might work for you someday, because even though to the best of my knowledge no one in the real world has yet been conked on the head and been transported to sixth century England, plenty of elements of science fiction have come more or less true. Really, I think it’s safest to be prepared.

But just in case you ever do find yourself in that situation, you should know that Mark Twain, who did not have the advantage of Google (or evidently an almanac), got the date wrong. There was no total solar eclipse on June 21 of 528. Hank’s plan wouldn’t have worked and he would have gotten himself burned at the stake.

But there really is going to be an eclipse on Monday. If you’re in the path of this much anticipated solar event, get yourself some goofy-looking glasses (from a reliably safe source) and enjoy because it’s going to get really dark out, and it will definitely be kind of weird. Then maybe brush up on your eclipse history, because you never know when you might get conked on the head.

12 thoughts on “In the Path of an Eclipse: Really Dark, Kind of Weird, and Definitely Goofy-Looking

    1. My husband and I were just talking this morning about how we might have to flip our schedules a little so he can take my youngest to school on Monday and I can get an earlier start on the Interstate. I teach class at 8:30, and not sure what the traffic is going to look like if I try to make my 20 minute drive after taking him to school at 8. Totality is a little after 1. You’d think it might be okay, but those MODOT signs are starting to freak me out a little.

  1. The last total eclipse I experienced (I think it was about 1988ish) my mother was staying and she nonchalantly went and hung the washing on the line like nothing was happening! Enjoy your Johannes-Müller-von-Konigsberg event!

    1. My parents have both stated that they’re not planning to go outside for it. I suppose I can understand that attitude. The sun does “disappear” every night, and since we all pretty much get what’s happening I guess we could shrug it off. But I don’t think I will. I’ve never had the opportunity to experience a total eclipse. I’ll be on a college campus at the time in the midst of a raucous party that requires class cancellation on the first scheduled day of the semester. We’ll get about 30 seconds of totality. It probably won’t be as thrilling as we all think it’s going to be.

  2. I’m kind of leaning into the so-what camp, but we have our certified safe glasses and the hubs wants to find a good spot to watch. Since we live directly in the path of totality, I said all we have to do is stand in the parking lot for about 5 minutes. But he took the day off anyway. Even though he works from home and has plenty of time to take a lunch in the parking lot. So I’m looking on the bright side – or should I say the side of the dark – and considering the event a date, maybe breakfast out and a lawn chair down by the river.

    1. It’s looking like we may have a cloudy sky. I confess that hearing that doesn’t disappoint me nearly as much as I thought it might. There will be another total eclipse in 2023 with the path of totality not too far away. Right now I’m mostly just concerned about traffic. I heard the rumor that an additional 4 million people are expected in the St. Louis area for the event. That’s a lot of folks to try to absorb.

  3. I forgot about that part in Twain’s book (which is too silly not to enjoy)! Here in Portland we were at 99.2% totality which, as they say, even that 0.8% makes a huge difference from 100% totality. Even if I didn’t get to see it go completely dark, at least I’m not still sitting in the kajillion-mile long traffic jam that snaked from the prime viewing spots in Oregon.

    1. It’s a cool experience even without totality. We got it for about a minute where I am. I used to live in Salem and still have lots of dear friends in that area. It sounded like they were pretty overwhelmed. We were close enough to the edge that the traffic wasn’t too bad.

      1. I think I was more impressed by how cold it got than by the difference in the light level. Weird to go from sweating to shivering in just a few minutes (without involving any viruses, of course). Portland was nice and quiet with everyone off to the beach, Salem, or Madras!

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