(…it was like looking up into the night sky at 2:42 in the afternoon. All the research and photos couldn’t have prepared me for what waited after the 13 hour drive…)
I first heard about the solar eclipse a few months back. I don’t remember exactly how I found out, but I knew on August 21st, 2017 there was going to be a solar eclipse in the United States. I had always wanted to see an eclipse, but they’d always occur outside of the United States and I never really thought about planning a trip to see one.
So when I found out about this eclipse, I was over the moon. I was finally going to see a solar eclipse! But as I started doing more research, I realized I wasn’t going to see this eclipse the way I had expected. Living in New Jersey, I was only going to see a partial eclipse. I learned that there is a path of totality. This is the path where you can see the moon completely covering the sun. Outside of this path, you don’t see that. It’ll still look sunny outside, but with proper glasses, you’ll see that the sun is slightly covered. Below is a picture showing the path of totality in the United States, in relation to where I am.
So as I reviewed the map, I knew I would have to travel. At that point, funds were a little tight (I would be traveling to Iceland two weeks later) and I didn’t have a lot of vacation time at work to make a big trip out of it. I messaged my friend Aldo. He’s the biggest travel and nature loving friend I have. I hoped he would be interested in taking the journey to South Carolina with me.
It didn’t take long to convince him about the trip. He was beyond excited. There was only one catch. I would only be able to take off two days from work. So in two days, we would have to drive down the South Carolina (about a ten and a half hour drive), see the eclipse, and come back the next day. We figured we would camp overnight to help cut down on costs.
We decided that we would drive overnight to get there. Sunday, August 20th, I worked until 7:00 and once I got out, we would make the trip down. As I was discussing our trip with my friend Mark the day before, he decided that he also wanted to join. He was working Sunday until 7:30, so I waited around for him to get out of work.
Mark and I stopped at a local Walmart before meeting up with Aldo at my house. Aldo was the experienced camper out of all of us, so he was getting all the camping gear together while we picked up a bunch of snacks and food for the trip.
Once we got to my house, we met up with Aldo and packed my car. I had the biggest car out of the three of us, so we decided to take mine. Aldo brought a lot more gear than I had expected. We put all the gear in the second row of my car. This included an oversized cooler, our backpacks with camera gear, and bags of snacks. We used the third row as a place to sleep. Throughout the night, we would have one driver, one passenger to keep the driver awake, and somebody sleeping in the back on standby. The GPS said the drive was going to be ten and a half hours. With stops, I expected it to be closer to twelve or thirteen hours. So we packed everything up and made the long trip down.
It was a pretty standard drive down. As much as I don’t like overnight drives, they are nice because you don’t get all the extra traffic or unpredictable stops along the highway. Along the way, we debated on where in South Carolina we should set up camp. We settled on a place called Francis Marion National Forest.
Early in the morning, we arrived. We stopped at a ranger station, where Aldo picked up a map of the forest. We found a nearby campground in the park, after driving around in circles for a while. With limited cell service and every road in the forest looking similar, navigating proved to be a little tricky.
When we arrived at the campground, it was around 11-12ish. The full totality of the eclipse was supposed to be around 2:41pm-2:44pm. We used this as time to set up our tents. Aldo brought his own, and Mark and I shared a tent. We scoped out the bathroom situation. There was a small outhouse nearby. But on this outhouse was the biggest, most terrifying spider I have ever seen in person.
After doing some further research after the trip, this spider was apparently super harmless; just a simple garden spider. It didn’t help repair my gigantic fear of spiders but it did make me feel a little better.
After setting up camp, we all got back into the car and drove to a spot that Aldo thought might be good for photography. Once we got there, we noticed a lot more people around than we had initially expected. We parked the car and decided to walk around and scope out the situation.
We had brought our own eclipse rated sunglasses to view the eclipse with our eyes. They were kind of like cheap sunglasses, but much darker, so you can stare up at the sun for extended periods of time.
We didn’t, however, have any filters or anything to protect our cameras from shooting pictures of the sun. If a camera is pointed directly at the sun for exposed periods of time, this could damage the camera sensor permanently. From what I read, it would be okay to shoot the eclipse once totality has set (which only lasts about 2 minuets or so), but shooting it at any other point could be dangerous because of how much sunlight is hitting the camera sensor. It's like how everybody tells you to not look directly into the sun.
As we were scoping out where to take pictures, a random group came up to us and asked us if we would like a filter for our camera. It was only one filter and it was kind of cheaply made, but it was a great gesture and we honestly couldn’t have taken the photos we did without it. Mark didn’t bring a camera, so Aldo and I took turns using the filter.
About an hour before totality, I started taking some pictures with the filter.
As time got closer to totality, you could see the sun starting to get covered up more and more.
With the darkness of the filter, the sun almost looks like the moon. It was wild to see photos of this. With the naked eye, it was hard to tell something was happening. Only by putting on the sunglasses or the filter on the camera showed what was really happening.
We eventually found a spot by a lake to set up. There were a lot of clouds overhead. I was both excited and panicking at the same time. We had just driven thirteen hours on a whim, hoping that we would see something that we’ll remember forever. The whole night went by pretty quickly, but minutes were now crawling by. I looked over at Aldo. He had set up his camera on a tripod and sat by the water. Other people were around us, sitting in chairs, relaxing as they looked up at the sky. I was just standing there with my camera and my zoom lens, not knowing if I had done enough to prepare for this moment. Would I get good photos? Would any of this be worth it?
At 2:41pm, the sky turned black. One moment it was a sunny, partially cloudy Monday. The next, it was like 8:00 at night. I could hear everybody around me cheering and shouting with excitement. I looked up into the sky and couldn’t believe my eyes.
The first photo is completely raw and unedited. In the second one, I added a little bit of blue to the picture. I did this because, as I stared up at the eclipse in real life, there was a blue glow around the moon. This glow around the moon is called the corona. It was the most unreal thing I had ever seen. I saw the northern lights two weeks after this trip and I still think the eclipse was more surreal.
Later that night, we sat around the fire at the campsite and talked about the day. It was a long trip down, and the next morning we had to drive all the way back home. But it all felt worth it. Mark went to sleep early, and Aldo and I stayed up late and took photos of the night sky. We talked about life and traveling. It was a nice way to unwind after a long day.
I got in my tent at the end of the night. It was around 80 degrees that night and the air was super thick. I remember sweating and I had a hard time sleeping, even though I hadn’t gotten any sleep on the way down. We must have had like 20 mosquitos in the tent that night. The next day, my legs were completely covered in bites. I was itchy for at least a week after the trip.
But this was one of those moments where none of that mattered. It was a chance to see something that few have the opportunity to witness in person. It was one of those things where pictures will never do it justice. And all I can say is, when the next solar eclipse hits the United States on April 8th, 2024, I’m going to have the opportunity to live this out again. And this time, for all those living in New Jersey, the path of totality is going to be through New York and Vermont. I would totally suggest taking the drive to see it.
Below I linked the YouTube video my friend Mark and I made to document this trip. It’s worth a watch!