The Mountains Were Calling, and Everyone Went

In August of last year, my boyfriend Michael and I drove 2,282 miles in one week. Like hundreds of thousands of others, we were chasing “The Great American Eclipse.” The path of totality (where the moon appears to completely cover the sun) stretched from sea to shining sea in a 20-mile-wide band. We traveled in style, driving a baby-blue Prius with large flames plastered behind each wheel and a “‘Cool Prius’ – Said Nobody” bumper sticker. We thought there was no better way to end the summer than a road trip to see, according to veteran eclipse chaser Mike Kentrianakis, “the most awesome astronomical event ever that you’ll never forget, and will change you forever.”

Michael and I haven’t had the logistically simplest relationship. Between my gap year travels, his semester abroad, and two summers spent apart, we’ve ridden many trains, boarded many planes, and driven many cars to close the distance between us.  For one rare summer we were able to live together for an extended period. I relished falling asleep and waking up next to him day after day. I reveled in cooking experimental dinners together and laughing when they, sometimes quite literally, blew up in our faces. I delighted in knowing that when we said goodbye each morning, the time apart was measured in hours rather than weeks. To close out this summer of togetherness, we hopped in that baby-blue Prius, together, and headed for North Carolina.

Before Michael and I had set out on our trip, it seemed as though everyone had an opinion on the eclipse. My best friend’s dad told me I was probably going to have an emotionally transcendent experience. The New York Times’s “Guide to The Great American Eclipse” recommended watching the eclipse with others, because “the emotional intensity and connection with a crowd of people all watching the same thing will be like nothing you’ve ever felt.” My rabbi even gave her Rosh Hashanah sermon on how the eclipse “inspired a much-needed sense of unity across our country in this time when recent crowds have been convened out of fighting against otherness.” She quoted the New York Times writer Helen MacDonald – “Confronting the eclipse is absolute; it made all our human differences disappear. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and then see it reborn, there can be no them, only us. We shared a vision that made us one.”

Our first stop on the road trip was Cowan’s Gap State Park in Southern Pennsylvania. We arrived early, and lazed in the grass next to the placid lake, picking blades of grass and daydreaming about living together in a place as remote as this. In the morning, we set out for Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Michael promptly fell asleep as soon as I pulled out of Cowan’s Gap and stayed asleep as I dodged 18-wheeler trucks on I-95 all the way through Maryland and into Virginia. In the quietness of the car, I thought about all the big decisions Michael and I faced. We both want to be together long-term, and also both have ambitious career aspirations. These two aspects are often at odds with one another. When I try to add up the years and align my medical school with his graduate school, my residency with his postdoc, and my attendingship with his professorship, I grow increasingly depressed at our chances of ending up on the other side intact. Usually, when I work myself up into this frenzied addition, Michael pulls me into his arms and reminds me that we’ll make it work because we want to make it work.

Upon arriving at Shenandoah National Park, my internal ramblings were quickly replaced by the immediate challenge of Slaughter Trail. Both Michael and I are experienced backpackers, and have been camping together in the Berkshires, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, the Adirondacks, and the Rockies. But I had yet to experience a hiking-induced panic before. Michael and I both carried fifty-pound packs. The only way up the mountain to our next campsite required scaling a craggy, sheer cliff, where the only semblance of traction is in a crack that runs up the face. I love hiking, but I do not love rock climbing. In fact, when I was eight years old I had to be rescued from the top of an indoor rock wall by the teenager in charge because when I looked down I froze and refused to move. And yet here I am, in Shenandoah National Park, with my hands and feet jammed into this crack. Michael is already on top of the cliff, and is looking over and shouting words of encouragement. I let out a yelp that I’m not proud of, scramble up the cliff face, and upon reaching the plateau promptly start to cry, something I made Michael promise never to tell anyone. He once again pulls me into that familiar, comforting embrace, and murmurs into my ear that I am the bravest hiker he knows.

After surviving the backcountry of Shenandoah relatively unscathed, we headed for Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Along the way we stopped at a confederate flag-adorned roadside stand for fresh peaches and birch beer. We planned to camp at Big Creek Campsite within the Park, but a quick Google search told us that in preparation for an eclipse viewing event the access road was closed. Luckily, the Fox Fire (or ‘Foxy’ Fire, as we preferred) campsite was still open. We claimed a spot as far away from people as possible, right along the river. We laughed at how out of place we were among our barbecuing and pick up truck-driving compatriots: we had cooked chickpea pasta with pesto, placed  a loaf of gluten-free bread on the picnic table, parked the flame-adorned Prius beside us, and reversed gender roles: Michael was cooking, I was setting up the tent.

The next day we set out for Albert Mountain in North Carolina. It was Michael’s third time ever driving on the highway, but on the straight, deserted road to the southwest corner of the state he hit 90 going downhill. Albert Mountain is nestled in the dense Nantahala National Forest, and there is nothing within a ten-mile radius of the peak. The Appalachian Trail cuts through the Forest, up Albert Mountain and across the 5,200-feet tall summit. Albert Mountain is unique because it is one of the only balds in the region – meaning that the top of the mountain is rocky, which prevents trees from growing – thereby offering 360-degree panoramic views of the valley below. The best part was that the center line of the eclipse bisected the mountain, meaning that we’d have the longest possible view of the eclipse. Turning onto the nine-mile long dirt road leading to the trailhead, Michael and I found out we weren’t the only ones who thought Albert Mountain was the place to be. We counted at least 75 cars total parked on the side of the road.

As we hiked the three miles of switchbacks to the summit, we saw scattered groups of friends, families, and couples relaxing in camp chairs next to tents set up in any sort of flat clearing off the trail. When we crested the summit, an impromptu city of tents greeted us. We hiked a mile along the sloping ridgeline before we found an unoccupied clearing. There were no bathrooms, established campsites, or running water sources, and there were over 150 people on the mountain. After dinner, Michael and I trekked up to the bald to scope out the scene. We sat on an outcrop overlooking the entire valley, and decided that this was the exact spot we wanted to watch the eclipse from. Now the only question was what time to get up and claim it. “6am?” Michael asked. Then he mused, “If we’re willing to get up at 6am, so are other people. Even 5am isn’t crazy enough. We need to be crazier than the crazy people.” We set our alarm for 3:45am.  

After the alarm woke us, I retrieved our food from the suspended bear bag, Michael shouldered his pack and grabbed my sleeping bag, and we hiked by head-lamp to our chosen spot. We broke out laughing when we reached the bald – there was not a single other person awake. We settled in on the outcrop. Michael leaned against his pack propped on the rocks, and I leaned against him. We unzipped my sleeping bag, and draped it over us like a quilt. Looking at the stars strewn across the night sky, pointing out constellations, dozing intermittently, and watching the still black of the night melt into the brilliant sunrise, we felt Albert Mountain was ours alone.

Around 7am, the mountain started to wake up. People joined us on the bald. At first there were just a few of us, and then a whole lot more. There were all kinds of people: hardcore umbraphiles (the official term for one who loves eclipses and often travels to see them), a group of friends from Harvard playing card-games, parents of an eight-year-old boy who sat with his head in his hands because he’d interpreted the warnings about looking directly at the eclipse to mean that he couldn’t open his eyes all day, a dad with a cooler in one hand and a Yorkie in the other, a loud comedian from New Jersey, a math teacher from Colorado who was grading tests, and a group of hippies who subjected everyone to their tone-deaf flute playing. There was also a columnist from Outside Magazine assigned to cover the scene at Albert Mountain. He interviewed one of the hippies. Michael and I had a good laugh when we heard the columnist say, “And that’s your last name?” and the hippie replied “No, my gender.”

As the day wore on, the direct sunlight warmed the bald more and more, until it was over ninety degrees. It’s easier to see  eclipses when there aren’t a lot of trees, but no trees also means no shade. People got creative, stringing together blankets, opening small umbrellas, and hiding under the few trees large enough to provide shade. Michael and I fashioned a makeshift canopy out of our tent’s rainfly. When the partial eclipse began at 11 am, people brought out their eclipse glasses. At around 2:20 pm, it got noticeably colder. Totality came at 2:36 pm. We watched the shadow travel over the entire valley. There was a sunset effect on the horizon. Once darkness set in, the stars came out and the crickets started chirping. The eclipse was awesome, in the sense that we were filled with awe — the sun was setting in the middle of the day. But contrary to what appears to be the popular belief, strangers watching the sun disappear behind the moon do not instantly form an emotional bond. The motley crew atop Albert Mountain did not become “one.” When someone shouted out “Tag all of your pictures with the hashtag ‘AlbertMountainEclipse2017’!” everyone else issued a groan. By the time of totality, I’d chatted with only three people on the bald. I never learned a single person’s name. People didn’t invite each other into their makeshift sun-shelters. There was little intermingling, and if there was any it didn’t go beyond small talk.

About halfway into the total eclipse, Michael grabbed my hand and didn’t let go. In those two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, there was only me and Michael, hand in hand, standing on top of a mountain, and watching the sun set in the middle of the day. When the moon blocked the sun and all went dark, we didn’t become one with our fellow eclipse viewers. We became closer to the people we came with.

Josie Wilson is already planning a backpacking trip to see the next solar eclipse in 2024. Email her at josephine.wilson@yale.edu if you’d like to join.

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