EVER SINCE I RECEIVED my driver’s license, I’ve done my best thinking behind the wheel of a car. Major life decisions all have road trips attached to them. Where to go to college: a fishing jaunt through Montana. Whether to take a job in New Mexico: a ramble along the coast of Maine. Moving to New York and moving in with my girlfriend: an impromptu exploration of some back roads in Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest.
So this past year, when that four-year relationship dissolved in the heat of summer, I did what I always do to work through it: hit the road. At first it was a series of forays into upstate New York, fishing and camping with my yellow lab, Magnolia. Then we ventured further north, to Vermont, as well as a breakneck journey halfway across the country to see family. In August, when my birthday rolled around and I was still choking down the reality of living alone, I grabbed my go bag—a tent, sleeping bag, and dog food—and hopped in the car. It was the weekend of the Great American Solar Eclipse, and so I hightailed it toward Tennessee, the surest place for cloudless weather in the path of totality, where the sun is completely blocked out by the moon.
New Jersey. Delaware. Maryland. As I passed through Washington, D.C., I hit rush hour and picked up the weekenders heading out of the swamp. Exhausted, I pulled over in a small Virginia town called The Plains. There, on the deck of Front Porch Market, with Magnolia lying at my feet, I shared a meal with a 60-something couple from D.C., simply because they noticed I was alone and asked to join. They’d been married for 40 years.
The next morning, as I began driving through the Shenandoah Valley, I fell in with a line of cars on their way to see the eclipse, too. A sign in the window of one said, “See you in the shadow.” I was in the midst of a communal pilgrimage, although I was perhaps the only person alone in his car—and I couldn’t have been happier. Free from collective decision-making,
I could decide wherever I wanted to stop. Listen to whatever I wanted to listen to. And by being alone, the world opened up in a way it rarely does when you’re traveling with someone else. People talk to you. You engage locals. Usually, it’ll be nothing more than a hello. But sometimes they’ll share a great story or secret spot.
Which is how I found myself completely alone and watching the eclipse from an open hillside in Tennessee’s 82,000-acre Catoosa Wildlife Management Area. I’d chatted up a local hunter the night before, and he pointed me to a recent clear-cut in the woods a few hundred yards away. “I reckon you’ll see it good from out there,” he said. And he was right.
As the moon gradually slid in front of the sun, the green hillside morphed into an eerie silver, then the sky above turned dark as the sun fully disappeared. A few stars popped out. The wind slowed and the temperature dropped. It was as if the world had powered down for a moment. Reset. And then, just as suddenly as things turned dark, the process gradually reversed itself, the world brightening again. When the heat became too much to bear, I hiked with Magnolia to a nearby river for a dunk in a deep pool. Then we got in the car and headed north—back to reality, but with all my worries in the rearview mirror. At least until I unpacked the car.