Editor's Note — For complete coverage of the Eclipse of the Century go to cnn.com/eclipse
Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) — Three minutes before darkness fell in the middle of a hot South Carolina afternoon, Angela Picot and her sisters noticed that the crickets had started chirping.
At 2:40 p.m. ET, one minute before the sun was completely blocked by the moon, the streetlights at the South Carolina State Capitol complex turned on. Those gathered started cheering as the city of Columbia plunged into complete darkness and the sun's corona became visible to the naked eye.
"That was worth the entire trip," Picot said. "It was totally worth it."
When Picot saw the path of the 2017 solar eclipse on NASA's website last October, she knew she was heading to South Carolina.
A high school engineering teacher in Smithfield, Virginia, Picot drove six hours on Friday, August 18, to her sister's place in Columbia, bringing her 14-year-old daughter Kylie Sawyer and her friend Zaria Jones, also 14, along for the ride.
Picot was a teenager when she witnessed a partial eclipse coming through Beaufort, South Carolina, which inspired her love of science.
"I thought it would be cool for my daughter to see it," said Picot. "I wanted her to witness one and be in totality. I'm going to take pictures and take it back to my engineering class and talk about different techniques NASA uses to predict the path and the timing and all the math they use."
It worked, her daughter said. "I thought it was cool, and when they ask what will inspire my next art assignment, it will be this."
The sun was completely blocked by the moon for a brief period on Monday, August 21, along a path from Oregon to South Carolina.
The nation's first total solar eclipse since 1979, the 2017 eclipse was the first to cross from the West Coast to the East Coast since 1918, with "the path of totality" along the way up to 70 miles wide.
Nearly 12.2 million Americans live in the path of totality, stretching across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina, but NASA predicted that millions more would drive to witness the event on Monday.
"About 200 million people (nearly two-thirds of the nation's population) live within one day's drive of the path of this total eclipse," the agency said.
Cities from Salem, Oregon, to Columbia, South Carolina, hosted viewing parties and concerts, art installations and sporting events to mark the eclipse.
Many travelers are longtime science fans or adventure travelers who made their travel plans years ago to head to the towns, small and large, along the path of totality.
Other travelers got excited at the last minute and paid higher-than-normal rates to book hotel rooms or homes along the path.
Mother Nature offered no guarantees
Travelers such as Steve Sarner of Nevada City, California, who flew to Portland, Oregon, and then drove to Salem, Oregon, watched the forest fire and weather reports during the days preceding the eclipse, knowing that smoke and cloud cover could wash away their plans.
"Weather is the one thing that you can't control," said CNN Senior Meteorologist Brandon Miller. "You can plan around traffic, book hotels early, find the best location with the best view -- but if the weather is poor, with clouds and rain -- there is nothing you can do about that."
Miller promises it's still worth the trip.
"Even under clouds and rain, it will still get dark. Enjoy the experience, the camaraderie -- it's a welcome break for everyone."
Saying 'I do' during the eclipse
Self-described science nerds and fans of scientists Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Angela Babcock and James Odell fell in love during the NASA's New Horizons probe making the first-ever flyby of Pluto in 2015.
"When that heart showed up on the surface of Pluto, it was about the most romantic outcome I could have imagined," Babcock told CNN.
Their mutual love of space inspired them to plan their wedding for during the eclipse in Moore, Idaho, on the property that her great-grandfather farmed 100 years ago. Babcock grew up in Arco, Idaho, a few miles south of Moore.
"We will start the ceremony before totality hits and pause for about 10 minutes to take in the eclipse," Babcock said, speaking before the ceremony.
"Then, when the sun breaks through, we will be pronounced husband and wife."
The South gets into the act
Many eclipse fans along the US East Coast traveled to the Southern states of Georgia, South and North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee to spot this natural phenomenon, including Greg Hogan of Kathleen, Georgia.
Hogan started planning a year ago for the adventure that led him, his wife and three boys to make the drive and stay with friends in Ten Mile, Tennessee.
"As a kid, I have always been fascinated by it, over the last four years I have really picked up a more serious interest in the photography side of it all," said Hogan, who posts many of his night sky shots on his website and social media accounts.
A total eclipse of the heart (cruise)
Nine months ago, Katie Carpenter of Jacksonville, Florida, decided to celebrate finishing her Master's of Science degree, her mom's retirement and her son's 10th birthday on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas solar eclipse cruise.
The ship sailed to a spot a few hundred miles off the East Coast of Florida in the Caribbean for the event.
And yes, Carpenter and her family got tickets to attend the onboard concert featuring Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, whose song "Total Eclipse of the Heart" became an anthem for the 2017 eclipse.
"As I watched the last moment of the sun's illumination, the ship grew increasingly quiet," said Carpenter, who has loved space since she saw "Space Camp" as an 8-year-old. "Darkness was coming; we could all feel it and we knew change was coming.
"The final light was masked by the moon and the silence turned to cheering. During that moment, the strangers around us were no longer strangers, but we knew we would forever hold a connection in time. The darkness lasted about 2½ minutes. I found myself tearing up under my eclipse glasses. This is the only time I will stand on a cruise ship with my mom and my son and experience this once-in-a-lifetime moment."
The trip of a lifetime
James Seddon of San Diego said his father, Thomas, a retired physics teacher, started planning a big family eclipse trip to Wyoming over a year ago, after being diagnosed with cancer.
"My father has always been interested in astronomy," said Seddon. "He ran the astronomy club at various high schools (and) used his physics degree to work at a solar observatory over the summer."
"We weren't sure at every point over the last year that he would be here, or feel well enough to go. I'm happy to say he is feeling pretty good!"
His father's love of science has been passed along to the children and grandchildren, said Seddon.
"My brother and I also are interested and own our own backyard scopes. My son wants to be either an astronomer or astrophysicist when he grows up. My niece is also interested. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance at totality for all of us."
Catching a train at the last minute
Adventure traveler Gwen Mayes of Annapolis, Maryland, was riding a gondola up 10,000 feet to the summit at Keystone Resort outside Denver in late July when she and friend Wayne Kendrick decided to make plans to see the solar eclipse.
Within an hour, they had booked an overnight Amtrak from Washington to Charleston, South Carolina, an Airbnb apartment in the historic district, a kayak excursion, walking tour, car rental and more. (A week ago, Mayes says the host canceled, claiming he messed up the dates. They booked another spot at three times the rate, and Airbnb issued them a $400 discount.)
"It's really a (once in a) lifetime experience and Wayne and I are all about new adventures -- keeping active and exploring the people and places around us," she said.
A matter of perspective
For James Amerson, traveling to Russellville, Kentucky, with his husband, Jeff Griffey, and their friend Shirley Watson to see friends Jay and Cathy Joines for the eclipse was about much more than the momentary alignment of the sun, Earth and moon.
It's an incredibly small example "of how wondrous it is that we are here at all and that we have a self-awareness of our place in that vast arena," said Amerson, who lives in Pensacola, Florida.
Equipped with his telescope and camera, he couldn't wait to see the eclipse, "to stand on my tiny little piece of Earth and look up to the sky where my ancestors gazed and ponder my own reason for being here.
"It could be the wine, it could be the terror attacks or the hate and anger that flood our lives every day, but I am compelled to take the time to do this, to gather with friends and loved ones and patiently wait for this event."