I may be the only person who drove 400 miles not to see the eclipse.
To family and friends I billed my spur-of-the-moment trip as an adventure, a late summer vacation. To myself, I needed to step into the freedom and risk of the unknown. The Great American Eclipse was my excuse to do so.
A total solar eclipse is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime experience almost unavoidably shared because its path is so narrow. It brings people together like few things do anymore.
When they learned I was alone, several kind strangers invited me to follow them to the line of totality. Plenty of towns along that path had eclipse-related events I could join. I politely declined. I wanted nothing, no one, to obscure the experience.
My first “eclipse” was in 1961. I was an 8-year-old walking home from school. Suddenly the familiar houses and the elm-lined streets of LaGrange blurred. Even the steady hum of cars from Ogden Avenue faded. The green canopy of trees swayed in the light and I with it.
As in a trance, I was drawn into a cosmic theater, absolutely alone. It was a moment of totality I was completely unprepared for. The sun didn’t disappear, but I saw nothing, as if I stood in utter darkness.
That was when I felt it—a dizzying sense of self. That first moment when I realized, No one sees the world as I do. No one says the world as I do. I was meant to be. I touched my arm, never more sure of who I was.
Sunday afternoon I arrived in Jamesport, Missouri, population 505, where, thanks to a cancellation, I snagged a room. In Jamesport, nearly every house was in need of repair or the wrecking ball. Only the Mennonites seemed to be thriving. They ran the one café and bakery that offered a special eclipse buffet for $7.99. They operated a gourmet coffee shop down from a shop that sold hand-dipped candles. They offered horse-drawn carriage tours, though of what I wasn’t sure. Just south of town was another Mennonite-run bakery where long-time resident Blanche Archer told me, “I’ve never had anything I didn’t like.”
Only one road in town was paved. This was the road, which split south, that Blanche suggested I take to Chillicothe, a town 30 miles away, where I’d decided to view the eclipse. The vistas of farmland swelling and rolling to the horizon in early light rivaled any drive I’ve ever taken.
When I got to Chillicothe, with four hours to spare, I sat in my car by the high school and read as a wall of clouds, followed by a thunderstorm, moved in. Later the sheriff saw me and said I couldn’t park there because students would be arriving soon.
I drove to a bank parking lot. A few other cars pulled in. We didn’t huddle together. The young woman next to me spent most of the time looking at her phone. Most days I wonder if we haven’t lost our way. How many of us privately hoped the eclipse would bring this crazy world to its knees and make us believers again?
Moments before the totality, the rain stopped and the sky cleared just enough so I caught glimpses of the eclipse. I saw a lip of disappearing sun before clouds obscured the totality. I saw a thin band of red on the horizon and felt the temperature drop as the sky turned a deep blue gray. Somewhere a group of young viewers laughed. One woman shouted, “I saw it!”
Then a thin curve of light, like a new moon, glowed. The bigger the curve, the yellower it became. I wanted it to be gold, but the color was neon and garish. As the moon’s shadow slid by, the curve bloated until it became the sun again. I saw no ring of fire. I didn’t witness a cape of darkness hurtling across the land.
“Go out and stand on the mountain, for the Lord is about to pass by,” came the word of God to Elijah, who was hiding in a cave. It took wind, an earthquake, fire, and then sheer silence before Elijah emerged.
The mountain we stand on or the cave we hide in is our own. The Great American Eclipse called me out of my cave. Often too comfortable, too in control, too safe, I needed to go far away and stand among strangers to be reminded that risks are worth taking because more often than not, they bring us closer to our essential selves.
I leaned against the car, my neck tipped awkwardly back, and peered through special glasses to see what, if anything, I could see. Mainly I felt the earth, solid and sure, beneath me. I heard a mourning dove. With the certainty of a child I knew that who I was created to be and what I believe matter more than anything my eyes will ever behold.