Chaos Mapped

 

I quite like this summary map of traffic comditions in the US yesterday evening. It highlights where the key traffic problems were at around 6pm EST and, apart from the usual foul-ups in city centres, you can clearly trace the sweeping path of the eclipse across the country by the areas with the most conjestion and highest number of incidents. 

This is particulalry close to my heart as it took me quite a long time to get west across the state of Tennessee yesterday after I escaped from Spring City. There were areas where the traffic didn’t move at all but he main problem was that the traffic on the interstate was constantly very heavy. For an hour or two that’s ok but, after six or seven hours, maintaining the concentration can become quite taxing. This wasn’t helped by the fact that many of the ‘Rest Area’ on the interstate had been closed to prevent them being taken over by eclipse watchers and the one that was open was a) packed and b) a bit of a dump. It’s almost as if the state of Tennessee read the kind words I wrote about rest areas earlier in is trip and said ‘right, we’ll show him’. The one open ‘Rest Area’ was old, falling apart and only had a single functioning vending machine – which stole my money. This didn’t go down particulalry well, particulalry as there was a relatively intense thunderstorm going on at the time. 


I suppose there are fifty states in the union and one of them has to come last in the Rest Area league table. Congratulations Tennessee – you’ve picked up that award. 


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Eclipse


There’s a lot from today I could write about and I’ll endeavour to do so at some point before this trip is up. There’s the story of what happened when a tiny American town found itself the subject of an invasion by tens of thousands of eclipse watchers. The tale of how a rural shopping mart, who previously got excited when they got visitors from a city fifty miles way, coped with people from as far afield as Britain, France and South Africa. Or there’s the battle between the enterprising locals to make as much money as possible from the event. It has, however, been a long day. I was up at 4am local time and it’s just gone midnight on the same time zone, although my 367-mile drive to Arkansas down the most truck-infested interstate I’ve ever seen has gained me an hour back. Of sorts. I’m now im the central time zone. 

 

 

I can’t go to bed though without at least trying to describe the eclipse itself. So I will try.

 

I’ll start by saying I was not prepared for this. I do not mean in a sense of getting to Place A by Time B, but in terms of the impact that the eclipse itself had on me. I, along with most of those around me, were physical wrecks after the two-and-a-half minutes of totality were up. It took me a good fifteen minutes to finally stop shaking and a further three hours of driving to actually get my head straight. I knew exactly what was going to happen, how it was happening and when. But the event itself was like being hit by a train. I honestly had no idea. 

 

I’ll start by saying this: If you ever, in your lifetime, get the chance to witness a total solar eclipse then do it. Just do it. It doesn’t matter if you have to take an international flight, or book a week off work, or sell some of your possessions. Whatever you have to do to get there and see it – make it happen. You will not regret it.

 

 

 

The thing you have to remember about the eclipse itself is that, with the exception of the brief period of totality, the sun in the sky looks like it always does. I’ll say that again: It looks like it always does. I think this is something that is commonly misconstrued, maybe because of those wonderful NASA images that show the moon moving so clearly across the face of the sun. If I were to take you now and plonk you down in the field I was in earlier today on the edge of Spring City, Tennessee, at the point when the sun was 90% obscured, you’d have no idea that was the case. The sun would look like, well, the sun. It’d only be if I let you glipse through the magical eclipse glasses that you’d see (on a tiny-sized version of that NASA image) that there was only a small crescent of the sun left. 

 

The eclipse lasted three hours in total. Two-and-a-half minutes of totality in the middle and then an hour-and-a-half of transition either side of that. For the first hour of the eclipse nothing much happened. It was a very hot day (over 100F) and a cloudless sky so the only effect you could notice in that first hour was that maybe you weren’t burning as quickly as you were previously. Obviously, if you looked up through the eclipse glasses you could see that the sun was slowly being eaten up by an ever-advancing moon. Such is the power contained in the sun that it can get to having almost two-thirds of it obscured with very little effect. 

 

Around about an hour in things started going a bit strange. While the sun did not change visually in the sky it’s intensity started dropping off. The best thing I can liken it to is if you compare what the sun feels like on your skin on a hot July day to how it feels on a clear December morning. Over the space of about ten minutes the sun walked backwards through the seasons from July to December and the temperature fell off a cliff. From the hour to the hour-and-a-half point the temperature dropped from 100F to 67F. It was quite something.

 

So at the hour-and-fifteen mark we were in a situation where the day has been transformed from a high-summer afternoon scorcher to a crisp winter morning. At this point the wildlife had starting waking up as well. The first thing to start going wete the cockerels followed by the songbirds and crickets. Between the hour-fifteen and hour-thirty mark we went through a rapid twilight until it’s basically a bright dusk. At this point there was only the tiniest of slithers of sun left (through the eclipse glasses) but the sun still looked as normal in the sky. So far:as expected. 

 

And then it happened. 

 

As that last slither of sun disappeared it was like someone had turned off a light switch. In a split second the sky went from bright twilight to night. Just like that. The star field appeared and the street lights came on. 

And the sun was gone. 

In its place was a black disc, conjured out of nowhere, surrounded by…well, it’s difficult to describe, it really is. I always thought the sun’s corona would be a yellowy-orange colour but I was wrong. It was bright sliver in colour while managing to be actually shiny and glinting, as if encrusted with diamonds. I’ve never seen anything like it in nature before. The colour and effect was staggering. It was incredibly beautiful, but also incredibly ominous. You’ve gone from what looks like a normal sky and sun one second to darkness with what-looks-like a hole where the sun should be the next. The rapidity and magnitude of the change melts your mind. It doesn’t make any sense – it’s not possible for the sky to change that quickly and to that extent. 


In the millions of videos that’ll no-doubt be posted online of the moment of totality I can guarantee you that in every single one there’ll be gasps, shouting, clapping and screams at that moment. This is not because the eclipse happened in America but simply because the experience is so intense. 

If the above isn’t enough, you then have to cope with the fact that you have a three-hundred-and-sixty degree sunrise going on. Because the shadow of the moon is only seventy miles across you can see the light over the horizon outside of the shadow on all around you. So every horizon is a orangey-purple colour, but a colour that is constantly changing in its nature as the shadow moves. 

As the period of totality came to an end a tiny pin-prick of light on one side of the corona started shining brightly sliver – think like the stone on an engagement ring – and then suddenly we were back in the room. Night was gone, the black disc had vanished and the sun looked like it always did in the sky. It was as if nothing had happened. 

 

At this point everyone started looking around at everyone else. Was it all a dream? 

A fair few people who had been standing up were now sitting down and the majority of the people there were in tears. This may seem a bit weird to you reading this on the train (or wherever it is you read this) but the moment of totality is a ‘does not compute’ moment for your brain. It can’t cope. Every day of your life you’ve grown to understand that things to do with the sun, moon and sky happen slowly. On a clear night you can watch the moon gradually make its way across the sky or you can spend a summer evening watching the sun slowly sink down below the horizon in a blaze of red. To go from ‘normal day’ to, well, a black disc, sliver ring, star field and purple horizon in a click of the fingers knocks you for six. And then some. 

I can see why entire religions, indeed civilisations, were founded and maintained on the back of solar eclipses. The power and majesty of it is completely overwhelming – and that’s for someone who understands what’s going on. 

 

 

I know what I’ll be dreaming about tonight…


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Planning for the Eclipse


Much of tonight has been spent sat in the hotel bar devising what is going to be something of a military operation tomorrow. With the help of an iPad, an iPhone, and several paper maps of the state of Tennessee I’ve figured out where I want to go and when I need to leave here. It’s early in the morning. Very early.

 

 There are a number of factors that I’ve had to consider. The weather is the obvious one but that seems to be set for the whole of the state now with blue skies forecast for pretty much all of the day with the chance of an odd cloud later in the afternoon. The eclipse itself reaches totality at just after 2:30pm local time so it looks like all will be ok on that front. Location is also key. The band of totality is no more than seventy miles wide and the closer you are to the centre of that band the better – at the centre you’ll get 2 minutes 30 seconds of totality but, at the edge, you will only get a few brief seconds. What I’ve tried to do is find a small town that is on the centre of that line but away from (large) population centres. By leaving very early I’m hoping I’ll be able to dump the car somewhere near and then walk in to the centre of the town for the eclipse itself. The town in question has a population in the hundreds but is expecting anywhere between ten and sixty thousand people to descend on it and the surrounding area tomorrow. 

 

That said, accurately judging how busy it’s going to be really is difficult. As there’s never been an eclipse of this scale across the United States in modern times there is no basis for the estimates of numbers. The fact that the band of totality is going across the entire country is perhaps beneficial (spreads the load), but there are still hundreds of millions of people within a few hours drive of the magic band. The major media outlets are predicting ‘carmageddon’ and that all major routes are going to grind to a halt. I’m thinking these predictions may dissuade a number of people from attempting to make the journey.

 

Whatever happens it’s going to be an interesting day. A solar eclipse is such a rare thing it really is a once in a lifetime event. The temperature will drop by up to twenty degrees during the progression of the eclipse and you basically see a simultaneous sunset on every horizon, coupled with ‘hole in the sky’ and star field above you. It’s supposed to be life-changing so, if this is the last you hear from me before my resurgence as a country music star, it’s been a good run. 

 

Oh and where a I going to see it? That information is strictly need to know… else the whole internet will descend on the location too!

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Through the Great Smoky Mountains

 

I spent most of today travelling through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is located between North Carolina and Tennessee as is perhaps most widely-known as the location of the Cherokee river and hence the associated tribe of Native Americans. While the drive wasn’t particularly long in distance it did traverse some pretty high peaks on some ridiculously windy roads so did took a bit longer per mile than the usual grind along the state highways. 

 

The rural road system in the United States has always puzzled me a bit. As a general rule-of-thumb there’s a lot less government oversight of day-to-day activities in the US than there is in the UK. Federal regulation is generally frowned upon and what individual states are prepared to do varies considerably. As a result there is significantly more freedom to do all manner of outside activists – with the whole gun control thing one of he more extreme examples. The exception to this is the rural road system, which seems to have a ridiculous amount of regulation associated with it. 

 

When I say ‘rural road’ what I mean is roads that are, at best, single lane state highways. They are the romantic US road, with the yellow line down the middle, that always appear on the front of US road trip guide books. There are two main types of rural road – those that are straight and those that are not (got that?). This may seem like a silly point to make but you’ve got to bear in mind that, in some western states, you can have single-lane highways that are dead straight for hundreds of miles (I know, I’ve driven down some of them). You will then have the winding mountain roads, like the ones I was on today, which are found all around the national parks. 

 

In the UK the speed restrictions are pretty simple: On a motorway the limit will usually be 70mph and, on a single track rural road, it will be 60mph. With managed motorways now that has got a bit more complicated but the principle still stands – you’re left to just get on with it. Even on the most windy, narrow, treacherous country road the ‘national speed limit’ will still apply and you’ll be hurtling towards other cars on a road that is only just wide enough for both of you at a closing speed of 120mph. The approach of he government seems to be to apply one limit to all of those roads and then let the new drivers figure out for themselves how quickly they can take corners of varying sharpness. The ones that survive become good drivers. Simple. 

 

In the US the rural roads are at the other end of the scale. The prescriptive nature with which speed limits are applied is astonishing. On a one-mile stretch of road you can find yourself going through twelve different signed speed restrictions. On a straight section of road the limit may be 55mph. If there’s a blind junction approaching the limit will be changed to 45mph. Another straight bit of road will see a 55mph limit again and then and sharp curve will see an explicit 35 or 25mph speed restriction around it. On a windy bit of road a blanket 35mph limit will be applied or indeed, as was the case today, 25mph if the windy road is going up a mountain. This results in it taking an age to get anyway as drivers religiously stick to these limits, taking a corner which you’d happily go round at 50mph in the UK at 25mph. 

 

I think this stems from the fact that US people seem to be generally less confident drivers on these types of roads than you might expect, maybe because they only drive them very rarely. The speed limits reflect this. On the flip side of the coin they see they seem to be borderline suicidal on the seven and eight-lane freeways to the extent that is frequently causes me minor nervous breakdowns. They’re unwilling to take a rural corner at anything greater than 25mph but will happy dive across six lanes of fast-moving traffic, cutting up multiple trucks in the process, to get to their exit on a freeway. It’s almost as if the US road network averages out: The freeways are basically a free-for-all rollercoaster of terror (maybe that’s why they’re called freeways?) whereas the rural roads are only to be driven at a leisurely pace while streaming Radio 3 on your satellite radio. At least it goes some way to explaining why the US business visitors I drove round the Lake District a few years back needed a heavy sedative and several stiff drinks after we got to our destination. 

 

In the middle of my journey today I stopped off at the town of Cherokee and spent an hour or so wandering around. I found the legendary Cherokee river and very nearly fell into it while trying to take some pictures. 

 

 

 

The whole town was actually quite pleasant. Sometimes these famous Native American towns go a bit too much down the tourist trap route but Cherokee has managed to strike a nice balance. The same can not be said for “Dolly Parton Ville”, otherwise known as “Dollywood” (I kid you not), which I had to drive through once I got into Tennessee. There are not sufficient words in the English language to describe how tacky that place was…

 

 

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Going to the Seaside

Today was what’s known as a logistics day. On any road trip there’s always a day (or two) when you simply need to cover the distance to make the plan as a whole work. I started in Wilmington North Carolina this morning and needed to end up in Anderson, South Carolina, by the end of the day. To make things a bit more interesting I wanted to go via a beach, to see the Atlantic Ocean properly, but this added even more distance on. In total, I had to manage just over 370 miles today. 

 

The beach I chose to go via was Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. I primarily picked this one because there was a medium-sized state park situated on the coast. This meant there was a fair chance I could avoid the Blackpool-esque promenade and attractions that typically come with any East Coast seaside resort. We take the sea for granted in the UK as we’re never really that far from it. In the US you have to remember that the majority of states are landlocked, and for some it can be a drive of over a thousand miles to get to anything resembling a coastline. It’s for this reason that the seaside ‘resort’ is still a very big thing. 

 

The sun had decided to up its game today, probably to make up for the fact it’s going to be blotted out on Monday, and by the time I got to the state park (shortly before 11am) the temperature was already pushing 100F. State parks are the premium economy of US public parks (For reference: Economy = County or City Park; Premium Economy = State Park; Business = National Recreation Area or National Forest; 

First = National Park; Private Jet = Yellowstone) and this one lived up to the billing. There was a small entrance fee for parking but otherwise you could wander round several acres of forest and beachfront unimpeded. If you wanted to undertake any kind of fishing or hunting you had to purchase one of several permits and if you wanted to live in the park in your RV it cost a bit more.  

 

There’s a set of rules for what information state and national parks have to display about themselves and for this one it was no different. Even though it is,by definition, a beach park, it is still necessary to display its elevation above sea-level. I presume they measured to halfway up the sign:

 

 

You might think that this could be the record for the lowest altitude state park in the United States but I know there are some inland areas out west that are significantly below sea level. 

 

Wandering around the shore-based park area was a bit eerie. While the parking lots were all packed full of cars the park itself was deserted. There was nobody to be seen. I wandered towards the beach and it soon became apparent where everybody was: 

 

 

 

The beach was very much the selling point. As far as I could see in either direction there was a wide sandy foreshore covered in people with sun-loungers or parasols. There was a single pier that headed a fair way out to sea which seemed to be where you went if you wanted to do some sea fishing. The whole setup brought to mind the resort that’s the subject of the original ‘Jaws’ film – although i couldnt find the slightly-crazy local mayor. It was just a bit strange to see so many people sitting on the shoreline in the baking heat. Growing up in the UK, the seaside was always a place that you associated with the word ‘bracing’, whatever time of year you visited. 

 

Anyway, I was a British person at the seaside so I had to do the four standard things: 


  1. Go for a paddle.
  2. Have an Ice Cream.
  3. Walk along the pier.
  4. Buy a tacky souvenir. 

Point one on this list was something of a revelation. Again, primarily because I grew up in the UK, ‘going for a paddle’ usually consisted of five minutes of getting ready for the paddle (shoes off, socks off, trousers rolled up, trying to avoid walking on any stones on the way down the beach) followed by six seconds of actually being in the sea, one minute running back up the beach screaming how cold it was, fifteen minutes trying to restore circulation to your feet and then several months of touch-and-go therapy to try and reverse the severe frost-bite in your toes. At Myrtle Beach however the water was actually warm. Warm. Warmer than an indoor swimming pool. As warm as a hot tub. Although it may sound a bit stupid given how far south I was it really did take me by surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a warm sea before. 

 

I headed up to the pier and walked through the tacky souvenir shop to the ice cream stand. I was impressed at the vaguely proper ice creams they were serving – with cones and everything! The US sometimes struggle with how to do a ‘proper’ ice cream but not in this case:

 

 

Now, another thing I’ve never done before is attempt to eat an ice cream in nearly 40 degree heat. The simple process of taking the above picture led to pretty-much half the ice cream ending up in a melted puddle on the floor and the overall effect was what I image happens if you put an ice cream into a microwave. This probably goes some way to explaining why I was the only person on the beach who’d actually bought one. Ice cream gone, I walked to the far end of the pier and back and idly wondered if, having seen all the signs about shark-fishing plastered along said pier, I would still be happy to repeat my earlier paddle. 

 

I walked back through the souvenir store and picked up a suitably tacky souvenir:

 

 

Satisfied that I’d had the full seaside experience I made my way back to the car and steeled myself for the five hours of driving that lay ahead. 

 

Tomorrow I only need to cover a third of the distance that I did today but I’ll be going through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I don’t know why they’re called that but I’m presuming it doesn’t mean that they’re constantly on fire, as the ones up in the state of Oregon seem to be at the moment. Only one way to find out…  

 

 

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How to Drive in North Carolina

Have you been thinking about travelling to North Carolina (or indeed he wider United States) but have been put off by the thought of driving on the notorious American road system? Fear not! I’ve put together a list of the basics of driving in the state of North Carolina and present it here for your help and guidance. Disclaimer: This list has been based on extensive and detailed observations carried out over a period of four hours. On one day. In August. 

 

 

Here we go!

 

  1. You need a truck. If you don’t have a truck don’t even think about entering the state. Ideally your truck should have an even number of wheels (not including the spare) but if you have one of the larger models with four wheels on the back axle only three of these need to be functional for you to legally drive around. 
  2. Your truck needs to be big. This is really important. If you can climb into the back of your truck without a ladder your truck is not big enough. Your status in NC is judged based on the size of your truck…so the less successful you are in life he bigger it need to be. Just got fired from your job? Get a bigger truck. Partner split up with you? Bigger truck. Just committed an armed robbery and about to be chased by he cops live on the evening news? Oh boy, you’re gonna need one of those special super-sized trucks with a triple back axle. 
  3. You need to be carrying something appropriate in the back of your truck. Farm equipment or a boat is allowed but, if you really want to get noticed, carrying a smaller truck that’s in a state of dis-repair will gain you extra kudos. 
  4. The roof of your truck is an additional storage area. Use it to carry beds, mattresses, other items of furniture or, indeed, children on a sofa. The only legal requirement is that you’ve at least thought about load-strapping it all down. 
  5. The back bumper of your truck is your own personal advertising hoarding. Use it well. Signs stating how many people are travelling in the truck (and how important they are) and how much you love your truck are pretty basic really. To get to the premier league you should have a series of contradictory religious and political statements as well as a state flag, American flag, information about how powerful your truck is and a humorous anecdote (in italics) about non-truck drivers. A license plate is optional. 
  6. You need a large mobile phone. This is mandated by state law. You have two hands when driving and one of them needs to be clamped to your phone at all time. Taking selfies while driving through a busy intersection is a must (‘YOLO’) and having an angry conversation with someone on the phone while simultaneously trying to take a picture of the ‘a-hole’ in the smaller truck who just cut you up is also an important skill. 
  7. Cigar. You need to ensure you’re always smoking a cigar. (This was news to me but  a surprising number of drivers in NC seem to be smoking cigars. I guess it gives you something to do with the hand you’re not using for your phone.)
  8. The number of large sodas contained in your truck needs to obey the rule N=H+2 (where N is the number of sodas you should have you have and H is the number of soda holders your truck actually contains). The sodas should be of the biggest size provide by the gas station and should be filled with mostly ice. You should hold one of the additional sodas in your spare hand (the one not being used for texting or the cigar) and balance the other one between your legs. You may need to move your laptop onto the passenger seat to accomplish this but, as long as you relocate the mini-microwave to the floor this should be ok. You don’t need to worry about what happens if you need to brake as all traffic lights in NC are advisory only. 
  9. You need to find an appropriate collection of country music songs and always have them playing whenever you’re in your truck. Loudly. The country songs should ideally be about trucks, the loss of a truck, why a truck is needed or an event that happened in a truck. 
  10. You should set your driving seat as low as it can goes. Preferably only the top of your head should be visible to anyone who looks into your truck. There’s no need to look at the road directly in front of your truck as that’s what fenders are for. 
  11. Finally you need to ensure that your truck has never seen any form of maintenance, ever. Before you set off you should walk round your truck and check that none of the rear indicators are functional. At least one of the brake lights should be broken and you don’t need to worry about the reversing light as a true truck driver will never back away from anything. As a contrast, you need to ensure that as many lights as possible are affixed to the front of your truck. These should be primarily white but can be accompanied by bright blue spots or orange strips. The intensity of the lights on the front of your truck should be such that any deer that wanders into your path is incinerated long before you get to it. 

 

And there you go! Simple. I wish you all the best in your attempts to drive round NC and expect to see you being chased on the evening news before the weekend is out. 

 

 

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Man of the South

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. 


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