Totality’s Duel Dawns: My Great Eclipse Adventure of 2024

Gail and I woke at 5:30 AM on April 8 to drive up to Burlington, Vermont, to see our first (and probably last) total solar eclipse.

Meteorologists had predicted that clouds would cover 40-60% of Burlington’s sky at the time of the eclipse. So, as we walked out our front door of our home, we decided to pivot by driving further north, beyond the reach of the incoming cloud front, to Newport, Vermont, population 4,400, where the cloud cover was predicted to be 0-20% at 3:30 PM, the moment of totality. Newport, Vermont is 220 miles from Somerville, MA and is on the Vermont-Canada border.

Eclipse 2024: Path of Totality

We got underway at 6:15 AM, arriving in Newport, Vermont, at about 10 AM.

We anticipated that parking would be problematic, but were quickly directed to park on a dirt parking lot by a traffic officer. As we were leaving our car, the owner of the adjacent Kingdom Racquet and Fitness Center came out of his store. He was clearly unhappy about the parked cars and initially told us we couldn’t park on the lot, as he needed the space for his clients. We explained that we were directed here by the traffic officer and offered to pay for parking, but he refused to accept any money.  He then told us we did not need to move the car and  hung a “No event parking” sign on the entrance to the lot. I designated him as “nice person #1”.

 Although he was not optimistic we would find an empty table, he suggested we could find brunch at East Side Restaurant and Pub, which was a short walk. The check-in at the restaurant was in a state of mass confusion–as there were more prospective clients looking for a meal than had likely occurred in anyone’s memory, maybe even forever. We opted to book a 4:30 PM post-eclipse dinner reservation and chose to eat the food we brought from home sitting in two rocking chairs on the restaurant’s veranda.

By noon, we had wandered into a perfect eclipse-watching venue, on the restaurant’s rear deck, overlooking Lake Memphremagog, under a cloudless azure sky, and comfortable sweater weather. We pulled up two chairs and a table to the railing of the deck and began chatting with our virgin-eclipse compatriots, most of whom were middle-aged (or beyond),  and from the Boston area.

East Side Restaurant and Pub, Newport, VT

Lake Memphremagog had two loons who were fishing nearby. I always love loons as I associate them with the solitude of the wilderness. I was delighted that one vocalized, albeit briefly, and not in response to the impending eclipse.

Craving another caffeine fix, I went into the restaurant to see if I could scrounge-up a cup of coffee. Needless to say, the staff was overwhelmed. A waitress, seeing me standing still and looking confused, asked if she could help. After I explained that I would like to purchase a cup of coffee, I was informed that they really weren’t set up to do that but she would get me a cup of coffee from the kitchen. On returning with the coffee, creamer, sugar, and a spoon, she said, “Just give me a dollar and that will be sufficient.” I was so struck by her kindness and helpfulness, I gave her ten and told her to keep the change. She was thrilled. I have designated her “nice person #2.”

Our conversations with our fellow eclipse watchers was wide ranging and touched on what Gail and I were doing in our retirement, how we ended up doing what we are doing, and what careers and interests motivated our fellow eclipse watchers. 

In the course of our conversation, one woman mentioned that she had recently left a high-stress financial job and was trying to decide what she should do with the rest of her life. Gail recommended the book “Designing Your Life,” and explained how she used the book’s process to create a second, post-engineering career opportunity. This clearly resonated with the woman, and she profusely thanked Gail for the information, more than once.

The three hours chatting, while sitting on the deck and awaiting the arrival of our eclipse passed in an instant.

At 2:15:54 PM, the moon’s shadow first began to slowly nibble away at the sun, starting at the 5 o’clock position.

It wasn’t until 95% of the sun was obscured by the moon that it started to get noticeably darker; but the real show had yet to begin.

The beginning of “totality” (3:27:16 PM) is  defined by the all too transitory appearance (2-3 second duration) of the first “diamond ring.” With its arrival there was a spontaneous cheer from our fellow eclipse watchers—clearly a moment of shared joy.

The first diamond ring, marking the beginning of totality as photographed in Texas. The red are solar flares.

Immediately with the disappearance of the diamond ring, as the center of the sun, the center of the moon, and Newport, VT formed a straight line, our ambiance changed. Darkness arrived, but not pitch black darkness.

Now, there was so much to look at and so little time!

I believe most people focused their attention on the  solar corona. Without the aid of a telescope, we could see the moon as a black disc in front of the sun, with a bright ring of fire (the corona) and a two brilliant red solar flares extending from the sun, a smaller one at about 2 o’clock and a larger one at about  7 o’clock. These were captured in the early photos of the eclipse by those using high quality photographic equipment.

Totality with solar flares (Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

These solar flares are probably 1-2 orders of magnitude larger than the diameter of the earth and would vaporize the earth if we were close enough to be engulfed. 

My photo of “totality” with a red solar flare located at 7 PM. [iPhone 15 max]
At 39 seconds (3:27:55 PM) into totality, I was taken by the appearance of the horizon. The eclipse had approached from the south (technically from the southwest), and to our left (east) of the approaching umbra (the moon’s shadow) and to our right (west), we could see two “sunrises” occurring concurrently. I suspect the yellow-orange glow of these two sunrises were the result of the sun lighting-up the distant sky, at least 50 miles away and outside the radius of the moon’s shadow on the earth. 

At 103 seconds (3:28:49 PM), we were at the moment of maximum totality and the eclipse was half done. As the backside of moon’s shadow came closer, racing toward us at a speed in excess of 1,000 miles per hour, the sun began to light-up the sky to the south, which was beyond the southern edge of the umbra. At this moment of maximum totality, it appeared as if sunrise extended almost a full 180°, from the east, to the south, and to the west.

Finally, as the southernmost border of the umbra reached us, we briefly saw another diamond ring, this time at the bottom of the sun/moon conjunction. Then, the sunlight begin to reappeared from the point where it all began, at the 5 o’clock position of the sun; and the total eclipse ended as the eclipse night receded into our communal memories.

After a few seconds of reveling in the moment, we began decompressing with our fellow, now seasoned, eclipse watchers. Then we said our goodbyes and made our way to the restaurant.

It was our intention to sit in the restaurant for an hour or so and allow the traffic to thin-out before we began our anticipated 4.5 hour trip home.

Our waitress, nice person #3, a local, explained to me the protocols that occur when a tourist kayaks or canoes innocently across the invisible international border on Lake Memphermagog. Undoubtedly, international incidents like this get resolved amicably by a nice person #4.

All the Vermonters we met during our brief sojourn to the Northeast Kingdom, nice person #1, #2, #3 and others, were immensely helpful and polite. I have nothing but good things to say about the Vermonters.

As we left the East Side Restaurant and Pub, we picked up a gift certificate for the owner of the Kingdom Racquet and Fitness Center and gave it to him as a thank-you for allowing us to park our car in his lot.

At 1 AM, 8 hours after we got into our car, we arrived home, a bit exhausted by the drive but thrilled by the day’s event. Our dogs too were so happy to have us home, and to be taken for a late night walk. 

Then we all bedded down for the night.

My only regret about our expedition is that there were no animals around to share the eclipse experience with us (besides the loons) and it would have been interesting to see how they reacted to the eclipse.

For Gail, the eclipse was “astounding and astonishing;” as she told a committed “eclipse chaser”, “Now, I get it!”

As for myself, seeing two distinct sunrise occurring concurrently was unexpected and thrilling. And the pleasure of the event was magnified many fold because I was able to share the experience with the most important person in my life.

Hayward Zwerling

9 April 2024

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Addendum: My quandary: “Being present in the moment” vs “documenting the moment”

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