It’s great that so many people had spiritual experiences on the day of the totality. I can’t say that my eclipse journey was wholly satisfying. We traveled 45 minutes or so out of the city and into the rolling hills of Platte County, where we joined a few dozen other people enjoying the day at the Vox Vineyard and hoping for a midday, school's-out dazzle.
A tour of the tiny winery operation, owned by a longtime friend of mine, and a stroll through some of the vines were enlightening and enjoyable, especially since the weather was relatively cool for an August morning. We even got to taste some of the ripening grapes during winemaker Whitney Ryan’s informative remarks about the small-batch, “American heritage” varietals on which the winery is building its reputation. The white Traminette grapes and two reds (Lenoir and Lomanto) were far enough along to get a sense of their eventual place in a glass. The sun, of course, is essential to the optimum development of grapes on the vine. I keep meaning to pitch in during a fall harvest at the winery, and I’m hoping my schedule in the coming months will allow me to follow through.
We’d set up our chairs, snack bags and cooler on a slope outside the winery buildings. The sun was already high overhead, though more often than not hidden behind cloud cover. The sky’s condition did not bode well, but I felt as if I’d be ready for anything and take whatever nature delivered.
Ninety minutes after we arrived, I heard somewhat shout “it’s starting,” and sure enough, the first sliver of moon began overlapping the sun shortly after 11:50 a.m. Totality was expected about 1:08 our time, so we had more than an hour to watch the show progress. I’d guess that in that hour the clouds opened up enough periodically that we could see a couple of minutes worth of partial eclipse, the last bit almost halfway through the moon’s passage across the bright orb. But by 12:50, the clouds were so dense and stretched so widely that I figured we’d be totally (totalitarily?) out of luck.
But one of my viewing companions wouldn’t be denied. He saw blue sky in the distance, toward the east, and thought we should hit the road. I was reluctant, but we got into the car just as it started to rain. We motored over the winding country roads, where here and there other groups of people had stopped to look up. We kept going. A four-lane highway, still pointed toward the faint blue in the distance, but we clearly were running out of time. Now I am sure if we had stayed on that vineyard slope we would have deeply appreciated the brief eerie darkness that came with totality’s moment. But I was still driving when the darkness settled over us, so the potential for amazement seemed rather diffuse. I pulled over to stop on the shoulder. The clouds were lightening back up and for the splitest of seconds we got to see the sun’s bright edge begin to emerge again. That was all she wrote. I took a picture of the watercolor gray sky. Totality, my ass.
By the time we got back to the vineyard – of course, wine was being poured – the skies opened up and a drenching rain delayed our departure and threatened to endanger our drive home. Earlier this week I’d read Annie Dillard’s fantastic account of the total eclipse of 1979, a nearly unparalleled piece of writing that I probably hadn’t read since it was published in her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk in 1982. As a touchstone, Dillard’s essay gives me hope and brings me back to a kind of inspiring reality. Even when natural enlightenment and the communal experience of a wondrous celestial event are denied, there is something left in life to contemplate and treasure.