It's All About The Journey...And The Eclipse! (As originally published in 'In Flight USA' Magazine)
At 7:00 on the morning of Sunday, August 20th I got into my beloved Chevy Trail Blazer and left my house in upstate New York, setting out for…somewhere on the path of totality. I wasn’t quite sure of my destination. I thought maybe it would be Charleston or Nashville, as they were about equidistant from my starting point, but figured I’d play it by ear and just head generally south until I made my decision.
I was making great time and didn’t feel restless or bored behind the wheel at all. Going in to the trip, I had worried about spending so much time alone with my thoughts, as I had just learned that my ex boyfriend was cheating on me for half of our relationship. I was pleased to find, however, that being alone with my thoughts wasn’t scary at all. It was actually quite cathartic, being able to think through all the reasons why it was a good thing he was out of my life for good. It was right in the middle of one of those thoughts, speeding down I-81 South in West Virginia, that I felt a jolt in my car. I looked down at my dashboard to see that my RPM had skyrocketed to 5000 but my gas pedal wasn’t responding at all.
I quickly pulled off to the side of the highway and put the car in park. Realizing I wasn’t as far off the road as I would have liked, I shifted back into drive and attempted to pull a little closer to the guardrail. Instead the RPM jumped to 5000 again and I started rolling backwards into oncoming traffic. Immediately I turned off the car and decided I was fine right where I was.
If you’re at all familiar with cars, you’re probably thinking, “Oh it’s the transmission!” And you would be right. I, however, am not familiar with cars in the slightest so I popped the hood to look for…anything that might look strange? Anything on fire? Anything at all? Everything seemed to be in order so next I checked under the car. Did anything fall out? Would I even be able to tell if something was missing? Probably not.
Feeling that I had done all I could reasonably do, I got back in the car and called AAA. The operator informed me that a tow truck would be out my way in 30-45 minutes but that it’s Sunday so no shops or dealerships will be open until the following morning so I’d probably have to find a hotel. That didn’t really work for me, as the eclipse was the next day and I was still about 8 hours from the path of totality.
I immediately got on the phone and began searching for a rental car company open nearby. I found one, an Enterprise about 20 miles back the way I came, with a Chevrolet dealership right next door. I called them and made a reservation, telling them I would be there in an hour, and they assured me they would have a car waiting for me. Shortly after that the tow truck arrived and I asked the driver to bring me back to the dealership right over the border in Maryland and then give me a ride to go pick up my rental car.
By the time I made it to the Enterprise, I had lost about three hours of driving time and was ready to get back on the road. I went to the front desk and told them my name and that I had called about an hour ago to make my reservation. The woman at the desk smiled politely and said, “Okay, well we actually don’t have any cars left and we have a waiting list of about five people, so we can get you a car tomorrow night at the earliest.”
“But what about the car I reserved when I called?”
“Well, you were actually on the phone with our national reservations office and they have to tell you we have a car even if we don’t. It’s company policy.”
Internally I was thinking how stupid of a policy that was. Externally I immediately started crying.
In my experience, crying in public often motivates people to get you what you want. (I have a whole story about crying to the immigration agents at the border to Canada, but that’s for another time.) Everyone standing around the Enterprise office was in a similar situation to me and they were all headed to the eclipse so I knew I couldn’t use that as my excuse.
“It’s just that I have a wedding in Roanoke in three hours and my car broke down and I need to get there!” The lie came out of me before I even realized what was happening, but I went with it. And the key to a good lie is details. “Sunday night weddings are so stupid. And the weekend of the eclipse too? Believe me, I’m so annoyed with my friend, but I’m a bridesmaid and I really need to get there. Please, I really need a car.” I hoped my lie would move them enough to give me literally anything they had, be it a secret car they weren’t renting or even a Razor scooter. Either they were heartless or they actually had nothing to give me.
One woman suggested I try the Budget car rental about 5 miles away, but they closed in 30 minutes so I would have to rush. “And how do you propose I get there?” I asked. She suggested Uber but I was unconvinced a car would be available in this middle of nowhere town on the Bible belt. I checked the app and there were no cars in the area. Frustrated, I refreshed it, and there was one car, 15 minutes away. I booked it before some other poor soul could snatch it up. While I was waiting, I decided to call Budget to ensure they would have a car waiting for me.
“Hi, is this the Budget in Hagerstown, MD?”
“No, this is the national reservations office.”
I insisted that they connect me directly to the local office and they said they couldn’t but they could give me the direct number and I could call myself.
“Hi, is this the Budget in Hagerstown, MD?”
“No, this is the national reservations office.”
Again, I insisted they connect me directly. Again, I was told they couldn’t do that. But he assured me he was looking at that specific location and he could guarantee they had at least three cars available. I explained what had happened with Enterprise.
“If you screw me over like Enterprise did, I will find you.”
“Would you like me to put through the reservation for you?”
Just as he was taking my information, though, the call dropped. The crying started again almost instantaneously. The Uber would be there in about two minutes and I decided to just go straight to Budget and hope that they really did have a car available. It was my last hope, after all.
When the Uber arrived, I got into the car, still crying. The driver asked me what was wrong and I told him everything that had happened.
“Well,” he said, “I own a rental car company. Do you want this car?”
Speechless and unsure of how real this situation was, I allowed the driver to take me to his office where he copied my driver’s license and handed me the keys. He didn’t take my credit card information. He didn’t take my insurance information. He told me I could pay in cash when I returned the car on Tuesday. Still in shock, I took the keys and (after comparing the weather between Charleston and Nashville and deciding on Tennessee) got back on the road. If I didn’t believe in a higher power before, I sure do now. Something made it so that I could get to the eclipse, even after I had exhausted every single option I possibly had and did everything I possibly could, there was still a way.
That night around 11:00 I made it over the Tennessee border and decided to stop. If I had been in my Trail Blazer, with it’s hatchback trunk and tinted windows, I probably would have saved my money and slept in the car. But the Chevy Malibu I was given by the Uber driver was rather unintimidating and I didn’t feel safe camping out in the backseat. Luckily, I was able to find a hotel. I’m not really sure how I got so lucky, though, because most hotels within a few hours of the path of totality had been sold out for weeks, if not months.
The next morning I woke up and set off to find my eclipse spot. I did some more weather checking and path of totality mapping and decided on the small town of Athens, about an hour south of Knoxville. When I arrived I read a bit about a large park in Athens that was the location of an eclipse fair, which sounded intriguing, but as I drove past I saw that it was completely packed with parking all the way down the street miles in both directions. This was not the place for me.
As I was trying to decide on where to go, I pulled into a Walmart to buy some water and use the restroom. The entire parking lot was full and I had to find a spot at a gas station across the street. As I walked through the lot to get to the entrance of the store, I noticed hundreds of people setting up tripods and lawn chairs around the parking lot. For a moment I decided to just stay there for the eclipse because it was supposed to start in 45 minutes and I didn’t think I had time to drive around, looking for anywhere else, but as I was walking through the store I decided I really didn’t want to spend my eclipse in a brutally hot parking lot surrounded by people and cars.
I checked my maps app and looked for anywhere green. The first place I noticed was the big park I had already checked out, but a little ways down the road was the Athens Veteran Memorial Park and it was only five minutes from me. Bingo. I plugged the address into my GPS and was on my way. I passed a sign for the park and the place looked park-ish, but the GPS said I still had half a mile to go, so on I went. I found myself driving up a steep dirt road and thought it was a little strange, but, hey, it’s Tennessee, there might be main entrances on dirt roads.
Eventually I reached the top of the mountain and was greeted by about 15 other cars parked there. As I was maneuvering my car into a makeshift spot in the grass, a man came to my window.
“Are you friends with the woman who lives here?” I shook my head. “Well this is her driveway. She said we can stay as long as we don’t pass those trees over there.”
As the afternoon went on I discovered that most of the people parked at the top of this mountain found their way there the same way I did: searching for the Veteran Memorial Park. It was a pretty great group of people, all traveling from different places and for different reasons.
I had my three tripods set up with four different cameras. Beside me a science teacher who had called in sick from work set up a small telescope that projected the progress of the eclipse onto a screen. Across the driveway there was a family who had driven from Pennsylvania and had their plans made for six months. I met an elderly woman who had waited her whole life for the chance to see a total eclipse and some local kids who didn’t quite know how to handle their small town being inundated with so many tourists.
As the sun reached 90% eclipsed, we all oohed and ahhed at how dark it was getting and how the temperature had dropped a solid ten degrees. We commented on how when we all first arrived, we had been sweating like mad, but now we were reaching for our sweaters. As the moment of totality approached, we collectively became silent, almost like we were holding our breaths in anticipation. And then it happened. And we all cheered. And there were fireworks. And for two minutes and thirty-five seconds we took off our paper glasses and welder’s goggles and celebrated.
And then it was over.
Within a few minutes, everyone had packed up their belongings and got back on the road. I was a bit slower at leaving but eventually got back in my car and headed back down the dirt road. As I punched “home” into my GPS and slowly made my way through town, it dawned on me that thousands and thousands of people all around me and going in all directions are doing the exact same thing. This realization was driven home when it took me two and a half hours to go six miles. At that point I found a restaurant to spend some time at until the traffic cleared up. The wait at the restaurant was an hour and a half but I decided I’d rather spend my time chatting with other eclipse-goers who were also avoiding the traffic than sit alone in the car, going nowhere.
After waiting nearly two hours for a table and then eating in under fifteen minutes, I got back on the road and headed up I-81 North. Anytime I came across even a little bit of traffic, I ditched the GPS and followed the first sign that said “north.” I ended up on so many tiny back roads in so many small towns I never would have seen otherwise. I probably added about four hours to my trip but the view was better and I didn’t spend any of that time in standstill traffic.
Eventually, though, I began to get tired and decided it was time to pull off and find a hotel. I figured I was far enough away from where the main event was to have a problem getting a room. I figured wrong. Every hotel at the exit I got off at was completely booked. I went onto my hotels.com app and booked a room about an hour ahead of me. When I arrived, at around 1:30 in the morning, there was a line of people out the door. They had all booked on hotels.com and they were all being told that their reservations were not being honored. The hotel had been sold out for hours but hotels.com kept booking rooms anyway.
There were one or two people who were very angry, yelling at the woman running the front desk and complaining about the horrible customer service. The rest of us stood around in the parking lot, laughing and wishing each other luck. We all knew the truth: we’d all be sleeping in our cars that night. Slowly everyone started leaving, trying to figure out where they’d go, but I hung out by my car because I was planning to stay right there. I was on the phone with hotels.com, trying to get my refund, when a man came out to the parking lot.
“They’re giving me a room with two double beds. Do you want to crash?”
“Why, yes, kind stranger, I would love to crash.”
Turns out the hotel had a room they never rented out because the bathroom was completely useless, but this man had insisted he only needed a bed to sleep in and wouldn’t use the bathroom at all.
When we got into the room, he offered me some whiskey and only tried to get me to take my dress off twice. He noticed a tattoo on my arm and asked if I had any others and if he could see them. I have one on my back and one on my ribs but, as I was wearing a dress, I told him no.
“But you’re on an adventure.”
“Not that kind of adventure.”
When I told this story to some of the 16-year-olds I was working with over the summer, they were shocked that I had spent the night in a hotel room with a stranger, but I told them by the time you get to be my age you can tell the difference between dangerous and desperate. This guy wasn’t dangerous. I never felt unsafe.
He asked me questions that he probably thought were incredibly insightful but I just saw them as annoying.
“What’s your favorite color?" “What’s your biggest fear?” “What’s your biggest dream in life?”
Out loud I answered politely and succinctly. In my head, I thought that it was 3:00 in the morning and my biggest dream was for him to shut up so I could go to sleep. Eventually I just stopped answering and he stopped asking and we both drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning he tried one more time to get me out of my dress, asking if I was planning to take a shower. (There were no towels and he knew the shower didn’t work anyway.) I declined and thanked him for his kindness, then got straight in my car and left.
On my drive back to New York I made the necessary pit stops: returned the car to the Uber driver, picked up another car from Enterprise, made sure my broken down car was it’s way by tow truck back to the shop near my house, etc. I also made some unnecessary stops. Even though there wasn’t much traffic anymore, I still opted to take the back roads when possible and I ended up in some beautiful places, including a place in Virginia called Naked Creek. And what else do you do when you find a place called Naked Creek besides get naked in the creek? And so I did.
People are definitely not supposed to be in the creek. This was made obvious to me because the only way I could get to it was by sneaking through someone’s backyard and get my arms and legs all scraped up on pricker bushes. The creek was also in full view of the road, so I spent most of my time there hiding behind a tree whenever it sounded like a car was coming.
65 hours after I left my house on Sunday morning, I returned home on Tuesday night. It was a whirlwind of an adventure, with so many lessons and so many experiences. I’m now addicted to total eclipses and plan to spend the rest of my life chasing them. The next one is in South America in July 2019! My bags are already itching to be packed.