Photo by James Kelly

Our Appetite for Awe: Eclipse 2024

James Kelly


Managing Editor


From the ridgeline upon which U.S. Route 302 unwinds in Littleton, NH, I could see a magnificent view of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. Its snow-capped peak poked above the horizon beyond sprawling marshland and the Ammonoosuc River. It was, in a word, awesome.

I learned what “awesome” really means at some point in elementary school, which gave me the smugness of an eight-year-old who knew a word his friends didn’t. Of course, my friends used the word “awesome” all the time. But they didn’t, as far as I was concerned, use it correctly. I learned awesome isn’t a synonym for cool; awesome means filled with awe. “Is recess really ‘awesome’?” I would ask. “Does it really inspire awe?”

I stopped in Littleton on the way home from Lancaster, NH, where I viewed April 8’s solar eclipse in totality with PSU students Luke Young and Jessen Delaney. That was an awesome experience.

Jessen Delaney views the solar eclipse in Lancaster, NH. Photo by James Kelly.

Lancaster rests on New Hampshire’s western border. It has one supermarket and two covered bridges. We drove in on dirt roads and winding state highways along the Connecticut River, lined with cow pastures and collapsed barns and rusty tractors. The small town, which has a population of around 3,200 people, prepared for as many as 40,000 eclipse tourists. As the eclipse neared, parked cars – Subarus with bumper sticker plastered backs – crowded the shoulders of roads into town. Eager tourists stared into the sky with cardboard glasses and elaborate telescopes and cameras from the side of the road. 

While driving into town, we passed a group of firefighters who sat in the Dalton Fire and Rescue parking lot, a row of chairs set up in front of a big red fire engine. We passed a woman selling eclipse glasses for $10 from her driveway on NH Route 113 to the desperate or forgetful. We passed a group of young men holding a large piece of plywood. “You honk, we drink,” the sign read.

Our final destination was Colonel Town Park in Lancaster. We arrived and found hundreds of people spread out on a playground and overlapping softball fields. They sat in folding chairs and on blankets. They played on swing sets and a metal slide. They threw footballs and frisbees. They flew drones and played Marco Polo. They picnicked in the field and tailgated in the parking lot. 

We shared a picnic blanket and stared at the cloudless sky, a fortunate anomaly in a town with “essentially constant cloud cover” in April. Soon, totality approached. It was subtle at first, the sky fading into a gentle orange at its fringes. “Looks funny,” Young said of the Sun. “It’s so skinny.” But as the moon covered more of the sun, the light concentrated until it was finally a tiny speck like the sparkle of an eye. 

And then it was dark.

So we cheered. We “ooh”ed and we “ahh”ed. We hollered. And it was awesome. It was like the finale to a Fourth of July fireworks show, except we were all watching the same fireworks – hundreds of millions of us. “It just looks surreal,” Young said. “Wow.” Delaney spotted gray “shadow bands” on the ground in the moments immediately following totality. “That was like, one million percent worth it,” he said.

Soon the sun reappeared, bringing with it a midday sunrise and clouds that could’ve been tragic just 10 minutes before, and the crowd dissipated. We started home and stopped in nearby Littleton for dinner to wait out the (immense) traffic. We stopped at an Applebee’s, and, with the Applebee’s parking lot as our viewing platform, we admired Mt. Washington, our second truly awesome sight of the day. 

I can imagine that, in the same way ancient humans may have been overwhelmed with terrible awe from an unexpected eclipse sun-death, they may have been delighted by the awe of the White Mountains. And I would have been delighted too, except for the fact that we admired Mt. Washington from an Applebee’s parking lot, next to parking lots for Gamestop, Walmart, and Dollar Tree, and with our view of Mt. Washington partially obstructed by a Jersey Mike’s. 

Humanity has an appetite for awe – the eclipse proved as much – but it is too often suppressed. Colonel Town Park seemed like an eclipse-viewing exception. The fact of the matter is most people were relegated to parking lots and the side of the road. Among the more popular Lancaster locations for eclipse viewing was the Valero Diesel station, where eclipse watchers set up folding chairs in a dirt lot for eighteen-wheelers, bulldozers, and excavators. 

Nightmare eclipse traffic stories prove the same. What is ordinarily a two-hour round-trip drive took me seven hours, and many travelers had to pull all-nighters to get home. 150 years ago, we could’ve taken the train, but we have regressed. And of course, Littleton planners decided strip malls were more important than preserving views of Mt. Washington, even though the town depends on its relationship with the White Mountains to maintain its tourism-oriented economy. 

Gridlock on 93 North before the eclipse, near Woodstock, NH. Photo by James Kelly.

It took a significant investment for most people to see the eclipse. We traveled. We skipped work and school. We gave up our Mondays and spent lots of money to stare at the sky. All for a few minutes of awe. “Totality Is Worth It,” The Atlantic declared. We all want to be awed; we should encourage awesome opportunities.