I’ve long had a soft spot for this little town. One rainy December night in 1980, I was driving along dark roads through the empty countryside to visit a friend at college. Two or three miles outside Troy, I learned the importance of checking the gas gauge.
A husband and wife in a pickup truck found me 15 minutes later, jogging in search of a telephone. Drenched and shivering, I had just passed the cemetery, its headstones lit by jagged lightning. My rescuers told me they saw my car with its flashers on. They stopped what they were doing to find me, a stranger lost somewhere in the storm.
The cab of their truck was wonderfully toasty. Being farm people, they had a gasoline pump in their tractor shed. They soon had me warmed, toweled, refueled and on my way – and, of course, they wouldn’t take a cent.
I returned to Troy on Monday, this time in daylight with a beautiful wife and four teenage children. We were there to witness the eclipse. The geometry of the universe had conspired to move Troy for one day from the edge of nowhere to the center of that narrow band in which the moon would blot out the sun. It was, perhaps, the most historic thing to happen here since Abraham Lincoln visited on a cold December day in 1859.
We drove to the hilltop on which the redbrick Doniphan County courthouse looms, and we spread our blanket on the lawn. Nearby were three statues that tell you more about the place than you’d learn from the census or the election returns. One commemorates wartime sacrifice and heroism. Another honors the Native Americans who once lived on this land. The third – a small replica of the Statue of Liberty – is dedicated to the thing, whatever it is, that pulls us together in times seemingly determined to drive us apart.
Troy, a community of about 1,000 people, was giving its all. A band played the blues in the town gazebo as wood-fired smokers parked nearby slow-cooked pink and crusty ribs. Bubbling vats of oil turned spiral-cut potatoes into twisty chips on a skewer, called “spud-nados.” Deep in Trump Country, I noticed that the line was even longer at the soft-taco truck across the street.
Doniphan County voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton 77 percent to 17 percent, and that’s the last I’m going to say about that, because politics was nowhere to be seen Monday. The lawn was filled with old and young, pale and dark, wide and slender, hale and frail. But not with red and blue. Everyone was an Earthling.
The surprise was how happy everyone appeared, because the sky was quilty with thick and heedless clouds. Somewhere in the firmament, the sun was being eclipsed; we knew this but couldn’t see it. A great cheer went up when the clouds thinned just enough to reveal the moon nibbling away at the sun’s left shoulder. But instead of a curtain-raising, the show abruptly ended. Rain swept in behind the cheer. All these years later, I felt as though I had brought the storm back to Doniphan County, like gum on the bottom of my shoe.
And yet, there wasn’t a groan. Not a word of complaint. Some people sheltered on the courthouse landing, some under the nearest tree, and some simply smiled through the soaking. But hardly anyone left. The rain thickened as zero hour approached. I began to worry that we wouldn’t notice the darkness at midday through the gloom of the storm.
Then – just as the moment of totality arrived – the rain stopped. Through scudding clouds we caught a glimpse of the final fingernail of sunlight. It disappeared and took the last of the daylight with it. And, like magic, we beheld the gift we had given up hoping for: the pulsing, dancing, delicate ring of fire that outlines a total eclipse.
Such a surge of emotion swept over us there in the dark, something primal and essentially human connecting us to one another and to all of humankind, from the Stonehenge erectors marking the solstice to the sun-worshippers of ancient Egypt. We were, to borrow from the poet William Wordsworth, “surprised by joy.” We were elated in the original sense of the word, raised for a moment above ourselves.
I hope to hold onto that sense of blessing. What a treasure it is to be a passenger on this miracle planet, bathed by a reliable sun in an otherwise cold and airless vastness. To belong to a questing species, though our quests may take us in opposite directions. To be reminded of all that we share, even through storms.
Especially through storms.
The Washington Post