Solar eclipse: August 21, 2017

On Sunday, our solar eclipse adventure began.

Alex and I hit the road that morning with what we called our “skeleton plan”–a loose framework for what we wanted to happen over the next couple of days. We had no confirmed place to stay on Sunday night, just a tent in the trunk of Alex’s car and a spot on the map where I knew I wanted to watch the eclipse on Monday afternoon. Everything between was all part of the adventure.

First, we stopped at a water park in Charlotte to escape the scorching heat. (Slides!!) After several hours in the sun, we ate at a nearby hole-in-the-wall pho restaurant and found a bar that was streaming Game of Thrones. It was a great experience–the bar gave out free popcorn and pizza and the crowd was really into the episode. The streaming froze several times and each time a huge wail would run through the place as we commiserated together.

When we were eating at the restaurant, we started researching campgrounds near Spartanburg, where I went to college and wanted to spend the night. I had looked up public campsites weeks back and nothing was available across the entire state of South Carolina–so I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful that evening. But Alex saw a KOA site pop up on the phone and encouraged me to call. When I did, they had one spot left–in their Overflow section. I booked it immediately and we drove the hour and a half south, setting up our tent just after midnight. It was the perfect spot.

We awoke the next morning refreshed and ready for the eclipse. Since we were in Spartanburg, we grabbed some breakfast and took a quick tour of the Wofford campus, which has grown from 1,100 students during my time to about 1,600 today. They’ve done a great job of expanding the campus and keeping a Southern, polished vibe to the buildings. It was fun to return more than 10 years after my graduation.

I started getting antsy so we plugged in the GPS coordinates for the spot I had selected: an isolated stretch just south of Princeton, SC, which is an hour south of Spartanburg. This spot was in the Path of Totality, or 100% sun blockage. Ninety-six percent coverage in Durham or even 99% in Spartanburg wasn’t going to be enough–I wanted to stare at the sun without any eye protection.

We took local highways on the drive down, and the scenery was beautiful. As we got further out, we saw a few cars that had stopped in various places to watch the eclipse. It was great to see other people who had the same idea–but I wanted to be nowhere near them. I wanted to be alone for this gorgeous and bizarre experience.

So we kept driving and driving until we saw a small paved road leading into a field. We parked the car in the shade and waited for someone to come upon us, but it was just Alex and I, the field, and the crickets. We put some chairs in the middle of the road and watched the moon begin its slow path across the sun.

For the next two hours, no one else came by. The clouds started building in the sky, so we would sit in the chairs and take in the eclipse whenever the sun peeked out from the clouds. It was a bright day, and I kept looking out over at the vast fields to see if the world was getting any darker. It seemed like a slight dusk was settling over the earth, but the sun was still incredibly strong.

Then, 15 minutes before total coverage, the clouds went away and gave us the clean blue sky we had hoped for. As we looked through our glasses, the sun became a banana, then a fingernail. I was surprised how bright the day remained even though the sun was 96% covered up. Though the fields around us began taking on a hazy, dusky hue, we still had the impossibly bright sun shining down upon us. It felt like we were specimens in a terrarium.

About two minutes before the sun was completely covered, we heard a donkey begin braying hysterically in the distance. It called for half a minute, then suddenly quieted, which was followed by a rush of insect screeches in the bushes. Nature was fully aware of this strange shift in time and light. Small ripples of light unlike anything I have ever seen before appeared on the road, glimmering for about 10-15 seconds.

Suddenly, the skies around us began to darken. It was an accelerated sunset, as if the day was folding up in just a matter of moments. At 2:38 and 40 seconds in the afternoon, it became that still, quiet moment when dusk topples over into evening–and now there was a giant black hole surrounded by a hot white rim in the sky.

We took our glasses off and could hear people cheering in the distance. But I barely registered them as I kept staring at the impossible thing above us. I remember looking up and actually feeling an undercurrent of mild horror at the spectacle. Something in the cells of my body knew that this moment was unnatural and wrong. Annie Dillard wrote this about a 1979 solar eclipse: “I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.” But during this brief moment, I was also flooded with amazement and awe. I remember looking back and forth, back and forth, between the sun and the skies around us, the clouds pink from this brilliant, dramatic sunset.

I carefully watched the time for when we would need to put our glasses back on. The moon would completely block the sun for only 2 minutes and 39 seconds, and I knew we had to be ready for the moment when the corona of the sun would blaze freely again. In the final moments of the eclipse, I tried my hardest to commit the image to memory. I hope I dream it again someday.

And just like that, the whole thing was over. The moon resumed its creeping path across the other side of the sun, and we watched it with our glasses for a few minutes. As we drove north, we couldn’t believe the luck that we’d had–we were completely isolated in that field for hours, and the clouds had parted just long enough for us to see the total eclipse. It was everything I had hoped for.

Another solar eclipse will pass through the United States in 2024… we’ll see where that adventure may lead us! :D


Our spot in the field


Sure, these glasses are safe for your eyes!


I took this photo at 2:36pm, 3 minutes before total coverage


(Blurry) full-on eclipse


Taken with the safety glasses over the lens



The next day

Yesterday America elected a schmuck.

It’s okay, though; this certainly isn’t the first time. But yesterday was an interesting tide of emotions. It’s the first major event since September 11th where I’ve seen large amounts of people express grief. What Obama’s first election brought us in giddiness and pride brought disbelief and numb horror on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2016.

I never gave Trump much serious thought, even after he achieved the Republican nomination. I felt as if Trump represented some kind of bland evil that the greater-acting good throughout America would defeat on Election Day.

This is the real reason why half of America cried yesterday. Not only were we beaten, but our egos were majorly bruised.

For the last two decades, America has increasingly abandoned its rural areas in favor of economic opportunity and convenience within major cities, usually near the coasts. It’s no surprise that the left and right sides of America have been painted blue in the last few presidential elections.

So what happened in those red areas that were left behind? The economy stagnated. Factories and mines departed, and children who dreamed of being like their parents found that a high school education was no longer enough to secure a pension, house, or very much within the American dream. The coasts and cities became bastions of a new cultural elite that scorned the traditions and labor that made the country itself possible. As both educational and economic opportunities dwindled, that population grew mistrustful, and felt very forgotten by, the establishment.

You happy with your high-paying job over there in RTP, Boston, Portland? I wish you could’ve seen West Virginia when my family and I drove through it less than a year ago. Old towns that once thrived on the boom of coal mining were decrepit. I’ve never visited a rural area and seen food banks and social service centers so prominently advertised. People told us over and over again about the lack of opportunities available for work, but nobody wanted to leave. West Virginia was their home and history.

I never thought about any of this until Wednesday morning. I had gone to sleep at 12:30 on election night with a deep sense of dread in my stomach. I avoided looking at my phone until I got up at 6:40 the next morning to go to the bathroom. I couldn’t believe, and suddenly could believe, that Donald J. Trump had legally, rightfully been elected President of the United States.

I was immediately disgusted. “America’s made it’s bed–now we have to sleep in it,” I told Alex, who already knew the news. I thought of the red voting swaths and considered them fools.

But then I thought about something that had caught my attention on election night: one of the commentators said, “This is a vote against the establishment,” just as Trump had racked up 244 electoral votes, only 26 away from victory. And I thought about West Virginia and Florida, where a similar deficit of opportunities exists, though for different reasons. And then I understood why most people had voted for Trump.

Hillary was undoubtedly the most qualified candidate. She’s brilliant, ruthless, and I was honored to vote for her, even though she certainly has a flawed record. But Hillary is also the epitome of the establishment. She’s part of a dynasty, connected to a government that has failed to serve many people in this country. And it’s far too much of a simplification to say that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. Instead, it’s more likely that many of these people were actually troubled by some of the things they heard him say; those comments just didn’t apply to themselves or anyone they cared about (hi, white people!). Sexism remains well entrenched in this culture, so it’s no surprise that neither sexist or racist remarks would be enough to stir right-learning parts of the country into an outrage. They’re not there yet.

But to be fair, neither are “progressives.” We’ve been living in a bubble that was unexpectedly popped on Election Day. We’ve spent a long time dismissing Republican voters as uneducated, uninformed, stupid. Instead, I think we’ve seen distrustful, hurt, and scared people who have been left behind in a rapidly changing culture. (Let’s not get into the conspiracy theorists–they’re a whole other lot–I would rather look at how our government’s systems have failed a huge swath of people who have not forgotten it.) As one writer put much more eloquently than me, these people chose the one manner in which they truly have a voice, their vote, and they used it to send a very clear message.

There’s no doubt that the next 4 years hold some difficult battles. I am profoundly disturbed by rhetoric that is reminiscent of the era of internment camps in this country, of a time when women were devalued even more than they are now, or–let’s get real–Hitler’s Germany. We will have to work very hard to be proactive and bring our activism to the streets. It’s been too easy for progressives to use a hashtag and virtually check in as a form of “activism.” If we want to truly protect all human rights in the coming years, it will require a form of protest that many of us have never experienced.

All that said, many folks who voted for Hillary have slammed Trump voters as racists. Some of them undoubtedly are. But I’ve also seen some of those folks profess their own concerns. They didn’t like their choices either–but they couldn’t support a government that had continued to fail them for so long. I can’t defend their choice, but I can see where they’re coming from. Alex had a great observation yesterday: “Why don’t we just ask people why they voted for Trump?” Until now, progressives have been content to stay in their bubble of prosperity and surround themselves with people who hold the same views (myself included).

It’s time for real dialogue to happen about how we got into this situation and where our country needs to go. In the meantime, we must be vigilant about our most vulnerable people–and do whatever it takes to protect them.

Spring update

Spring is here! Today I’m sitting around my apartment in a weird combination of sleeveless nightgown, scarf, and winter cap as it rains. But the green has finally come back to this part of the country–including in the little planters outside my front door!


(For those of you who know the Black Thumb Stephenson phenomenon, this is a big deal.) I’m growing my own herbs this year–basil, dill, rosemary, and cilantro.

The last few months have been good. New people, new ideas… Here’s what I’ve been up to since January:


image copy 4A friend in Carrboro mentioned she had a friend looking for a place to stay, so I agreed to meet him and see if we would get along. Enter Blake: a marvelous young man who stayed with me for a couple months in January-March.

Blake had come to the area seeking an apprenticeship in Asheville. He left Iowa determined to make his path as a creative entrepreneur, with very few possessions except an incredible intellect, drive to accomplish, and eagerness to put good into the world.

He transformed my place during his time here–taking it from an apartment to a true home. Some of my favorite memories include hearing him hum around the house, singing together in the car, and seeing his touches of creativity in my apartment and his design work. Blake is extraordinarily wise for his few years… I know he will continue to carry that gift with him and bring his light into other people’s lives. Thank you for all you did in my home, friend!!

Check out Blake’s design touches:

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(The curtains are made out of brown shipping paper, and the elephant was crafted by hand using only raffia string. Blake has some amazing gifts.)

English class

In February I started offering a free English class to the community. So far I only have three students–two of whom are members of my Spanish conversation group–but it’s been really fun. There’s Dayuma from Ecuador, Alfonso from Spain, and Somdra, a Buddhist monk from Burma.

We meet once a week for 1.5 hours and play games, practice conversation, and generally just goof around as much as possible. They’re a great group–we have a lot to learn from one another.

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I’m training for a mini-triathlon in mid-May. A friend from work, Melissa, invited some folks to join, so I thought, Why not? I’ve always been fascinated by the endurance aspect of triathlons–and this one is relatively short: a 250-yard swim, 8-mile bike ride, and 2-mile run.

Of course, I took my sweet time starting to train, but things are going well. This week I did my first run–one mile running, one mile walking, alternating each quarter mile. I’m most nervous about the running and bike ride; this week was pretty much the first time I’ve ever run for physical fitness. But it felt good to hit the pavement outside. As I relaxed my shoulders, I could feel my body slip into a natural flow. I’m feeling optimistic… one breath at a time.


This is my favorite part of this update! Ale and I met in September at a music festival in Carrboro. We didn’t keep touch until I started planning my trip to the Dominican Republic in November, when I invited him to have drinks so I could learn more about his hometown. (He was born in Constanza and finished high school in Bonao; when we first met and discovered we had common territory, no one could understand why we were freaking out.)

We’ve been together since the new year and are really enjoying our time together. We’ve gone to Asheville (skiing!) and New York; he’s an awesome travel companion. Ale is kind, brilliant, adventurous, sweet… we’re having a good time, as you can see from the smile on my face.

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A dear friend of mine who I used to work with, Kate, recently started classes for her master’s in nonprofit management. As part of her program, she had to work with a nonprofit organization to help them establish their foundational documents and apply for grants. So Kate and I have been working together since January to brainstorm what Cucuyo could look like in the future and see if we can get some funding to do the work. Kate’s exactly the kind of person you want on your team–smart, organized, a great listener. I’m thrilled I got to pick her brain this winter, and her input has been invaluable.

I never dreamed a new era of Cucuyo was possible until last year, when I met *two* people working for very similar organizations–both of which have paid full-time staff. We’ll see what happens, but I suspect my work with Cucuyo isn’t over just yet.

Thanks for reading…. wherever you are in the world, I send you my love.


Back roads

For the last few days, I’ve been dogsitting for a friend in Hillsborough, a small town 20 minutes north of Carrboro, North Carolina.

Every time I have to hop in the car, I’m delighted–it means I get to take the back roads. (OK, they’re not actually back roads…they’re well-traveled local stretches between two close towns.)

But the roads that I take are pure escape from what lies on either end of the journey. In Hillsborough, I take a sharp right onto a busy lane lined with construction stakes and pass under the interstate. Once I’ve crossed it, the countryside opens up. The road widens and curves like a woman lying on her side, two lanes turning abruptly enough to remind you to slow down and enjoy the journey. On this half of the trip, the only lights guiding my way are those from the car; the shadows like to play tricks and take the shape of animals fleeing the edge of my vision.

If I’m coming from Carrboro, I drive down the most perfect suburban street (I remember the first time I saw it–I marveled that there were kids who would actually grow up on a street like that) and turn onto a calmer, pine-lined street. Then I turn right at an ugly stoplight and I’m immediately swallowed up again. Carrboro never existed.

Once I turn on that road, all my senses heighten–I can suddenly smell the trees, thick pine, and feel the air temperature drop several degrees. It’s nothing, nothing, flat nothing, a gas station at a quirky intersection, then farms and trees. There is nothing but the road, the trees, and my eyes.

Maybe it’s the feeling of isolation on that drive that I find so appealing. Sure, there might be a car behind me and I’ll definitely pass several on the road, but they never register. The trees on both sides are my blinders and I let instinct take over as I navigate the road with small shifts that feel as natural as breathing: the rise and fall of my foot on the gas, the arc of my hand on the wheel as it traces the curves, the hiccup over hills as I tear through the countryside. I always fly through this part until the curves of the second road make me slow down.

Must be genetic, this pure joy on the road. A lifetime of road-trip summers? Or perhaps the bliss of moving through something beautiful, not thinking, moving as naturally as blood called to flow through the architecture of the body.

This video’s not quite what the drive looks like, but it’s close. On my drive, the trees are closer to the road. But the music’s damn good–Micah P. Hinson. My internet friend nailed it when he put this together.