It was easy getting there.
I left last Friday, stopping first at the local radio station for a brief interview, then heading west through Tennessee to the town of Crossville, where I checked in at the KOA. I had expected traffic to be heavy, but the only slowdown, and it wasn’t significant, was through Knoxville.
My family lived in Knoxville for three years. I attended Sequoyah Elementary the first year, walking to school every day with a big-toothed boy who lived behind us named “Buzzy” (given name: Stonewall) Biggers. When we moved out to Riverbend, I rode the bus to Bearden Elementary. Bearden is the first place I remember Civil Defense drills, where we all had to get under our desks to practice in case of a nuclear attack.
Oak Ridge, part of the Manhattan Project is a stone’s throw from Knoxville. My teacher took us there once on a field trip. All I remember is seeing a piece of bread under glass, as if it was a treasured bit of art. It had been irradiated and had been there for a year, still looking fresh, she told us, her cheeks flushed with excitement. I remember being afraid to get too close.
I went back to Knoxville once, in 2008. I drove over with a friend and stopped by both schools, drove past our old house in Sequoyah Hills and then out to Riverbend. We pulled up into the curved driveway, where for a split second I had a flash of my dad washing his British Racing Green Jaguar XK140 in the hot Tennessee sun.
A man came out when we drove up, and when I told him I used to live there, he invited us inside and let us roam around. He had questions about kitchen improvements and additions, a few of which I could actually answer. It was completely surreal, to stand in my old bedroom and look out the back window toward the pine trees, remembering how when I was eight my sister Debbie, now gone for thirty-seven years, let me borrow her record player and a few Ricky Nelson 45’s that I listened to over and over and over.
The Crossville KOA was nearly empty. Next door was a fenced-in field with two caramel-colored mules wandering around. One of them fell in love with Beasley who could not stop freaking out.
Saturday I stopped in Brentwood at a Whole Foods to get some fruit and veggies and then hit the REI store and bought a two-person backpacking tent, small and light and easy to store in Roadcinante and perfect for Beasley and I to sleep in.
I kept waiting for the awful traffic. The closer I got to Hopkinsville (renamed Eclipseville for the momentous occasion), the more signs I saw warning me how bad it was going to get, but it never did. I pulled into town around 5:30 and checked in with ease. After fumbling a bit with the tent, I realized I was making it too difficult. Basically, you take everything out of the nylon bag, wink at it, clap twice, and it puts itself up.
Things were well-organized and clean and the gathering crowd was fairly chill and in high spirits. I treated myself to a barbequed pork sandwich from one of the food trucks and bedded down early.
Sunday was scary-hot, with highs in the mid-90’s and humidity over 70%, so that the heat index was around 105°F. Beasley and I kept making trips back to Roadcinante to sit in the air-conditioning, but it was hard to keep ahead of the fluid loss, my face and body dripping with sweat. It was a day to endure, is the best way I can describe it.
More people arrived to set up tents and I heard a few tentative firecrackers, but the Hopkinsville police were very present. The air finally cooled around 8:30 that night, heavy dew covering the thick grass and wetting the tent fly. A nice breeze swept through at ground level.
Monday I got up early – around 5:15 – and news stations were already reporting “live from Hopkinsville with coast to coast coverage.” You could feel the energy start to amp up, an air of excitement that built as the crowd grew.
Around 10:00 the Voodoo Bone Lady swept in, drawing an immediate gathering of both children and adults, lured by her brightly-colored clothing and the two Chinese Rat Snakes she wore coiled around one arm like an exotic bracelet. She let me take her picture and told me she had come all the way from New Orleans “to be in this energy and to pray for humanity.”
By 11:00 a couple of folks from NASA arrived and began passing out book marks with eclipse information and graphics printed on them. They also came with boxes full of eclipse glasses. A tall thin man set up a PA system and the burly NASA guy, who was from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, stepped up and gave a nice long talk, offered lots of warnings about how to protect your eyes, and answered a bunch of questions.
He got lots of applause. It was like having a rock star in the house. I overheard one of the men behind me excitedly saying, “This is a huge nerdfest!” and I turned to nod and give him a thumbs up, which he returned. “Yeah!” he said, scanning the crowd fondly. “People who think like me!”
I knew what he meant. People who get excited at finding a cicada shell. People who bring home rocks and shells and bits of tree bark or interesting hunks of wood. People who get stiff necks looking up at the stars at night, falling headlong into the beautiful swirl of the Milky Way.
People who travel from points south, east, north, and west (one vendor said they met someone who had come from the Netherlands; I met a guy from Australia who was with a friend who’d come from Switzerland) to stand in a hot field on a muggy day and have our minds blown, one incremental movement of moonshadow at a time.
While we waited for the eclipse to begin, several people sat out in the sun, but most of us stayed in the pavilion. It was heading toward the 90’s again, clear with no cloud cover. Waves of heat rolled through the pavilion. I had a bottle of frozen water that I kept applying to the sweatiest parts – my forehead, the back of my neck, my chest – and alternated Gatorade and water until I thought I might float away.
Beasley, champ that he is, mostly laid on the cool cement floor. Once in a while he’d lap some water from his bowl, but mostly he stayed still. Oh, until his fan base stopped by. At least a dozen adults and children had fallen in love with him and kept checking back to say hi, to pat his silky neck, to scratch his ears, his side. Several located his tickle spot, laughing at his cycling back leg. He was the most popular dog there, for sure.
At 2:30 that morning, when I’d gotten up to go to the bathroom, in the dark along the sidewalk we passed a police officer we’d met earlier that day. “Hi, Beasley!” she said as we walked by, touching the top of his head.
Also that morning I had caught the second toe of my right foot in the lip of the tent and fell, spilling half my freshly brewed Italian roast coffee, getting grass clippings all over my legs, and either breaking the toe or injuring the joint (something went “snap”), after which I couldn’t really walk on that foot. Thus was the planned sojourn up to Louisville scotched for now. And thus was my general rule not to use the M-F word before 9 a.m violated.
Back to Eclipseville. The fervor grew; you could feel it. What had been a quiet murmuring of voices as people played cards, sat and talked, pulled out picnic lunches, or cooked on camp stoves, had become a steady low din of lively chatter.
And then it was time. All of a sudden, it was time. People began wandering out onto the grass, lying down or reclining in folding chairs, their eyes covered with eclipse glasses of all manner, goggles, some even wearing welding helmets. We got quieter. We became still.
I popped in and out of the pavilion, checking on the progress, watching the sun be devoured, slow bite by slow bite. And then the NASA guy called out, “Two minutes!”
By then the temperature had cooled considerably. The lighting had become eerie, other-worldly. I brought Beasley out with me and laid down in the grass with people on either side of me. Beasley circled three times, plopped down, and went right to sleep.
The crowd became restive. There was a long collective sigh, getting louder and louder, until a dad behind to my left said to his son, “There it is! You can take your glasses of now!” and I watched the last spark of the sun go out and just at the moment of total darkness through the glasses, I took mine off and along with everyone else, gasped, then applauded. In fact, I sat up and opened my arms and shouted something. I have no idea what.
The locusts were howling. Jupiter came out. I could not take my eyes off the lid of the world that had just been put on. I could not stop gaping, slack-jawed, at the brilliant corona leaking out into the darkness.
And then it was over. Two minutes and forty seconds. It was over. More cheering. A few firecrackers.
People got up, began packing. Groups of people, leaving. Totality being the apparent height of wonder (who can argue?), they left for home.
I watched, on and off, as the sun came back, the heat returning with it.
By 5 p.m. when I took down my tent, the place was nearly empty, the vast fields slightly trampled but none the worse for wear. Traffic was light as I drove the two hours to Buffalo, Tennessee, and the sun put on another show in a beautiful sunset I caught just as I crossed over the Cumberland River. Since no one else was on the road, I slowed way down and put on my eclipse glasses again to see the red ball of fire sinking into the western trees.
I stayed at a campground just south of there, falling into bed early, Beasley snoring beside me.