Look Closer — Purple Mountains Majesty

“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. They’ve all come to look for America.” America, lyrics by Paul Simon

View of the Collegiate Range from one of Colorado’s “Points of Interest.” Photo by the author.

We’re driving along an arrow-straight highway approaching, Montrose, Colorado. We’ve just come down from the Million Dollar Highway that winds among the high Rocky Mountain passes from Durango to Silverton to Ouray before descending to this bright, high valley. Our minds are filled with the experience of high mountain air, stunning waterfalls, and the harrowing, curvy, huge drop-offs with no shoulders driving of the past three hours. The local time is around 11:25 a.m. and the stomach is starting to rumble for lunch, the bladder is urging a quick advance to the next town, and the solar eclipse is about 15 minutes away from the peak 90% or so coverage for this part of the country. We are looking for a good spot to stop and watch the rest of the solar show; the bodily needs will just have to wait.

A “Point of Interest” sign draws us into a quick U-turn and over to a roadside pull-off with an interpretive sign about a fort in the Colorado territory days, looking out at a broad, arid plain with mountains on the horizon to the west. Two fellow travelers are already there, motorcyclists, big, bearded, clad in leather gear, and one is quick to ask, “do you want to borrow our glasses?”

We’ve got two pairs, thanks, and we commence to sharing this celestial phenomenon with two strangers, standing on the side of the highway, wearing square, dark, cardboard glasses, and staring up at the sky, like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

A silver Chevy pick-up truck with Oklahoma plates slows and does the same U-turn, pulling into the Point of Interest and asking, “Hey, are you looking at the eclipse?”

“We sure are, it’s nearly there, would you like to see it through our glasses?” is the general response, and a retired couple park their truck and start looking skyward with us.

Over the course of the next 15 minutes three groups of strangers from Colorado, Oklahoma, and Virginia share four pairs of bona-fide solar eclipse glasses among seven people to watch the dark space of the moon pass in front of the sun and cover about 90% of the solar disc, oohing and aahing and wondering how much darker it must be in the path of totality, a couple hundred miles north in Wyoming. We collectively praise the simple adventure of driving Colorado roads; we learn that managing a campground on national forest land involves some uncomfortable discussions about state marijuana laws conflicting with federal laws; and we have a mild debate about how the quality of light has changed and whether the buzzing of the insects has grown in response to the odd change in daylight or not. About five minutes after the peak of the eclipse the urge for lunch and the next stop on our individual journeys speaks up, and we part ways with a handshake and a farewell, probably to never meet again.

For one day, I saw America’s best self, from the headlines about people coming together for the eclipse in the newspaper, to a day filled with our finest landscapes, to overlooks with people speaking different languages but all looking skyward, to a surprise waterfall where we loaned our eclipse glasses to a pair of Texans, to that 15 minutes of solar solidarity during the peak coverage, to the Thai food lunch afterward served by both a Thai man and a local woman who loved flirting in a grandmotherly way with my son.

My worst self comes out when I travel, sometimes. My worst self, in fact, would not travel at all; it’s easier to stay home where I know where everything is, I know how to get to where I’m going, I know a good place to have lunch, and I know which turn lane and exit ramp is best along my routes. A sense of control brings a sense of safety and familiarity.

My best self comes out when I travel too, though. My sense of awe and wonder awakes. I am thrilled and invigorated by hiking and driving so close to the side of the cliff. I talk to strangers. I eat different foods. I abandon comfortable routines. I vary from the day’s planned itinerary. I marvel at the landscapes of America and Mother Earth.

My relationship with America cracked this past November, and the healing since then has been minimal. We elected a great divider, and in so doing our worst self is showing: greed; selfishness; egotism; mendacity; isolation; willful ignorance; ever-shrinking empathy; words and actions motivated by fear and a need for control. I am at my worst when my actions and choices are motivated by fear and a need for control.

Our best self is still out there in the landscape and among the people, though; Father Sun and Mother Earth brought us together for a day on August 21, at least. In my eclipse-watching minutes and many other encounters with my fellow travelers among the purple mountain majesties and beneath the spacious skies, my relationship with America was healed, in tiny increments. I saw that Americans can unite in awe of the landscape around them and the heavens above.

We’re better off for all that we let in. We’re better off when we seek connection with our fellow travelers. We’re better off when we start our interactions with common ground, like the fact that the moon is passing in front of the sun today. We’re better off when we work past our pre-judgments about leather-clad bikers, pick-up truck drivers, long-haired tourists in rental cars, and everyone else we meet but don’t actually know.

We’re better off if we honor and revel in the foundation of our common bond, the spacious skies, amber waves of grain, fruited plains, and purple mountains majesty of America. Our relationship is definitely cracked, but the moments of connection and beauty with my fellow travelers, out there in America, showed me a sliver of hope. That will have to do for now.

“…it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and to stop trying to hold onto it. And then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single minute of my stupid little life.” American Beauty, screenplay by Alan Ball

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Jay Clarke

Searching for deeper truth among the things I see and do and read every day. I am a husband, father, son, brother, friend, walker, wordsmith, seeker.