Eclipse trip – 2017

On the day I’m writing this, it’s the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. North America is experiencing three hurricanes in a row. There are many who are dealing with events far more worthy of attention than my eclipse trip.

However, I promised myself that I would write the story of my trip to see the total eclipse of the sun on 21-Aug-2017. I’m planning more intensive writing projects than a blog post in the future, and one of the first rules of writing is “Write!” So I’m writing the post as I originally planned, but with a link to GlobalGiving to ease my conscience.

This trip was important to me, and not just because of a rare astronomical event. The last time I’d taken a plane trip was in 2012. As a result of that trip, I lost vision in one eye. The story is not quite that simple, and a lot of things went wrong at once (and many other things subsequently went right). Still, I’d been reluctant to travel by air since then. This trip was a threshold-crossing for me.

The trip to Greenville in South Carolina was uneventful. From the plane, I could see a lot of new construction going on near the city; it looks like it’s in the middle of financial boom. The Greenville airport, though smaller than Newark Airport from which I left, is far nicer.

I was met at the airport by M. I had come dressed in my usual NY summer garb: t-shirt and jeans. She warned me that the South Carolina weather was warmer than I’m used to, and I might want to wear shorts to the solar-eclipse picnic the next day. I had no shorts, but M was kind enough to drive me to a tall-mens shop where I could pick up a couple.

M had also warned me before the trip that while Greenville was cosmopolitan (which I can confirm), it was also quite conservative. She advised against wearing pagan/Wiccan jewelry; I interpreted that as a caution not to wear my usual tie-dye t-shirts either. I can attest to the cosmopolitan feel of the city; since I obeyed M’s warning, I can’t confirm the conservative nature of the town based on personal experience. I noted that both M and her boyfriend N were wary of saying the word “Wicca” in public, and I heard a reference to Asheville NC as filled with hippy liberal types.

On the other hand, at the time I visited Greenville the news was filled with discussion of taking down Confederate statues. The only statue I saw in Greenville was one devoted to Black Pride. M told me there was a Confederacy museum not far away, but I did not investigate.

Greenville is certainly not immune to the lure of opportunity. Normally bags of ice in the local grocery store cost $5/bag; on the day of the eclipse they were $10/bag. A parking lot that normally charged $5 for a parking space was charging $50 that day.

Both M and N had to work the next day, so I hung around M’s apartment for several hours. About 2.5 hours before my flight was scheduled to leave, I took an Uber ride to the Greenville airport; there was nothing more for me to do in that apartment and I figured I’d get all the pre-flight TSA shenanigans out of the way. It was the first time I ever used Uber, but there were no problems and my driver was a nice fellow.

At the airport I learned that my tickets had been issued with “TSA Pre-check”. I had seen that on my tickets, but I thought it was an ad for a service I could spend extra money on. I later learned that this was a feature that United sometimes randomly gave away to convince customers that this was a convenience worth paying for. In my case, since I knew my belt and cell phone clip and wallet would set off the metal detectors, the only practical difference was that I didn’t have to take off my shoes — which use Velcro in any case.

It wasn’t until I got to the gate that I learned that my flight, scheduled to leave at 4:25PM, had been delayed to a 9:10PM departure. The problem was due to back-ups at Newark airport.

M warned me that this might happen. The last time she traveled from Greenville to Newark, there was a similar delay. Being a more experienced traveler, she investigated other options and was able to get a flight out of the Asheville NC airport. I couldn’t switch as easily, since I had checked my luggage. (As an inexperienced traveler with two pairs of binoculars to pack, I was not able to condense my life into an overhead bin.)

So I waited in the Greenville airport. I ate lunch. I ate dinner. I read my Kindle. We got lucky and my flight was given an 8:30 departure time.

An hour and half later, we finally landed… and the pilot told us we were in Philadelphia. There was a storm over Newark and they weren’t permitting any flights to land. We had to wait in Philly until Newark gave us clearance and our flight was refueled.

Then the same storm hit the Philadelphia airport. They couldn’t move the fuel truck in the rain, so we had to wait until the storm was over.

I became very, very glad that I had spent the extra $25 for an Economy Plus seat. I’d flown out in a regular Economy seat: I’m 6’3″ and have a 50-inch waist; it was not a comfortable flight. Lesson learned: some things are worth the extra few bucks.

They would not let us exit the plane in Philadelphia, so there wasn’t much to do but wait. I read more on my Kindle. It occurred to me (and my fellow passengers) that, given this delay, they could have bused us from Philly to Newark in less time. (Yes, I know this wasn’t possible due to flight regulations and insurance and other factors.)

After two hours, we finally left Philadelphia, arriving in Newark at 2:30AM. I didn’t get home until 4AM. Again, I realized that if I’d driven from Greenville to my home in New York, it might have taken less time than the plane trip. On the other hand, I later learned from friends who traveled by car that while the trip south had no delays, the trip back was jammed and took 16 hours.

In summary:
– Be prepared.
– Travel into Newark takes longer than you think.
– TSA Pre-check isn’t worth it.
– Extra leg-room is always worth it.
– Make sure your electronic devices are fully charged before you go to an airport, and/or carry your charging cables.

Was it worth it? For the eclipse, absolutely yes. Will I travel by air again? Maybe. I certainly wouldn’t travel any place were there wasn’t some kind of friendly physical support for me at the destination.

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