Column: Concerns about solar eclipse are real

Writer Pam Cottrel shares her memories of 2017 trip to Kentucky to see eclipse.

The April 8 eclipse is a bigger deal than many in this community realize. Even though we’ve been warned, it is still difficult for some of us to understand how an eclipse can cause problems.

Well, let me tell you, the concerns are real.

• MORE ECLIPSE: When to see it in Ohio | How to do a watch party | How to take photos of the eclipse

In 2017 my husband and I got this wild idea to drive south to see the total eclipse near Bowling Green, Ky. When we took off south, we had just enough time to get to the zone of totality before the big show.

Traffic was at first about the same as a busy holiday weekend, but it became more erratic as we got closer to “The Zone.” Speeds increased. They were driving like bats and switching lanes without warning.

The cars were from everywhere, not just from neighboring states. There were cars from Canada, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.

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We were happy to get off the interstate at the county exit far from town where we planned to watch the eclipse in peace and quiet. Ha.

All the lots for gas stations, fast food and truck stops were full. Cars were parked on both sides of the road. People were sitting on top of their cars with the eclipse glasses on. And of course some idiots brought speakers so we all could enjoy their awful music. Some folks were walking around looking up and stepping in front of moving cars. Yikes!

We parked just before totality. I must admit to having a “When the World Stood Still” feeling as we all put on our eclipse glasses and looked up at the same thing, like we were watching an arriving space ship.

The whole thing went somewhat quickly. The dark was kind of a twilight kind of dark. Security lights at gas stations came on. There was a cool night wind that rushed along with the eclipse. I wished I had sweater.

Then as fast as the sun was hidden, it began to peek out from the other side. We stayed until the sun was whole again.

And then it happened.

At the same time everyone jumped into their cars to go home. And I do mean everyone. Everyone hit the road at once.

It was the Mama of all traffic jams.

We waited awhile before pulling onto I-65, but we didn’t wait long enough. Traffic alternated between walking speed and parking. People stopped for gas and snacks to wait out the jam.

Our cell phone was unreliable because suddenly thousands of people were using their maps at the same time. Everybody else in the vehicles were sending photos to friends, checking their messages and playing games, etc.

By the time we crawled to the next exit, the gas station’s tanks were empty. We were famished, but the inside of the food area looked like a scene in “World War Z.” There were empty shelves, empty wrappers on the floors next to spilled sodas and crushed cups. The convenience store clerk was having trouble with the credit card payments because his WIFI was disrupted. The restrooms were unusable. People parked along the highway and wandered off into the trees instead or hid in the bushes near gas stations.

We decided to take a small rural road across the state to get away from the traffic jam. We went at a normal speed for a few miles until we caught up with the other cars with the same idea going slowly. It was beginning to look like the evacuation sequence in War of the Worlds.

If we would have had cell service, I imagine all the highways would have been red. It was state-wide gridlock. So we just relaxed and slowly progressed down those roads less traveled. The scenery was lovely until it got dark. It’s really, really dark in Kentucky at night. It took us hours to get home.

So, I’m telling you that the warnings about the upcoming April 8 eclipse are real. The number of people heading our way is scary.

Only if we are prepared can we enjoy it.

Make sure your gas tank is full, even if you are staying home to watch the eclipse and aren’t going anywhere. Why? Because the out-of-towners and out of state folks might empty our gas stations as they fill their tanks to go home.

If you can, buy snacks and groceries enough to get you through the eclipse plus a couple of days. And just plant yourself someplace comfortable for the show.

Don’t count on your cell phone. Landlines will rule. ATMs might not work or be empty.

All our emergency responders are going to be busy. Remember that. One multiple car accident on I -70 and we might end up with back roads full of out-of-towners trying to take a short cut … and getting lost.

And one more thought:

The eclipse will be on April 8 during the spring in Ohio. There are no guarantees we will even see it. There will be no rain date. If it’s cloudy or raining, we will just experience a few minutes of darkness during the rain but we won’t get to look at the sun through our fancy glasses. There probably won’t be any crowds or traffic either. Oh well…..

This time we intend to plant ourselves in one place early and not move again until the traffic settles down. If we are prepared, this once in a lifetime eclipse will be memorable in a good way.

Pam Cottrel is a weekly columnist for the Springfield News-Sun.

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