Wednesday, November 22, 2017

COLUMN: Eclipse

"You speaks English. You deal with him, yes?"

This was NOT how I wanted to start my Sunday. After a long night spinning records til the wee hours, it was "morning" (noon) and I was on an emergency coffee run to the gas station. I usually try to avoid all forms of human interaction until the caffeine's kicked in, but no sooner had I walked in when the cashier suddenly called me in for the assist.

At the counter was a long-haired guy with his young daughter in tow, asking how to get to Illinois. 

"You're IN Illinois," I replied. "Mission accomplished?"
"Oh," he blinked. "My car robot says I need to take the Congressional Bridge to Mineland."
It was too early for Congressional bridges and people calling their GPS a "car robot." I just wanted coffee.

"We're going to the eclipse totality," he elaborated, "to experience a celestial rebirth."

I should have guessed as much. His car seemed barely capable of climbing the Congressional Bridge, yet alone making it to "Mineland," but Godspeed, brave adventurer. He was a nice guy and I hope he made it there.

I don't believe that eclipses are the harbingers of spiritual rebirth. I do, however, believe that eclipses are pretty rad. This explains why eighteen hours later, I was on the road with my best friend, listening to HIS car robot give us directions to the Show-Me State.

On TV the other night, they were interviewing astronomers and astrophysicists who were decidedly "meh" about last week's solar eclipse. As one guy put it, "The skies are filled with comets and supernovas, black holes and forces beyond our comprehension. So why does everybody get so worked up whenever one thing moves in front of another thing for a couple of minutes?"

He's got a point. We just drove for five hours in order to watch a thing we see every day cross in front of another thing we see every day. Except you can't actually watch it, because if you do, your retinas will melt. Good plan, then. But hey, in college, we once drove to Missouri and back for the precise reason of, "Hey, let's drive down to Missouri and back." This time, we actually had a proper excuse to do it.

When I told my mom that I was going to Missouri for the eclipse, she gasped in horror. "NO!" she said. "Don't be dumb. They're saying that traffic will be backed up for miles!" And they were, too. Newscasts were warning of nightmare traffic, distracted drivers, overpriced hotel rooms, and people in Carbondale willing to pay over $1000 for prime seating to watch the eclipse in the football stadium.

Here's a newsflash: When the event you're wanting to see is happening directly overhead, ANY view without a roof is going to be a prime view.

Out of mom-inspired traffic fears, we tried to stay off major arteries and instead stuck mainly to side roads, a decent plan that only brought us into the seedier Winter's-Bone backwoods of Missouri once or twice. With twenty minutes to spare, we reached our destination: the free viewing party at the Bradford Research Center of the MU College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources -- right in the middle of the line of totality.

As we got out of the car, the light was already dimming, as if a gnarly storm was rolling in. But this was no storm. No, this was the moon deciding to steal the show for a change. And then, like the flick of a switch, totality hit. Day became night, the horizon roared to 360 degrees of dancing color, and up in the sky, the sun had turned into the fire-edged black ring you usually only see in movies. Cameras couldn't do it justice. It was breathtaking.

I could handle living in eclipse totality forever, but I had to settle for two amazing minutes before the sun popped out the other side to sear our retinas. 

My mind goes back to the astrophysicist who was poo-pooing eclipses. Watching one thing block another thing shouldn't be amazing. Right now, one of my cats is blocking the view of my other cat, yet I'm not staring upon my cat with profound wonder (note: never stare at a cat with profound wonder without proper safety eyewear - they could claw out your retinas.) But think back to ancient civilizations that worshipped the sun as a god. Imagine if, one day, you're going about your business when suddenly, overhead, your god turns BLACK. That'd be terrifying. For those two minutes, I'd be sacrificing anything that moved in hopes of my sun god returning to full power.

Thankfully, I don't think anyone used the totality of last week's eclipse to stage their version of The Purge. I hope those who needed a spiritual awakening got what they were looking for. I certainly got what I needed: a great vacation day with friends witnessing something I hadn't seen since Ms. Harlan-Marks projected it into a shoebox for us in 3rd grade. The next eclipse is only 7 years away -- if you can daytrip to the totality zone, I don't promise a rebirth, but it's an impressive show regardless.

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