Totalifail – The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Naive College Students

What do white supremacists and a total solar eclipse have in common? My weekend involved both, though neither happened quite as rumored/planned.

Last week we welcomed our new class of students at work, as they arrived from all over the country to spend 2+ years learning with us in Durham. The first Friday we always have a huge welcoming picnic in the evening.

I was upstairs proctoring an exam that morning, which means lots of time to do random odds and ends and browse the news when reports started trickling in of a white supremacist rally planned for noon in downtown Durham.  Lots of rumors swirled around involving armed militias marching down the street. But when the KKK maybe possibly comes to hold a rally in Durham, Durham says, oh fuck no you don’t.

This is a city that once turned out by the thousands to marry itself. The vows went like this, “Today we marry each other, beyond race, beyond gender, beyond class, beyond sexual orientation, beyond religion.” We’re an eclectic bunch who imperfectly value diversity. We are all still learning but I have found that the majority want that education.

So when the people of Durham caught a whiff of Nazi in the air they took to the streets to say not in our town.

Many of the businesses near downtown closed — some to protest and some out of fear of what might be about to happen, in the wake of Charlottesville. Zach’s workplace was actually evacuated; they were given 15 minutes to get out or get locked down. Our faculty interrupted an important exam to say that students who felt they needed to leave could do so. We canceled our picnic. Staff and faculty were given the option of going home.

I got sent home from work because of the KKK.

When the alt-right didn’t show with any sort of numbers, Durham did what it does best and turned the whole thing into a dance-off and drum circle. Still, hundreds of people turned out with less than an hour’s notice, and more arrived throughout the afternoon, to give a big middle finger to the KKK. It was 100 degrees with a heat index of 110. They were not there just for a fun street fair, though they made the best of it.

And me? I stumbled again. I went home and packed to go to the mountains, rather than head downtown. Lorelei didn’t ask why we weren’t going to my work picnic so I didn’t explain. I’m learning how easy it is to let these teaching moments drift by. This isn’t an admission to fish for redemption by my readers — this is me holding myself accountable for choosing comfort over my promise to do better.

I will just keep repeating the end of that post. “Try harder, Rhiannon. You can always try harder.”

And the moon kept on rising
But I felt nothing at all
She comes when the empire falls
And shines on crumbling walls

Saturday morning we finished packing and drove to my in-laws’ house in the mountains. We were planning to make the trip anyhow, because Lorelei is spending the week at their house. The icing on the cake was that they live about 10 miles from eclipse totality.

My friends, Steven and Charlotte and I had been waiting for this eclipse for nearly 15 years.

In college, with our future laid out like a glimmering road map of prosperity, we made a pact that no matter where we lived, no matter what was going on in our lives, we would all meet within the path of totality to see the 2017 eclipse together.

August 21, 2017 was this nebulous potential day. We grabbed that potential and held onto the belief that by the time we were in our mid 30s we would have the ability to go wherever we want. Things like childcare and PTO were not in our realm yet. And the money? Surely, we’d have disposable income by then, right?

So no, we did not all meet up to watch this spectacle of nature. Charlotte and I headed to different places within the path of totality and Steven left Oregon to get the hell away from the chaos by hopping a cheap flight to Reno.

Instead, we are renewing our naiveté in pursuit of the 2024 eclipse, which is happening on Lorelei’s 14th birthday. Steven set up a Google Calendar reminder for 2020, to give us plenty of time to plan. I’m sure I’ll then set another one for 2024 because procrastination.


My goal this time around was the Blue Ridge Parkway. I worried it would be jammed pack with bumper to bumper traffic, so we left Zach’s parents’ house at 8am. There was no traffic. The major overlooks on the parkway were already filling up, but the smaller ones were mostly empty. The park service did a fantastic job and set up portapotties at most of the overlooks, so one of my main concerns was crossed off the list. We ended up at the Haywood-Jackson overlook, near the highest point on the parkway.

I brought plenty of coloring books, bubbles, and new cheap toys to keep the kids (and me) entertained. A park ranger gave Lorelei an eclipse workbook to complete, which she did with enthusiasm that surprised me. She took it back over to them and they gave her a nice wooden badge.


If you follow me on Facebook, you may have seen my Eclipse bingo

I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate that I did not get bingo. How did you do?

I did discover that I am a mix of the Actually Guy and the Overly Prepared Mother with just an inexplicable smidge of the last-minute planner

Lorelei made a friend her age and they ran back and forth between their “camp” and ours. The other little girl’s mom wouldn’t let her paint her nails, so she painted Lorelei’s nails for her instead. I have the feeling her mom was giving me some side-eye when Lorelei appeared with her dyed hair and clownish bright red lipstick. Lorelei insisted that I give them my phone number so they could keep in touch. The other mother declined to share hers. I had to explain to L on the way home that we were probably not going to be hearing from her new friend anytime soon.

The early-morning clouds that I swore would burn off by afternoon clung desperately to the sky as we moved towards the start of the eclipse. The park ranger walked around and made sure everyone had eclipse glasses — after all the last-minute glasses finding, he had an entire stack to give out to anyone who needed them. Every so often the clouds would part long enough for us to all throw on our glasses and say “ooooooh” a lot. Sometimes the clouds just thinned out a bit, giving us a chance to glance up without our glasses.

glassesAll morning I had been telling Lorelei that she had to be flexible. That we did not know how things would be and we may have to change plans or accept that things aren’t going to go the exact way we wished. At 2:00, as we neared totality, I was trying to hard to remain ok with the fact that the clouds had gotten thicker. A few minutes before totality the clouds thinned just enough to see the last sliver of the sun, sparkling in its diamond ring effect. And then the sky disappeared behind another cloud.

“It’s totally ok! This is fun! We might not see totality, but we are here and we can see it get really dark in the middle of the day!” I tried to hard to stay upbeat. The kids were relatively happy waiting for hours. And it was pretty cool when it got really dark in the middle of the day. The sunset in all directions was beautiful.



When the landscape began to grow light again, we packed up our stuff and headed home. Just as we were going to exist the parkway the sun came out, shining bright. We jumped out of the car and caught a few minutes of the half-obscured sun.

I got on my phone and checked out what everyone was saying.

It was life changing!

I cried!

I’ve never seen anything so amazing in my entire life!

And boom. Just like that my “this is almost as good” facade crumbled a bit. 15 years. A decade and a half spent waiting for this day and it was fucking cloudy. I’ve also found myself feeling really terrible for the people who drove or flew thousands of miles, bought fancy camera filters, and hung so much on this experience only to have some dense water vapor ruin the climax.

I keep trying to hold on to the moment when Lorelei went running full tilt towards me, leaping over obstacles, and screaming “I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! I AM SO EXCITED! THIS IS AMAZING! ”

So here’s to 2024. Assuming we all make it that far.

Oh, make sense of me, night
I can see so much from this cold height
The moon said oh darkness my work is done
I’ve poured this bottle of light from the sun
But their anger keeps on rising
And they don’t understand
I’ve shown them all that I can
That the world is at hand
(Calling the Moon by Dar Williams)




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