For one brief moment, day became night.
And the sun was replaced by a black circle — ringed on all sides with gleaming white fire.
As the Great American Eclipse made landfall in the tiny coastal town of Newport, Ore., the rowdy crowd that gathered on its beach was stunned by the sight into an eerie silence.
In Casper, Wyo., a man blew a shofar, as others rang bells and let loose whoops and roars erupted from the crowd. Birds, startled by the darkness, darted in every direction.
“You weren’t kidding about the goosebumps,” one man muttered to another.
Outside a church in Idaho Falls, parishioners screamed in excitement. “You see the stars!” said one. “I see Venus,” said another. “God is amazing,” yelled one woman in conclusion.
Just a few miles away, Jim Anderton in Idaho City, struggled to put the sight before him into words.
Visibly glowing in the darkness was the sun’s corona — a beautiful halo of writhing exceedingly hot gas — normally invisible, now suddenly and beautifully on display.
“It’s like someone just dipped the edge of the sun in flames,” Anderton said.
On Monday, life in America was put on hold –the nagging to do list, the deadlines at work, the political debates and divisions. Everything receded, overtaken by the celestial event of the century suddenly looming over America.
This eclipse felt different, more intimate somehow. It was the first total solar eclipse in a century to cross the continental United States, coast to coast, and the first since the founding of the republic that will pass directly over only this country.
At 10:15 a.m. Pacific Time, the total eclipse made landfall on the coast of Oregon. From there, it zipped East across America at the screaming speed of 2,100 mph. It traversed a 3,000-mile path, cutting through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, before finally disappearing off the coast of Charleston, S.C. at 2:49 p.m. Eastern time.
The whole thing — the wonder, beauty, craning of necks and searching of souls — was over from coast to coast in just 90 minutes.
The event began Monday morning on the West Coast with just a touch of darkness, like someone had taken a tiny bite out of the sun. Soon, the shadow began to grow, inching its way across the sun’s surface beginning the tantalizing march toward a total eclipse.
But even as celestial bodies began aligning in the sky, terrestrial-bound bodies scurried in a mad last-minute scramble for the best vantage points to witness it. Overcast weather in much of the country sent many would-be watchers racing for clearer skies. There were clouds in the Southeast, especially around Charleston, and throughout the Midwest.
“It’s starting! It’s starting!” someone shouted on a windy beach in Newport, Ore., as the eclipse made landfall.
Murmurs of worry circulated through the crowd: Would the white hazy fog ruin the eclipse?
The ocean hummed. A gust of wind blew. Then, it happened. The sky, in an instant, changed from hazy white to grey to — finally — blue.
Francis Kanach, 45, smiled as the sun broke through the haze just as the partial eclipse began in earnest. “We’re gonna see what we’re supposed to see,” he announced triumphantly to his son Ziggy.
For some the morning consisted mad dashes from store to store in search of eclipse-safe glasses. For scientists, it was anxiety-filled as they checked and rechecked their equipment at observatories and research airplanes, ahead of the big moment. And in many areas, authorities wrestled with massive traffic as hordes continued to converge along the 70-mile-wide path of the total eclipse.
But as the day went on, the country seemed to split into two distinct camps: Those infected with eclipse mania and others seemingly immune to its charms.
At a Super 8 motel in Heyburn, Idaho, Pat Mooney — who had traveled all the way from Los Angeles to see the eclipse with his mother — said he was shocked to hear his own relatives living Heyburn would be missing the event.
They have to work, which is the lamest excuse in the world,” said Mooney, 30, an Uber driver.
Nearby, Roland and Leanna Good said they tried to interest others at the nondenominational church they founded in Eureka, Nevada, in making the trip to see this natural wonder. But they got no takers.“One fella said he wouldn’t walk across the street to see it,” Roland said.
To the Goods, who moved from the Shenandoah Valley out west to plant their church, Monday was a can’t-miss display of God’s handiwork.
“The universe wants to be discovered,” Roland said, marveling that the sun and moon are just the right size and distance for Earthlings to get a solar eclipse. “Atheists, scientists call that a coincidence. Coincidence? … To me it just shows that there’s a creator. We’re not an accident.”
Then the couple bowed their heads to say grace over their biscuits and gravy.
The roads were packed in South Carolina. By noon on Monday, the state highway patrol there was closing rest areas along I-95 because they were past capacity.
The physics behind Monday’s celestrial events were quite simple.
Following a course charted before the dawn of history, the moon passed between the sun and Earth and cast a shadow onto a strip of land across America.
But even people not on that path saw a partial eclipse of the sun — like a cookie with a bite taken out of it. The closer they were to the path of the total eclipse, the bigger that shadow was.
One town that laid claim to being the center of all the festivities (and there were many!) was Carbondale, Ill., which was not only in the path of Monday’s eclipse, but also the next one to cross America in 2024.
And on Monday afternoon, as the last vestiges of the eclipse faded and the sun returned, many in Carbondale struggled to make sense what they had seen.
A reverent hush fell upon the crowd. If the moments leading up to the eclipse had been like a raucous carnival, the aftermath was like an especially moving church service. People hugged, or traded reactions in quiet, awestruck tones.
More than one person’s voice choked trying to describe what they’d just seen. Most preferred not to talk at all. They put their glasses back on and gazed at the slim yellow crescent in the sky, still thinking about the brilliant, sparkling, effervescent version of the sun revealed by the moon.
In Nampa,, Idaho, Holly Macon said what moved her more than the awe-inspiring sight was the collective experience with complete strangers — chasing it, reading about it, waiting together in tantalizing expectation.
“I think about when we landed on the moon,” she said. “There’s something out there bigger than us, higher than us…If we can come together for this, we can come together for a lot more positive things.”
A few miles away in Idaho City, the eclipse stirred deep sorrows in Carolyn Garrison, 74. She thought about the son she had buried, the best friend who passed away recently and her husband who died last Christmas.
“I am in the sunset of my life and I’m just going to enjoy what I can,” she said as she folded quilts in her little shop on Main Street.
She has seen one other eclipse in her lifetime, and it came with a glow in her heart, she said.
At first, Garrison said she planned to close shop and hide for the eclipse.
But as the eclipse cast shadows over Garrison shop, the “open” sign stayed on outside her shop as Garrison decided not to hide in darkness like the sun.
Soon, the darkness was gone and rays of light once again filled her shop.
“It felt the same,” she said. That glow in her heart was still there all these years later.
For many Americans, this was their best shot at seeing a total solar eclipse in their lifetime. About 12 million people live along its path, and many millions more are flocking there.
Many rural towns along that route have been preparing months, even years, to deal with the sudden crush of humanity.
In the little city of Casper, Wyo., officials set up first-aid stations throughout town and stocked up on blood donations and medical supplies. They made sure automatic lights in public parks and baseball fields wouldn’t turn on accidentally during the darkness and ruin viewers’ experiences.
They studied the airport protocols at Augusta, Ga., to figure out how the similarly small town manages jumps in air traffic and visitors during its golf tournament. More than 166 private jets were expected to stream into the airport on Monday morning before the eclipse. (The largest is a 737 and rumored to carry a Saudi prince.)
All weekend, roadside warning signs flashed the same message: “SOLAR ECLIPSE. AUGUST 21. PLAN AHEAD.”
And on Monday, all along the eclipse’s path, businesses closed down. Schools sent their students home early — or asked them not to come in. Restaurants announced awkward closings between noon and 3 p.m. A billboard outside the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Paducah, Ky., asked: “We live on a planet that circles the sun and you don’t believe in miracles?”
All four nationwide carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — deployed portable cell towers to boost cellphone capacity in targeted areas along the eclipse path.
State highway authorities from 14 states carried out plans they had been coordinating for months in anticipation for what could be the largest traffic jam in U.S. history.
Among authorities’ biggest concerns was that drivers would stop on the interstate or shoulder to see the eclipse.
In Newport, Ore., on the town’s historic bayfront, the street was teeming with eclipse T-shirts, coffee mugs and postcards. One shop hawked “eclipse moon pie” scented candles. Another sold incense and Pink Floyd “Dark Side of the Moon” shirts. A placard from a dog food store read: “Advice from a solar eclipse. Don’t be afraid of the dark.”
Even the local marijuana store was advertising “eclipse specials” on quarter-ounce containers of cannabis. The store, an employee said, had installed an extra ATM to accommodate the expected surge of eclipse watchers.
For many scientists, however, it was a day filled with anxiety.
A small team of researchers flew aboard a Gulfstream V jet across Kentucky, racing to follow the eclipse as long as possible and study emission lines in the corona of the sun.
The scientists had with them a spectrometer sealed inside a vacuum chamber and chilled with liquid nitrogen, and they had only a four-minute window to get the data they needed.
In another experiment, dubbed EclipseMob, 150 crowdsourced citizen-scientists operated custom-made radio receivers across the country. By recording changes in the radio signal, researchers said they hope to collect data on the ionosphere — the region of the atmosphere where, miles above Earth’s surface, cosmic and solar radiation bump electrons free from atoms.
Such experiments, scientists noted, follow a long tradition of eclipse-aided breakthroughs.
During an 1868 eclipse, French astronomer Pierre Janssen discovered the element helium. A 1919 eclipse helped prove Einstein’s theory of general relativity, changing our understanding of the laws underpinning the universe.
For many, however, it wasn’t the data or even the mere sight of the eclipse that touched them most. It was the feeling and memory it left in its wake.
In Belton, S.C., Josh Skierski and Vanessa Palacios were one of six couples who said their vows at the Blue Jar Barn in the path of totality.
“We’re not exactly traditional,” Skierski explained. “Anybody who knows us knows it was going to be weird and going to be fun.”
After the ceremony, the officiating reverend announcd it was time for everyone to don their eclipse glasses, and Skierski and Palacios walked down the aisle as man and wife.
People cheered and a car horn honked. And the couple put their arms around each other and looked up at the sky, bathing in 2 minutes and 27 seconds of darkness.
Then as quickly and suddenly as it came, the eclipse was gone.
Kaplan reported from Carbondale, Ill. Sottile reported from Newport, Ore. Sarah Gilman in Depoe Bay, Ore.; Joel Achenbach in Madras, Ore.; Carissa Wolf in Idaho City, Idaho; Julie Zauzmer in Idaho Falls, Idaho; Dustin Bleizeffer in Casper, Wyo.; Julie Vick in Glendo, Wyo.; Bart Schaneman in Alliance, Neb.; Brandon McDermott in Beatrice, Neb.; Sara Shipley Hiles in Columbia, Mo.; Terena Bell in Cerulean, Ky; Brandon Gee in Nashville, Tenn.; Jared Flesher in Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Angela Fritz in Bryson City, N.C.; Ben Guarino and Doug Wong in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report.