Few things in life have inspired me to be up and moving before 3 a.m. I think the last time was to watch a meteor shower 15 years ago. Welcoming an unknown number of visitors to Gorges State Park on total eclipse day was bound to be an adventure.
Most staff and media were on site and ready to go by 3:30 a.m. Monday (Aug. 21), and rumor has it that eager visitors were lining up outside the gate as early as 1 a.m. We knew early on that morning we were right to plan for a large and enthusiastic crowd for the total eclipse at Gorges. The energy was palpable—the kind of energy you get from people camping out for tickets to a Rolling Stones concert, or to attend a coveted football game.
As cars entered the park from 5 a.m. through 7:40 a.m. when the gates closed, I noticed something: Nobody was honking. Nobody was yelling. Everyone was working together, being respectful of one another, being patient, and following directions of rangers.
Sleepy but giddy people from all over the world came pouring into the park at 5 a.m. sharp. They were well-prepared with tents, blankets, food, pillows, and chairs. The park was full of couples, groups of friends, families and loners. Some brought children still in pajamas, some brought parents and grandparents who maneuvered with walkers, canes, and scooters around our hilly viewing areas. Some brought their dogs, many of which I was able to meet.
Nobody was fighting over viewing spots, and many were even helping one another set up their mini campsites. We all watched the stars over Gorges and then the sunrise together, united in our ultimate goal of the day: TOTAL ECLIPSE.
I walked around as everyone set up their viewing spot to answer questions and make sure everyone was comfortable. I was greeted with smiles, positive attitudes, and kind words of appreciation from so many. A few people were reading, playing checkers, tossing a Frisbee, or chatting. Many—and I mean many—were just lounging, gazing at the sky and napping through the morning. I couldn’t recall the last time I had seen so many people in one place just “relaxing.” It was a beautiful thing!
This day at Gorges was an incredible opportunity to see the magic of our park rangers educating children. Rangers from Pilot Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and New River state parks engaged young people and their families in eclipse-themed educational activities, arts and crafts, and safety exercises. I was impressed not only by how interested the children were in these activities, but in how excited the rangers were to share with them. We are so lucky to have such great park rangers!
At some point mid-morning, all of the cars that would fit had already been squeezed into the park, and everyone was sprawled out in hammocks, on blankets, or under tents. We enjoyed live music from the Quarter House Band, the Blue Ridge Bakery Boys, and Tina Eno; kids danced to the fun sing-a-long songs of the Singing Vegetables; and we ate kettle corn, cotton candy, SO many sno cones, gelato, pork bar-b-que sandwiches and Thai curry and bun bowls. And then….we lounged.
Around 12:30 p.m., the clouds really started to build. Whispers began- will it clear up? It BETTER clear up! We tested out our eclipse glasses and prepared for a life changing event. After 1 p.m., we caught our first glimpse of the eclipse as the moon began to move in front of the sun. Clouds teased us, but we all donned our eclipse glasses and enjoyed the beginning of the eclipse before heavy clouds and rain obscured our view.
Despite the party-crashing clouds, I think everyone was really amazed when the eclipse reached totality. The sky slowly became nearly dark. I ran around looking for different vantage points and hoping I could catch a peek at the sun, but clouds seemed to obscure the sun from every spot. The expansive views from the back deck of the visitor’s center showed towering cumulus near the horizon and the colors of sunset across the sky—in the middle of the afternoon.
The best part of this gathering was being unified in experiencing an extraordinary event much bigger than our lives, bigger than our problems, bigger than our country, bigger even than our planet. Is it that the people who come to North Carolina State Parks are all awesome, or is it that our parks bring out the best in people? Either way, it works.
Thanks to all who joined us at Gorges State Park for the total solar eclipse—not only for choosing Gorges for the eclipse, but for your patience, enthusiasm, kindness and consideration for those around you. We hope that you enjoyed Gorges State Park and that you will come back soon!