We drove north towards Rabun Gap, a small town in the Appalachian foothills of Georgia. The last sign out of Atlanta simply read “JESUS.” With its black words and yellow background, it looked less like a divine invective and more like a street sign telling us: for God, go this way.
In a way, we were looking for God. This eclipse – the great American eclipse – would be visible across an arc of the country known for its religious fervor – at least the Christian kind. It was God’s country, and it would soon be cloaked in a lunar shadow that ancient peoples believed to be signs of displeasure from a higher power.
The concrete mess of the six-lane highway eventually narrowed and then there were two. Only one way in, and one way out.
On both sides sat antique malls looking as rough as the items they sold. I remember someone once saying to me: America’s poor are left with nothing else but to sell their junk to one another.
My mind imagined the scenes in other small rundown towns across America, just like this one, from South Carolina to Wyoming, where hordes of tourists flocked to other narrow roads, dilapidated shopping centers, and church parking lots to witness totality.
Nearly 10,000 people joined us on the campus of Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, an independent day and boarding school with the motto “Work. Study. Worship.” My sister, her boyfriend, and I claimed a hillside spot under a majestic oak.
I saw lush green vineyards to the east and rolling hills to the west and north. The sun’s rays fell on us like a spotlight, announcing the show that was about to begin.
At the main stage in the distance, a scientist described the stages of an eclipse and how to make a pinhole projector to safely view the eclipse.
I thought of the ancient civilizations for whom an eclipse triggered fears of divine retribution. Today, the occasion was a celebration of science – at least for some. Science as a celebratory concept was up for debate these days.
The eclipse had a sense of irony. It fell over a swath of America whose many inhabitants rejected scientific explanations of climate change. The same people elected Donald J. Trump to the presidency in 2016. Where I sat in Rabun county, 71.9% of residents voted for Trump.
God’s country was red. Very red. Yet the eclipse put us all on the same color palate for a moment.
When the moon finally began its journey across the sun, we began our return to a more natural order of things. The shift in light exposed parallel universe after parallel universe, each one occupying its own beautiful panorama, its own filter of emotion and sense of things.
In one, an Amish Mennonite family down the hill sat silently, overcast in bright yellow futuristic hues. The women and girls, in their colorful dresses, glowed like stars themselves. Is this the future?
The thought lingered in my head for what seemed a century, but in fact, time was moving fast, and the subsequent maize undertones of the eclipse brushed them away as relics of the past.
Not impatient, but efficient, the light scanned the land for details humans now miss, highlights untouched by the naked eye. We are too blind to see because we no longer have time to listen. We don’t have time to care.
We noticed what we typically ignore, like the long shadow of the oak tree throughout the day, moving slowly, covering some while leaving others naked to the changing light. As we neared totality, it would disappear altogether.
Before there was politics, there was the wind, the sky, the horizon, and of course, the eclipse: an unveiling of the earth like no other, a blatant disregard and rejection of the new world, of automation, of artificial intelligence, and the voyeurism of technology.
Particle after particle revealed an altered wind, a different sky, and a new horizon. So much change, but still an eerie stillness haunted. Eyes transfixed. Heads tilted at ninety degree angles. An occasional wind visited but managed to rustle nothing and no one.
Nothing moved save for the moon and its devoted shadow.
Only in the haze of my own dreams have I met a similar light. Light that shaded everything in its path with a season. The twilight glow of summer evenings. I squinted to see the lightning bugs. Then it was autumn with its stormy and bluish dawn. And finally, a winter’s night, jet black and silent, save for the fiery ring above that captured all below.
Among us were those whose eyes looked to god. Others, a glimpse of scientific grace. For me, the unknown. Like an alien spaceship beginning its descent, totality shone its landing lights on our faces, bodies, and our land. This foreign exposure, this big reveal – what did it make of us? Did we look familiar? Did we appear content?
The human mind turns to itself in times of uncertainty, generating a curiosity about its purpose and function in the world. Civilizations have always asked science and god alike for a cheat sheet. This day in god’s country, I looked to the eclipse for this very thing. But before we could become acquainted, totality was gone.