Eclipse Viewing in a Bike-Over Town

Photo by Alexander Chuang, who was standing right next to me with a giant camera and was kind enough to share.

To say that I am displeased with rural and small-town America after Trump’s election, and especially after the events in Charlottesville, would be a vast understatement. I am “You are the reason I have clinical depression!” level enraged. I am furious to the point of seeking out Facebook posts of friends of friends so that I can write replies — essays composed of well-sourced and unassailable arguments with the logical validity that only an analytic philosopher can construct — calling them out for enabling racism through false equivalence or by being dismissive of the problem. However, rural people have been complaining that urban liberals ignore them, and they have a point. My eclipse plans demonstrate that I have been the embodiment of that arrogant refusal to acknowledge and interact with them.

My friends asked, “Are you going to watch the eclipse?” I’d respond, “You know my nicknames are Committed and Adventure, right?” and their question would change to “What are your detailed and ridiculous eclipse plans?” I’d spent hours on Google Earth searching for the best feasible spot. I intended to take the Bolt Bus from Eugene to Albany, then bicycle 37 miles out to North Santiam State Recreation Area, camp there overnight, and watch from the tree-less bluff in the morning. That’s right, I am the smug liberal who rode his bike with the express purpose of feeling superior to climate-change-causing cars stuck in traffic as I cruised past with my dinosaur-head covered helmet and my rechargeable-battery powered LED lights that have colors and patterns complex enough to have a remote control. I packed the bread loaves I had baked that morning with local organic ingredients, as well as plenty of similarly hippie-approved snacks and meals, having assumed that my preferred food would be superior to the point that I never even considered the idea of buying food or anything else along the way, even though it meant cycling with more weight. I had packed everything I might need, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and a solar powered lamp that could also charge my phone. Yep, I fulfil every stereotype of self-righteous liberals.

I had downloaded directions and also wrote them down for when my phone inevitably lost battery power, but it was hardly necessary. In that part of Oregon, if there is only one direct road between two incorporated towns, the name of that road is the name of the two are named for the towns at either end of them. I’d like to take a moment to praise this eminently sensibly naming convention. Can we please use this everywhere? It was great for cycling to a new place because I only had to remember the names of the towns on my path: Jefferson-Scio, Stayton-Scio. When I came to an intersection, I could just say to myself “Is the name of the next town in the road’s name? Yes. Am I going backwards? No. Well then, I must be on the right track.”

The towns on my route were little more than cairn way-markers to me. If I’d been able to find more spare tubes when packing that morning, I never would have set foot in Stayton or talked to anyone, even though the town was also right at the center line of the eclipse and would also get a full two minutes of totality. I had so assumed that there was nothing worthwhile in those towns that I had been willing to cycle an additional 14.4 miles each way and wouldn’t have even considered pausing there if I hadn’t gotten a flat tire and then carelessly pinched and ruined the spare tube. This wasn’t merely fly-over country to me, or the sort of place I’d drive through unless I needed gas; I was planning to go straight through on bicycle, and it was only at walking speed that I gave Stayton a chance.

There’s a pair of episodes of The West Wing called “Twenty Hours in America,” where two of the Democratic president’s top staff members get accidently left behind at a campaign event in rural Indiana. They depend on the kindness of locals to get them to an airport, yet they ignore the local concerns because the Republican is going to win the state no matter what they do. It’s only at the end of the long day that the administrative assistant who was stranded with them manages to get them to notice that they have been hearing issues that matter to people all day, and gets them to stop assuming that they knew better than everyone for long enough to actually talk with people and take them seriously. The next twenty hours were remarkably similar for me.

As I realized that I had foolishly not restocked my tube patches, a man on a bicycle came by and invited me to his farm three houses down to patch it up. He was super kind and generous, and I was glad to be able to share some of my family recipe cinnamon-swirl bread with him. Sadly, with the amount of weight from the camping gear, the patch barely lasted me more than a couple hundred yards, so I started walking to town. Another man pulled his truck over and offered me a ride into town, and then went above and beyond by driving me to every store that might still be open and might carry bike tubes. He even tried to figure out a place for me to camp without the police being annoyed, dropped me off there, and genuinely seemed dismayed that his work schedule meant that he wouldn’t be able to pick me up in the morning to save me the ten-minute walk back into town.

In the morning, I walked my bike into town and found that nothing with the tubes I needed would be open before the eclipse. I had actually considered still trying to get out to the wilderness until that point, and only then resigned myself to experiencing the eclipse in town. I explored around a bit to find an optimal viewing area and discovered that Stayton is quite lovely once you get past the main strip. The part of town I didn’t like is the same part of every town in America I don’t like, including the liberal bastions of Eugene and Portland: the strip malls and parking lots that are identical across the country. Stayton has cute homes and extensive, well-maintained parks, and an old walkable main street row of shops. I knew Riverfront Park was the optimal spot when I saw people set up with enormous expensive cameras and telescopes. In that idyllic field surrounded by riparian trees I found my people, the ones not satisfied by anything less than the best possible spot for such an event. We were rewarded for our diligence with good company and an astounding experience.

Let me say to anyone who remotely had the opportunity to see the totality and yet chose not to: you made the wrong decision. Major world religions have been started from far less, and I would be surprised if contemporary ones aren’t influenced by it. Viewing the eclipse with the benefit of modern science and imagining how it affected ancient peoples is like watching Mt. St. Helens erupt from a safe distance and imagining the awe and terror of the Klamath people who witnessed Mt. Mazama become Crater Lake and who of course had their world-view shaped by the event.

As we all packed up, exchanged emails, and said farewell to our single-serving friends, the man with the telescope (we got to see sun spots! It was so cool!) said that the day should have been declared a national holiday, and I couldn’t agree more. Any good president, or even any cunning president would have done so. What a wasted opportunity for the national healing we desperately needed in the wake of a week in which America was somehow bitterly divided about whether or not Nazi terrorists and other white supremacists are bad. The sun and moon have total indifference to what we believe or about our politics, and we can all appreciate the grand coincidence of the moon being 400 times smaller than the sun yet 400 times closer to us and thus being able to exactly blot out the sun’s brightest light yet leave the corona.

As I walked through town afterward, I was able to cheerfully talk about the shared experience with everyone I met, with none of the anger or apprehension I would have had days earlier when talking to people who may have voted for President Joffrey, and may still support him. I stopped in a quilting store that my grandmother would have loved and bought some fabric samples for her, then made my way to a grocery store for water. I planned to walk out to the other end of town to buy tubes, but in the parking lot met two people who I immediately knew could solve all my problems. The young gentlemen were on bicycles, looked nearly as obsessively prepared as me, and one of them had a gloriously familiar pink box of Voodoo Doughnuts strapped in front of his handlebars. Not only had they cycled all the way from Portland, one of them was a between jobs bicycle mechanic who was about to move back east to start a position as a mechanic and non-profit manager for a bicycle co-op, which may be the most Portland thing I’ve ever heard. They gave me a tube for free, and once I heard that guy’s background, I paid him 20 bucks to fix my flat far better than I would have. We had great conversations, and I was able to share plums that had been picked two days before from UO’s urban farm, which is where students learn the cutting edge of organic farming. A cynical part of my mind ignored my newfound appreciation for Stayton’s residents and echoed Draco from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality: “it’s better to have one Ravenclaw as a friend than all of Hufflepuff.” Good intentions are necessary to do good, but not enough. You also have to be prepared and to know what will be effective.

I felt the same cynicism when I stopped at a yard sale at the farm next to the one that had given me a tube patch. First, though, I learned a valuable lesson about yet another form of privilege I have and take for granted. Everything was priced in increments of ten cents. Even when I’m broke — and I definitely am right now with debt to my bank since I was too depressed to fill out the paperwork to go into more debt to my university for the summer term — I still round to the nearest dollar. Despite having doubly negative money, I have never known poverty because I have a support system of friends and family who are willing and able to give me a loan. Society, schools, and banks are willing to invest in me nearly indefinitely. They’re right that I’m good for it, but they’re wrong in not being willing to invest as much in plenty of others who are at least as deserving and as trustworthy. It’s just luck. I would have forever lost my family’s record of financial stability if I’d been in the US when I had kidney stones. Thankfully, I was in Taiwan, where they have socialized medicine, and only paid $15 total for an emergency room visit, two refills of two prescriptions, the same exact procedure to treat it as I would have had in the US, and two follow up hospital visits. In the US, the procedure and the emergency room visit would have each cost $15,000. Earlier in the day I met a local woman who complained about the city cutting back the blackberry bushes because the berries were free food. I have killed hundreds of blackberry bushes while doing wetland restoration because the invasive species choke out other plants from sunlight and nutrients. I’ve always known intellectually that I’ve been hungry but never known true hunger, but the intonation of her voice when she said free food made me understand it at an emotional level. I’ll definitely be placing blackberries on the lowest place on my priority list for invasive species to kill, and I’ll prioritize killing the blackberries that are hard to access if I get that far.

Money clearly mattered and was tight for the community, yet when I rounded up to pay $2 at the yard sale, the woman there put the difference in a donation jar for charity. Like I said, the people of Stayton demonstrated immense generosity and kindness. However, the charity she chose was for the fire department to give toys to needy children. I would argue that this is treating the symptoms of poverty and not the causes, and treating those symptoms with one of the causes: consumerism.

Despite having a more nuanced view of small towns and generational farms than I did a week earlier, I’m still guilty of the insult that has so upset rural people across the country: I think I know better than them. However, I don’t think that’s because I’m a better person than them. If I am better than others it’s only because I’ve had better opportunities and less trauma, not because of anything innate in me. I do think that I am a tiny part of a better institution, though. Institutions are powerful because they can think in terms of centuries or millennia, whereas most people are in circumstances where they are lucky to think in terms of their own lifetimes and that of their children, and are more likely to only have the chance to plan ahead in terms of a single year or until the next paycheck. Our society has been championing institutions that are similarly short-sighted, only without the excuse of a limited lifespan or pressing needs for survival. Major decisions that will have impacts for generations are being determined by election cycles, quarterly earnings reports, and the 24-hour news cycle by people who could unquestionably afford to take the time to think through the consequences. Cities can be long-term thinkers, which is why city planning is so vital. Despite their potential, though, I’ll fully acknowledge that cities are at least as addicted to fossil fuels as sprawling suburbs or rural areas, and the only difference is that we’ve taken the first step of admitting we have a problem. Religion has used long term thinking to great effect, including magnificent cathedrals that take centuries to build, and planting trees that will replace the oak beams of a chapel when they rot five hundred years later. The best institution for long-term planning, however, is science.

Science predicted the eclipse’s date in 1932 and refined that estimate to give accurate predictions down to the second. The same methods predict hurricanes within a few hours and a few dozen miles, created modern medicine that has vastly extended the human lifespan, and put humans on the moon. The same methods are how we know that evolution, climate change, implicit bias, and cis-gender straight white male privilege are real. There is more uncertainty in the specific outcomes of evolution or climate change than for the eclipse, but scientists are expressing a level of certainty that is proportionate to the level of evidence. Climate science isn’t nearly as precise about outcomes as eclipse predictions or even hurricane predictions, but there is overwhelming evidence of it happening, including melting polar ice, record heat every year in a row, starfish liquefying from warm water diseases, 102 million dead trees in California due to drought and warm weather bark beetles able to move to higher elevations to pine trees without anti-beetle adaptations, and above all that the warming trends match fossil fuel use almost exactly, which is precisely what the theory of the greenhouse effect have predicted for decades. We don’t know exactly what will happen or when, but we have strong evidence that it will be catastrophic. Our closest available data on what will happen is the Carboniferous period 359 to 299 million years ago, when trees were so abundant and sequestered so much carbon dioxide that they reduced the greenhouse effect by enough that it was too cold for them and they died. Those dead trees and all their carbon became coal. We are now releasing all that carbon and more at a faster rate than the trees sequestered it. We should trust scientists to be the most likely people to be correct about climate change, evolution, and racial equality for the same reason we trust them about the eclipse: they have proven through a relentless stream of mostly correct and impressively specific predictions that the evidence-based community knows what it’s talking about.

Maybe ease of motion fueled the ease of looking down on people. I felt so good to be on wheels again after walking that I cycled the full 70 miles back to Eugene. That’s part of the beauty of living along the valley’s main river — home is always downhill. There’s nothing to get you to notice the tiniest of grade changes like bicycle rides or water rights disputes. Other than pausing to watch golden eagles and the sunset, I had plenty of time along the way to reflect about how to try to extend the goodwill between rural and urban America beyond the short window of the eclipse. Cycling definitely seemed part of it because for me it embodies the differences in design and lifestyle that are vital to my worldview. My experience that day was in stark contrast to a couple I met in an Albany bookstore. They had driven to town then watched the eclipse alone from their motel room, without ever so much as walking to the park. Car centric design causes sprawl, with all its social alienation, long commutes, impervious parking lots and roads that cause flooding, habitat loss, ecosystem services loss, and greenhouse gas emissions from all the unnecessary extra driving. As I rode on, I resolved to become a bicycle ambassador for science to a world built for fossil fuels.

I’ve been to the ironically named Demilitarized Zone, the line between North and South Korea that is the most heavily defended border in the world. At one point in the center of the four kilometer No Man’s Land, there is a small structure built for negotiations. The microphones in the middle of the table in the middle of the room are at the precise point of the border so that each side can argue from within their own land. This set-up is among the numerous conditions necessary to get the two sides to even agree to talk to each other at all, much less to agree on a policy. It’s worth it, though, to keep communication open. I realize now that I am willing to meet the conditions of the debate with rural America. It’s easy to dismiss me on the internet, no matter how solid my arguments are on paper, but I can cycle to speak to people face to face. I can learn the names of their town, patronize their stores, see what’s good about the place and worth preserving, acknowledge the good in the people, prove myself a kind and capable person, look them in the eye, then have a real discussion with them instead of merely trading talking points and insults. I plan to get to know people over baked goods, quilting shops, and my grandfather’s cowboy poetry, then use his poem “Treat Everyone Equal” — which has a brilliant double punchline — to pivot to discussions of Ta-Nehisi Coats, Black Lives Matter, the Confederacy’s legacy of slavery, and the systemic, institutional, structural white supremacy built into our society and our governmental policies.

I encourage others to be ambassadors across the political divide, if you can do so safely. I absolutely recognize that it is not safe for everyone to do this. None of the people who were kind and generous to me gave me any suspicions as to who would treat people differently, but statistically it is nearly certain that a petite queer black woman with a hijab and a Hispanic name would have had a very different experience following the same plan as me. I am an able-bodied, 5’11”, 225 pound, cis-gendered straight white male with enough survival gear to last for weeks in the woods and access to money. I have all the privilege, so I also have an obligation to do what I can amplify the voices of marginalized people. I don’t feel guilty for the mountains of advantages I have in life because I work hard to fight and to not contribute to that unfair system, but I do feel responsible, especially since the people who most need to hear marginalized voices are more likely to actually listen to that message coming from someone who looks like me.

Others with various degrees of privilege, I urge you to also act where you can to persuade people of scientific viewpoints and of the value of evidence-based discourse and inclusivity. With great power comes great responsibility. Feeling safe enough and being healthy enough to cycle everywhere is also a privilege, but it’s not a necessary component of being an ambassador. Nevertheless, I would encourage it if you’re able. It definitely takes confidence with bicycling to do these long trips, but you don’t need to be as intense about it as I am. I’m the sort of cyclist who lets drivers know that ORS 814.430 gives bicycles in Oregon the right to a full lane of traffic. During my ride home, a truck honked at me so much that I thought I might have to dive out of the way because he was furious that I cost him 5–10 seconds by not pulling off into the gravel so that he could pass me while there were cars in the other lane. However, for every vehicle that honked at me and passed uncomfortably close even though there was no vehicle in the other lane for miles, there were two who were patient even on bridges, gave me a wide berth, and waved as they passed. So be safe out there, but it’s not as scary as it may seem, and you can pull off into the gravel instead of being defiant. If not traveling by bike, I’d encourage public transit or car-pooling if possible. Global warming is more due to city planning, national policy, and industrial production than individual choices, but I think it helps to lead by example.

I’m still angry. I still think voting for Trump was — at best — as irresponsible as entrusting every infant and child you care about to a pack of rabid dingoes, and that continuing to support him now is an act of blatant racism and an endorsement of reckless willful ignorance. I’m still furious at anyone who equivocates between white supremacists and those who oppose them. I’m frustrated past despair when trying to get people to acknowledge the genocidal seriousness climate change and the ecological collapse it’s likely to cause. However, I’m now willing to have a discussion instead of lecturing at people. Emotional connections change minds, not (sadly) logic and reason, and connections can form so much more easily and be so much more impactful in person. Let’s get out there and visit the towns we’ve been ignoring so we can teach, convey our experiences, listen, learn, and maybe start to heal a country that feels at the brink of a permanent divide.