Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Path of Totality

The path of totality was not the middle path, nor, in light of yesterday's traffic, could I say it was the path less taken. It was a well trodden path: practically trampled.

Nonetheless, it was the path of my pilgrimage.

Because there were so many factors beyond my control (primarily the weather, and the availability of a place to camp), I was choosing to take my chances. Would the universe continue to be cruel, as it had been when it contrived to kill my horse by such a ridiculously unlikely affliction?  Had it gotten that fury out of its system?  Was the universe predisposed to be kind again, OR WHAT?

I had my cell phone, GPS, cash, credit cards. I had my son with me, so I wasn't taking too many chances. It was not my intention to put our lives at risk, but to accept the chance of experiencing discomfort and disappointment--which makes me sound so humble and accepting, doesn't it?

Despite my predisposition to be humble and accepting, things got off to a shaky start.

I decided that Josh and I should set up the tent before leaving, so we would be able to set it up in the dark if necessary, and wouldn't be surprised by the absence of some essential ingredient, like poles or stakes.

It was awfully hot.

Josh was in a mood to prank me.

"Are you a white supremacist?"

"What? Why would you ask me that?"

"Are you? Are you a white supremacist?"

"No!  Stop saying that. The neighbors will hear you and what will they think?"

"That you're a white supremacist?"

For the record, I'm not a white supremacist, which Josh knows perfectly well.

Josh failed to pick up his end of the tent while calling me a white supremacist as sweat poured down my brow. As a red-head, I hate sun and heat. Like a vampire, I feel that it's killing me.

"Look at the tent, see what you need to do, and do it. Don't stand there like a punk."

Josh is thirteen, did I mention that?  By late afternoon, it's like he has colic; but instead of screaming and crying with a tummy ache, he gets super obnoxious as the testosterone overrides his otherwise thoughtful brain. It's horrible, but it passes.

It occurred to me that dealing with my son for a thousand miles could turn out to be as challenging as a spiteful universe.  And if I was going to get cranky now about heat, tent flaps, and a 13-year old bent on triggering me,  I was going to be one very miserable pilgrim.

"Josh," I said. "We are going to have to try our best to get along, or this trip is going to be hell for both of us."

"Okay," he said, with what appeared to be genuine compassion.

He hooked the poles onto the tent.

I reminded Josh, because I wanted him to know what he was getting into, that the weather in Missouri was going to be hot; and though we hoped to find a campsite, I hadn't been able to reserve one, so we might have to sleep in the van in a Walmart parking lot.

Also, storms were predicted for Monday, so we might not see the eclipse for all that.

"That's okay," he said.  He suggested that we bring along two icepacks to put under our pillows when camping.

The next morning, I packed the van with a cooler (and two ice packs); a sleeping bag, pillows, and sheets; a down mattress cover for padding; snacks, drinks, water, and sandwiches.

We left at 9 a.m on Sunday, leaving behind five cats, two horses, three dogs (including an elderly poodle named Hank whom I worried could deteriorate in my absence) and my husband.

Illinois is a long, unremittingly boring drive through flat farmlands in bright sunlight. It made my eyes tired. But, as suffering goes, it was perfectly tolerable.

Josh was in a good mood. Over a small blue-tooth speaker, he played tracks from Childish Gambino, Tyler the Creator, and various rappers, some of which he skipped in the middle because they were too embarrasing to listen to in the company of his mother.

The hours stretched out in front of us. We had enough time to listen to all of Josh's music discoveries.  Satisfied at last, he suggested we could listen to my Pandora stations. I chose Glass Animals, and Josh was favorably impressed.  After a while, the songs began to repeat, so I switched to Great Gatsby, which also met with his approval. (Yay!)

While Josh napped, I switched to some very old, very personal music that would not interfere with his sleep: my Joan Armatrading Pandora station.  Good company for driving, sleeping, and thinking about the universe.

It was close to three p.m. when we arrived in St. Louis.

I had told Josh that the St. Louis Arch was a hundred years old, and built for the World's Fair at the turn of the century.  I talked at length about World's Fairs: How the Eiffel Tower was built by Monsieur Eiffel for the Paris World's Fair, and the first ferris wheel was built in Chicago by Mr. Ferris for the Chicago World's Fair....

But I was wrong about the Arch. It had nothing to do with a World's Fair. It was designed in 1947 and its construction was not completed until 1965, long after the World's Fair phenom had ended.

Actually, the history of the arch is just a long bureaucratic struggle...of tension between romantic visionaries and pragmatic paper pushers. It is the story of people getting in the way of creative genius, and of sustained determination over years to insist on bringing into existence something that no one needed, but which would uplift everyone.  Visually, physically, and historically, the arch exists between heaven and earth.  Its story is mainly one of stubborn perseverance.

1965, btw, was the year I was born--not 100 years ago. Not even close.

I had seen the arch from a distance many years before. Up close,  however, it's colossal, soaring, and totally inspiring; easily among the most stunning man-made things I've ever seen.

And though it had nothing to do with a World's Fair, which frequently generated constructions of this ilk, the arch is certainly worthy of a World's Fair, just like the Eiffel Tower.

Saint Louis gave rise to the arch, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, but it was not at all apparent to me why this should be.  A very humble city, Saint Louis has long been struggling economically.

When the daughter of Smith, one of two main champions of the arch, suggested that the millions needed to construct it would be better spent on practical things, Smith was said to have told her that "spiritual things are equally important."

St. Louis still appears to be wanting in practical things, but people come from miles around to see the arch. Had I known how divine this thing was before I set out from Wisconsin, I could have ended my pilgrimage right there and gone home.

We didn't go to the top of the arch, which people do by some unlikely arrangement of elevators. At the bottom, the temperature was 96 degrees; I could imagine to what heights the temperature would soar up there in the armpit of the arch. Maybe, at that altitude, the temperature dropped, but I wasn't taking any chances.

Maybe, I should have insisted we go to the top to get closer to God and to suffer the heat as a proper pilgrim.

But, I didn't. I bought Josh a lemonade for five dollars at the wharf. When he finished it, I rolled the ice cubes around in my hands to cool off as we walked in the sun the wrong way for quite a distance before realizing there was no way across to the city except to go back the way we had come.

We left St. Louis around six o'clock and drove south until seven, the light mellowing and soft.  We weren't going to make it to Mark Twain National Park in the daylight.

I pulled into St. Francois State Park in Bonne Terre, Missouri.

Finding no staff in the office, we wended our way among the campsites. The campsites were loud, clamorous, and crowded.  Children and dogs wandered in and out of the middle of the road. I had to wait several times until someone noticed and retrieved them.

We saw an official in an ATV and asked her if they had any campsites available.

"We're full," she said. "But I suppose you could park in equestrian camping."

We would be delighted.  I filled out the form, handed over cash, and received a card for the dashboard which indicated that we actually had a place to stay that night.

Josh and I drove around for quite a while looking for the equestrian campsites. Finally, it occurred to me that there might be a separate entrance to the park for horse trailers. Sure enough, there was.

We found a large camper parked in a big gravel lot, just as we were told to expect, and that's where I figured we'd spend the night--parked in the gravel, sleeping in the van.  Too bad we couldn't use the tent, but this was better than driving around Missouri half the night, looking a place in the dark.

We saw a road going into the woods. I was curious and drove down it, but the gravel was big and jagged and I wanted to turn back before we blew out a tire. On the other hand, Josh insisted that our actual camping area must be down this road.

Josh was right. At the end of the road, we found a secluded area and several campsites with parking, picnic tables, fire pits, and space for a tent. It was, in brief, heaven.

As the sun set, the woods were raucous with buzzing insects and chirping birds and frogs. I had rarely heard such a loud cacophony in nature. It went on for hours and reminded me of sleeping on planes near the engine, which I didn't mind. I could always sleep on a plane.

We put the tent up without difficulty, having done it once before.  We didn't bother adding the fly; it wasn't supposed to rain. Josh settled into his sleeping bag as though it weren't 86 degrees and 7:30 p.m.

Perspiration dripped from my head to my criss-crossed legs.

"Get the ice packs," said Josh.

"Brilliant idea." I got them. They were fabulous. For the second time that night, Josh saved the day. First, he found our campsite, and then, through excellent use of foresight, he had come up with this life hack: ice packs in our pillows.

I was beyond proud. I was grateful.

Josh and I had breakfast at a local grill down the road. He had waffles as big as his head with strawberries and whipped cream, and a side of hash browns. I had two eggs, hash browns and toast.

It was about ten in the morning when we set out to find Mark Twain National Forest, which I had researched a little bit online.

But somehow, I failed to grasp how enormous this park was, or how exactly it worked.

We drove for miles and miles, through one humble little town after another and through different counties, even, before I realized that we were in fact smack in the middle of Mark Twain National Park, though we had yet to see anything that resembled a park entrance or, for that matter, a park anything.

I guess I do not know what makes a park a park.  Can a park span different counties and encompass a bunch of little towns?  Apparently so.

At noonish, I turned right onto a road used for lumbering. There was no one else there--the other eclipse peepers had probably found the entrance to the park and were gathered by the thousands in some designated area. But Josh and I were alone in the forest on this road going nowhere. I parked the minivan in a shady spot near a clearing with an undisrupted view of the sun.

Josh looked through his special filtered glasses and saw the eclipse had begun.

It moved slowly, like a minute hand, until the moment of totality when it seemed to speed up; totality was so sudden and brief, it was over before we realized it.

Josh quickly lamented that he had somehow missed totality by trying to take its picture with the filter over the lens of his iPod. I had told Josh that he could view totality with his naked eye, but he had heard otherwise from someone else on YouTube, and chose to listen to them, instead.

With any luck, Josh will be 25 for the next solar eclipse.

When I was 25, I was in Hawaii for the 1991 solar eclipse. (I happened to be living there.)  I have no memory of seeing totality; it was cloudy that day. I only remembered that the sky got eerily dark. I did not see the diamond ring effect, which I definitely viewed from Missouri. I found the shimmering ring and dazzling "diamond" more wondrous and relatable than the extremely delicate moment of totality which passes as quickly as consciousness can recognize it.

Josh was sad that he missed seeing totality with his own eyes. That sadness would stay with him for the next few days. But of course, it was also the end of summer, and school was about to begin...

I wondered if technology--his iPod, his X-box, all of it...had caused Josh to miss out on a more immediate and sensory experience of his summer vacation. In addition to totality, what else had he missed seeing with his own eyes?  (A lot, I think.)

I remember feeling sad when I returned home from camp at Josh's age.  The contrast between living outdoors in nature, physically and socially active, compared starkly against afternoons spent  watching TV by myself...Daily life didn't seem much like living, compared to the robust days of summer. But, gradually, as always, I adjusted to my sedentary default life of school and MTV.

We left our clearing in the forest and crawled through stop-and-go traffic to Saint Louis and north to Springfield. Beyond Springfield, around midnight, the universe flashed some fury in our direction.  The sky lit up and a sudden torrent came down with such force that I literally could not see out the window; the windshield wipers could not operate fast enough to clear the rain.

It was frightening; there were thousands of cars on the road, full of people impatient to pick up speed  after crawling along in traffic for hours.

Virtually blinded by the rain, I immediately pulled over onto an adjacent offramp and stopped behind several cars with flashing emergency lights waiting for the rain to slow.

My GPS indicated that there had just been an incident on the road.

The rain abated after a few minutes, and we got back on the highway.

A little while later, the lightning seemed angrier, more jagged, and closer. There were more sudden torrents of blinding rain. Again, I took the first exit off the highway. I parked at a gas station and waited.

"Call Dad," said Josh.

"Why? What's he going to do? We're in Springfield, Missouri."

I was reminded of when Phil and I were trying to retrieve my loose and deranged horse from a field soybeans half a mile from our farm. Phil asked who I could call to come help. I said I would call the vet, but I would have to retrieve the horse myself.

"Have faith in your mom," I told Josh. "I've driven in rain like this plenty of times."

Notably, I drove on the Road to Hana at night in a rain almost as bad as this. If you've never driven that road at night in the rain, picture narrow, two-way roads, hairpin turns, single-car bridges, and blind oceanside cliffs.

The rain slowed, I resumed driving and it didn't menace us again for the rest of the drive home.

I consumed a can of Pringles, 36 ounces of Diet Mountain Dew, hot cocoa, and half a bag of KitKats.

We listened to V-Sauce, and Ted Talks about body shaming, self-acceptance, sexless marriages, extramarital affairs, schizophrenia, mental telepathy, and whether psychology is a sham science or not.

We listened to Trump's scripted speech about his new strategy for Afghanistan.

For the remainder of the trip, I fretted over the gritty texture of my teeth, and how my bite felt off.

I woke up the next morning with the feeling that I had nodded off on the highway and been teleported home.

Yes, the universe had showed me its claws, as well as kindness and glory.

Because I had viewed the trip as a pilgrimage, I had adjusted my attitude to accept whatever came my way, good or bad.  I can honestly say that I embraced the traffic and torrential rain as part and parcel of a pilgrim's progress.

I had time to wonder whether I could sustain this attitude indefinitely. Perhaps, that openness and acceptance of whatever the universe had in store was the perspective I should maintain all the time.

Was it realistic to think that I could apply the mental toughness of a pilgrim to everyday life?

Wouldn't it be smug to think that I was prepared to accept whatever life had up its sleeve?

At best, I could lower my expectations, anticipate disappointment, and feel grateful when things went my way.

But that's not the attitude of a pilgrim.

Life is not a pilgrimage. I do not wake up every morning with the intention of leaving behind my daily routine to expand my awareness of the universe. Not to mention, my relationship with Josh.

Then again, what am I doing now, if not something along those lines?

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