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Been Thinkin' About... Arkansas totality

The clock was moving but the traffic was not as the highway wound southward toward the Buffalo River. A wreck of some sort had snarled Highway 65, an already busy route now further packed with out-of-staters headed into the path of the totality. Eclipses are, apparently, not uncommon things over the globe but the last one near here was seven years ago, the next some two decades into the future. For the last Ozarks eclipse, I stood in my Taney County backyard and watched through plastic eclipse glasses as the moon crept across the sun, nearer and nearer but never fully to totality.

 

"Does the light look funny to you?" Yes, yes it does. Even by mid-morning last Monday there was a strangeness to the atmosphere, a subtle graying of the light. The wind whispered differently in the new springtide leaves, it seemed. Were the birds affected yet? I could not tell, but there was a tension, a communal sense of anticipation. The four teenage boys getting gas at the station in Hollister were talking rapidly, dark sunglasses unable to obscure their enthusiasm. "I think they're going to see the eclipse, too." Yes, I believe you're right.

 

Seven years ago I was a different man. Less seasoned, far more unsure. The same person, sure, but then again, no. Not the same man at all. Eclipses, it seems, offer some kind of chapter close, and also chapter beginning. Seven years ago I was up to my ears in planning the first StateoftheOzarks Fest. Little sleep, high adrenaline, the kind of adrenaline that keeps you up for days, hoping, praying that first festival would work out. There is a time and place for failure, naturally. That season was not one of those times. Deep down I knew my first festival, so very public, would be a make-or-break moment in my life. I couldn't drop that ball. Nor could I travel north to be in the way of totality and instead found myself in my own backyard, hoping for the best.

 

I remember that 2017 eclipse well. The moon crept across the sun. I could see it through the glasses. Filtered light made a million crescents as it shone through the maple leaves. The breeze kicked up and there was a strange hesitation in the air, all-but drowned out by the conversations of those around me. And then... no darkness. The moon — seen only through glasses — moved on. Birds twittered in the trees and went on with their lives. I was so close to totality but not close enough. My companions left and I walked back in the house, seized with deep, irrational frustration, anger. I had witnessed a moment of great, cosmological significance... almost. I was angry.

 

But not this time, despite the heavy traffic on southbound Highway 65. Did I have a plan? Other than "drive south at least until Marshall, Arkansas"? No, not really. The eclipse began at 12:35 p.m. just the traffic was beginning to move more freely. A few more big hills to go. The mountaintops and the creek bed valleys were now packed with families preparing for the big show. We rolled into Marshall just minutes before 1np.m., pulling into the McDonalds-Exxon station and finding an empty parking space. One quarter pounder with cheese later, the shadows were beginning to look strange, and the high atmosphere now more gray. Clusters of families reclined in camp chairs in the grader ditch. A fatherly lecture on "science" could be heard. Random travelers were pulling in and stepping out to peer skyward. Digital photos color-corrected automatically, unable to adequately capture the ethereal light.

 

The clock ticked closer to 1:51p.m. Through glasses, only a sliver of sun remained. Seven years ago, this was the moment it was all over, my moment of anger. This time the moon continued its forward path. Florescent lights on the gas station clicked on. A liminal, threshold space, someplace suddenly daylight and dark, the world a path beyond. Artificial light illuminated the concrete beneath gas pumps. Shadows sharpened. Then blue twilight blinked across the sky, a great cosmic disc, perpetual dawn in a 360-degree arc far away, moon-sized away, all around! Daytime was over there on the edge of the world. Over there, everywhere as Venus shown down. Stars traced the sky. A cool breeze gusted. Birds made nighttime noises. And the sun vanished, replaced by moon, moon edged in diamond solar lights. An 18-wheeler rumbled by, red and yellow in the darkness. The magic of night at midday. Somewhere, down the hill, fireworks burst.

 

Totality lasted three minutes, 46 seconds. It would be easy to dismiss the moment, especially after all the hype, had I not been there. And it would take too many hours to make the 75-mile drive back home. But there are no regrets. In inexpressible ways, the totality was magic. Sure, there is clinical, obvious, NASA-inspired science to the whole thing, but even the most rational facets of the natural world hold an enchantment. And in that moment of fantastical darkness in the Arkansas mountains, surrounded by friends and strangers near, there was true, unforgettable, inexpressible a cosmic magic, an Arkansas totality.

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