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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A moment of unity, on Earth as in space

People watch the totality of the solar eclipse at Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vt., on Monday, April 8, 2024. “Maybe it takes an extraterrestrial event to bring this shredded country together,” writes New York Times columnist Pamela Paul. (Cassandra Klos/The New York Times)

By Pamela Paul

Maybe it takes an extraterrestrial event to bring this shredded country together. For a phenomenon that traversed the country from the contentious southern border to the far reaches of New England, Monday’s eclipse attracted remarkably few conspiracy theories or accusations. From where I stood, in Buffalo, New York, the major threat to the moment was a forecast of heavy clouds.

Bring on the ominous metaphors: We don’t have the foggiest idea where we’re going.

This year, the eclipse passes America by. Here comes the rain again.

Perhaps I was too primed to seek meaning, having found unexpected significance in the last major eclipse to cross the country, back on Aug. 21, 2017. I needed it.

Wearied by the chaotic churn of Donald Trump’s presidency and desperate for a vacation, I told my family I wanted to see something in this country Trump couldn’t bash, alter, destroy or tarnish. I wanted mountains, rock structures, landscapes and vistas that would give me that sense of This Too Shall Pass, and the planet will still be around. We decided to spend 10 days in South Dakota, starting at Mount Rushmore and ending in the Badlands.

I didn’t realize that amid all that permanence, the most fleeting vision would be the most profound. This wasn’t in South Dakota at all; it was a half-day’s drive away in Wyoming.

We set out in the early morning on what became clear was a pilgrimage route to the zone of totality. Highways that had been as empty as the prairie during the preceding days were teeming with cars; gas stations had turned into community pit stops selling all manner of eclipse-branded gear and keepsakes. Eclipse Beef Jerky in Lights Out Original flavor, anyone? People had parked at random intervals along the highway, tailgating at a galactic game.

I racked my brain to figure out why our destination, Casper, Wyoming, was so familiar — which author’s birthplace, what landmark? — before realizing we were headed to the deep-red hometown of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

But the main street of Casper felt more like a global village. More than 1 million visitors had crowded into the state, a good number of whom descended on a town with a population of roughly 58,000. The main drag had been cleared of cars for the Wyoming Eclipse Festival. A giant map was posted across a stretch of wall with pins available for visitors to signal their place of origin. The U.S. was dotted with pins like a holly in full bloom. No space left to mark anywhere close to New York. But the map of Europe was similarly crowded; people had also traveled from Japan and Patagonia and South Africa.

As the moon moved across the sun, a strange banana-yellow cast fell over everything, unlike any natural light I’d ever seen — closer to sepia than twilight. My three kids, then between the ages of 8 and 12, gaped at the way the light struck their hands and morphed the color of their shirts.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” my youngest mused aloud, wandering solo into a field in the park where we’d camped out, a short walk from downtown. My older kids seemed almost spooked, waving their arms in the sun’s peculiar glow.

Everyone went silent as the sun disappeared. The temperature noticeably dipped. Birds seemed to go quiet. At 11:42, the moment of totality, and with the sun at one with the moon, a palpable unity in the hush down here on Earth. Then there was an audible burst of exaltation.

Some people say an eclipse brings on a sense of insignificance and solitude in the grand scheme of the universe. I had a slightly different reaction, more of a communal alignment with nature. For this atheist, it was the closest thing to a religious experience, a kind of monolith moment. Here we were, just a bunch of primates, seemingly so advanced in intelligence and power, yet awed in the face of the profound.

In search of that same rare feeling, I set out this year for Buffalo. Like many an umbraphile, I booked train tickets the day they went on sale. The rest of my family dropped out when the forecast went grim, but for me, the slightest chance of experiencing totality was worth the risk.

In the early afternoon, I parked myself in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, chosen for its proximity to the centerline of totality and for the clear views along the Buffalo River. Food trucks lined up by crowds of families in lawn chairs. People helped one another with their tripods; a roll of duct tape was passed around to fasten the cameras.

By 2:02, a few spots of blue dappled the overcast sky. Two minutes into the partial eclipse, the sun broke through, and cheers burst out across the park, as if, against poor odds, we were all urging on the same team.

By 2:55, the clouds darkened, and the mood was somber. But each time the sun peeped through, there was another wave of cheers and claps, and boos when the clouds won out.

At 3:18, the eclipse reached totality under cloud cover. The park went dark as night. You couldn’t see the sun, but you could feel the eclipse. What looked like a sunset burst along the horizon and the entire park screamed with joy. Sometimes, just sometimes, we all want the same thing.

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