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Into the path of totality of Eclipse America 2017
Travels with Joe
Serious Viewers
Joe Gillam talks with another eclipse-viewer in a parking lot in St. Matthews, SC, on Aug. 21. - photo by Photo provided.

My idea has always been that the road trip should be more fun than the destination. That was impossible for our road trip to Orangeburg, SC, for Eclipse 2017.

Oh, it was a nice trip, alright, but it in no way measured up to the eclipse.

More about that, but now for the trip.

Chong and I are back roads guys. So we took one of our favorite trails to Orangeburg. Highway 301’s roots run back to the 1940s as a main north-south route in competition with U.S. 1 (The Atlantic Highway) and U.S. 17 (The Coastal Highway). U.S. 301’s glory was that it did not pass through any major cities and was considered faster and more traffic-free than the other routes from near its start in Baltimore to its terminus in Tampa. U.S. 301 picked up the nickname “The Tobacco Trail” as it passed through the heart of tobacco farming areas.

Like most of our other favorite back roads, one can still see the remnants of the pre-interstate days of the 1950s and ’60s. Of course, I can’t remember, but I’m sure that Gramps and I drove this route in his 1950 Mercury “back in the day.”

Trivia buffs note: U.S. 301 is the only federal highway that passes through its own area code, “301,” in southern Maryland.

Predictions were that millions would flock into the band of the total eclipse, so Chong and I got an early spot to stake out a viewing site. My Google Earth homework revealed a nice little town, St. Matthews, SC, north of Orangeburg, just across I-26 and a bit south of Columbia. So that was our destination as we rolled out of Hinesville early Monday. The predictions also included mass overload at motels, restaurants and fast foods joints so Chong packed her backpack with a change of clothes and stocked the van frig with a couple of meals. And, of course the back seat could be folded down into a semi-comfortable double bed if required.

Our intentions were for a late arrival home Monday night. Also in the plan was topping off the 40-gallon gas tank early. That would give us a full round trip if worse came to worse around ground zero.

We started right on time and picked up 301 in Statesboro. As advertised, 301 was a nice ride, smooth four-lane most of the way with some two lanes.

Georgia is mostly void of the left-over pre-interstate buildings, but across South Carolina it’s is one abandoned motel after the next with closed and dilapidated restaurants and truck stops. I found a nugget of gold in Allendale, SC.  An old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant on, I guess, its fifth or so life; now an insurance agency. But the unmistakable architecture was Ho-Jo’s with the original Simple Simon weather vane was still on the roof. We stopped and I got a couple of pictures for my album.

Back on the road, the traffic remained light as we continued to see the decaying remnants of the 1950s-’60s travel. I was amazed to come upon one old motel with a large party of construction workers. I stopped and found the owner near the filled-in swimming pool. He told me his father had owned the property and had made a good living as he grew up there learning the motel business. Adjoining was a restaurant that managed to stay open through the years by serving local folks and a few travelers. The owner told me he has had many inquiries from “boomers” and others that have the back-road bug and he is reopening. Something to watch.

Traffic remained thin was fine until be reached Orangeburg. It was packed with people and cars, many with out-of-state tags. Parking lots were full and tents set up wherever they could be positioned. Smoke wafted up from grills at one tailgate party after the next. The city looked like a homecoming football weekend at UGA.

Still headed to St. Matthews, we struggled through Orangeburg and crossed over I-26. The fields and parking spots were again crowed with viewers. One farmer had roped off about 5 acres, brought in two porta-potties and erected a sign, “Eclipse Viewing - $5.00.” With about two hours to go, he already had several customers.

We snaked along through the traffic and spotted a wonderful place. A large shopping center parking lot with shade trees and plenty of viewing company. We found an outside row parking spot, right across from a vacant shade tree. We parked and set up our folding chairs and were shortly joined by a couple from Orlando. An interesting guy who was a NASA engineer who had worked on the Space Shuttle among a lot of other rocket things. We talked as we waited and he put my usually great war stories to shame with his adventures.  

Before the event I walked around the parking lot to take in the crowed. One guy was wearing a full hat made of aluminum foil. He said it was for protection, because one never knows. I quickly moved on to another interesting guy. He had outfitted his dog with a pair of the hard to find eclipse glasses. I asked him about that and he said the dog was his best friend. Not original, but OK with me. Cooking, music, and a lot of not-too-well camouflaged beer.

I met people from Alabama, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and even as far away as New York. All had made the trip just for the eclipse. They weren’t all old retirees who could jump in the car and go. Many were young families with kids and a lot of college students. It was an interesting parking lot; all ethnic groups, ages and economic groups were represented.

One bunch struck me as funny. A couple of families of 10 or so cooking and eating. I asked if I could take their picture and somebody grunted, OK. I snapped one and said I was doing a little research for my back-home newspaper. As if on cue, they formed up in a nice group and said to take another picture.

Back at my shade tree I had a few minutes to spare. As the sun began to be covered I looked through my glasses and saw the eclipse just has we have seen it in the science books. As it continued, the sun remained bright, reflecting off the cars, but it began to slowly get hazy. As the eclipse progressed the partying crowed got very quiet. Folks got up and stood watching, nobody saying a word.

At totality, it did not get midnight dark as I had expected but something of a darker than normal deep twilight. The sun was completely covered, but light was still reflecting off the sky to a degree. Then the reverse as it slowly returned to full sunlight. People then began talking to each other, comparing their views and thoughts. A very sober crowd and I had a feeling, as I think most did, that we had just seen a special event and received a message from the heavens.

Folks milled around for a bit, then began to load and depart. Chong and I sat for a while with our new friends from Orlando, then headed south when the traffic had died down a bit. Traffic was heavy back down to I-26 and into Orangeburg. Once past Orangeburg traffic thinned out and we had a nice drive to Statesboro for a dinner stop.

We got home right on schedule as it was starting to get dark. I looked up; was this another eclipse? No, not until April 8, 2024. That one sweeps across Texas from Mexico, up the Mississippi valley, across New York and into Canada. Chong and I are going to pick out a nice spot on the river near St Louis for this one. Maybe we will see you there.

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