Personal Statement: Eclipse

Sunday, October 22, 2017 - 11:14pm

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Illustration by Michelle Phillips

 

People have been going on pilgrimages for eons. Whether it’s to gaze upon the Shroud of Turin, visit the tomb of St. James or stand inside the vaulted nave of some distant cathedral, humans as a species have shown a remarkable capacity for uprooting themselves and their lives just for the chance to seek out meaning in some distant destination. In the Middle Ages, members of the faithful might travel for weeks on end to reach a holy site — some never arrived, and many never returned.

My trip took three days, more or less, a sort of hyper-condensed there and back again. Automobility is a lovely thing, really, if you discount its contribution to the ongoing ecological catastrophe that is industrial capitalism. Not that I actually drove myself, though — somehow, over the course of the past half-decade or so, I’ve managed to avoid getting a driver’s license. I even took a driver’s education course once, but never followed up on the actual license acquisition part. Honestly, this fact probably isn’t a positive, but I’ve come to view it as a kind of eccentric point of pride. Regardless, when it came time to make the journey, I was reliant on two friends to make my way there.

Oh yeah, we went to see the eclipse. That’s there.

Does anyone really want to read about people going on a road trip of self-discovery anymore? We’ve had Kerouac, Nabokov and all the rest of them, so why bother with another? But whether we’ve had enough, somehow I can’t settle on any other story of my own to share, at least not one that I’d be comfortable presenting in a public setting. So this is what you get to read about, something that maybe has something meaningful to say but, unlike some other topics I considered, doesn’t make me address any of the uncomfortable questions bouncing around my head. So, tired a topic though it is, this is what I have, cliché and all.

The drive itself was enjoyable. I’d rather this piece not be documentarian in nature, but a few things that happened are worth writing down. Somewhere in Ohio on the first day we stopped at a diner for breakfast, whereat I was called a quitter by our server for turning down a 14th cup of coffee. Once we made it to Kentucky, the scenery was beautiful, and once we were on the winding mountain roads of the Appalachians, one of my friends took the wheel and led us on a high-speed ride that was simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

When we arrived at my family’s home in Georgia, we were exhausted and happy to have a rest. We spend the night socializing with my parents, who were happy to actually see me at all last summer (I took classes spring and summer terms), and turned in relatively early to compensate for the hour at which we had to rise the next morning. When we got up, we hopped in the car and rode an hour or so north, traveling by back roads to avoid traffic.

Not surprisingly, when we entered the path of totality there were absurd numbers of people. The eclipse was certainly the largest secular pilgrimage I can think of, and it showed. Conservative estimates suggest that 20 million people went out of their way to watch it, less conservative (ironically from the University of Michigan) estimates give 215 million as the number. A CNN poll beforehand indicated that a full half of the U.S. population at least considered watching it. Somehow we found a place to park, and along with innumerable others, set about climbing a mountain in a state park to get the best view. By this point in the day, the wet, Southern August heat felt oppressive, and though it was an easy trek, the walk felt long. In front of us on our way up was a shirtless, hippie-ish man burning incense and playing a wooden recorder. I really wonder what his story is.

At the apex of the mountain a crowd had gathered, far too many people to really settle in comfortably, so we looked around for alternative viewing options. After a consultation with a park ranger, we decided to hike back down the mountain (via a different route) in search of a lake that was allegedly there. Thankfully, it was, and after a few miles we arrived at the lakeside about an hour and a half before totality. So, we waited.

I’m not certain what to say about the eclipse itself. The sky went dark and the temperature dropped. Shadows shifted in uncanny ways and colors changed to subtly strange hues. Crickets began to chirp and birds flew in confused circles. A few bright stars appeared in the sky. For a few minutes, it felt as if the world had stopped turning on its axis — the whole thing was eerily biblical, really. When it passed, a moment had to be taken just to reorient.

Months later, the event (aside from being a memory that is just generally “cool”) left me with a few muddled up thoughts. Sitting there, watching as one gargantuan object passed in front of another astronomically — literally astronomically — larger one, I just couldn’t shake the feelings associated with being incredibly small compared to the sheer scale of the forces involved with what I was seeing. I’ve always had a sort of cursory fascination with the cosmos, in a kind of gee-isn’t-this-really-cool-but-terrifying sort of way, and every so often — usually at night, always when alone — I experience this almost physical sensation of my person collapsing down into somewhere in my viscera while the whole incomprehensible expanse of the cosmos opens above me. Watching the eclipse was like that, but in slow motion.

I’ve always wondered about the expression “one in a million.” Most often it’s used to convey this idea of uniqueness, a kind of “you are special” utterance. But to my ears it can take on a far less comforting tone. When I hear “one in a million,” it reminds me of the mind-boggling immensity of it all, and of my own relative smallness. One out of a million is a very insignificant piece. But in journeying to see this astronomical event, I was one in millions, not a million. And the star that I watched be blotted out, our own life-giving incandescent orb, isn’t even one in millions, but one in septillions. The hugeness of the universe is literally inconceivable to me. And that’s why, in the scheme of it all, I’m not sure what exactly my eclipse pilgrimage means, if anything at all. Maybe the lesson is simply that you’re not always the main character in the story you thought of as your own.