The Eclipse That United Red and Blue America
For the last few months, I’ve been reading a slew of papers from social scientists attempting to explain how our country separated into warring factions, red and blue. Americans are divided not only in our opinions but in our very perceptions of reality. Psychologists tell us that our existing beliefs affect how we see the world around us. Then I went to rural Kentucky and witnessed a glaring exception.
It was the day of the eclipse of 2017. I chose to watch in small park in the middle of Guthrie, a town I’d never heard of but will never forget. I shared the total eclipse with a handful of police officers, volunteer firefighters, a couple of bikers, the mayor, a group of astronomers and students from nearby Clarksville, and a small assortment of other tourists from as far as Russia who had stumbled on this place.
Some expected to see a cosmic coincidence in a universe ruled by chance and physics. Some expected to see the handiwork of God. But this eclipse defied all expectations. After it was over, I had the overwhelming sense that this group of new acquaintances and I had received the rare gift of a truly shared experience
Guthrie, population somewhere around 1,500, is surrounded by fields of corn, soybeans and tobacco. In addition to the historic inn where I stayed, the town has one or two grocery stores, two convenience stores, one barbecue restaurant, one tiny café and at least six churches. Some of the churches had block-letter signs playing to the upcoming event — “Eclipses are God’s way of amazing us” read one. This is the Bible belt, after all.
About 15 minutes to the northwest is the town of Hopkinsville, which billed itself as “Eclipseville” because it was located near what astronomers call the the point of greatest eclipse. This is where the axis of the moon’s shadow passes closest to the center of the Earth — a detail that doesn’t make much difference for viewers on the ground.
For eclipse watchers, being in the zone of totality is what matters most. That’s because the experience of a total eclipse is entirely different from a partial one. This particular eclipse was visible in totality along a 70-mile wide band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina — cutting a swath through red states, middle America.
And the duration of the eclipse matters to viewers. The town that would see it for the longest was nearby Carbondale, Illinois, with slightly more than 2 minutes 40 seconds of totality. Guthrie would get a respectable 2 minutes and 37 seconds.
When I arrived in town Saturday night, I heard that some NASA scientists had come by earlier, and that on the big day, Monday, there would be NASA people up at the point of greatest eclipse near Hopkinsville. People in Guthrie were intensely curious about the NASA scientists, and some went to look for them on eclipse day.
On Monday, none of the predicted crowds or food shortages materialized. Only one café was open, and it still had eggs, bacon and biscuits as locals and tourists were gathering around 9 a.m. The excitement was building up hours before the big show. The locals said they were happy to have us, and I was happy to be among them.
By about noon, the partial eclipse finally began. People peered at the sun through eclipse glasses. By 1:15 p.m., the world started to look eerily faded — not like nightfall, but more like gauze falling over everything, muting all the colors.
At 1:25, things started to happen fast. The sky changed from daylight to deep twilight in a split second. One of the astronomers whooped and then screamed, “There’s Venus!” and indeed, Venus and Jupiter both appeared, as did the sun’s corona.
The sun’s corona is a million times fainter than the sun, and isn’t visible even when the sun is mostly eclipsed. But at that moment of totality it flashes into view, like the big bang, or Genesis, or something from a near-death experience. It looked like a ring of white lightning. Pictures didn’t come close. The sight was overwhelming, even for seasoned astronomers. One professional astronomer who saw the eclipse out west wrote on Facebook that he temporarily forgot he was looking at the sun’s corona and the moon at all.
Once the shouting died down we could hear crickets chirp. At some point the air had turned cool. Nobody took a selfie or checked e-mail — at least, as far as I could see. Nobody brought up politics in any form.
This briefest of nights ended as abruptly as it started. A little diamond of light showed at the edge of the eclipsed sun, people whipped on their eclipse glasses or looked away, and a massive flock of birds took off from the trees and rushed overhead.
The partial eclipse after totality doesn’t hold much fascination, though a few of us marveled at strange crescent-shaped shadows on someone’s blanket. But the heat quickly returned to the low 90s, and people filed out, still a bit dazzled.
I will not only remember this eclipse, but I’ll remember those people — those denizens of a rural zone in a red state. We may not vote the same way but we will always share something in common — a reminder of the mystery and beauty of the universe, and the brevity of our time on the planet.