BREVARD — The sky went dark at 2:36 p.m. on Monday, but advanced planning by local officials and cooperative onlookers made sure the “event of a lifetime” was a bright spot in North Carolina’s history.
Lisa Brandon, in charge of communications for the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, moved between mileposts 408 and 468 on the southern end of the scenic bypass throughout the day.
She estimates about 10,000 visitors parked at various overlooks for clear views of the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years.
“We had a really strong turnout of visitors that came early and set up for the day,” she said from her post on Tuesday. “And once the process started at 1 o’clock, you could hear cheers from different overlooks — it was really a fun day on the parkway.”
The parkway staffed 20 of the nearly 60 overlooks that fell within the eclipse’s path of totality. The overlook parking spaces were quickly filled early in the day. Brandon says that the overflow of visitors — including out-of-towners from Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia — were cooperative as rangers directed them to park on medians and grassy areas.
Although she contends that there were many great spots to watch the eclipse, the parkway was extra special.
“With its panoramic views and a lot of these overlook locations — it is a beautiful setting anyway, to layer in that celestial, natural phenomenon was pretty extraordinary.”
The N.C. Department of Transportation, which put out public service announcements to travelers in the months and weeks ahead of the Aug. 21 event, echoed Brandon’s statements on the cooperation of visitors to the western part of the state.
“All the planning that DOT did across the state and locally via state highway patrol and with county officials and agencies, all paid off,” said David Uchiyama, who was stationed at the Jackson County Emergency Management Center near Dillsboro. “The work was worth it.”
Reviewing data from toll roads and traffic cameras, DOT will release an estimate of the number of visitors to the area by next week; though early reports from the eclipse estimated up to 63,000 visited in the small sliver from Murphy to Brevard.
Most visitors trickled in over the weekend and at various times on Monday morning. The drive from Asheville into nearby total eclipse towns like Sylva and Rosman had pretty standard travel times, but drivers met heavy congestion when the cosmic event ended.
On-ramps to the Interstate 40 were jammed for several hours, with heavy congestion near Balsam — north of the eclipse path — and Mills River onto Interstate 26.
Prepared for the worse, DOT had supplies on hand in service trucks parked across western North Carolina, and workers passed out bottles of water to cars stuck in traffic.
David Adams, the chief of police in Franklin, N.C., said mountain expressways are simply not designed for the influx of traffic they saw Monday. But even with a long commute home, most travelers were in good spirits.
“We had massive crowds — but everything ran very smoothly,” said Adams, who said there were no accidents within the town. “It was a very pleasant event.”
Coates and Trish Carter from Richmond, Va., got caught in some of that traffic around 4 p.m. on I-26. With four daughters in tow, the family stayed overnight Sunday and Monday in Spruce Pine.
And while they expected some road congestion, the weather is what interrupted their perfect trip. Hoping to watch the eclipse from Black Balsam Knob in Nantahala National Forest, the family of six decided to change course at the last minute.
“It was a little cloudy, and we weren’t expecting that,” said Coates from a pit stop just outside of Mills River. “So we ended up chasing a hole in the sky and we went down in South Carolina.
“We saw the eclipse for maybe three seconds,” he laughed, “but it was worth it.”
Viewers throughout the path in N.C. were met with some intermittent cloud coverage. Most locations got a decent view of totality during the two minutes and 17 seconds that the moon completely covered the sun.
For Asheville natives Rob and Sarah Wergin, it didn’t matter about physically seeing the total eclipse, but rather taking advantage of the energy that it gave off.
A transformational healer, Rob Wergin attracted 72 people from across the country for a special eclipse healing session in Flat Rock. Ben Roberts and Alison Neeley flew in from California.
“Two planes, a drive, and getting here at 2 in the morning was so worth it,” said Neeley, standing outside the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville.
“The solar eclipse brings in a new paradigm, allowing us to transform energetically. It’s like being born again,” said Roberts.
Whether visitors were in N.C. for the perfect view or a new beginning, the eclipse brought a calm and coolness to those in the path. And with heavy anticipation, the event supplied memories to last a lifetime.
The next U.S.-based solar eclipse will occur in April 2024, with the path of totality moving from the south of Texas to the northern Atlantic coast of Maine.