On Monday, hundreds of millions of Americans will take a two-hour break to watch something that hasn’t happened in 99 years: a total solar eclipse. For those who don’t remember their primary education days and have missed the various bits of news coverage on it, the moon will pass between the Earth and the sun during daylight hours. Fourteen states in the U.S. will have the pleasure of seeing a total eclipse of the sun; in other words, the sun being fully blotted out by the moon for a few moments (though the build-up will be several hours long).
And even in the remaining 36 states where the sky won’t go completely dark, Americans from Hawaii to Maine will be able to see a partial eclipse. Observing that sight must be accompanied by NASA-approved eclipse glasses. More on those later.
Historically, human beings have reacted strangely to two hours of darkness during daylight hours, although for those of us living in Boston we just call it winter. Vikings used to shout at the moon during solar eclipses in an attempt to prevent a pair of wolves from eating the sun when they pounced upon it.
Babylonians knew that eclipses were astronomical events and could even predict their occurrence. But they were also reasonably scientifically certain those events also came with some very bad juju. So in the event of a forthcoming eclipse, they would put a commoner on the throne for a while. If the people went mad and killed the king in reaction to the eclipse, which was apparently fairly common, they only killed the king’s commoner stunt double. If the people managed to hold it together enough to not kill the king, the king’s stunt double would be executed anyway, and the real one would go back to his place on the throne. Clearly, for the stunt double king, eclipses were filled with enormously bad juju.
And if you think those Babylonian astronomers were overreacting, note that eclipses do have unexpected effects on people.
In England, an eclipse in 1133 coincided with the death of the king. Civil war followed for a decade afterward. Then again in 585 B.C. in Turkey an eclipse convinced all sides of a tribal war to throw down their arms and make peace.
But, as is usually the case, for best reactions, the ancient Greeks win the prize. Following the eclipse of 647 B.C., Greek poet Archilochus was pretty much ready for everything.
“After this, men can believe anything, expect anything. Don’t any of you be surprised in future if land beasts change places with dolphins and go to live in their salty pastures, and get to like the sounding waves of the sea more than the land, while the dolphins prefer the mountains.”
To our knowledge, no eclipse in history has ever caused humanity to take up residence in the sea, but you never know what Elon Musk might do once he finishes up with the Hyperloop.
The modern world has had a somewhat different response to eclipses. We no longer believe that dolphins will become mountaineers, and while there are a variety of fringe beliefs in the U.S. to choose from, almost no one believes Monday’s events mean we need to replace all of our leaders due to eclipse juju.
[And, since we are not a political publication, we’ll leave any comments that you might wish to make about that last sentence completely up to you.]
Which is not say we don’t react to solar eclipses in the modern world. We do. Espeically here in the U.S., where the last visible solar eclipse on the mainland was in 1979 (one only visible from Hawaii happened in 1991). And 38 years is a long time to build demand. And Americans are travelling, spending and getting geared up for the event.
An estimated 12 million Americans live within the path of totality, but 200 million Americans live within a single day’s drive of it. Given the eclipse’s summer timing, when Americans are often on the road for vacations, experts are predicting that the eclipse event could end up being one of the more massive travel days of the year. Columbia, S.C., one of the cities in the path of the total eclipse, is expecting the biggest crowd it has ever experienced in its 231-year history.
Traffic is also expected to be epic. The Washington Post reports that some are expectring, and doing their level best to head off, “the worst traffic jam in American history.”
“The Federal Highway Administration has asked states to suspend all road construction Monday to ease the flow of traffic.” FHWA is also changing interstate dynamic message boards nationwide so as to head off any old school panic.
A total solar eclipse is coming. The sky will get dark. The sun will appear to go away in the middle of the day. Do not slam on your brakes. Do not be afraid.
“We don’t really know exactly how many might be out there driving around ... but we know that there will likely be several million,” said Martin Knopp, associate administrator for operations at FHWA.
And those several million drivers have been looking for lodging. Hotels all along the path of the eclipse are booked, and while there are options available through home-sharing apps like Airbnb and HomeAway, this late in the game (and for the last several weeks) eclipse enthusiasts are paying a pretty penny to stay near the totality.
In the last month, Airbnb Inc. listings and bookings have surged. As of last count, more than 29,000 homes, single rooms, plots of grass and recreational vehicles along the eclipse’s trajectory are registered for rent on Airbnb. More than 50,000 people are booked to stay in rentals over the weekend, compared with about 11,000 last week.
The biggest winners have been the smallest cities, where listings have jumped. Casper, Wyo., known mainly for oil refineries, has seen a 31-fold pick-up in listings for this weekend as compared to the same weekend last year. Nashville saw listings increase by 40 percent for the eclipse.
Rooms can still be found, but houses are running for several thousand dollars a night, though one can get a bargain on a plot of grass on a farm, current listings are averageing about $100 per night.
One does have to provide one's own tent.
Lodging isn’t the only thing that will cost underprepared eclipse watchers. Those who have not secured their eclipse glasses at this point should be prepared to pay a handsome price. Current listings on Amazon have a single set going for as much as $85, though the in-store buy price for the glasses is normally about a dollar.
If glasses aren’t the thing for you, no worries. Solar binoculars have also been popular on Amazon for those willing to spend $120 to $450 for them. Solar camera lenses, currently clocked in at a little over $150, have also been a big seller.
And if you aren’t looking to protect your eyes and have made peace with not staring directly at the sun at any time on Monday, fear not. There is still so much swag out there for you. T-shirts, hats, commorative buttons are all out there and waiting to be ordered. Or if you are more the sort who wants to eat your wonder than stare at the heavens, participating Dunkin’ Donuts will offer an eclipse-themed half dozen, and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts will have its own special for the eclipse, a chocolate glaze, which will be available Saturday through Monday.
Denny’s restaurants across the country will be offering stacks of “mooncakes” at $4 for all you can eat on Monday. Of course pancakes are normally round, so we aren’t really sure how big a change this is for them.
However, whatever it is you want to do, experts are advising going to eclipse sights well stocked with food and drinks because small town stores will get easily depleted. And, of course, leave time for traffic, as there will be lots the closer to the totality one gets.
And wear your glasses when you look at the sun. Or maybe by an Echo just to be safe, in case you blind yourself.
Happy (safe) gazing.