The eclipse cracked me open.
There was a great deal of hemming and hawing about whether I could make a trip to the path of totality work on such short notice. Eclipse glasses were sold out, and I had no option to leave days before and get a campsite.
But, I found a cheap enough airbnb for the night after, and Jake let me borrow his welding helmet. The only thing left was to just apply the effort. I couldn’t let that go unmet.
I woke up just before 4am, and was driving by just past the hour, after a short, excitement-stunted sleep. I was heading for Franklin, NC, a small town nestled in the Nantahla national forest, on the one small tip of North Carolina that was in the path of totality. I had considered going South Carolina which was slightly shorter of a drive, or all the way into Tennessee to join Audrey, but it felt right that I should stay in the borders of the state that has brought me so much magic already this Summer.
Driving through the predawn and into sunrise is one of my favorite experiences. It’s probably got so much positivity attached to it specifically because I only ever do it when there’s a good, exciting reason for it. There is something about watching the world wake up around me, with dozens of miles already between me and home, that makes me tingle.
Dawn came just as I was approaching the foothills of the mountains. The thick fog rising from the river valleys caught the light in sheer white strands. The lush green slopes paired with remarkably clear road ways after all my anxiety about traffic, took my mood to ever higher elevations.
The sun finally crested, searing orange in my rear view mirror, with no indication of the approaching shadow.
here we go
The night before, I had spoken to Alan, a volunteer with the show who has returned every weekend now, far beyond his original duties, as he filled in for last-minute cancellations. He and I have gotten along since day one. I realized why when he and Dave met and their similarities instantly drew them together. Lots of people like Dave, few are so quick to “get” him.
Sunday, with Dave on a plane home to Houston, I was talking to Alan about Dave and my’s extended plans for the future, on the tail end of some friendly ribbing from the cast about marriage.
“I love Dave, got along instantly, you know that.” Alan said. “But he is a very lucky man.”
I laughed. “Well, thanks for saying so. I was actually just telling him how I worry about being over shadowed by him.”
Alan gawked, as if genuinely offended by the statement. “Are you kidding?”
I was taken aback by how seriously he took the statement. “Um, no.”
I wasn’t kidding. Dave’s physical skills whether in a scene shop or athletics, his ability to connect with people instantly and significantly, and the fact that he had given tremendous emotional and financial support to give me this Summer—and really my whole life—of pursuing my passion, were all adding up to make me feel insignificant, and the relationship vastly lop sided. I won’t get into the specifics of my insecurities, but I have never felt like I measure up.
Dave, for the record, does not agree with this perception, but, being the source of it, can only do so much to convince me otherwise.
“You stand in no one’s shadow.” Alan said, staring at me hard. “You shine with a light all your own. Don’t ever forget that.”
He said the last bit into my shoulder, as I had gathered him up in a big, grateful hug. The next morning, he sent me a small reminder message:
“Remember as you are watching the eclipse today, that the only shadow you stand in is that of the moon”.
Watching the sun rise, I felt a thrill of excitement, and all the anxiety and frustration I had been sifting through started to drop away.
I arrived in Franklin, and parked at the first public park I came across. It was 8:30 am, six hours til totality. I began to realize I had perhaps bought into the hype a little too far, but I’d take the ease with which I found a place to set down and wait over an extra cycle of sleep. There were some people who had clearly been sleeping there overnight, so I wasn’t the only one getting a jump on it.
Franklin was still under a blanket of fog. Having driven in dipping in and out of foggy valleys, and knowing that there was a clear sky just above, I was sure it would clear out, but it didn’t stop me from being antsy. The amount of coffee I chugged to get 4am rolling didn’t help either.
So I took a stroll down the mile-or-so length of the river walkway attached to the park, continuously glancing up, waiting for the fog to lift. As I was turning around, there were first small signs of sky, and by the time I was back it had all shredded aside, leaving a wide, clear blue sky.
The last of my nerves settled, I laid out my yoga mat and pillow and tried to catch a quick nap. I had chosen a good park, as even as crowds accumulated, it seemed to mostly the type of people who were interested in a calm, relaxed observation, not a full out party. I am not usually a fan of sleeping in public, but I found that I could get a few winks in a mostly-private shady spot before other groups started to crowd into my corner.
There was some friendly chatter. People comparing how far and how early they drove. The family beside me shared their homemade cranberry oatmeal bars with me, while their two little boys were enamored with the welding helmet I had brought to view the eclipse with. Mostly, though, I was allowed some quiet and solitude.
The eclipse itself started subtly. A group of UNC kids were standing in the field and I heard one of them mutter “I think that’s it…” and the other jokingly reply “ah! It is real!” as a small slice of shadow cut into the sun’s edge.
The drama built slowly. As people looked up with greater and greater frequency. Crickets began to chirp. Some clouds started to roll in, and we were all on edge wondering if they were going to start blocking the view. They did blow across as the remaining sun light thinned, but they were wispy enough to still see the sun through. If anything, it was nice to be able to see it without the welding helmet!
In the last moments, as the air chilled and sky darkened, there was endless murmuring among the crowd. I was excited for the totality, but in a subdued way, partially open to having a big reaction, but largely trying to lower my expectations so I wouldn’t over hype the experience. I liked watching the sun become a crescent, and the shadows start to shimmer and take on the eclipsed shape, but it was all with mild curiosity.
‘Sure,’ I thought. ‘This is fun, and given the relative ease, worth making the trip. Nothing mind blowing though.’
I was not at all ready for the sun to go out.
There were clouds across its face as it happened, so I got to watch without glasses as the last, tiny sliver of light disappeared. As the final spot vanished, my heart lurched.
The pure, primal reaction was beyond anything I have ever felt. To watch the sun disappear shattered something in me and my initial reaction was one of utter shock. I was cracked open to my core and all the fear and anger that I hold close to my heart spilled out.
Everyone around me cheered, fireworks went off down town. All I could think was “Why are you cheering for this?”
Then, the clouds split further, and the white, shining aura of totality appeared. The corona eye of the universe stared down at me and all I could do was meet its terrible gaze.
As I got a hold on my wits, the fear transformed into pure awe. I was shaken by the hugeness of the universe and amazed by the grandeur of what it can do. I looked around at the sunset colors, the suddenly appearing stars, and then back at the spectacle of the swallowed sun.
I have seen a great deal of the beauty in this world. But this was something so far beyond that. So beautiful and wonderful it broke my heart.
And, in the final seconds of totality, just as I was getting a grip on the experience, I felt the urge to reach for Dave. To experience this without him felt so wrong. I wanted him to see me, raw under the sunless sky, and to know what even now I am having trouble putting into words. That the fear and anger is so small in this world, but that love, my love for him and all the world’s wonders, is huge.
It was over so fast. Parents scrambled to get their kids to put their glasses back on, people trying to get the jump on traffic were packing up in a frenzy. I dropped my hands from my hair, where they had been clenched without me even noticing.
I looked around for any sign that someone else’s world had been rocked as violently as mine had. There were a few people that seemed a little emotional, but no one else stood in the shell-shocked bleary state that I felt. Had that really just happened?
“That was cool huh!” The dad beside me said. His kids were running about, and asking to try on my helmet again.
I looked back up at the eclipse, the shadow moving out remarkably fast. I was as unprepared for it to be over as I had been at the start. As overwhelmed as I had been at the start, I was now desperate to keep exploring that state.
But the sunlight was back, the stars gone again, and I felt put back together. Hopefully, with some of the fear left out.
I joined the scramble for departure, tidily packing up my little space in a single armload and thanking my neighbors for their company as I took off.
It occurred to me, as I drove away under the brightening sky, that standing in the shadow, it turned out, was one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had. I don’t need to worry about whether or not there are any other shadows falling upon me, because there is so much to be gained from that position.
I look forward to standing in the shadow again.