We left the hotel at three in the morning on Monday because we’d absorbed a great many calamitous predictions about hordes of barbarians descending shrieking upon the placid wilds of Idaho, hapless eclipse-chasers and their snot-encrusted offspring weeping in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic whilst totality passed unheeded over the melee. That sort of thing. Instead the freeway was empty and we got to the eclipse seven hours early. My astronomer friend parked the rental car in the field-turned-temporary-campground he and his wife had scouted the day before, where a bemused farmer collected thirty dollars per automobile from the kinds of people who care enough about solar eclipses to end up in a field in the middle of Idaho in the first place.
Which, as it turns out, is a lot of different kinds of people, although at four in the morning a great many of them had yet to arrive. We walked around in the dark for a while and looked at the white pour of the Milky Way. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many stars—that time Melissa and I drove out to Iowa together and slept in a ditch by the side of the highway in Utah and the stars were so bright I swear they woke me up, maybe, but that was twenty years ago. Afterward we tried to sleep in the car until the sun came up and everybody gave up and I bought a cup of very good and very strong coffee from the farmer’s wife, who was also a farmer, for fifty cents. A little later you could get biscuits and gravy for three dollars, to benefit I think the track team, or the pancake complete breakfast for seven dollars if you wanted sausage and bacon and eggs or five dollars if you didn’t want sausage and bacon.
The field over by the high school was nicer than our field, which was dirt. The high-school field was covered with the kind of dense lush grass only people who don’t live in New York take for granted, grass you can go around barefoot in without terror of glass or cigarette ends or syringes or urine or bubonic plague, grass you can flop backward into without looking behind you and lie there staring up at the big blue eye of the sky. By nine in the morning it was coming up on ninety-five degrees and the air was clear as daylight. We ate some of our snacks from the car. Justin had the biscuit and gravy breakfast and my astronomer friend’s writer wife got the pancake incomplete breakfast and the pancakes were the size of her paper plate. The high-school field was full of people who’d mostly camped there overnight, or for longer even, people who had undertaken to set up lounge chairs and complicated telescope arrangements and trampolines for their children and inflatable furnitures of all kind and even a full-on velour sectional and area rug, upon which they were very pleased to allow you to take selfies. A small child mounted his eclipse glasses in a paper plate and taped this whole contraption to his head several hours before the eclipse began and kept walking into things. A teenager played pop songs on his banjo, with an eye I believe to impress either out-of-towners or ladies or both. I did not tell him I have not been impressed by a white boy with a banjo since 1998. I doubt I was one of the people he was trying to impress anyway. My astronomer friend went around looking through everyone’s telescopes. I got my photograph taken on the velour couch and had a nap in the grass with my eclipse glasses on.
At ten-twenty the first paring of moon blacked out the very edge of the sun. A lady let me look through her fancy eclipse binoculars so I could see the sunspots. She had seen a lot of total solar eclipses, she told me, including one from the deck of an ocean freighter she and her friends had convinced to slightly alter its course through French Polynesia, which seems like a pretty all right sort of life to me. When do we see the fireballs, a little kid yelled, and everybody laughed, but he was serious.
It was like that for an hour or so. Cool but not stop-in-your-tracks cool. Like, a rational thing. We’re looking at the moon cover the sun and it’s neat! kind of cool. We wandered around and looked up a lot. People shared their telescopes and people who had seen eclipses before talked about how much they loved eclipses and I thought about how all these people had come together in a random field in a rural Idaho town of six hundred people to watch the moon black out the sun in a time of war and rising water. It was a fairly white crowd, to be sure, but a lot less white than I thought it would be. There were people who seemed to have a lot of money and people who had walked over from the nearest farm and people who probably could’ve written out the proofs for general relativity from memory and people who probably would’ve been hard-pressed to tell you whether the earth went around the sun or the other way around. We were promised fireballs, after all.
Twenty minutes or so from totality we found a good spot in the middle of the field and settled in. Somebody's dog was freaking out but it seemed like not an especially smart dog so I don't know if its behavior was related to the eclipse. Are you colder everyone asked each other I swear I just got colder I’m not making it up it really did get colder and then it really did get colder. I took off my eclipse glasses and looked around and the light was bluer than it should’ve been, like light you could imagine coming from inside a glacier: sharp and alien and cold, all the reds and yellows seeping slowly out of the high hills around us, and the moon moved further and further across the sun and it was like looking at a picture with all the color filters skewed blue except we weren’t looking at a picture we were in the picture and the sun was almost swallowed whole but still so bright you couldn’t look at it and then
And then the thing happened that I don’t think I could ever describe. I can’t even remember it because when it happened I stopped thinking. Look it’s Venus! someone shouted and there was Venus springing to life in a field of blue and the darkness came up from the edges of the world like water filling a glass and the black disk of the moon loomed suddenly enormous, a great pitch-dark hole in the sky with the pale wisps of the corona streaming away from it and everyone around us was screaming and cheering and crying. I was standing up but I didn’t remember standing up and I was holding Justin’s hand I think or maybe he was holding mine and I could hear my astronomer friend yelling Oh my gosh oh it’s so oh wow I had no idea oh my gosh oh holy crap and I remember thinking how charming it was that even stunned senseless with awe he wouldn’t say a bad word and other than that I don’t really know what happened or where I went because when I say I stopped thinking I really mean it. I stopped thinking. I felt my whole self annihilated with wonder.
I don’t remember the eclipse because the way I remember the eclipse is not attached to language. It is not a way I have ever experienced any other thing in my life. It was very cold and I cried, I know that much. I wasn’t the only one. Two minutes is no time and all time at the same time. And then a single blaze of light erupted from one side of the moon’s black ring and the little kid yelled Is that the fireball and the sunlight bled back into the world as the white blaze of the sun engulfed the moon’s shadow in a second. The temperature climbed and the children went about shrieking and the small child with the eclipse glasses mounted in a paper plate ran into a car and everybody in the field was human again. There was barbecue or you could get a hot-dog for three dollars. Water was free. I drank another cup of coffee in the field where we’d parked and talked to the farmers. His face was radiant. I thought it was just going to be a lot of people like from California, he said. But that’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. His wife cleared her throat. Except for the birth of my daughter, he added. Later that day and further north a mean old lady who'd almost hit us with her car actually did tell us to go back to California, the strange miracle of human harmony that had just happened immediately forgot. We’re from fucking Brooklyn! I yelled and did not exactly do our species much credit either.
The next one’s in Chile in 2019. I’m already looking at tickets.