The Solar Eclipse or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Qualm

The Solar Eclipse or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Qualm

Yes, that is a direct reference to Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb". And no, I'm not fantastically cultured in the world of ridiculously long movie titles (but it is a great movie). Fortunately, I was able to rely upon the creativity and dexterity of a dear friend who was able to steer me towards this gem after critiquing this post.

You'll also notice pretty much every heading is some sort of reference to sci-fi movie. (You're welcome).

But anyway, we're here for space. Let's get on with it.

Welcome to the Dark Side [of Kentucky] (Phase 1)

When  I moved to Louisville last year, one of the first things that drew my attention was the reverberation of the words "total solar eclipse". It was a constant hum in the background: quietly buzzing and darting in and out of headlines, conversations, and vacation requests. When I realized it was going to be happening here, in Louisville, I realized I had to get in on it. I put it in my calendar... and waited; the buzzing growing louder as the day ever so slowly approached.

Also, because I can't find any better place to fit this in, I think we all need to take a second to appreciate my favorite headline of the day: "Today's Solar Eclipse Will Blind You, Destroy Your Business and Steal Your Cat."

2017: A Moon Chase Odyssey (Phase 2)

I got in my car. (That's how every great story starts, right?)

My front seat was an explosion of supplies: books, snacks, a blanket made from my grandfather's discarded shirts, cameras and lenses, maps. So, I set off for southern Kentucky with a screenshot of the projection of totality.

And you could definitely say it was a typical Arianna trip:

  1. Spend months excited about [insert event here]
  2. Drive: full-speed, unplanned, unmapped, unscripted, and unapologetically towards it

But I'm going to be honest for a second. It didn't feel like my normal whimsical Arianna trip. I was anxious from the moment I woke up. I had mentally bookmarked, tracked, and awaited an event for over a year... that would span only TWO MINUTES. And while it seemed hard to even be able to somehow accidentally miss something like a freaking solar eclipse... It had me anxious. 

So I started driving.

And thirty minutes out of Louisville it looked like this: 

 One point to the person that can guess which way the eclipse is! 

One point to the person that can guess which way the eclipse is! 

It's cool though... I prepared for this. I left my house six hours early to go 90 miles.

I took a deep breath.

Soon I was on my way again, and I still didn't have a clue where I was going.  

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For months I had heard about Hopkinsville, Kentucky. It was to be the epicenter of eclipsing, which sounded appealing, but I also wanted to make it out alive. As a fellow-eclipse viewer later so kindly put it, "I wanted it to feel like an event, but not a mob."  

I consulted the totality projections I had screenshot on my phone and my eyes settled on Russellville, Kentucky: about a finger-width away from Hopkinsville (whatever that means) and half a finger-width from Tennessee. 

After several hours, a pit stop, a trip to Walmart (I realized my camera's memory card was also at totality), and a few stops to examine potential viewing spots, I arrived in Russellville.

Our Galaxy Guest (Phase 3)

I drove down Main Street into a little grassy square full of people sprawled on lawn chairs and blankets beneath the shade of the accompanying trees. But it wasn't packed. It was 45 minutes until the start of the eclipse and there was room to race Mars rovers. In fact, I parked my car only about half a block away and sat there wondering... had I really gotten this lucky?

I took a deep breath and stepped out of the car. My hands were shaking and my forehead was dripping with tears of anxiety. 

In fact,  I think this picture I took when I arrived pretty much sums of how I was feeling at the time:

 That look of: what the hell am I doing??? 

That look of: what the hell am I doing??? 

So in my head: this is it. This is where it's going to happen. I made it. 

I spread my blanket out in the sanctuary of a sliver of shade that was still to be had next to a nice couple sharing snacks. Sprawled out on the park bench beside me were some cheerful drinkers with a young boy who seemed nearly as anxious as me. They offered me a beer and I politely declined (uncharacteristic, I know). Much to my delight and surprise, they were quite friendly, asking me about where I'm from and how I chose Russellville. 

Not long after, a woman asks to sit next to me and I timidly, confusedly say yes. She (this was the woman who so eloquently described the crowd) admitted she had noticed I was a fellow traveler and all by myself and simply wanted to say hello and chat. I was humbled and honored, as her voice was slow and calm and felt like a glass of cool water cooling by body and nerves in the balmy and humid 90-degree shade.

Before long, I realize the guys had left and come back with more beer, (which this time I was glad to accept). It served almost as well for cooling my body and nerves.

 My "essential eclipse" gear

My "essential eclipse" gear

A woman sat down on the bench next to all of us and played ukelele. To the Miller Lite drinkers, says she's waiting for friends, and somehow conversation waxes and wanes like a wild pendulum to discussions including theology, politics, and recent political turmoils.

I sat there and listened, only participating with smiles and nods.

Without having to ask I could've guessed the shirtless, beer drinking, overly trusting men were of opposing political, social, and religious beliefs of the candy apple red-haired, ukulele toting, cotton-skirt donning hippie who had joined our grassy spot. 

But you know what?  

They figured it out.  

And it was that moment that I realized we were sitting in a Confederate-dedicated square just days after the attack in Charlottesville. And all of us, spanning hundreds of zip codes, socio-economic-rungs, and levels of education, had gathered in this park in the middle of nowhere Kentucky to share a moment with each other. And not only were people of different beliefs... but they were conversing those beliefs with each other openly... unapologetically... civilly. Everyone seemed to forget about winning the battle and just focussed on the conversation as we all joined together to share a mutual interest.

In a way, it too was like a cool drink of water in a political climate that maxed-out well above 90-degrees.

 Russellville, Kentucky

Russellville, Kentucky

 Moments before the total solar eclipse

Moments before the total solar eclipse

 My grandfather's shirt blanket-- covered in little crescent suns.

My grandfather's shirt blanket-- covered in little crescent suns.

 Me-- covered in little crescent suns

Me-- covered in little crescent suns

So Long, & Thanks for All the Fish (Phase 4)

As the moon began making its way across the sun, any personal or social barriers that might have normally prevented people from heeding parental advisories for not speaking to strangers had been dashed. If someone was having trouble getting a shot, someone would quickly come over and show them a technique to make it work. At one point I overheard a neighbor saying he's saving his battery for totality and I noticed we had the same camera. What social anxiety might have normally prevented me from doing, I offered him my spare so he wouldn't have to miss a shot. And, indeed, what politeness might have normally forbade, he took it eagerly and thanked me endlessly.

And, after waiting a year... months, days, hours: it began to happen. The square took on a hazy filter, almost like a large truck had let out a sigh of exhaust. The street lights flickered on. People grabbed for their cameras, called their kids, clutched their pearls. 

I grinned. I had a hard time splitting my attention between the crowd's astonishment and enjoying my own. The constant click of cameras battled the rising hum of cicadas like intergalactic crossfire. And a moment later: darkness.

Followed by cheers and applause.

Click, click, click.

My hands shook as I excitedly tried to do the same, but all the while I couldn't stop smiling.

And, maybe most surprising to me, in the time it took to shield my eyes from the returning sun, the true residents of Russellville (and subsequently: me) were alone. As I looked around, it was if the crowd had dissolved in the first light of day like a hoard of vampires. 

No one stayed to talk about their experiences or their political leanings, or how wonderful of a moment we just shared, or even their aversion to wooden stakes or garlic. Only the litter and lingering exhaust clouds served as proof they, or the eclipse, had ever been in Russellville.

And that kind of made me sad. 

But I also remembered the wonderful ways I had been surprised that day. In more ways than I could've expected when I left Louisville that morning.

So I hung back-- me and only a few others. We awkwardly looked up at the sky, and around at each other, obviously torn somewhere between asking, "is that really it?" and "is there an encore?". 

And that's pretty much it, folks. It somehow seems appropriate if I've left you feeling like you missed a step on the stairs and a like you're a little unsure of what to do next. That's kind of how I felt, after all. 

See you in 2024!


Lagniappe: I wasn't always in to "life, the universe, and everything". It actually wasn't until I took Astronomy 101, what I hoped would be an easy science credit in college, that my fascination for everything (literally and metaphorically) above my head was realized. I had an amazing professor, whose passion (and the fact that he played They Might Be Giants on the second day of class) inspired an interest in me too. Since then, I've devoured every documentary, book, and lecture about space I could get my hands on. I have shirts, shoes, backpacks, socks, jewelry and other accessories (even a tattoo) donning anything from a NASA logo to images of the galaxy. And for all of that, I have to thank my wonderful college professor at the University of New Orleans. You're kickass.

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