Chasing the total eclipse

Bland, Missouri, is not an adjective. Although it could be. Bland, population 539, has no stoplight. No hotel or motel. No hospital (not even a doctor). No high school. No supermarket. No local radio station. Two restaurants — one open only three days a week. The nearest city with more than 50,000 residents is Columbia, home to the University of Missouri’s flagship campus 60 miles away.

But on Aug. 21, the day of the eclipse, Bland had location. Latitude 38.301713, longitude 91.63294. Smack dab in the solar eclipse’s “path of totality.” And that made it feel as if Bland was the antonym of Podunk.

I was there for the commotion. There were rumors, there in the middle of Missouri — in the middle of nowhere — that so many people would rush into the center of the impending solar darkness that gas stations might run out of fuel in areas surrounding Bland. Schools and colleges for miles around, already in session, were closed for the day. A half-hour from Bland, in Rolla, the clerk at the CVS store said he had been inundated with calls about the availability of eclipse glasses. As far away as the Illinois border, 90 miles to the East, temporary highway signs warned of heavy traffic delays — “Plan Ahead” — on and around Eclipse Day.

In Owensville, 15 minutes from Bland, the priest began his Sunday homily about how we were at “ground zero” for the eclipse. Owensville’s Chamber of Commerce already had sold more than 500 “Midnight at Noon” T-shirts and arranged for Arndt Latusseck, an astronomer from Hildeschein, Germany, to relate his experiences witnessing five previous total eclipses, and how “five is not enough. You get addicted to it.”

It all sounded so apocalyptic. Tales of how people would weep to see the moon “eat” the sun at midday, how their lives would be “changed forever.”

“It is science, yes,” Latusseck said. “But it also is cultural, psychological, emotional and completely mind-boggling.”

But, frankly, while the two minutes of “totality” provided a wonderfully unique experience — nothing in the sky but the black moon and its eerie halo, the corona — our small group of 12 quickly retreated indoors after that brief, spectacular show, out of the smothering Missouri heat and humidity that was intensified by the returning sun.

This whole idea, of trekking 1,500 miles from Long Island to Bland, Missouri, came from my nephew Jeff, a Hewlett-Packard engineer in Houston. My sister, Diane, happens to live in Bland (no Wi-Fi, no TV) on 111 acres of lightly cultivated land with four horses and two cats. In November, Jeff had realized that Bland would be in the “path of totality” and pitched to my brother (his father in nearby Victoria, Texas) how Aug. 21, 2017, would be an ideal time for a family gathering.

My wife and I were alerted of the unfolding plan only days before and were stunned to learn that flights to Missouri were booked, as well as most hotels in the Bland vicinity. When a person is 70-years-old, that person sometimes does not consider all the math. Twenty-two hours of driving over two days to witness two minutes of celestial stagecraft somehow makes perfect sense.

And the fact that Long Island was in line to see only 71 percent of the sun covered that Monday meant it wouldn’t get the sudden weird darkness that came over Bland at 1:14 p.m. on an otherwise searingly bright afternoon. What we experienced comes to the typical person’s hometown on an average of once every 375 years.

So it was worth the trip, including the speeding ticket in Bland (where rarely two cars are on the road at the same time). To a great extent, what struck me about the adventure was the whole exception-to-the-rule excitement in humdrum little Bland, fueled by my pre-eclipse research which included Annie Dillard’s dramatic, almost frightening, 1982 description of the 1979 total eclipse in Eastern Washington State. “I pray,” she wrote, “you will never see anything more awful in the sky.”

Unlike some predictions, my sister’s horses — we joked that their heavy-mesh masks to ward off flies were their eclipse glasses — did not run around in confused circles. Birds did not begin their evening singing hours early. Great winds did not stir.

For more than an hour, as the disc of moon slowly blotted out the sun, we had sat under a shade tree, occasionally peering through out solar glasses for an update, but with no discernable change in atmosphere or brightness.

The totality phase came and went so quickly that it felt a bit like some existential gag. Much appreciated, nevertheless, and a terrific excuse for a reunion of far-flung family members.

 

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