It’s been decades since I last took astronomy seriously. I was a child geek — collecting NASA mission patches and staying up late for Perseid meteor showers, but then I became a young single parent and I started worrying about paying bills and I completely forgot about the things I loved as a child.
It’s easy to say, at this moment in history, that a silly astronomical observance like a total solar eclipse can’t hold a candle to our current national predicament, with nuclear war on the table one week, civil war on the table the following week and the constant threat of possible deaths if our sick family members lose their health insurance.
When I first heard that this eclipse was being called the Great American Eclipse, a shudder of pride passed down my spine. I’m not much of a nationalist, and I surprise myself every time I cry when I hear a patriotic song or snap to a salute when soldiers pass in parade, but I’m not going to fight raw emotion.
I love America and I want her to be great. But there’s something even greater about the adjectival use of the term American. After all, in this case, it’s the Eclipse that’s great. It just happens to take place solely inside of the United States, for the first time since our nation’s infancy in 1778.
When I was a little girl, there was still an Armory on Route 58 in Riverhead, and when my father drove us down that road, which back then was still surrounded by potato fields, we often ended up behind trucks filled with soldiers as they headed back to their stations. My father always urged us to wave and smile at the soldiers, which surprised and stuck with me, since the rest of my family was still suffering from the Vietnam-era soldier-hating haze of the 1970s.
“They have hard jobs,” he would say.
And then, when I was a little older, I ended up on a train through the center of Italy, a vacationer for sure, and obviously an American. If you ever have a chance to take a train in Italy, you should certainly do it, if for no other reason than for the shock of the door between the cars opening, and the Polizia walking down the aisles asking to see the riders’ identification papers. The Europeans on board will all concede, but the police will often skip right past the Americans, knowing we don’t take kindly to being asked for our papers.
We take our freedoms here for granted. Things are different in the rest of the world, and sometimes those differences are essential to prevent terror. Sometimes we get a taste of what that could look like here. Now is one of those times.
My sister and niece and I decided to get off our long island and have a look around America, heading straight into the path of totality for Monday’s eclipse, which conveniently was just an hour’s drive from my father’s house in Asheville, North Carolina.
We packed my car up after I finished work on Saturday, and grumbled as it took us three hours to get across the George Washington Bridge. We were so grouchy that we didn’t even think about our great nation-founder George Washington while we waited in his traffic mess on the Cross-Bronx Expressway.
If we had thought about him, we might have started a petition to have the bridge renamed the Horrible Mess Bridge in order to preserve our nation’s honor. But we didn’t. Too much time has elapsed for us to equate George Washington with horrible messes on bridges.
The traffic finally broke up in the New Jersey Palisades and we made a beeline for the nearest Cracker Barrel for a chicken dinner, then to a state park campsite in southern Pennsylvania.
Pitching our tent around midnight, we immediately fell asleep to the sound of American cicadas and the smell of the pines and smoldering campfires.
My boyfriend asked me later if I was scared to set up camp, surrounded by strangers, in the middle of the night. It was a shocking question to someone who spent a childhood comforted by the family spirit of campgrounds all around this country. When you are surrounded by other families who love the outdoors, there’s a sense of safety there that’s hard to describe. You’re with your tribe.
Route 81 hugs the western edge of the Commonwealth of Virginia like a date that won’t leave. Every time I drive down this highway, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” fills my head, “riding down that highway through the cradle of the Civil War.”
If you’re letting your cell phone navigation tell you where to go, Route 81 is also labeled Lee Highway by the grand overlords at Google, but the few remaining portions of the Robert E. Lee Highway system are actually smaller roads that parallel and bisect Route 81, named by the Lee Highway Association, convened in 1919 in Roanoke, Virginia, more than half a century after the end of the American Civil War.
The names of these roads are changing, as America evolves. The Lee Highway becomes the Lee Jackson Highway, and then turns into Greenville Avenue near the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton. If you take exit 221 east here for about 40 miles, you’ll end up in Charlottesville.
That thought made my traveling companions shudder. A lot of northeastern liberals are shuddering about the bulk of America right about now. That divide is not making anything better.
I say we rip open the ugly wounds we’ve been covering over with spit and shoeshine for the past 241 years and have this over once and for all. The Joint Chiefs of our military are standing behind diversity and our collective common good. I don’t think we have anything to be afraid of.
Except for fear, of course.
We’ve never had a better round of the license plate game than on this trip. From Texas to Michigan to Vermont, Florida, Ohio and New Mexico, America was converging on the center line of the path of totality, which stretched from the Oregon coast to South Carolina. Our one-day line was far south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a brand new demarcation that seemed to promise to unite America under the banner of science. Cynics might grumble that there’s not much uniting that can be done in two-and-a-half minutes of totality, but right now, that’s all we’ve got.
We learned other things on this road trip: Even the youngest millennial will wholeheartedly sing along, uncynically, to the chorus of “Sweet Caroline.” The line in The Beatles’ “Back in the U.S.S.R. is “show me round your snow-peaked mountains way down south,” not “show me round your Smoky Mountains way down south.” There aren’t any Smoky Mountains in Russia. Yet. Even if you hate dance music, a four-on-the-floor bass drum beat will keep you from falling asleep and crashing your Prius into a Confederate highway marker.
We piled in the car in Asheville early Monday morning, expecting heavy traffic en route to the Parker Meadows sports complex in Franklin, right on the center line. But what we found was clear roads and churches, churches, churches, opening up their parking lots, offering free hamburgers and hot dogs to eclipse-goers.
In the bowl of the sports complex, a site picked out on Google Earth a year ago by my dad’s neighbor, Frank Alvino, we were surrounded by a handful of North Carolinians having family picnics, far from the crush of America in the central festivities in Franklin and other towns along the center line. From pictures Rick Kedenburg of Peconic sent me from Custer Institute in Southold, the crowds for New York’s partial eclipse were larger than the crowd where we were.
But that was just fine. We set up our tripods and picnics. My niece put her eclipse glasses on her eyes and her earbuds in her ears. I didn’t ask what she was listening to. It’s better not to ask. None of us approaching 40 have a clue what the next generation is listening to, or what they already have planned to do to fix the mess we’re leaving to them. I’m planning to spend the second half of my life being constantly amazed by the miracles they’ll pull off. They’d better not let me down.
They say that no one is born an eclipse-chaser. They become an eclipse chaser after their first experience with totality.
It’s too soon for me to find the words to explain what happened to those of you who haven’t experienced totality. It’s nothing at all like experiencing a partial eclipse.
All I can say is it happened so quickly. My father was photographing shadow bands reflecting on the side of a Ford pickup truck at the moment totality began and he was so engrossed that we had to shout at him to let him know it was finally happening.
Shock sucked the breath out of our lungs. We all saw, and even managed to photograph, the ‘diamond ring’ around the moon in the eclipse’s first moments, created by the sun’s light shining through the canyons of the moon. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped precipitously and the parking lot lights kicked on.
I didn’t notice at the time, but later, in video footage, I saw the cumulous clouds that had stayed on the horizon all day had spawned cirrocumulus patches, racing toward the sun, attempting to cloud the final moments of the eclipse.
We’d just picked out bright Sirius, the dog star, and were beginning to look for the planets that would have been visible when people began shrieking and putting their eclipse glasses back on. The sun turned back on, casting an eerie glow like a post-thunderstorm brightness.
We sat for a while, trying to process what had happened, with no real words and no reason to say them. The novice photographer in me kicked myself 47 different ways for my inability to capture the moment in photos.
I spent a while just looking around, taking mental photographs on the faulty hard drive of my brain, to save for posterity: Little League fields, picnic benches, willow trees and pickleball courts. Recorded church bells on a loop in the distance. Mountains and thunderstorms, tailgates and camp chairs. All being loaded in the backs of SUVs and pickup trucks. We joined in the pack-up chorus and headed out to the congested highway.
The next round of the license plate game lasted five long hours. The traffic was epic, finally, as promised by the media. It was a little like a pre-hurricane trip down a Coastal Evacuation Route, without the panic.
In every car, pilgrims and families were all grinning ear-to-ear. We didn’t hear a single honk. Police and fire departments blocked off intersection traffic and calmly waved us down the highway, for hours upon hours. In a Waffle House parking lot, we stopped to stretch our legs while hordes of teenagers, all grinning, raced inside for pancakes and bacon and all other kinds of things that make this country great.
Then we headed back out onto the highway and continued peacefully on, to destinations hours or even days away, clogging the interstates and the scenic byways. One American tribe.