The eclipse will last for less than two minutes in Gering, Nebraska. It is my wife’s birthday, August 21st. She and I have driven for almost 4 hours each way, and slept a night like teenage newlyweds in the back of the car. The world is here, and there are no hotel rooms. Approaching midday, we gather in an old cornfield around cow patties with people we barely know. We have come to the heartland of America seeking totality. But will we find it, and will it be worth it?
It starts well. The Gering people are so kind, giving bottles of water away for free. No charge for parking. Locals in day glow shirts volunteer their time to direct traffic. Or give you ice for your cooler. Need a pair of glasses? “Here, use these. On us. Don’t hurt your eyes.” I’m sure there are rude people, or even mean people somewhere. But not here. My wife picks up the local paper, and looks at housing prices. “I could live here. I love this town.”
We ride the tractor-pulled wagon around to the see the man grilling hot dogs, and use the bathrooms, laughing with those we meet in line. It is a party, an event without political or team divisions. Who cares about watching Fox or CNN? We have the total eclipse of 2017.
We sit on blankets and coolers with two nurses, a teacher, an IT professional, a retired priest, a pharmacist, and four teenagers. Across the fence, new friends from Australia add accents and spice, and a promise to send ideas to a future trip down under. We chat, share stories, sodas, PBJ sandwiches, and glimpses of the universe from a homemade 12″ telescope a young astronomer sets up. Wow. Solar flares. Who knew?
It feels like a family reunion. I look at a covered wagon near the gate, reminded that under our feet is the Oregon Trail. I can almost hear dusty travelers singing an old American song of persistence, trust, and hope.
We are on a journey, too. In our cardboard glasses, we watch the moon crawl across the sun, like a curtain being pulled slowly before bedtime. Honestly, it’s nice but I am not really impressed. “I’m doing this for my wife,” I tell a stranger. She smiles, understanding. Dusk-light comes, and the temperature drops significantly.
It is time. The corona at totality catches me off guard. A bit timid, I remove my dark glasses. The whole parking lot gasps, and then cheers. I gasp, too. We came seeking the universe, and it is responding. So amazing. So beautiful. White dances around black, alive. I’m not ready for the tingle on my skin, or the tingle in my soul.
I have felt this way before at glorious weddings, while watching perfect Olympic gymnasts, standing on a mountain top, and at Christmas Eve candle-light services. God is here.
The crowd inhales in unison, as if they are seeing a skyburst of fireworks. It grows quiet. God reveals his hand for a moment, a string of cards arrayed so perfectly that they match up even though they are 400 times different in size and in distance. We watch a celestial dance, done perfectly with both infant and grandparent. Synchronized square dancing, with molten gas twirling cold rock in steps marked over fourteen billion years. It is so, well, perfect.
I look around for a second, although it is hard to pull my eyes away from the eclipsed sun. The bluffs, for which Scottsbluff was named, seem to cower in the quick, amazing darkness, and then quietly begin to glisten like sun-burned kids at the pool in the artificial dawn. Never have I seen such bright colors appear like magic, soft yet vivid, poured from God’s pallet. Stunning. Is every dawn like this?
Totality ends, and I hug Cathy and wish her happy birthday. Her eyes and cheeks are wet below her dark glasses. We hold on to each other for too long, and not long enough. More hugs move around, spreading like shared yawns. Smiles are everywhere. We are somehow united with these people in this field of cow patties. A few people cheer again, unsure of what is next. Over time, the parking lot clears. We wait, not wanting this all to end.
We are one humanity, amazed and joined together by creation moving around us. This is a taste of totality. Wow. Lord, please make it larger, more common. Help us find one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Was it worth it? Oh. You shudda’ been here. The old American song of persistence, trust, and hope is still sung here in Nebraska. It rings in countless other places, too.
I think we’re going to Texas for totality in 2024.