Our hunger for being there
We drove into Douglas, Wyoming last Sept. 10 under the bigbruised sky of a western sunset, watching ever more desperately for deer as the road darkened, the sky fading through purple to blue to black.
There were three Poles ahead of us at the check-in at the Super 8: father, mother and son, trying to check in to their single room. The father without a word of English, in a beige vest with a big American flag on the breast, wearing 1970s sunglasses with earpieces that wrap right around his ears like they’re meant to stay on, even in a bar fight. The mother unspeaking, but clearly with enough understanding of English to wordlessly provide more credit cards, ID — pursed lips like she’s used to expecting trouble and doesn’t want to be the one to start it. The son in a brown T-shirt, trying to problem-solve through language barriers and declined credit cards.
And the hotel phone ringing, ringing, ringing, with the nagging insistence of a fat circling housefly. Just another check-in in Douglas.
The clerk’s son is at work with her, flitting around frantically, messing up the desk, and the whole place is supercharged.
The next morning I found out why.
The same clerk was working, her son eating cereal from the narrow front lobby breakfast bar, and she’s trying to solve an overbooking problem, going through every hotel in Douglas, through nearby Casper, looking for rooms, finding none. When she puts the phone down, it rings again: “No,” she says when she picks it up, “We’re fully booked.”
“For tonight?” I wondered, curious, knowing the hotel had been almost empty overnight.
“No,” she answers, “For next year. For the eclipse.”
Monday’s total solar eclipse will travel almost directly over Douglas, with “totality,” the point where the whole sun is covered by the moon, arriving at 11:25:45 a.m. Mountain Time.
The total eclipse will last a mere two minutes and 22 seconds — barely a third of the 6:59 it took to play Bonnie Tyler’s original version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” — and so many people have planned to be in Douglas that there was not one single hotel room left in town even a year in advance.
I wonder what our attraction is for big things, for big events, for “markers.”
Why do we benchmark our lives by saying “I was there” when something unique or astounding occurred? Why do we spend sometimes thousands of dollars to be at a last concert or a farewell tour? Why do we seek out the bigger than us with such religious fervour? Why do we quest to be present for rare birds, for great walls coming down, for massive marches?
It’s like we’re deliberately hanging our own pictures inside the frames of world events.
Maybe the truth is we’re all just barnacles, trying to anchor ourselves to something with enough weight or heft to hold us fast. Does being there, being part of something, fulfil some need in us, some need to fit in the firmament? Are mutual touchpoints an affirmation of shared humanity? (I know the eclipse is significant — I’ve saved the information for this column for a whole year.)
But I can’t help thinking: Monday, mathematics and planetary motion and our largest satellite will combine in what’s become an absolutely predictable way, and total darkness will descend on a crowded Douglas.
The same total darkness that there was when we drove into town last September. The same total darkness that similar planetary motion brings at least once every single day.
Humans. We are such interesting, interesting creatures.
North Platte River at Douglas, Wyo., Sept. 11, 2016.