Kim Nelson: Eclipse Day

On Monday, August 21st, a swath of land across North America experienced a total solar eclipse. It was the first eclipse to reach from coast to coast since 1918 and one of the biggest astronomical events in decades.

My husband Kurt, 4 friends, and I had rented an Airbnb in Lake of the Ozarks, with the plan to wake up early Monday morning and drive an hour to Columbia, MO, which sat directly in the path of totality, the area from which you could get a view of the complete eclipse.

It was a 7-hour drive to the Ozarks. We stopped at a gas station in rural Missouri; outside the comfortable air-conditioned car, the air was hot and humid, pushing 90 degrees. I walked my dog in a grassy area to stretch our legs, and saw a Confederate flag in front of a house across the street. Just a few weeks earlier, the NAACP had issued a travel advisory for people of color traveling in the state of Missouri, warning them to use “extreme caution while visiting.” It was the first time the organization had ever issued an alert of this kind. This was 8 days after the rally and counter-protests in Charlottesville.

What are these times we are living in?? We have travel advisories for minorities, Nazis marching in the street, the moon is blocking out the sun, and half the country is either under water or on fire. It’s not hard not to feel like we’re living in some sort of dystopian novel. I’ve grown to feel a sense of dread every morning when I first look at my phone, afraid of what news broke while I was sleeping, what world I’ve woken up to.

On the morning of August 21st, we woke up to a warm and muggy day. My friends and I loaded our coolers and camping chairs into the car, and made the hour-long drive to our destination, a large park in town where an eclipse festival was scheduled. A series of soccer and baseball fields stretched along the length of a giant parking lot. Food vendors and a stage for local bands filled one of the fields. We found a large swatch of grass beneath a small tree, where we could sit in its shade for the hours leading up to the eclipse, and set up our stuff. It was still early, with the parking lot filling quickly. There was a black leather motorcycle vest covered in patches laid on the grass beneath the tree, next to a small blanket, but their owners were nowhere to be seen.

We had a few hours to wait out before the eclipse started. I put on a playlist from my phone over a small bluetooth speaker, a collection of songs that my friends and I had come up with in honor of the day. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Blinded By the Light,” “Sunglasses at Night,” “Steal My Sunshine.” Clustering under the small tree for shade as the temperature continued to rise, we began digging into the cooler for some of the ice-chilled beer we had brought along. It started to feel like a party as we watched people walk back and forth from the vendors with cold beers, eclipse glasses, and souvenir t-shirts. My dog chilled out next to me under the tree, her water bowl topped off with a few ice cubes. A song from “Little Shop of Horrors” came on next, staying on theme.

“I like your music selections,” someone said. I turned around. Our two neighbors had returned to their saved places beneath the tree. My dog stretched to the end of her leash to give them a friendly sniff, and they both reached out to pet her. She immediately curled her body towards them in a show of trust, ready to receive their friendship, proving that dogs will always be better than humans. We made introductions: Stephano was the owner of the motorcycle vest; he was a little older than us, and originally from New Jersey. Next to him was Josh, a 21-year-old theater major from Alpine, Texas, who had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive for 16 hours by himself to see the eclipse. Both had expected to be alone for the day until they ran into each other by chance when Josh parked his car next to Stefano’s chopper in the lot and struck up a conversation. And now, their new acquaintances included us: 6 nerds from Chicago with a cooler full of craft beer, a friendly dog, a pun-tastic playlist, and lots of opinions about the previous night’s Game of Thrones episode.

The friendly conversation and steady flow of beer made time pass quickly, until the first phase of the eclipse began shortly before noon. We put on our protective glasses; through the polymer lenses, the sun glowed orange and fierce, a perfect orb until the first sliver was blacked out by the approaching moon. You could feel the excitement level rise throughout the park. The summer sky grew noticeably darker. Through our glasses, the darkness of the moon continued to take a bite out of the sun like an interstellar Pac-Man. The buzz of voices fell to a quiet hush as the moment of totality neared. I turned off my playlist, letting the sounds of nature take over. Cicadas pulsed from the trees. A soft wind rippled the leaves and cooled our sweaty skin. We watched the final crescent of sun slip away, and took off our glasses, safely able to observe with our naked eyes. The sky was dark as night, the sun fully eclipsed, a glowing ring of light around its shadowed center. In the darkness, we could see the solar corona, the aura of light created by the sun’s burning gases. It was the softest, most beautiful light I had ever seen, a white hazy glow with shimmers of pale blue, difficult to describe in a way that does it justice. The crowd was silent, awestruck. In that moment, I felt like was I looking at the universe, flooded with an awareness of how small we all are, how our lifetimes are as fleeting and fragile as the soft white glitter that sparkled around the horizon of the sun’s corona. I thought about how there were so many of us standing in football fields or backyards or office parking lots across the country, all witnessing this same moment, feeling this same emotion. Thousands and thousands of people, all looking up.

To my left, I heard a soft whisper from my friends, old and new. They were passing a bottle of beer around our small circle. “Eclipse beer,” we each said in a low voice as we took a sip then passed it to the next person, a sacrament that we made up in the moment. I felt tears in the corners of my eyes. Right now, the world may be fucked up and cruel and randomly chaotic, but it is also beautiful and transcendent and divine. We’re all just people passing each other by at any given moment, changing the atmosphere with the words we use, the thousands of tiny choices we make every single day to either be kind or to be cruel. For those two minutes of totality, I was surrounded by love and kindness. I witnessed that moment with my husband and our awesome dog, who curled up at our feet, guarding us from harm as she always does. We were with our best friends, people who I first met when I was 16 years old and carried a pager with a Spice Girls sticker on it, and now we are on the cusp of our 40’s. We shared our circle with two new friends from opposite sides of this divided country, two people separated by decades of age and vastly different backgrounds but had no trouble forging an immediate friendship, able to easily share a conversation for a few hours on a muggy summer day. The bottle of beer kept circling until it was gone, and as the seconds passed, the eclipse ended too. As the rays peeking out from behind the moon grew stronger, we knew it was time to put our glasses back on. The fleeting chance to stare directly into the sky was over. Sounds began to fill the air again, murmurs of conversation, some cheers, some sighs. I turned the playlist back on, and a song cued up, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

We waited out the mad dash of cars as the crowds tried to get a jumpstart on the drive back home. Eventually, we would head to a taqueria in downtown Columbia with our new friends and exchange social media info to keep in touch, joking that we’ll see each other again in 2024 for the next eclipse. But in that moment on the grass, still thinking of the sight we’d just witnessed together,  we didn’t have anywhere to be, and we had good company and a cooler full of beer. There was no need to rush.

 

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