2.01 | 09.14.17

It’s been a year of catastrophes, both natural and political. But maybe a stunning celestial event like an eclipse can help us rise above it all.

I was one of the millions of souls who squeezed into the 70-mile-wide zone of totality for the total solar eclipse of August 21.

I thought I knew what to expect. I mean, I’d studied astronomy and I’d seen videos and maps and simulations. But it turned out I had no freaking idea how stunning the actual eclipse would be. I’ve never seen anything so alien and so beautiful; so unsettling but also, in a way, so unifying.

Obviously it’s been a year of disasters here in America. Not just natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but also moral and political disasters like the conflict in Charlottesville and the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to undermine the Constitution and purge the republic of all decency, truth, and compassion.

But the eclipse was a respite from all that, if only for two minutes and forty-one seconds.

And for me, it was the emotional high point of a week-long road trip across America. I kept a kind of audio diary of the trip. And Soonish’s Season Two opener consists of tape that I gathered at three very different stops on the journey.

The episode takes you to the spot that has more Confederate monuments than any other place in America. A hint for you: It’s not in the South.

It also visits a town whose very name stands for hope and the future, but that’s now so depopulated that it has its own entry in the Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places.

And it ends (and begins) in Makanda, IL, population 450, an artsy rural village where the eclipse lasted longer than anywhere else on the continent—and where I was lucky enough to share the eclipse experience with fellow podcaster Tamar Avishai of The Lonely Palette and her family.

Right now we’re having a lot of trouble coming together as a nation to think more intentionally about the future. And as I drove across the country, hitting 10 states along the way, I could see one of the reasons. We haven’t even settled the big questions how we should represent the past, or who should have a chance to prosper in the present.

William Faulkner's famous line was that "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." And sometimes it seems like we have so much unfinished business that we'll never be able to move on to the future. But then along comes an eclipse---a rare celestial event that reminds us that despite our divisions, we’re all part of something much bigger.

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The Great American Eclipse of 2017—from Makanda, IL. Videography by Wade Roush / Soonish.


See Also

Photos from the Soonish Eclipse Road Trip of 2017

Stride & Saunter Episode 163: The Great American Eclipse, hosted by Kip Clark, with yours truly as the guest.

You Owe It To Yourself To Experience a Total Solar Eclipse, a 2017 TEDx talk by science journalist David Baron

Sygygy: Stories of Celestial Alignment, a Story Collider podcast episode including David Baron's February 2017 talk on becoming an eclipse chaser



Hank Kurzy, military historian

Larry Sloan

Carl Thompson

Dennis Caldwell

Monica Smith, Director, Cairo Public Library

Pam Baker, co-owner, PB&J, Makanda, IL

Tamar Avishai, host and producer, The Lonely Palette Podcast (plus all the brilliant members of Tamar’s extended family)


Mentioned In This Episode

Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner

Pattersonville Travel Plaza, New York State Thruway

Gettysburg National Military Park

The Civil War, directed by Ken Burns

Future City, IL, on Google Maps

Future City, IL, in the Encyclopedia of Forlorn Places


The Total Solar Eclipse of April 8, 2024 (NASA)



Soonish theme by Graham Gordon Ramsay

Ad music: Why from Music on Fire by Tony Infuriato

Robo Baby by Tim Beek from the album Electronic

Expectations by Lee Rosevere from the album Music for Podcasts 4

Medley of War Songs, Edison Military Band, 1904, UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive

How I Used to See the Stars by Lee Rosevere from the album Music for Podcasts 4

Grasping Hope by Tim Beek from the album Contemporary

Music Box Rag by the Heftone Banjo Orchestra from the album Music Box Rag

Gentle Trees by Tim Beek from the album Orchestral

Pixie Forest by Tim Beek from the album Orchestral


Reading List

The audio versions of these books supplied food for thought during my long road trip across Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut.

The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War, by Michael Shaara

Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hillbilly Elegy: Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari


Special Thanks

Kip Clark, Daniel Sheehan, Mark Pelofsky, and Tamar Avishai reviewed drafts of this episode and helped me compress it to a manageable length.

Tamar, her husband Evan, and Evan’s sister Callie discovered Makanda, IL, and generously invited me to join them for the eclipse. Special thanks to Tamar’s niece Genevieve for her expert and enthusiastic commentary on the eclipse.

Our Sponsor

Support for the first two seasons of Soonish was from Kent Rasmussen Winery. Since 1986, Rasmussen has been famous for their purely poetic Pinot Noir, grown in the cool mists of the Carneros region of Napa Valley. And under the companion Ramsay label they offer superior-quality North Coast Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay at a wonderful price. Ask for Rasmussen and Ramsay wines at fine restaurants and stores in 29 states. For more information, visit kentrasmussenwinery.com.

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