If my children ever use the exclamation “Holy shit,” to react to an event they find equal parts terrifying and exquisite, I will know they learned it from their father on August 21, 2017 in rural Kentucky. Those are the exact two words that involuntarily fell from my lips as I witnessed the sun morph into a massive black disc ringed by purple fire. Those are also the words that sprung from my lips an hour after the total solar eclipse as I steered our family car onto the northbound side of the Pennyrile Parkway only to see a solid column of brake lights stretching towards the horizon.
We were headed back to Ohio. Ten hours later, we had not yet reached Kentucky’s northern border.
For my children, seeing cool stuff isn’t too tough. We’re a family of adventurers and we live in a part of the country where great lakes, caves, forests, amusement parks, museums and unique events require a short car ride at most. At only 4 and 6 years old, my boys regularly see cool stuff and rarely wait. I understood that going to see the total eclipse was a different matter. I understood we were investing hours in minutes. That’s why I wanted to do it. Sometimes exceptional experiences require work.
I was never naive about the Great American Eclipse’s likely effects on traffic. When I’d planned to take my family into the path of the moon’s shadow, ominously called “the line of totality,” I understood the population in the narrow strip that slashed across the U.S. would double or quadruple in some places. Lodging in the totality was booked up. Slow-downs were inevitable.
Still, the eight-hour drive from Cleveland to an overpriced dive of a hotel an hour and half from the totality went smoothly. I was still grateful the next morning, even after my wife found bedbugs (we got comped). That gratitude held as we slipped easily into Kelly, Kentucky to find the Little Green Men Days: bouncy houses, BBQ, people dressed as aliens and two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of total solar eclipse.
“Where you from?” drawled the man who took our decidedly fair $5 parking fee.
“Ohio,” I replied.
“Welcome to America!” he chuckled.
At 12:45, the sky had noticeable darkened and the world looked like it was being filtered through a sepia-toned Instagram filter. “It looks like the moon,” my 6-year-old remarked matter of factly, looking at the sun through his eclipse glasses. “It looks like a banana.” said my four-year-old, equally uninterested.
Then at 1:24 pm, the sun went into totality and the world went bonkers. The horizon was rimmed with a strange twilight. Venus blazed in the sky, as bright as if it were night. My family stood in the purple gray dim, mouths agape at the spectacle in the sky.
“It’s beautiful!” the 6-year-old shouted.
“Where did the sun go?” asked my four-year-old.
“Holy shit!” I added.
We stood around a bit, looking at each other with our mouths still agape at what we’d just seen. Thirty minutes later we’d recovered enough to load up and pull out into gridlock. In our car, my family was still burbling with excitement. And we were not alone. People on the highway were getting nowhere, but they remained in good spirits even as hours passed and worry started to set in.
“Are we ever going home?” asked my 4-year-old.
“No sweetie, we live in the car now,” my wife replied.
We could see hotels along the route filling up and turning off their lights. Gas stations ran dry. We convinced the 6-year-old that pooping in a Cracker Barrel bathroom was good luck. Then night came and the red glow of brakes. Just after midnight, we gave up and checked into a hotel across the river from Cincinnati. As we waited for our room keys we engaged in weary banter about the drive, but mostly about the eclipse. And, to a person, my family decided it was worth it.
The lesson here is not some pap about it being the journey and not the destination. Because there are times when the journey is legitimately unbearable, but you go on it anyway because there’s no other way to get where you truly want to be. Sometimes witnessing the incredible requires incredible grit. My kids really suffered to see that eclipse. I’m not happy about their unhappiness, but I am happy that they earned a moment of beauty. I hope it’s not the last time they do.
So, as I write from a Cincinnati hotel room, still four hours from home, I ask myself if I would do it again:
Holy shit, yes.