ATHENS, Tenn. — Shouts, cheers and weeping filled a packed Athens Regional Park when the sun went away for a few minutes on Monday.
"Oh, my God — there it goes!" yelled one woman during the brief night of the 2017 Eclipse, which gave Athens about 2 minutes and 30 seconds of totality, during which white tendrils of the sun's light swayed around the dark, blotting moon.
"This is unbelievable!" another woman shouted. "I can't get over this!"
Some people stood and stared, while others stretched out like sunbathers as they shared an event like no other. Overhead, birds suddenly took flight, and a shining star burned brightly in the northwestern sky. Night bugs chattered in the nearby trees.
When a sliver of the sun finally peaked around the moon's curvature, its powerful light — although filtered — brought the day back.
"It was a spiritual experience," Misty Chessor, a West Tennessee nurse practitioner, said in the growing daylight of post-totality.
Lydia Nichols, who travelled from Richmond, Va., with family and friends, said the event far exceeds the visual senses.
"I mean, I've seen pictures of what a total eclipse looks like, so I knew what I'd see, but it was more than that," Nichols said. "There was the light, the sound and the temperature change that made up the whole experience."
Before totality, children and grownups alike surrounded a cardboard eclipse viewer constructed by David Landy, described as the "science geek" of Nichols' group.
Good vibes weren't hard to find in the hours leading up to totality. Athens Parks and Recreation offered eclipse viewers to visitors, who had filled the park before noon, and buoyed their spirits with SunDrop drinks and MoonPie giveaways. All over the park, people got to know strangers who came from near and far to watch the cosmic show.
For Dennis Stuart, a retired platoon leader in the 101st Airborne Division, the eclipse experience has been a year in the making. He and wife Susan came from Houston, Texas, to witness it. To record the event, he brought tripod-mounted cameras with homemade filters and aiming tubes.
"I've been planning for this a year in advance," Stuart said. "I made hotel reservations in Kansas City and Athens."
Destination-wise, it was a close call, he said. The changing weather forecasts made him pick Athens just before the weekend.
"This was a lifetime experience, truly, truly," he said. "I'm 98 percent positive I've got some really good [pictures]."
Susan praised the dedication and work her husband put into preparing for the event. She laughed and said it's also the first time she left for a trip without knowing where she was going.
"This was absolutely amazing," she said, comparing it to a partial eclipse she has seen. "It was way more than I thought it would be. It was worth every second of the trip."
Paul Beck, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who now works as a commercial pilot in Atlanta, said his plan was a little more basic: he just took off on Interstate 75 in the early dawn hours with Athens in mind. A local fast food restaurant steered him to the park.
"Of course, I meet all these wonderful and interesting people who came," Beck said, easily mingling with several families who had gathered in and around pavilions and playgrounds at the edge of a soccer field.
The eclipse also attracted plenty of near-locals to Athens.
"I brought my sons here," Danielle Jackson, who works at McKee Foods, said. "I mostly came here for them."
Jackson said she had thought about going to Cleveland, but Athens' total eclipse time was longer. After the event, she said it was absolutely worth the trip.
Tabitha Croucher of Lookout Mountain, Ga., said it was worth bringing her kids to see the total eclipse. Like others, she has seen a partial eclipse and said they cannot really be compared.
Even as the sky returned to normal and the cars stacked up to leave in the simmering afternoon temperatures, anyone could hear excited talking and laughter wherever they went.
"We could think of no better excuse for visiting Tennessee," Claudia Chandler, an artist from Croghan, N.Y., said.
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.