A Tale of Two Trips

August was this year’s month for out-of-state travel. First came a solo work trip to Danbury, Connecticut, then, two weeks later, a journey to Missouri with the lovely Lisa to see the total eclipse of the sun.

I decided to do Danbury by bus, because I didn’t want to be one of those armchair liberals who advocates for public transportation while tooling around in a Subaru. I plotted out a trip that would put me on a bus from Bangor at 7 a.m., connecting at Boston’s South Station, with a transfer in Hartford that would get me to Danbury by five that evening.

Little did I know that bridge construction in Boston had sent a ripple effect through bus schedules all over southern New England. My first inkling of trouble came when I looked up from my laptop an hour and fifteen minutes out of South Station to see that we were just passing Fenway Park.

I missed my connection in Hartford. A second bus failed to materialize. I finally got into Danbury around eleven o’clock, sixteen hours after setting out from Bangor. It’s an eight-hour drive.

On the way home, another bus was canceled. I made it, but not without spending a lot of time in bus stations – which is why it’s always advisable to bring a laptop and a good book.

Eclipses happen when they happen. Humans are powerless to postpone them. I’m sorry to disappoint the purists, but we flew to Kansas City and rented a car. We wanted mobility in case clouds moved in – though it’s hard to imagine chasing a shadow moving over the land at 1,400 miles per hour.

Missouri drivers only seem to drive that fast. On Interstate 70, where the speed limit matches the route number, people blew past at 80 or 90. All along the route we saw temporary signs cautioning drivers about the upcoming eclipse. As if anyone could possibly be in the dark about it at this late date.

Kansas City has a ring of hotels surrounding the airport, and a convenient, free shuttle system. We stayed there on the first and last night of our trip, but we saw the eclipse from Jefferson City, the state capital. The path of totality just grazed Kansas City and St. Louis, but Jefferson City enjoyed two and a half minutes of darkness.

Though it’s surrounded by asphalt, the center of Jefferson City is pedestrian and bicycle friendly, with tree-lined streets and parks with views of the Missouri River. There’s a local bus system called JeffTrans. My only complaint concerns the hotel I booked on-line, which advertised itself as “_____ at the Capitol Mall.” Well, the hotel wasn’t “at” anything. It was five miles out of town, and the only thing within walking distance was another hotel, which likewise did not have a bar. To get anywhere, you had to get in a car – and this is, sadly, typical of many places in America, including Danbury, Connecticut.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked Jefferson City, and I was impressed by the welcome we and other visitors received. A Pink Floyd tribute band named Interstellar Overdrive performed “Dark Side of the Moon” in front of the capitol the night before the event. NASA set up shop across the street. Parking fees were waived in the downtown all day (I know, this encourages driving, but eclipses are nothing if not exceptional). The people were unfailingly friendly.

On the night before we returned to Maine, we took in a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Kauffman Stadium is a beautiful ballpark to which television does not do justice. But it’s miles from the city center, at the intersection of two Interstates, and, again, everybody has to drive. Parking is fifteen bucks. Though there’s probably a bus that can take you there, I saw no evidence of it.

The Royals’ starting pitcher, a lefty named Danny Duffy, held the Colorado Rockies hitless through the first five innings. What are the chances, I wondered, of seeing a total eclipse of the sun on one day and a no-hitter on the next? A walk and a two-run homer with two out in the sixth ended that line of wishful thinking. The Royals held on to win, 3-2, and we held on to survive the drive back to the hotel and the plane trip home.

Renting the car enabled us to travel freely within the American Car Culture. But I was glad to leave it behind when the trip was over.

The Murder Weapon Was a Car

A car in the wrong hands can be a lethal weapon, as the recent confrontation in Charlottesville showed us again. It’s impossible for me to fathom how anyone can think that deliberately striking someone with an automobile is acceptable under any circumstances. That it was done in the name of “white supremacy” makes it all the more sickening.

It’s not the car’s fault, of course. Most car owners use them responsibly. When a car kills a pedestrian – or bicyclist – it’s usually an accident. Not this time.

Then again, how can a group of white men, 152 years after the end of the Civil War and 52 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, think that it’s acceptable to march down a city street at night with lit torches, waving Confederate flags and shouting threats at Jews and other minorities? The First Amendment gives them the right to do it – and the American Civil Liberties Union, normally a bogeyman for conservatives, backed them up – but the culpability for the violence is on the people with the torches as much as the driver of the car.

He may have acted alone, but he was not a lone representative of the craziness that seems to have gripped this country. Everyone’s angry at everyone else. Of all the candidates who ran for President, we elected the one who encouraged assaults at his rallies and police beatings as policy.

Into this overall backdrop of violence, young people grow up in an economy that no longer works for them as it did for their parents. They’re pissed, and their anger is channeled and amplified by the most powerful voice in the land. A car in the hands of an angry young man can turn deadly in less than a second.

Sadly, there are those who welcome such confrontations, who advocate for running down protesters with the temerity to temporarily block a road. Their anger is not limited to matters of race, class, or politics. Check the comments in your local online newspaper the next time a motorist kills or injures someone on a bicycle.

There’s an ongoing event in some cities called “Critical Mass.” A group of bicyclists gathers at a specific time to ride en masse over a predetermined route. The number of bicyclists forces the cars to slow down, and some drivers become furious about it.

But the bicyclists are doing nothing wrong. They are exercising their right to travel on a public way. They’re doing what cars do every day. I’ve never heard a bicyclist rail against rush hour traffic. There is something about a car that brings out a sense of entitlement, often followed by disproportionate rage when an accustomed path of travel is, literally or figuratively, blocked.

I do not mean to diminish the racial issues swirling around Charlottesville by writing about cars and bicycles. But cars are not only weapons, they’re also isolation chambers, preventing us from coming face-to-face with our fellow citizens even at close range. The homicidal driver in Charlottesville surely did not know the names of any of his victims. He made no attempt to talk to them before running them down.

A few years ago, I shared a newspaper story with a class of college students about a rubber plantation in Liberia where, for pennies a day, workers extracted rubber for Firestone tires. It was just before the Super Bowl. The author pointed out that Firestone had paid millions for a halftime commercial but skimped on wages and health care for its Liberian workers. My students were largely unmoved. They just wanted to watch football.

We seem to have little problem with violence as long as it’s at a comfortable distance. Our movies are filled with gunfights and car chases. Football is our favorite sport, though it causes debilitating injuries to most people who play it for any length of time. A car is a safe space from which to curse at protesters, bicyclists, and other drivers.

But our use of cars also requires near-slave labor in other countries, environmental degradation of some of the most fragile places on Earth, and a way of life predicated on putting lethal weapons in the hands of nearly everyone. It’s inevitable that some people will kill with cars. It’s criminal for a latter-day lynch mob to encourage them.

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Wednesday, August 16 at 4 pm I’ll be a guest on Downtown with Rich Kimball on The Pulse AM 620 WZON in Bangor, where we will chat with Melody L. Hoffmann, author of Bike Lanes are White Lanes, from the University of Nebraska Press. Join Rich and crew for some interesting conversation.

The August Eclipse: Accident or Divine Coincidence?

 

A total eclipse of the Sun almost makes me believe in God.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be in Missouri on August 21 to see my fifth one of these things, but my first since 1979. A total solar eclipse is, hands down, the most extraordinary natural event I’ve ever witnessed. For a few minutes, you can see where you are in space: on a ball of rock circling a ball of fire, with a smaller ball of rock passing between. That’s you, standing in the shadow it casts.

The shadow is only about 70 miles wide, which explains why solar eclipses, while they occur at least every two years, rarely touch the same spot twice in an average human lifetime. You usually have to make an effort to see one.

We Earthlings are fortunate to see them at all. We live on the only planet in the Solar System – and possibly the galaxy – that puts on this kind of show.

During the few minutes of totality, the disk of the Sun is hidden behind the Moon, but you can see the Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, shimmering around it. At this time it is perfectly safe to look at. The danger to your eyes in an eclipse occurs in the moments before and after totality, when you are looking at a sliver of direct sunlight that doesn’t hurt your eyes but can damage them.

Other planets have moons, but they are either too large or too small or too close or too distant to cover the sun exactly. From the surface of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun are the same apparent size. There is no requirement of physics to explain this.

But the distances between Earth and Moon are not constant, because orbiting bodies move in ellipses, not circles. When a solar eclipse occurs near the Moon’s apogee (farthest distance from Earth) and/or Earth’s perihelion (closest approach to the Sun), the disk of the Moon is not big enough to cover the Sun, resulting in an annular, or ring eclipse, similar to a partial eclipse in that it doesn’t get dark.

Furthermore, the Moon is moving slowly away from Earth. The pace is beyond glacial, but in a few million years, there will be no more total solar eclipses. The concurrence of humanity’s emergence and perfect eclipses troubles some scientists. In his excellent 2011 book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (Wiley), John Gribben explains:

“Just now, the Moon is about 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon, so that they look the same size on the sky. At the present moment of cosmic time, during an eclipse, the disc of the Moon almost exactly covers the disk of the Sun. In the past, the Moon would have looked much bigger, and would have completely obscured the Sun during eclipses; in the future, the Moon will look much smaller from Earth and a ring of sunlight will be visible even during an eclipse. Nobody has been able to think of a reason why intelligent beings capable of noticing this oddity should have evolved on Earth just at the time that the coincidence was there to be noticed. It worries me, but most people seem to accept it as just one of those things.”

It doesn’t worry Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University. In a 2012 blog for Scientific American titled The Solar Eclipse Coincidence, he wrote:

“Is there some great significance to the fact that we humans just happen to exist at a time when the Moon and Sun appear almost identically large in our skies? Nope, we’re just landing in a window of opportunity that’s probably about 100 million years wide, nothing obviously special, just rather good luck.”

Do coincidences happen? Probability dictates that they must. California’s Bay Area experienced its biggest earthquake since 1906 in the middle of the only World Series ever played between San Francisco and Oakland, but that doesn’t mean the ballgame caused the quake.

Perhaps we’re here because of an extraordinary run of good luck, akin to flipping a hundred heads in a row, something that might happen only once in the lifetime of the Universe. Our spectacular solar eclipses might be the result of similar luck.

Or just maybe, some ancient intelligence we don’t yet understand placed the Earth, Moon and Sun just so, to nudge a curious species toward contemplating the Cosmos. As though we were meant to reach for the stars, from the start.

Who knows? I certainly don’t.