Daytrip to Totality
Madison Lang

Daytrip to Totality

Last week my friend Madison and I drove from Lee, Massachusetts, to far northern Vermont, pursuing the path of totality: We would watch an eclipse.

Our working plan for the day was that everything would go terribly, terribly wrong, and the beautiful mundanity of it was that some things did and many did not, leaving us, at the end of our adventure, awed and contented, wending our way back south through seven hours of traffic in the hardening dark.

The evening before, talking to the friends we thought we might meet up with if we could all decide where we wanted to go in time to get there, Madison wailed that she felt shamefully underprepared.

In fairness, we had decided to “do the eclipse” just two days before. Also, Madison is a lawyer. I personally thought we were plenty prepared. We had eclipse glasses, leftover Indian (in case of culinary emergency), several bottles of water and a brown paper bag full of stale candy. The plan was to leave around six, bundle into my Forester (her car was overdue for an oil change) and drive north.

A hard frost came in that night. In the morning we discovered that, due to forces beyond my comprehension, a small crack had appeared in my windshield, zagging up from the passenger seat dash.

We chanced it. We were speeding east on I-90 when Madison cried, “the crack is growing!”

Indeed, the crack was growing. It was not subtle. It was growing across the windshield at about the rate that mercury rises in a thermometer plunged into boiling water. The crack was, we decided, during our mad dash back to safety, giving Final Destination. Despite the blinking oil light, Madison’s car now appeared relatively harmless.

The drive was beautiful and much faster than anticipated (apart from the bathroom lines, which, once experienced, prompted us to turn to roadside woods for the remainder of our journey): I-90 to 91 and then straight on til morning, which in this metaphor is Jay Peak, a ski mountain in Vermont, just south of the Canadian border.

By 1:30, at the base of the mountain, some 150 people and their children had spread themselves over the snow outside the lodges and restaurants; it wasn’t crowded but felt lively, one of those situations in which strangers are excitedly telling strangers where they’re from while lending them a sun-deflecting lens for their iPhone camera.

An array of lawn chairs and makeshift blankets and camera tripods faced the mountain. People in sunglasses and shorts drank beer from golden cans, and ski coats glowed neon against the bright snow. It might have leaned fratty except that most viewers were middle aged and/or dressed like arborists. Above the peaks, the sun was doing its usual sun thing, screaming light down from a wild blue sky.

At 2:20 a cheer went up. Not far from the Waffle Cabin, a cover band — the Pink Talking Phish — began playing Dark Side of the Moon. From behind my glasses, it looked as if the glowing disc of sun was being slightly compressed at the bottom right — a glitch in the matrix, a tiny fold at the corner of a page.

At 2:30 we were all calling out to each other — “it’s starting, it’s starting!” — as if we were not all tuned to the same channel, as if this moment had not been put into motion several billion years before any of us had learned to speak.

Now the disc had a small bite taken out of it, like the cookie you gave a mouse. I was lying on my coat (and Madison’s), staring at the sun. Kids frolicked in the snow banks. The band played Money.

A cool breeze came up. A man was letting strangers look through his telescope: a fat orange crescent, blunted on both ends, like a slice of cantaloupe.

The light took on a curious gray quality — it was not like evening light, because it was still falling from above; it was not the light of a gray day, because it was not dispersed; it was different, somehow, from other dusks — “eerie,” I thought, feeling dissatisfied with language.

People were putting on sweaters and coats, and the night wind picked up flecks of snow and swirled them around in the dimming light. It became possible to see the eclipse when — against medical advice — one glanced directly at the sun.

From behind the glasses, there was only a fingernail of light.

But people were taking their glasses off now, and the dusk deepening rapidly. There was a final flash and suddenly a black hole glowed in an evening sky, a great disc of nothing at all.

Planets glinted in the violet gloom, and an orange glow encircled the horizon, as if the sun were setting everywhere at once. But that void with its pale aureole — my heart seemed to rise slightly, pressing up against my skin like a child with her face to a windowpane, pulled upwards by the black, terrible nothing at the heart of the sun.

We were all so small and fragile, standing there with our tears and our beating hearts and our brief mortal coils. We were also all together, watching the accordion folds of deep time falling open across the silence, shoulder to shoulder in our wonderment.

Three and a half minutes was an age, then suddenly — the flip of a switch — no time at all; there was another flash, and the void vanished, swallowed by the overwhelming brightness of our star.

Quietened, blinking at one another in the strange gray light, we were surprised to find ourselves once again standing on the side of a mountain in the middle of our lives.

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