August 21st, 2017. The Great North American Eclipse. A once in a lifetime opportunity to experience an amazing celestial event. A day that has been on my radar for well over a year. Months of research, weeks of planning, days of anxiety, and well over a thousand dollars spent, all to photograph an event that lasts for less than two minutes, and thanks to a single innocent oversight, it was all pretty much for nothing.
I live on an island paradise thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod. I have been calling Nantucket home for the better part of a decade now, and while I love almost everything about this island, traveling can be a logistical nightmare. A lot of planning is involved to get anywhere out of the state, and unless you want to spend an arm and a leg to fly to your destination directly from the island, your trip will involve taxis, boats and busses just to get to a major airport, all of which need to be timed perfectly in coordination with the different schedules each company has, in order to reach your destinations on time. And then you pray for good weather. Too windy and the boats get cancelled and all the plans get scrapped. I do quite a bit of traveling, and I've become pretty adept to all of this planning over the years, and until last week, I have never had any travel issue that was unrelated to the weather causing the problems.
I am an astrology nerd. I love photographing the night sky, sitting on empty beaches or huge fields, letting my imagination run rampant while staring at all the constellations during my sometimes hours long exposures of the stars. Whether lunar eclipses, meteor showers, or just a clear moonless night sky, you'll find me out in nature with my camera pointed to the heavens. It is my Zen. So when the stars aligned, and I realized that I might be able to actually have the time to travel to an area in the path of totality to experience a total solar eclipse, my planning began.
This was the first time since 1979 that a total solar eclipse was visible in North America, with a path that led it across the entire country from the shores of Oregon to those of South Carolina. Months ago I started researching areas in, or within a couple hundred miles from the path of totality, to travel to in order to get the full experience of this rare, once in a lifetime event. Being on a very tight budget, and with only a three day window of opportunity to work with, options were limited, as ticket prices to major cities that lie in the path of the eclipse were astronomical! Ideally, I would have loved to travel to Oregon to photograph the eclipse as it started in the morning. I really wanted to do a time-lapse sequence of images of the sun over an idyllic landscape and if in Oregon, the sun would be low enough in the sky still to give me quite a few options for different compositions. Much too expensive though, and too far away for the timing needed to get this done in three days. My next ideal spot would be near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Having the Grand Tetons as part of my composition would have been amazing, but again, the flight was too expensive and there were no accommodations available at a reasonable price during the two nights I would be there. City after city was rejected, and I was getting seriously dejected. I started thinking that I would just save myself a lot of grief and money and just stay in Nantucket. There would be close to 70% coverage viewing from Nantucket, and I would still be able to get some cool photos without having to leave my backyard. I just couldn't do it though. I kept thinking in the back of my head that I would really regret it if I didn't take the chance to see this eclipse in totality. Yes, there is another total eclipse 7 years from now in North America in 2024, but there is no way I can predict whether I will have the opportunity to experience it then. I had to do this now, regardless of the cost, I needed to figure this out.
I finally crafted an itinerary that would have me flying into Atlanta from Boston. I booked the flight and secured the rental of an SUV, which would double as my hotel room for the second night of my trip. Once I picked up the car in Atlanta, I would hit up a Walmart for some supplies before driving north to Chattanooga TN where I had booked a hotel room for the night, (keep in mind I live on a very expensive island, and whenever I make it to the mainland, hitting up a Walmart or a Target is like visiting Disneyland). There I would relax, have a nice dinner and do some planning for the next day, maybe see a movie as well. I would get all of my gear ready and have a tentative plan of attack for the next morning after a restful nights sleep. I would wake early, keep an eagle eye on the radar, and make my decision of where I would drive to within the path of totality based on the weather patterns and cloud cover. I would arrive to my destination hours before the eclipse starts and have time to scout my surroundings, chill, and get my gear set up. I figured that if the weather wasn't cooperating, and there were too many clouds in the sky covering up the sun, then I would be near the Great Smoky Mountains and I could still get some awesome photos. I would stay up all night car camping in a National Forest, doing night photography before driving back to Atlanta for an early flight home the next day. I had planned out the perfect little three day get-away near the end of an exhausting summer season on Nantucket. Yeah.
Early in the morning of Sunday, August 20th, the day before the eclipse, I started my journey. I took a taxi to Nantucket harbor to catch my ferry to Cape Cod. After an hour boat ride I walked to the bus station with my luggage and waited an hour and a half before catching my bus for a two hour ride to Logan Airport in Boston. After arriving at the airport, I printed my boarding pass and headed to the counter to check my luggage. With a long line of people waiting behind me, I reached for my wallet to get my ID to present to the ticket agent, and my drivers license was not there! Instant panic. Ok, no problem, I had my passport with me so I used that to check in and I would do a thorough investigation of my wallet once I was out of the ticketing line. My drivers license never leaves my wallet so I figured I had just slid it into a different card slot, not a problem. After completely dismantling my wallet, twice, I realized that I really did not have my drivers license. Ok, the panic became real. Again, my license never leaves my wallet, so after racking my memory to try and figure out where I had lost it, I realized what had happened. Two days before I left, I went to the bank to cash my weekly paycheck. Since my paycheck comes from a bank that I do not do business with, I have to present my ID to get the cash. Normally, I just deposit my checks into my own bank account, but this time I needed the cash right away so that I would have money to give as change to the customers at the Sustainable Nantucket Farmers and Artisans Market where I sell my fine art photography every Saturday. After the teller counted out my cash and wished me a good day, I left not even realizing that he did not give me back my drivers license. That one little act had a ripple effect that completely ruined all of my weeks of planning. In the end, I don't blame the teller, it was an innocent mistake. Hell, there have been a couple of times that I have forgotten to give back a credit card to a person who purchased my artwork at the market and I've had to chase them down to return it, so I get it. It was an innocent mistake. But boy, it sure did ruin my all of my carefully made travel plans!
I spent the next several hours before landing in Atlanta trying to figure out how I was going to pick up my rental car without a drivers license. I scoured Google trying to find how other people have handled the situation, I was sure I wasn't the first person who has had this problem, and I was hoping for a miracle solution that would get me into my rental and on the road. No luck. Pretty much every article I read relayed the same information- "you're screwed". I did have a photograph of my drivers license on my phone so I had a glimmer of hope that that might work. Other than that all I had to go on to hopefully get my car without a physical drivers license was my kindness, my smile, my story and the hopes that I would come across a car rental agency manager kind enough to over-ride the rules and get me on the road. I had rented my SUV from Alamo, and I noticed that I could by-pass the counter if I signed up for on-line check-in. I just needed to fill out some information with my drivers license number and I could go right to my car and drive it out without visiting the rental desk, the only problem was that I needed to present my receipt and license to the security officer at the gate on my way out of the car pick-up area. As I was leaving, I pulled up to the gate and handed the guy my receipt. When he asked for my drivers license, I explained that I had left my physical license at home, and I was desperate to get to my destination to photograph a once in a lifetime eclipse, but I had a photo of my valid drivers license on my phone and I handed it to him with a $50 bill, praying that it would work. It did not work. I again pleaded my case, implying that he was the only thing standing between me and everything I had planned to do, all he had to do was let me pass, he would have no liability in case I got pulled over by the police because I could simply "lose" my license immediately after I got on the road. Nothing worked. I had to return the car. I tried talking to the manager at Alamo, but he couldn't care less. I tried talking to the manager at Hertz because I was a member with them, but along with the Alamo manager, it was an absolute no. I then tried Thrifty because I've been driving with Thrifty for years out of the Cape and they have my information on file and I never have to present them my ID, but that didn't work either. I felt completely defeated, stranded in Atlanta, 200 miles away from the nearest area in the path of totality with less than 15 hours before the eclipse begins.
I began checking bus times. Greyhound and Megabus, both my only options, but both without service to get me anywhere near a city in the path in time. I could bite the bullet and Uber it to Chattanooga and still check into my hotel room and then try to figure it out from there, but I was worried that I would have too much trouble in the morning trying to get somewhere within the path in time, plus, without a car I was traveling with my huge camera backpack loaded with 40 pounds of gear, a smaller backpack, and my big duffel bag that was holding both of my tripods and other gear. I was at a complete loss. I then began thinking about Nashville. It was in the path of totality and I had a friend that had moved there recently. I gave her a call in the hopes that she was home and she could maybe become my savior. We connected and started to try and figure out how I was going to get to Nashville. There were no buses that put me in Nashville before 4am the next day, which wasn't feasible, so I started monitoring Uber. The rate from Atlanta to Nashville was $575. That was too much. At this point I was feeling completely defeated, I had no idea what I was going to do. I'm sitting on a bench in the airport with all my luggage and no options left, on the verge of completely losing it. I checked Uber one more time and the rate had gone from $575 to $220. I booked it immediately.
The Uber driver who accepted my fare happened to be parked in the visitors parking lot right next to where I was at the airport. Within minutes we met, and I thanked him for picking up my request for a ride to Nashville, 250 miles away. "Excuse me?" he said, "I'm taking you where?" I showed him my phone with the rate and he was in shock. I don't think he was paying attention to my destination when he accepted my trip, however he did grudgingly decide to take me after a phone call to his wife saying that he wouldn't be home until 2 in the morning. We got on the road, stopped for gas and I bought him a bunch of snacks, and then we were off to Nashville! Finally!
Almost 4 hours later and my ride arrived at my friends house in Nashville right around 10:30pm. Although I was pretty tired from traveling and stressing out, and was looking forward to a good nights sleep, I was glad to let my friend play tour guide and agreed to a late night ride around Music City to get a taste of the nightlife. Several beers later and I was finally getting to bed around two in the morning, relieved that I was at least in the path of totality, and hoping for some clear skies in the morning so I could actually see the show.
I had planned on giving myself plenty of time to reach whatever destination I would end up at for viewing the eclipse, with plenty of time to relax and set up and spend some time practicing some shots with my new solar filter, and getting my exposure times nailed before the show began, however, now that I wasn't in control of my travel plans, I just had to hope for the best, and trust that my friend would get me to a good location in time to get prepared. We decided to go to a local brewery close to her apartment that had some open space to view the eclipse. With the beginning of it starting right at 11:58am, I was getting a bit apprehensive considering it was 11am and we still hadn't left the house yet! She assured me the brewery wasn't too far away and sure enough, we made it there just after 11:30am. I immediately scoped out an empty space on the lawn and started setting up my cameras. Just as I was getting close to being ready, I heard people starting to cheer and yell that it has begun. I tossed on my solar glasses and sure enough there was a tiny bite out of the sun as the moon started passing over it. I immediately went into work mode and quickly screwed on my new solar filter, focused on the sun the best I could, and took several bracketed shots to check for the proper exposure. With the temperature climbing close to 100 degrees, sweat constantly dripping into my eyes, and the glare of the sun beating down as I'm trying to focus through the live view on my camera screen, I did the best I could to get my settings proper and just hoped for the best when all was said and done. For the next hour and a half, I made a few adjustments to my settings and kept taking photos every few minutes to capture the different phases of the partial eclipse. As the time of totality drew nearer, I started getting pumped for the experience! I had watched and read hours of tutorials from eclipse photographers about what to expect and watch out for as totality begins. One of the big pieces of advice was to not get caught up in taking photographs, but rather enjoy the phenomena and just take it all in. Yeah right. After all I had been through to arrive at that point, there was no way I was going to walk away without nailing at least one good shot. I had learned in the hour leading up to totality that the ball head on my tripod was just not strong enough to support my 600mm lens without constantly adjusting it and compensating for the drift, and with the speed of the sun flying across my frame, I had to constantly monitor and adjust my camera in order to keep the sun in view in my frame.
Finally totality! 1 minute and 57 seconds until it was all over. There was an adrenaline rush through my body as the the light began rapidly disappearing, and I was just standing there in awe before I realized that I need to start taking photos! I quickly removed the solar filter from my lens and was able to capture two shots of the "diamond ring" effect before the sun was completely covered. I made several bracketed photos over the next two minutes in the hopes of creating an HDR image that shows good detail of the suns corona, but given the limitations of my equipment, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to capture the image that I had in my head. That two minutes of totality went way too fast. At one point I actually looked up from my lens and had a look around really quick and what I saw was something that my mind had trouble comprehending. I was looking at a 360 degree sunset. I could see stars in the sky above me, and a beautiful pink color on the horizon in every direction. It's something that can't adequately be explained with words or photos- it has to be witnessed. The sight was truly amazing!
After totality ended I was able to relax and finally begin to enjoy a couple of beers with my friend while continuing to photograph the second phase of the partial eclipse. a lot of the spectators started leaving soon after totality, and I knew we would have to leave soon in order for my friend to get to work on time. I was bummed that I couldn't finish photographing the partial eclipse until the end, but at that point I was just happy to have come away with hopefully one or two good shots. It was tough to tell if my photos turned out ok just from viewing them on the back of my camera, but it looked like I might have some good photos to work with when I get them home and loaded into photoshop. We packed up our stuff and headed for some lunch before getting dropped off at the bus station for my trip back to Atlanta.
After a cramped five hour bus ride back to Atlanta, a ten hour layover at the airport until my flight back to Boston, another two hour bus back to the Cape, a two hour layover at the docks and a one hour boat ride back to Nantucket, I was finally home. I stepped foot onto the island the day after the eclipse at 3:45 in the afternoon and realized the bank that I believed my drivers license was at was open for another 15 minutes. Since it was ride up the street from the harbor, I headed over with all of my luggage to see if it was there, and indeed it was! The moment I walked in the door of the bank the teller recognized me and said "hey, I have your drivers license, sorry about that!" As they handed it to me, they could see the look on my face and could tell that something was not quite right. Part of me wanted to scream at them, part of me wanted to just start laughing uncontrollably, and part of me just wanted to cry. I ended up just saying thank you and walked out the door with my license back in my wallet, grateful that I had at least was able to get to a good destination, and get my shots, despite the trouble it took to get there.
All in all, not getting my license handed back to me cost me an extra $600 in travel expenses, the joy of not being in control of my own destiny, four hours in the back of an Uber, five hours on a cramped, smelly bus, ten hours in a noisy airport in the middle of the night instead of car camping under the stars in the Smoky Mountains, and a ton of unnecessary anxiety and stress for what was supposed to be a zen like mini-vacation. Again, as much as I would like to blame the bank teller for ruining my trip, in the end it was my fault for not noticing that I left without getting my license back. One of the guiding philosophies of my life is that everything that happens is meant to happen the way it does. Keeping that in mind gets me through the tough times in life, recognizing that these are lessons that can be learned from. The way I see it, maybe if I had my license, I would have picked up my car and maybe I would have gotten into an accident, or maybe I would have ended up stuck in traffic and missed the eclipse, or maybe where I had originally planned to go was inaccessible, or maybe the area I would have ended up in was completely overcast with no sun even visible. So the way I see it, the trip was a success. I ended up with a few of some of the most awesome pictures I have ever taken, and a new love for witnessing eclipses was born.
Thank you to everyone who helped make the trip a reality for me, and thank you to my amazing friend, Stephanie, for being my savior in Nashville. I'm now starting to plan my next vacation to Buenos Aires in 2019 for the next total solar eclipse!