August 21, 2017
I open my eyes and squint at my glow watch in the dark. 5:40 am. No Paul in the bed. I make my way downstairs to where he sits on the couch with his laptop.
“Are you and Mom ready?”
“No. Getting ready was supposed to happen after you wake us up when there’s a plan.”
“There’s a plan.”
“I’ll wake her up. Where are we going?”
Our original plan, to depart the previous day for Columbia, Mo, was thwarted when the weather forecast shifted to mostly cloudy.
“And they’re saying maybe a thunderstorm” said cousin Jan on the phone, morose.
Carbondale, IL was also mostly cloudy. For a while Benton, KY, a mere two hours away from my mom’s house in Terre Haute, was a contender, until it also succumbed to a forecast of partly cloudy.
“So where, exactly?” I ask, as we assemble food–egg salad sandwiches, bottles of water and cookies–for the car.
“Hopkinsville. It should be mostly sunny, and the Waze says it’s a three-hour drive.”
Yes, we are chasing the eclipse.
There were concerns that the traffic would be impenetrable, that the gas stations might run out of gas, but except for a stretch of single lane traffic near some bridges under repair, the traffic flows, plus, we realize midway there, Hopkinsville is on Central time, so instead of arriving after nine, we’re in town by 8:30.
Handmade signs advertising $20 and $30 parking in people’s yards dot the road into town, but as early birds, we get a free parking spot on the curb just a couple blocks from downtown. There are just the beginnings of a crowd. Pedestrians emerging from hotels around town, others arriving by car and marveling at their parking luck. A line of people gathers at the 6th Street Café, which I assume is a breakfast spot. According to news reports, 25,000 people are coming for the eclipse, and the town has been celebrating through the weekend,with live music, food trucks and eclipse swag. But these festivities ended on Sunday, so although we see many eclipse-themed T-shirts, we see none for sale. The trucks with ice-cream, tacos and the like are not yet open, although the lemonade truck is doing brisk business already.
With the temperature rising, we wonder what we might do for the four hours until the celestial moment. The public library looks like a good prospect—especially since I have write a pitch that will be due soon after our return. (As Paul likes to say of our freelance life, “it isn’t a vacation if there’s not a deadline at the end of it.”) But approaching the front door, we see a sign saying the library is closed for the day.
I wander behind the building, and see a small valley with trees that looks cool and shady. It’s a trail that is part of the the town’s greenway. My mother and I take the path, which turns out to follow a slightly stagnant creek, and emerge at the end into a park that boasts some play equipment, a picnic area with three tables and a view to the street and a Sherwin-Williams Paints. It seems less-discovered than some other places, and there’s a place to sit, so we decide to settle in.
We’re sitting at a picnic table under a shelter. Next to me, my mom reads a book. Across from us, Paul plays on his new ipad. On the table, some potato chips and egg salad sandwiches, and, fluttering in the light breeze in a way that is slightly concerning, our cardboard solar glasses. I’ve got my laptop open, with hopes that the right words for my pitch will magically flow from my fingers, but I’m distracted, not unpleasantly, by the world of here and now.
The tables around us are occupied by a Spanish speaking family who I judge to be from Spain. Have they come all this way for the eclipse? Behind us is a very talkative teen. Non-stop talkative. He’s talking about how he purchased the biggest snow cone from one of the trucks. I can’t help but turn a sneak a look. It is large and every color of the rainbow. The pineapple section is sweeter than he’d expected, he notes, striking up a conversation with a couple perched on a cement barrier nearby. We had offered to share our table with the couple when they arrived, but they’d declined, perhaps wanting to avoid conversation. If that’s the case, their strategy has backfired. Where are they from, the teen asks. Indiana? He’s from Louisville, but he lived for a few years in Indiana. It was a fine place, in terms of the buildings, but over-strict laws. In elementary school his parents had spanked him—not abusive, he wants them to know, just the kind of discipline that was normal in Kentucky. But at school he’d told his teachers, who flipped out and started a year of oversight with a social worker before life could go back to normal, he said. The couple nods politely at this disclosure, and makes an excuse to relocate to a bench across the park.
A lone man comes and asks if it’s okay to sit at our table. We say of course. He is the first Asian man I’ve seen in the town beside my husband. I wonder if it’s coincidence that he would choose to sit next to my husband.
We debate our plans for the next couple hours. Should we stay in the park for the big moment, which is scheduled for 1:23pm? I lean toward this, liking the idea of viewing the event in a leisurely manner from the grassy field. Paul is of the opinion that we should make our way to the car before the eclipse, so that the moment after the moment of totality we can beat the rush to the highway back home. We leave it undecided.
This is the official start time of the eclipse, and everyone looks through their glasses at the sun—a glowing sphere that through an E15 filter looks like a glowing moon. The change in shape is not yet apparent. The moment of totality is almost 90 minutes away. Glasses come down, but the chatter gets louder and more animated. The Spaniards talking in Spanish, the talkative teen reciting every European and Slavic country where his various relatives are from.
“It’s there in the upper left corner!” someone says.
I step out from under the roof, and look up through my glasses into the sky. It’s black. Black. Through the glasses, I can’t see anything but the sun. I finally get my head turned in the right direction, And there it is,—a bright sphere with an circular corner obscured. Exactly what you would think one spherical object moving in front of another would look like.
We finalize our plan. Paul decrees we shall stay at the park until 12:45, and then spend the last 40 minutes of the event near the car. And if it gets too hot, we can get in and turn on the air-conditioning.
Paul sees a bug crawling on his bag. It is pale, has pincers and is the size of a small ant.
“Scorpion!” he cries. He shakes it off his bag and announces that the time to retreat to the car has been moved to now.
We make our way back along Main Street. On our right, we pass various government buildings and churches, their parking lots full of cars, their lawns full of people with chairs, blankets and canopies. It’s like a pre-football tailgate. Across the street, in a residential yard, we hear the gulp of a speaker being plugged in, and then, loud enough to provide party for the whole block, Rick James’ “Mary Jane,” begins to play.
We’re back at the car. The sun in the sky looks almost, but not quite, like a crescent moon. The proportion and arc of line aren’t quite right. It’s more like if a Pac Man had a curvy mouth instead of straight angles.
We cross the street to the county clerks office. Paul and mom sit on a bench in the sun, while I, always deferring to my paleness, retreat under the awning into the shade
Although there are no shadows, the sun feels less bright. I can join my family on the bench. There’s a faint cool breeze. I look up through my glasses: The sun is a quarter full. It now definitely looks like the moon –but like a moon in a children’s book, its corners a little more acute and C-shaped than the moon we see in the sky.
Small clusters of people walk past away from the main crowd. Maybe they’ve had our same idea of avoiding the crowds, or maybe they are locals who have realized that the sky is visible from anywhere in town.
A tall lanky man arrives crosses the intersection toward the crowd.
“Oh yeah,” says Paul, “I’d forgotten that Kentucky is an open carry state.”
For a moment I look in the guy’s hand for a beer then realize that Paul is referring to the large handgun nestled in the holster on the man’s hip. He’s wearing dark jeans and an oxford cloth shirt. No uniform. No jacket. It’s jarring to see the gun on a civilian walking toward a large crowd of people.
A group of teenagers approach, carrying the inflatable air loungers. They set up on the brick walkway next to us, lying back and gazing upward in a way I’m too paranoid to do. There’ve been enough rumors of fake glasses and news stories about waking up partially blind that I limit myself to quick glances, even through my glasses. I wish I had their seeming peace of mind and lack of worry about the future.
The breeze kicks up and the sky darkens, like before a summer storm. The streetlights start to come up, activated by the false dusk. Above us, the sun is a sliver in the sky.
In the distance and the nearness, whoops and screams. I let myself watch the whole transition as the light becomes a line, then a shorter line and then a dot. And then—nothing. I remove my glasses and look up. A circle with a white fiery ring around it.
Around us, the world is not as dark as I’d expected, partly because the streetlights and the large LED screen blinking through the windows of a bar across the street. The horizon is purplish. I take more glances at the orb in the sky. I’m not sure how long its been. I put my glasses back on and wait until on the opposite side of the sphere a spot of light appears, then a line. The sun is coming back. The world around us seems a different color than it was before. Pinker? But not pinker. Yellower maybe. Warmer.
“Ready to go?” asks Paul.
I am taking notes, trying to make a memory.
“Seems like you could do that in the car”
That’s what I do, trying to get the details down before they are gone.
In the car, we’ve already turned north onto the Pennyrile Parkway out of Hopkinsville. In a few hours, I will read the Facebook statuses of drivers trapped in the bottleneck and Paul will be vindicated. For now, the traffic is slow but moving, we’re headed home. I crane my neck to look out the sunroof. The sun is a 1/8th crescent. Removing my glasses to look out the car window, the world looks normal, like any other day when a thin cloud passes in front of the sun.