In the breakfast area of the Black Bear Inn in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, just 15 minutes from Dollywood, there was a palpable excitement on Monday morning as people ate omelettes and pancakes. It's the day of the Total Solar Eclipse: The last time the US saw a total solar eclipse that spanned the entire country was nearly a century ago, in 1918. Over breakfast at this little hotel, it felt like everyone had become a group of giddy 11-year-olds.
I was one of them: My two friends and I drove 700 miles from New Jersey to be here. I chatted with a few people to see what was drawing them, like me, to the eclipse.
Terry Wilson and a group of companions, all in their 60s, told me they travelled from Washington, DC to see their first solar eclipse.
"I like to drive in the car for 10 to 12 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, swearing and cursing at all my fellow eclipse goers," Wilson joked, referencing the terrible eclipse traffic everyone had been warned about. "No, actually it's just the idea of seeing something that primal. You always see it in movies where everyone goes, 'Oh—the world's coming to an end!' Well, there are people from here, of a certain persuasion, who believe that the eclipse is a sign that the country is in need of repentance before it implodes."
"Which I agree, in some ways," her friend Wendy Hammond added.
As for me and my friends, our drive was relatively painless.
I also spoke with the Oates family, which included Ian from Knoxville, and children Ashley, Jay, and Tessa, who live in Atlanta, Georgia. The entire family was wearing Total Eclipse 2017 t-shirts.
When I asked why they came, the family answered: "Once in a lifetime" in unison.
"We were really lucky to get the tickets to go on Clingsmans Dome," the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains and just a 30-minute drive from Gatlinburg, Tessa said. "They didn't sell very many."
My friends and I also intended to go to Clingsmans Dome before realizing that you needed $30 tickets just to get into the parking lot, and these tickets were extremely limited: Only 1,325 people were able to get their hands on them.
I'm not an eclipse chaser by habit, nor did it seem like most of the people I encountered in Gatlinburg were. But to be fair, a solar eclipse is probably the closest equivalent to witnessing a supernatural event in real life.
Personally, I associate eclipses the show Avatar: The Last Airbender remembers the "Day of the Black Sun," where a solar eclipse left members of the antagonistic Fire Nation powerless, ushering in a climactic attack on their capital city.
That episode, along with a natural curiosity for celestial objects, built up the idea of a solar eclipse in my imagination.
An estimated 25 million people within a day's drive to the path of totality also made the trip. My friends and I set off from New Brunswick, New Jersey at 7:30AM on Sunday—about T-minus 31 hours—and I came prepared with a 10-hour eclipse playlist.
"The numbers [in Gatlinburg] are around 50,000 tourists more compared to normal because of the eclipse"
After breakfast, we bought "NASA Approved" eclipse glasses. We didn't look too deeply into the authenticity of these glasses—the purchase was part of the experience than anything else.
I spoke with Ravi Patel, who sold us the glasses in a small, unnamed gift shop that just opened. He said that Gatlinburg is usually pretty empty at this time of year: On Monday August 21, school starts for most elementary schools in the area.
"The numbers are around 50,000 tourists more compared to normal because of the eclipse," he said.
Cardboard glasses in hand, we headed into the shaded roads of the Great Smoky Mountains. We joined a long queue of eclipse gazers—families, bikers, young couples, old friends—linked on the path of totality, even if only for a few hours.
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