“I hope I’m not in you guys’ way…” I offered, rather insincerely I’ll admit. An hour earlier, I had surveyed the lay of the land, staked my claim in a sparse grassy area by placing my singular folding chair in my strategically-chosen location for eclipse-watching: in plain sight of the swamp, facing the open the open sky above the parking area at the edge of the woods. Now, there was a large SUV parked nearby, two young couples traipsing about and an assortment of camera equipment strewn around the ground in front of me.
Oh, and did I mention one of the guys was juggling?
“You’ll not bother me as long as my breathing fire won’t bother you, ” he said, and climbed atop the automobile.
I left home at 6:30 AM bound for central South Carolina, the sweet spot on the east coast for one of the best views of this rare phenomenon. When I began thinking last week about viewing the eclipse, I knew that I would not want to experience this once in a lifetime eclipse in a crowded city with a lot of noise and light pollution. I have enough of that every day. I also did not want to travel down the busy I-85/95 corridor from North to South Carolina on major highways due to the anticipated traffic.
Thank God my husband Perry is still “old school” when it comes to navigation. He pulled an old SC/ NC map from the dashboard of his car and handed it to me. With a pencil and ruler, I drew a straight diagonal line from slightly north of Greenville across the state of South Carolina to Georgetown and examined my options. The line of totality. Squelching my eyes, I focused in on a rather barren -looking area in the middle of nowhere, southeast of Columbia. “Manchester State Forest,” I read. There should be a lot of nature there around a state forest, I reasoned. Below that was the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, Poinsett Park and even further south, Lake Marion. I circled my destination in pencil and wrote out the directions in longhand, should my GPS fail me.
This morning, traffic was surprisingly light and I made good time driving thru the rolling Sandhills. In this unfamiliar territory on roads not travelled, I stopped to photograph a large water tower boasting “Alligator Water”, filled my gas tank at the local country store and shopped at a few quirky statuary roadside stands. Oh, and I purchased two really cool, really large metal goats for my back yard.
As I neared my destination, just across from the state forest, a tall wire fence on the opposite side of the road announced “Danger! Keep Out!” Yikes! It was a huge USAF gunnery range. How had I missed that on the map? It looked like- and probably had been- bombed. This area didn’t look very natural, attractive or safe. Still, I turned the car right into the entry to the Manchester State Forest. A mile or so down the long dirt road, I encountered some other folks awaiting their own view of the eclipse. At the of a barren rolling field, they had set up tarps and beach umbrellas for shade in the blazing sun. Ugly stumps poked their heads up around dry, straggly undergrowth. So much for a forest! This was not at all what I had envisioned when I set out looking for nature.
I turned my little car around and ventured further south, towards the water, turning into any number of small state parks and access areas surrounded by the broad expanse of swampland. Eventually, the area became so remote that my GPS stopped working. One turn yielded nothing exciting, then another led me down a long dirt road beside a field. I was enchanted to see hundreds of small yellow butterflies fluttering around and beside my approaching car. At the end of this road, a scenic area of green swampy water with huge protruding cypress expanded before me. Several groups meandered around, loading and unloading their kayaks and fishing boats into the access area. A few other cars were parked in shady spots beneath the trees, lain heavily with Spanish moss. I felt safe enough here. I got out of the car, strolled around a bit and frightened a flock of three egrets who sailed across the swamp in protest.
I parked my car beside a van of two moms and two or three children, unpacked my lunch and prepared to wait the hour and a half or so until the spectacle was to begin.
Shortly thereafter was when I first encountered the fire-eating man, who crawled atop the SUV, repeatedly gulping gallons of a gasoline type substance and literally breathing fire across the air at the sun. I took a photo because I knew someone would thing I was exaggerating. So there!
Turns out, he was a performer and was trying to stage a publicity shot. Well, the sight of one man juggling and the other man perched across the roof of his SUV with all that fire shooting across air laden thick with insects and yellow butterflies and old trees, literally dripping with what was likely highly flammable Spanish Moss unnerved me, just a bit. I moved my chair away from the swamp and closer to my parked car. There, I met a nice couple, David and Valerie. They were from the Raleigh area. David is a “real” Santa Claus; he was even on one of my favorite shows- CBS Sunday Morning- last year when they did an episode about the big Santa Convention in Branson, Missouri. On this day, although he is attempting to be “under cover” dressed literally in camo, it cannot hide his big white beard and well, his “Santa-ness.” A little girl comes up, warily checks him out and her parents ask to take a picture. I chatted David and Valerie up about their recent travels, about our families, about David’s daughter back in Greensboro. Somehow, a phone call came through from her while we were standing there and she face-timed a photo of the skies back in Greensboro. Daunting grey clouds hung heavy over the city. I shook my head. Flying insects swarmed around me and I doused myself with another coat of insect repellent. I was glad to be at the swamp.
Whew! The heat made me drink lots of water. Anxious to get “comfortable” before the big show began, I walked across the parking lot, noticing a sign for a trail that traced the edge of the swamp. I stepped from the clearing cautiously, looking out for poison oak and snakes. I didn’t travel far before the darkness of the swamp enveloped me. No porta toilets here- no sirree. I did my business right there and high- tailed it back to the car.
Back at the boat ramp, a peculiar light was beginning to envelope the swamp… a mixture of dancing light and subtle shadows. I pulled my solar glasses out of my bag and stood in amazement as I gazed up to see the moon slide slowly, imperceptibly across the sun. After a few minutes, a small bite appeared to be taken out of the sun but that bite slowly grew and grew until all that was left more closely resembled a crescent moon, although it was the sun. I was surprised, even with only that sliver of sun left, that it was still relatively bright.
All of that changed at the moment of “totality”. The very second the moon stood in front of the sun, the birds and animals from the swamp and surrounding land grew quiet and there was an audible gasp from my fellow observers. At the same time, everyone pulled off our glasses, our welding masks and hat- boxes to discover that in a matter of moments, it had become as dark as night. We stood together awe-struck, gazing in amazement as the outer rim of the suns’ corona flashed white and pulsated around the dark perimeter of the moon. To the right a star- a planet actually – glowed huge in the sky. Everyone, strangers and friends, adults and children, wandered around like dazed zombies, eyes glued heavenward. Even the fire-breather was no match from the brilliant show of the celestial bodies.
It was incredibly beautiful…
It was spiritual.
Suddenly, a sharp arc of the sun burst forward as if it were being birthed again and we quickly donned our protective eye gear . Like that, it was, within a matter of seconds, another re-creation: darkness, dusk, mid-morning and then daylight. We watched the moon’s exit as the world re-awakened.
I felt really alone for a second, not in a bad way but in a real way, a good way. It’s the kind of thing a person will ultimately need to experience and process (or not) in their own way, in their own spirit. Witnessing such a rare event so intimately- it occurs to me at that moment, that it’s the kind of thing that is between you and the Holy Spirit, our Maker, the great Creator. You know, right then and there what is real and what it’s about- and it’s all it’s between you and Him. Like it has always been between man and God and beast for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.
Before saying our goodbyes, I chatted a bit more with my new friend Mr. Santa Claus. We shared similar stories of losing our mothers. He shared my lamentations about the growing number of family members and friends who have been either sick or have passed away these last few years. Then, I shared with him one of my recent “A-ha moments”, a tiny nugget of self- discovery…
While walking in the neighborhood this past weekend, I noticed the leaves on the dogwoods had begun to tinge the slightest shade of red. I tensed with dread. Those pretty pink dogwood leaves and their fat red berries are one of the first signs of an approaching autumn, and well… I have never cared much for autumn. Like my mother, I get depressed that time of year. It’s not that I don’t like the changing of the leaves, the cozy sweaters, the warm fires, the pumpkin- flavored drinks at Starbucks… No, I simply cannot enjoy the autumn for the dread of the winter that is sure to follow. In that moment of my walk, however, I realized that none of us are guaranteed a winter, nor a fall for that matter. How foolish of me to live in “dread”.
And in this new moment, standing in the middle of the swamp, with the incessant buzz of the cicadas, sweat dripping down my neck, chatting with Santa Claus as the Fire-eater packed up his gasoline, following my own, unique view of “totality”, I could somehow see- more clearly now- that each day, each moment is there for us to enjoy. To exhale the fire. To find the sacred. To share a smile and most importantly, to continue our dance with divinity, where mortals meet sacred, like the sun and the moon, each, on our own eternal journeys.