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A total eclipse of our hearts

August 24, 2017

I hate the phrase “once in a lifetime.” I reject the whole idea.  If something is wonderful, why limit the experience.  I haven’t been back to Nepal yet, but I know I’ll get there.  And there have been many adventures since.

Since it was 1979 the last time there was a total solar eclipse and it didn’t make it to Maine anyway, it occurred to me late last week that this eclipse might actually be once in a lifetime and I should get to it.

I convinced my friend Lynn to bring her two daughters (11 and 7) and join me. Convincing involved mostly saying “hey, let’s do this.” and Lynn saying “okay!”

Like most of you, I’ve been a bit heartsick about the state of our country.  Between the events in Charlottesville, the president’s appalling response and the reality that there seem to really be two Americas, I was a little hesitant to head south.   Lynn is African-American, her daughters are mixed race.  We decided laugh at the many possible responses we might encounter heading to that part of the world with our New York license plates.

What we encountered were a lot of confederate flags, a lot of signs reminding us that “Jesus Saves” and quoting various Bible versus, banners on the hotels proudly stating they were “American Owned,” and a lot of really nice people.  It was confusing.

Our first stop was Lancaster, PA, where we hoped to lunch with the Amish.  We popped into a Home Depot to see if we could find something with which to watch the eclipse.  Dave, the eclipse enthusiast greeter, told us far more than we needed to know about the science behind what we were to witness, and sent us in search of welding glasses.  They were all sold out.  We thanked Dave as we left and he say, why don’t you come back at 2.  It was 12:30, but we headed to Walmart for a picnic blanket and then camped out at a Ruby Tuesday til the appointed time.  The Amish would have to be rescheduled.  When we got back, Dave handed us three eclipse glasses, apologizing that he didn’t have a fourth.

Back on the road, we stopped for gas at the West Virginia boarder.  My companions popped inside while I got us fueled up.  And locked the keys in the car.  It is a unique sinking feeling when you know you’ve done something you can’t undo.  This was that.

But inside the service station two women with rainbow hair, lots of makeup, and big smiles handed me a phone and said – “happens all the time.  Don’t worry.”  We bought some playing cards, found a slightly shaded patch of grass behind the pumps and waited for help.  Help arrived quickly in the form of a tow truck driver with a blood pressure guage that he used to open the window enough to reach in and unlock it.  He asked us where we were from and going,  laughed as we came very close to locking the door a second time as he was getting in his truck to leave, and followed us to make sure we closed all the doors properly.  I’m certain there was a cape hiding beneath his overalls.

A sleepover on the road, weirdly good Mexican food in Lancaster, VA, and another few hours on the road, we arrived in Pigeon Forge, TN.  The town, whatever it may have been, is now dominated by what is essentially a carnival midway with go-karts, rides, and tacky t-shirt stores.  Most also have bible verses on the walls.  The Old Mill, now a restaurant, was booked so we ate at its sister spot, the Pottery House, were all our dishware was locally made.  As readers of this blog know, I love a hiking store and Hikey Mikey’s looked right up my alley, but alas it was closed.  We went to the distillery instead, where I indulged in the moonshine tasting (and bought some for home) and headed back to the Go-Karts.  I learned the following:  I am a chicken in a Go-Kart.

A bit more wondering and it was off to sleep.

Worried about traffic, we rose early to head to Cades Cove in the Smokies.  The drive took us winding up the mountain with no other cars in sight.  Know for its wildlife, we were thrilled to spot a wild turkey, deer, and very friendly raccoon along the way.

We found the traffic in our last six miles.  Along the way, there were beautiful fields that seduced many travelers into pulling off and setting up camp there.  We hung in (despite a lot of wingeing – all on my part) and made it to a large park.  Rangers directed us where to park and we joined a growing crowd setting up chairs and blankets.  Rangers and volunteers were on hand to answer questions and hand out eclipse glasses (we have so many now.  If anyone needs them for 2024, I’m your girl!)

Penelope, 11 or 12 (I should know) and I took a long walk to an old mill, still in use, where I bought some corn meal (cornbread at my place!), waded into the mill stream (something her mother would kill me for if she knew) and indulged in the many activities set up for kids – chalk drawings of the eclipse, bracelet making, etc.  Jess and Jenn, two high school volunteers talked us through the stages of the eclipse – partial, solar flairs, diamond ring, total.  We went back refreshed and excited.

There were likely a thousand or more people waiting in the vast field.  We’d come from all over America and we represented America.  Everyone, young and old, black and white and in between, were in great spirits.  People chatted, shared food and travel tips (you really need to go to the Dolly Parton Jamboree, we heard more than once).  The conviviality felt so helpful.  Lynn chatted for a long time with a leather faced man from Georgia who teased hear about the “War of Northern Aggression,” but delighted in sharing his experiences in New York.

I felt hopeful for the first time since I saw video of a car driving into protestors in Charlottesville.  Either that or we were like the people inIndependence Day who rushed to welcome the aliens, and ended up… well, you know.

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Then it happened.  It was incredible.  As the moon slowly moved in front of the sun, we looked up, noted that it was cool, and kept talking.  About 45 minutes later, the totality began, the tiny sliver of sun disappeared as red solar flares danced around the sun.  A cheer went up in our field and sunset colors dotted the horizon.  Crickets started singing and a bat whooshed by,  And then the diamond ring appeared and the sun began to peek back through.

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It was amazing!

High on nature we returned to Pigeon Forge for catfish and sweet tea and more Go-Kart racing.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the surprisingly well done Titanic Museum where an actual Titanic deck chair got me a little teary.  We were all given the identity of an actual passenger and followed their journey to see if they survived or not (we all did – I suspect most people do).

Our drive home was a sad one.  While I definitely don’t think the south is for me long-term, I loved the moment when we all united as a country to awe at the power of nature. We are all small specks, very similar to one another with more in common than not.  I hope we don’t have to wait til 2024 for another reminder of that.

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