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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

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Eclipse? Road Trip! Three-minutes of Totality make for a lifetime of memories

I first started planning to take the family on an “eclipse road trip” back in February. I thought that was early, but in fact, it was too late. And by too late, I mean, “too late to get a room or cabin in Arkansas for less than $600 a night.”

So then, the plan shifted to a day trip to the “totality zone” — the areas of the country that would experience a total blackout of the sun. Memphis was close — like 99 percent close. But Jonesboro, Ark.? Inside the totality.

I was asked, “Why drive over there if Memphis is 99 percent?” My reply?: “My next chance to see a total eclipse in the U.S., I’ll be 75 years old. If all I gotta do is drive an hour and a half up to Jonesboro, why wouldn’t I do that?”

But more fundamentally for me anyway, was the chance to share the experience with my exceptionally bright grade school son. How bright? Let’s just say one of his opening lines when he’s meeting other kids is a gleeful “Would you like to learn about trigonometry?” No, seriously.

Anyway, I missed all of these little moments with my daughter, who will soon be 18. The way things worked out with my ex-wife, I’ve had little time to be a dad to her. And even with my son (a different mother), I’d been working out of town for a while and wistful about missing moments with him. So the eclipse was a great chance to create a lifetime memory — for both of us.

Apple Maps says the trip to Jonesboro is about an hour and a half, with light traffic. With untold thousands road tripping like us, there was no light traffic. But it wasn’t awful either; we left Memphis right around 10 a.m., and with a couple of pit stops for food and bathrooms, we touched down in Jonesboro at about 12:20 p.m.

We were not prepared, however. It’s not that we forgot the eclipse glasses, it’s that . . .  Okay, we DID forget to get eclipse glasses. And I wondered if they’d be hard to come by with less than two hours before the totality. Wal-Mart’s GOT to have them, right? It’s WAL-MART!

“We’re sold out,” is what the worker told us. Employees had been given pairs to wear, but they were officially sold out. I was prepared to pay a “price-gouging” premium to get a pair, but a couple of the workers were very kind to give them to us.

So now where would we go to witness this? We decided on the campus of Arkansas State University, where several dozen students, staff and faculty laid out on the lawn in front of the Student Union for the show in the sky. Not surprisingly, we learned we weren’t the only Memphians in town for the eclipse.

Taylor Williams, host of “The Taylor and Amy Show” about retro technology, shows little Lee and a new friend how the Astroscan can show the eclipse (Photo: Lee Eric Smith/Tri-State Defender)

We met Taylor Williams, who brought her Astroscan Telescope to take in the view. If you were one of those people cutting a hole in a cardboard box to watch a projection of the eclipse, well this telescope was the high-tech version of that.

That candy apple red contraption projected a large real-time crystal clear projection of the eclipse onto a sheet of paper that provided a teachable moment I made sure my son took advantage of.

As the skies grew darker, we started noticing the shadows — how crisp they were, how surreal the lighting was, and how you could see the sun’s shrinking crescent on the shadows on the ground. I glanced over at the Astroscan, as the light went away, and viewers started counting down as the totality overtook us:

I don’t know what it was like in Memphis. Maybe 99 percent of the totality is really really cool. But just like even a small light can light up an otherwise dark room, I imagine that Memphis still felt like daytime — maybe like an overcast day at sunset, but still daytime.

But at ASU, it was dark. Street lights came on. We could see out across the horizon that sunlight was hitting somewhere, but not where we were. And there was a sense of shared experience — that we were experiencing this rare event along with others we’d never met before and likely would never see again.

It’s true: NO PHOTO can do the moment justice, not even the fancy NASA photos. You really HAD to be there. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith/Tri-State Defender)

With the sun blocked out, I did look up. I did take off my eclipse glasses because you can do that inside the totality. It was stunning to see a glowing black disk hanging in the sky. I’d try to put more words to it, but I can’t. Which was kind of the point of going anyway.

It was about the experience. Not just the experience of the eclipse itself, either.

It was about doing something together as a family. It was about the experience of meeting these new people, about visiting a college campus we’d never seen before. It was about the experience of feeding the science nerd inside my son — showing him how all those educational videos he watches, that stuff shows up in the real world.

For me, it was about creating a family memory for myself and for my son.

Once the sun peeked back out, people started packing up and leaving. I put my glasses back on and looked up to see the moon on the back half of it’s solar journey. I thought to myself, “Um . . . the eclipse is still happening . . .”

So, was it worth it? Was it worth taking time from work and school, getting stuck in traffic, burning gas, and getting stuck in traffic coming back?

Yes. Yes. Yes. And a resounding yes!

In all, the totality only lasted less than three minutes. But those three minutes gave our family the memories that will last a lifetime!

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