The Great American Eclipse Hangover

Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the path of totality in the afterglow of the astronomical event.

A group of people watches a solar eclipse.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

CROSSVILLE, Tenn.—The path of totality is emptying out.

Soon after the the Great American Eclipse was over on Monday, hundreds of thousands of people began their migration home, many driving for hours, their eclipse glasses crumpled in the backseat like a ticket after a big show. Many are still on the road. They’ll show up to work tired and yawning, the skin under their eyes ringed with darkness, like a parting gift from the moon’s shadow over Earth. They will remember, in spurts, the fleeting image of a white ring hanging high in the violet sky, and feel their exhaustion was well worth it.

Before she started the drive back to Ohio, Katie Davis lay in the grass of a small clearing in Cumberland Mountain State Park in eastern Tennessee. Doug Hammock, her partner, prepared to pack up his telescope. Minutes ago, a wave of darkness had swept over the landscape and turned the sky into purple velvet, then roared away. Now the sun glowed with its usual midday intensity.

“It was the fastest two minutes of my life,” Davis said of the total solar eclipse.

There were plenty of things Davis and other eclipse spectators could prepare for as they planned their visit to totality, some for weeks or months. They reserved campsites and hotel rooms, charged their phones, slathered on sunscreen. What they couldn’t brace themselves for was how quick totality would be, and how they’d feel after.

“I’m still stunned,” said Natsu Okiyama, who sat under an umbrella with Brad Wang. “I was like a deer in headlights when it happened, like woah! I was just soaking it in.” Okiyama and Wang took the day off from work to drive here from Atlanta, Georgia, and weren’t in a rush to leave.

When the moon’s shadow came over him, Wang said his mind went blank. “It’s indescribable,” he said. “I feel like I just woke up from a dream.”

The experience of totality scrambles the senses. It packs recognizable emotions—anticipation, awe, dread—into a washing machine and hits spin. Totality comes after hours of anticipation, of quiet pleading with fleecy clouds to get out of the way before it’s time. As the moon passed in front of the sun on Monday afternoon, taking bigger and bigger bites out of the sunlight, the temperature cooled. The edges of the shadows cast by bodies, tents, and trees sharpened. Then the moon slid over the sun like a manhole cover. There was one last burst of light before it was gone, and in its place emerged a white loop, set against purple shades.

Expert eclipse chasers will tell you to pay attention to your surroundings during totality, like the chirps of cicadas or rustling of birds. This is, in practice, quite difficult. You may have prepared for your trip with great focus, planning driving routes and poring over satellite maps of cloud cover, but in totality you have only a dumb look on your face as you raise your eyes—which you were so careful not to scorch seconds ago—directly at the sun, at this strange sight. Before you can form coherent thought, sunlight bursts through, coating the world in a metallic gold.

“I definitely could see now why ancient people fled, got scared and flipped out, and thought the end of the world was coming,” Hammock said, laughing.

Totality is overwhelming. Add to that hours of adrenaline-laced travel, and you’ve got an eclipse hangover. But recovery doesn’t bring relief. Not long after the eclipse is over, the cloud of memory starts rolling in. The sight of the gleaming white ring starts to recede into the edges of the mind, out of view. The details of the experience blur. You end up wishing you had more time.

Eclipse watchers took this longing on the road, fanning out across the country, turning their decisions away from cosmic alignments and toward earthly concerns. I asked Melissa Juber what she would do now that the eclipse was over, as next to her Christina Stevenson showed me the photos she’d taken on her tripod, a procession of shrinking and growing crescents. They had a long drive to Delaware. They would probably go to lunch soon, Juber said.

“Probably get out of the sun for a little bit,” she added.