About an hour outside of Wilmington I stopped at a rest area for a bit of a break from driving and to further my fascination with these places. I talked about them a bit the last time I was out here and how, compared to UK motorway services, they are sites of wonder. They’re always pristine, beautifully landscaped and state-themed in some way. Each state seems to make a particular effort to ensure that the rest areas on the freeway as it passes through their territory are the best. This particular rest area had pieces of restored WWII artillery sitting around between the vending machines as North Carolina prides itself in its support to the military and its veterans.
After stretching my legs for a bit I noticed a man standing next to a bench under the trees as his dog entertained itself on the grass beside him. The dog was a Boarder Collie and this meant I had to go over and see it – North Carolina is quite far from home for a breed developed in the Welsh boarders. The man (who I later found out was called David) was in his late fifties, quite small in stature but with a sturdy frame that gave the impression that he’d spent a lot of time doing physical work outside. He was wearing a fading green cloth baseball cap, a thread-bare red t-shirt and a pair of beige cargo shorts. He had wisps of grey hair sticking out from under his cap and a wiry silver beard. We struck up a conversation about the dog and he spoke with a soft southern drawl.
“You’re not from round here.” He observed. “Where’s that accent from? Australia?”
Swing and a miss. I told him I was from the UK. When this drew a blank I tried Britain and then, more successfully, England.
“Ahh England.” He said, eyes lighting up. “I’m reading a book about England at the moment. About how they built all the cathedrals in the 1100s – took them decades ya know.”
We talked a bit about England and the time and effort that had gone into some of the old cathedrals and buildings before he extracted from me that I was on a road trip and, more specifically, going round the Deep South. A flurry of recommendations about places to see spilled forth and he was particularly enthusiastic about Savannah, Georgia. Apparently it’s one of the best ‘southern’ cities and was designed back in revolutionary times by Lafayette, who laid the city out around a number of large boulevards, in the style of his native France.
“So what about you then?” I asked. “Where are you from?”
“Georgia born and bred” he replied “but I don’t have a home anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s my home now” he said, gesticulating with his head towards a slightly battered motor home that was parked on the far side of the parking lot. It was cream in colour with a green stripe down the side and was towing a trailer with a very large motorcycle on it.
“Sold everything and bought that. I’m just travelling round now, seeing what there is to see, while there’s still time.”
We conversed about where he’d been and it soon emerged that, despite the number of years behind him (and the fact he had a motor home), he’d never been outside of what he called the ‘Confederate South’:
“I’ve never really liked the north, or northerners. They have no time for you. They’re always in a rush or too busy with their own affairs to notice the world around them and to be civil to others. If a southerner bumps into someone when walking they’ll say ‘I’m so sorry’ and ‘please excuse me’. If a northerner does all they’ll say is ‘get out of my way!'”.
He illustrated these points by physically demonstrating what happens if two southern people accidentally walk into each other in the street. There was much gesticulating, sideways dancing and apologising followed by a warm handshake with the imaginary
person he’d collided with.
“That wouldn’t happen in north.” He sighed. “People have forgotten how to be decent to each other up there. All they care about is themselves.”
The conversation moved on to the upcoming eclipse and the spectacle that it would be. His voice changed as he talked about it, becoming slightly more heavy with emotion.
“I hope the weather holds as, ya know, I won’t get another chance to see something like that.”
I mentioned that there was another solar eclipse in the USA in 2024 but he cut me off.
“I’ve only got a few months left. That’s why I sold up and bought that thing (pointing towards the motor home). It was after I found out about the illness. The doctors said I didn’t have long – maybe a year – so I quit my job, sold my house and decided to spend the rest of my days travelling. To see as much of the south as I could and meet as many people as I could.”
“My wife died five years ago so, apart from him (nodding to the panting dog), I don’t have much left anymore. I like the journey. I like not knowing where I’ll be tomorrow. It makes things less, final. Less routine. People like to think they’re in control of their lives but then something like that hits you and….and you realise that you’re simply a passenger.”
He looked down at his feet for a moment and the (very hot) Collie wandered back over and sat down next to him. He continued:
“I don’t know what happens when you die. I used to think I did, I was so sure, but nobody knows really. I don’t fear it anymore though, no. I see it as another journey. Another adventure. Wherever you eventually end up it’s gonna be one helluva trip, you can bet on that, and I figure I’m just going to have to enjoy the ride”.
We talked a bit more about his plans for the next few days and where else he recommended I went in the south. He asked me my name again and then we shook hands and wished each other well. He set off back to where his camper van was parked, dog in tow, and I tried to make sense of the conversation I’d just had. It’s oh so easy to pass judgement on someone before they even open their mouth and, I’ll admit, when he started talking about ‘the north’ I was ready to write off this man as your typical southern red-neck who had never been further than his own back yard. In reality though he was quite a profound individual with a very simple doctrine for his remaining days on earth.
As I got back in the highway and drive towards Wilmington I linked some of what he said with the commentary that’s been coming out of every single media outlet about the eclipse on Monday. Apparently the experience can be so intense that individuals have quit their jobs, left their partners, had a breakdown or completely changed the direction of their lives after seeing the sun disappear from the sky. This is because the event in itself is a clear demonstration of just how powerless we really are. It is rare these days that an event happens that ‘people’ don’t have some influence over. On Monday, for three minutes in the middle of the day, the sun will be snuffed out and night will fall across wide swathes of the USA… and there is absolutely nothing, nothing that anyone can do about it. It is completely out of our control.
It really does make you think: We could, between now and Monday, wipe ourselves out as a race in a nuclear conflagration and, come Monday afternoon, the moon would still move in front of the sun and the eclipse would still happen. It’s no wonder that previous celestial occurrences have caused the rise and fall of civilisations, religions and helped inspire England’s greatest writer (look it up!).
Maybe, come Monday, the people of the US will see that they do all have at least one thing in common after all.