Why I'm Driving 1,800 Miles for Two Minutes of Eclipse Magic

eclipse sign
Scott Olson/Getty Images News

I’ve never been much of a science person. Aside from the two weeks I spent at Space Camp in 1996 -- motivated more by my love for space ice cream than any real astronomical aspirations -- I haven’t really paid much attention to the cosmos. If anything, that whole mess scares the bejesus out of me, what with impending climate change and questioning the meaning of life when we’re all just insignificant ants, and the potential for hostile aliens, etc. Nah, I’m good.

Yet for some reason even I haven’t explained to myself, I’m taking two days off work, throwing down hundreds of dollars, and driving a rental car 30-some hours from NYC to Kentucky with my partner, her sister, and my mother-in-law, all to see the moon cast a brief shadow. This wasn't exactly my idea. But we needed something after a stressful summer. My girlfriend's mom packed up her life and moved to New York from Chicago, a hell of a transition for anyone; I got laid off; we got bedbugs; we're all constantly traveling and rarely together. So my girlfriend got it in her head that this was something we needed to do, as a family. Kind of a bonding thing with the extra incentive of seeing some once-in-a-lifetime, music-of-the-spheres action.

It turns out millions of other American families -- yours quite possibly included -- are making the same call for all sorts of reasons. That, in a sense, is the most fascinating question for a country that tends to exhibit as much passion for science as I do. Why in the name of Neil deGrasse Tyson is America flipping out en masse for this eclipse?

“It’s a moment of ethereal beauty, terror, awe, and inspiration,” explains Rebecca Boyle, a St. Louis-based science journalist and contributing writer to the Atlantic, where she’s spent the last few months extensively covering the upcoming event. “Imagine what it's like to lose the sun in the middle of the day. People who have experienced multiple eclipses describe them in terms bordering on religiosity -- people are literally on their knees, weeping. You'd appreciate seeing a lovely rainbow, right? Or a view of the Grand Canyon, or a powerful thunderstorm? A solar eclipse towers above them all.”

eclipse sign
Scott Olson/Getty Images News

For Boyle, the eclipse is clearly much more than a light show, and she’s not the only one who thinks so. Experts predict an unprecedented number of travelers will hit the road this Monday -- maybe 4 million pilgrims clogging highways, hotels, campsites, and restaurants on their way through the Southeastern US alone. The emotional magnitude Boyle describes is one of the biggest motivating factors behind our country’s current extraterrestrial obsession.

And let’s be honest here, fam. A true shared catharsis couldn’t come at a better time.

“We could all use an excuse to celebrate something as a country,” Boyle says. “It’ll be the first solar eclipse for the vast majority of Americans alive today. I think people will be overwhelmed by how strange and beautiful it is. This event is not partisan, it's not controversial, it's not bad for you, it's not negative in any way -- it’s just something people can sit back and enjoy together.”

The totality is where it's at. Settling for even 90% is for the weak.

In a New York Times article this month called “Why Some Say the Eclipse Is Best Experienced in a Crowd,” writer Heather Murphy investigates our motivations to seek out randomly populated communal experiences. She argues that we all have a need to hang out with people we don’t know, but maybe outside of Lakers games and Beyoncé concerts, we don’t know how to make it happen. “The critical ingredient, researchers say, is a sense of shared social identity,” she writes. “That’s something that is pretty much guaranteed in a field full of people in matching glasses, waiting for the moon to cover the sun -- regardless of whether you hang out in the same kinds of places normally.”

Murphy’s point is a good one -- as a Mets fan, I’m well aware of how being crammed into a stadium with of tens of thousands of strangers can create a deep sense of optimism, even when your pitching staff looks like a deck of Garbage Pail Kids cards. The mobs this weekend are a feature, not a bug, in this whole experience.

But the power of crowds can also turn ugly. The fact that I’m a tattooed, ambiguously gendered person traveling down South with three black women that I love very much in order to voluntarily immerse ourselves in a sea of anonymous faces, just eight days after what went down in Charlottesville, looms heavy in my mind. The idea of even one bad apple, obscured by sunglasses, viewing this event as an opportunity to inflict harm on anyone, makes me want hole up in my comfortable New York bubble, find a rooftop, and take in the perfectly good 72% we’ll be able to see here.

Nothing wrong with getting that 72%, right? The experts disagree. That’s like a strangely cloudy day with some neat light effects. The totality is like nightfall at noon, with a ton of weird visual effects swirled in. More and more, this is looking like a go-big-or-go-home event. The sort worth traveling for, in other words.

eclipse sign
Scott Olson/Getty Images News

“One hundred percent totality is completely different than a partial eclipse -- even at 99.9999%, the experience just isn’t as great,” says St. Louis Public Radio science and environment reporter Eli Chen. St. Louis’ proximity to the path of totality means she’ll be able to see 99.98% without even leaving her front yard, a number that puts the C-level percentage I’d be settling for to shame. But according to Chen, that .02% is worth finishing the trip. “I’ll be driving down to a town called Perryville, much closer to the center,” Chen says. “All I know is that I'm going leave the house no later than the crack of dawn, because I have no idea what that traffic’s going to be like.”

The totality is where it’s at. Settling for even 90% is for the weak. “You’ll see a crescent sun if you observe with eclipse glasses or through a pinhole camera, the sky will maybe get a little dimmer, as though it were overcast,” Boyle says. “But animals won't react. It won't get dark. The stars won't come out. And you won't see the corona, which is the sun's atmosphere and the star of the show.”  

If these pros are right, then we owe it to both ourselves and our communities to overcome whatever anxieties are holding us back, to pack a bag, to gas up, and go bravely into the night (er, day).

Science can predict eclipses down to the second -- but no one could’ve predicted how deeply we would need this eclipse, cutting across the long middle of America, at this precise hour.There will be other eclipses. But this one has been correctly dubbed America’s eclipse. If we’re going to be plunged into a dark moment, we’ll do it together. And we will emerge stronger for having been surrounded by our fellow citizens, our families.

Wanna see the solar eclipse for yourself? Check out Thrillist's state-by-state watch guides to the best viewing spots in Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Wyoming.

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Meredith Heil is a freelance food, drink, and travel contributor for Thrillist who really, really hates sitting in traffic. Pray for @mereditto.