There was no coincidence to this eclipse.
When I first heard about it, it blew my mind. The idea of the midday sun blotted out by darkness at noon—in a line extending coast to coast from Oregon to South Carolina, passing through 13 states—excited my lizard-man brain. When I found out the centerline of the totality would cast a shadow over where my brother Marc was buried, there was no doubt. I would be there.
The Bible says “At the end of every seven years, thou shalt make a release” (Deuteronomy 15:1). This is not bad advice. I left the Army in 2010. It was seven years, time to move on, or the war and the death and the waste would cast a permanent shadow—not just on my life, but the lives of all those in my orbit.
Things were better for me since the God Shot, no doubt about that. There was no drinking or jails or mental hospitals, none of the insanity that’d defined my life since I’d left the Army in 2010. The last time I’d worn my dress uniform was to escort my brother’s remains to the first funeral we had, in Idaho in February of 2010. The Army found some pieces of him and his crew left over after we buried him in Idaho; last December, they buried those “comingled remains” in Arlington National Cemetery.
In the space of seven years between those burials, I’d come close to dying on multiple occasions: car accidents, what the Veterans Administration psychiatrists called “risky behaviors,” the omnipresent thought of suicide. I’d pulled out of it, though. It seemed I’d gotten sane just in time for my country to go crazy, with neo-Nazis marching through my old college campus in Charlottesville and the President playing nuclear chicken with North Korea. “Eclipse” comes from the Greek for abandonment—a theme that resonated a little too deeply. I didn’t recognize my town. I didn’t recognize my country. I wasn’t alone in that.
Explaining the appeal of the KKK to the American psyche, Ho Chi Minh wrote “After big social upheavals, the public mind is naturally unsettled. It becomes avid for new stimuli and inclined to mysticism.”
For the past two years I’d been working on a book about Bowe Bergdahl—the case and court martial stretched on—while living like a monk in Arkansas in between trips to Fort Bragg, Tampa and Washington, DC. It was unsustainable. I needed something to shake me from my stupor. I hoped the voyage to the Eclipse and observation of it would change something. I didn’t know what.
To the ancients, eclipses were deeply unnerving. Court astrologers who failed to warn their regents about them were put to death. The ancient Chinese explained it as a dragon eating the sun. Last week’s eclipse—predicted right down to the second and degree, the path of the moon’s shadow plotted and projected on maps and charts—was comforting in a world where everything else seemed unmoored.
I joked it was the apocaylpse on a schedule, straight out of the Book of Revelation. “The fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not” (Revelation 8:12).
Some part of me hoped it was. If that was the case, I would be ready.
I met Doug Laux last year in an Irish bar in Washington, DC. He’d just released a book about his seven years as a CIA case officer. I wanted to talk to him about Afghanistan. If anyone knew the feeling of abandoment, it was Doug. In the CIA, he’d lived a double life, lying to everyone but his brother about what he did for a living. He’d left the Agency and written a book that angered his colleagues. Doug was on board and suggested we make a pilgrimage with the Great American Eclipse. We’d rent an RV, deck it out with camera gear and roll out pioneer-style, cameras rolling.
A plan came together: Set out chasing the sun west from Texas along the Butterfield and Oregon Trails to Idaho. If society didn’t collapse, we’d film and write about about the whole thing as creatures of the road and hopefully get some perspective and jubilee. If society did collapse, we’d have a mobile command center.
My second oldest brother—who’s still alive—was in for the trip as well. That made three. On Thursday, we spent the morning combing through archived correspondence at the George W. Bush Presidential library on SMU’s fraternity row, picked up our Cruise America Recreational Vehicle and Doug, and set off west.
Saturday, August 19
We were bedded down in an Amarillo, Texas Wal-Mart parking lot, windows of the RV propped open for some air, and I found myself circling back to the idea of abandonment. I couldn’t sleep. Somewhere within earshot, a couple was fighting in the parking lot. Their fight was a low murmur punctuated by bursts of audible dialogue acommpanied by the slamming of a car door.
“I need you and I want you but I don’t have to fucking be with you!” the woman screamed at her boyfriend. My brother was passed out in the bulkhead seat, snoring softly; Doug was in the middle, tucked into a bed. I sat up into the lotus position on a camouflauge Army poncho liner (called a woobie) laid over the rubberized matress in the back of the RV. Through a sliver in the curtains I could see the boyfriend, limping spastically towards the entrance of the 24-hour Wal-Mart. The woman stayed in the passenger seat, the light from the orange ember of her cigarette glowing brighter as she breathed. I fell asleep.
At 7:11 in the morning my phone vibrated. Doug. He’s an early riser, up before the sun most days. “Apparently you guys didn’t realize my relationship with Wal-Mart. It’s just impulse buy after impulse buy.”
The door to the RV opened and Doug unloaded the bounty.
The orange machete seemed a touch over the top, but I saw the logic. Always better to be prepared. We stopped at Cadillac Ranch, a 1974 Modern Art installation by the “Ant Farm” artist collective. Doug wanted to test the drone he brought to film the eclipse. (As a former CIA officer, he didn’t mind making people uncomfortable by filming them from the air.) There was a remarkably international vibe to the crowd at Cadilac. As my brother spray painted the lead Cadillac with a sunburst for the eclipse, a Spaniard in a T-shirt with a skull-and-crossbones design cocked his finger at the drone filming him and mocked shooting it down.
We hit traffic in Denver at 5 p.m. that Friday. The odometer clicked over to 66666.6 immediately after the exit to Yale Road and crazy illuminati world-ending thoughts kept percolating up from my brain faster than my rational brain could swat them down.
I sent a text message to a retired spy friend who lived Colorado noting the coincidence. He read the signs correctly.
“Second coming is about here. You’re not going to get a better warning.”
That night we settled into another Wal-Mart parking lot in Rawlins, Wyoming. Doug’s drone didn’t work there: It was the site of Wyoming’s only prison.
Sunday, August 20
With less than 48 hours to Totality, the waitress at the Wrangler Cafe in Pinedale, Wyoming, was hearing strange things: The local sheriff had gotten some calls about the legality of animal sacrifice in the shadow of the moon. As long as the animals weren’t tortured, there was nothing illegal about it, but the waitress still found it strange. She passed along a rumor that “they” brought in thousands of body bags in the event of a mass suicide.
The toilets were backed up in Jackson, Wyoming. “The whole town smells like sewage,” she said, and I wondered what it smelled like at Dick Cheney’s: he lived there on a golf course. I wondered if he’d find any meaning in the daytime darkness, or if it would just seem normal.
The local sheriff had gotten some calls about the legality of animal sacrifice in the shadow of the moon.
We pressed on, pausing at the south fork of the Snake River near the Palisades, famous for its cutthroat trout fisheries, and admired the view across from the Calamity campgrounds. The final stop before arriving at my sister-in-law’s house was my brother’s grave in Idaho.
We parked the RV by the side of the road and my brother, Doug and I went to visit Marc. My brother and I picked at stray thistles that’d grown up around the headstone. “It’s good that it stings a little,” my brother said.
We’d made it into the path of totality.
All that was left was the darkness.
I went to a Mormon church in Rigby, Idaho. The 18th Ward was packed—on a normal Sunday, 350 congregants gathered in this meeting house, but the ward clerk estimated over 550 attended for sacrament meeting on the day before the eclipse.
That afternoon we drove to the Wal-Mart in Twin Falls for provisions. I was cooking Sunday dinner and we’d planned a BBQ for the next day after the Eclipse. It was packed with last minute eclipse shoppers, greeters positioned at each door to check receipts against items in carts.
The local grocery store in Rigby sold four times the amount of milk they normally did the week before the eclipse and the town of Rigby was prepared to get hit hard. Local officials were expecting 500,000 eclipse chasers in Rigby alone.
Still, if my sister-in-law’s house was any indication, there were plenty of people streaming into Rigby to see the eclipse. Some of Tawnya’s friends who used to live in Rigby drove up from Salt Lake City and set up tents in the yard near the fire pit.
Walter Kirn, a writer friend of mine, was due to arrive any minute with his wife and fellow writer Amanda Fortini. [Note: Kirn recently contributed a short story to this magazine.] I’d first started talking to Walter through email while I was a patient in the Veteran’s Administration’s PTSD program in Menlo Park, California, in 2011. We’d kept up a correspondence and built a friendship in the meantime.
I thought about individual people as centers of gravity pulling others into our crazy orbit. Walter brought Dr. Lisa Randall. Lisa was a theoretical particle physicist and professor of cosmology at Harvard University. Her speciality is dark matter and she’s a best-selling author of Warped Passages, Knocking on Heaven’s Door and Dark Matter & the Dinosaurs.
Lisa, in turn, brought Landon Ross, an artist from Los Angeles who worked using only rare-earth elements present in stars before they explode. Landon was covered in expensive, artistic tattoos—he had four relating to Charles Darwin alone. She’d also brought a German friend, a chemist working on a cure for depression at a university in Boston. To test the drug they were working on, they needed a certain type of mouse. They needed a depressed mouse.
That night we all went out to Dolly’s Subway Club, a local bar in Rigby that the Mormon members of my family avoided. We’d gone there the night before to check the town’s pulse and see what they thought of the eclipse and figured we’d take the out of towners out for one last party before the apocaylpse, if it came.
The night before we’d noticed that the local barflies were friendly in the way that people in the intermountain west are friendly: They say they’re happy to have you there and then leave you alone until you leave. I’d introduced myself and asked a guy sitting at the bar what he thought of the eclipse. Shaking his hand, I noticed he didn’t have a thumb and then learned his friends called him “Boots” because he only wore boots and shorts. Boots seemed amped up on something and unconcerned with the eclipse. He was more confused why we’d want to watch it in Rigby. I didn’t explain. We told him we’d be back on eclipse eve and wondered if we’d see him there. He told us probably not. He’d reckoned he’d be passed out in a ditch the next day.
He kept his word: The next day, we didn’t see Boots when we walked back in with three carloads of people. We stayed all night, playing pool and talking and singing karaoke. I sang Toto’s “Africa,” which was a postwar anthem in New York City bars for me and my buddy Tony after we came back from Afghanistan. Walter sang “Suspicious Minds,” and then Amanda and Lisa did a duet—to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” of course.
Monday, August 21
The morning of the eclipse, the house was abuzz with activity. Walter woke up early and brought back a sugary breakfast for everyone. Doug set and double checked his camera positions, telling anyone who asked that he was a photographer. He didn’t want or need anyone asking him about his time in the CIA.
In CIA, Doug was an operations officer, undercover to everyone but his co-workers and his brother. CIA limited the best assignments to those with the strongest cover. The less people Doug told about who he really was or what he did for a living, the more chance there was to do important work. So he didn’t tell anyone—not his mom, not his dad, not his girlfriends or friends.
It worked out, in a way, for Doug. He got some choice assignments. After nine of his agency his colleagues in Afghanistan were killed in a suicide bombing in Khowst on Dec 30, 2009, Doug was fast tracked to a job at a black site in Afghanistan. He was careful about what he said of the job, still worried that vengeful employers at CIA would come after him for talking about the waste, risk aversion and general fraud he saw. Eventually, after working on the Syria Task Force, he decided to leave the Agency. He spent the next couple of years running training courses for the military, training those working in Special Operations how to detect and evade hostile surveillance—teams and how to disappear right under their noses.
There was a resonance to the timing of the eclipse for him, too: The window for totality, when the moon would fully cover the sun and the earth below would fall into darkness, was two minutes. He’d learned in CIA, and passed on to his students the importance of making a meeting with a clandestine agent (“being on the x”) within the “two-minute window.” These meetings were planned down to the second, with both the agent and the CIA officer spending hours on a surveillance detection run before the meet to ensure that they were unobserved—“in the black” in agency parlance.
This eclipse, and our journey to it, was a two-minute window on a cosmic scale. Today, we were on the x in Rigby, Idaho. Through the eclipse glasses, the moon took a bite from the sun, a half-moon cutout between the 1 and 3 on the sun’s clock face. My niece said it looked like the Apple logo and went back to playing with her cousins. My aunt Lisa, who’d come into town from Burley, Idaho, suggested we all write out “manifestations” for the eclipse—things we wanted, things we hoped for, things we might achieve in unison with the cosmic event.
At any other time, it might have felt like some hippie bullshit, but I was into it. I wrote out mine and Doug wrote out his. Stephanie, a West Point graduate and former Army officer who was trying to figure out next steps and came to watch the eclipse with us, wrote out hers and we all passed them around for the others to read.
We were looking to heal, to close the book on our past lives of violent sacrifice and start a new chapter, to get over the history we still couldn’t help but talk about and obsess over. Our manifestations reflected that. As totality approached, Lisa and Tawnya gathered up the bits of paper from everyone in the yard and set off for the firepit, where everyone lit a match and watched the papers burn, carrying our burdens and dreams on their ashes.
The moon pulled in front of the sun. On the north side of the back yard, near the firepit, to the left from the porch, the women who’d pitched tents and read tarot cards the night before howled at the moon. Doug, my nephew Ethan and I stood in the middle, and my Mormon relatives stood and sat in lawn chairs near the trampoline on the right side of the lawn. It was chilly in the sudden darkness. At the first moment of totality, there was a collective gasp, followed by cheers at the sky.
From the drone footage, darkness drops on the lawn within seconds, lasts for two minutes, and then just as quickly it is light.
It seemed to last much longer on the ground. One of the hippy girls to our left, who had a septum piercing decorated with a moon pendant, said “There’s the stars. They’re all coming out.”
Overhead, a helicopter circled. Between the sound of the rotor blades beating the air and the sight of the eclipse, I couldn’t help but think of my brother Marc, dead and buried in the cemetery a mile down the road for seven years and seven months. Theres a different light under the eclipse. “It feels fake. Look at just the light—it seems like we’re in a helicopter searchlight,” said Doug.
As the darkness lifted and the temperature rose, I broke down and start crying. Deep, racking sobs pushed tears behind my foil glasses. It wasn’t out of sadness. It was an experience common to the majesty of the moment: When I told people after that I saw the eclipse, the first question for those who’d also seen totality was: “Did you cry?”
We left Rigby late, hoping to avoid traffic back to Utah. It was not in the cards. Ahead of us a jam stretched out along the interstate, taillights blending into a big red snake extending further than the eye could see through Idaho Falls, Blackfoot and Pocatello.
After four days on the road with very little sleep, trying to keep this strange journey on course to at least get us to the eclipse, my nerves were shot. I was snapping at people, exhausted. The last thing I wanted to do was be here now, even though I’d spent months planning and thinking about this trip. I just wanted to close my eyes and keep reliving those two minutes of totality.
A friend of mine who lived in Salt Lake City offered to put us up in his basement. We arrived at three in the morning, four hours after we’d thought we’d be there, and fell into bed.
Tuesday, August 22
6:16 p.m. Navajo Nation, Southern Arizona. It came to me after smoking a pipe next to the Navajo Bridge by Lee’s Ferry. My living brother was negotiating with Navajo Women for earrings with his wife and Doug was shooting some B roll. For a moment I had a thought: This was a beautiful bridge to jump from. Dual steel spandrel arch bridges over the Colorado River 466 feet below that replaced the ferry system operated by Jon D. Lee, a distant relative of mine who wound up as a Mormon domestic terrorist, taking the fall for the Mountain Meadows massacre.
The eclipse’s totality sharpened and changed the light with which I saw the people in my world—exposing each one’s character in stark relief, with crisp shadows. The choice was mine in how I reacted to those flaws. Like the eclipse itself, those exposed sharp edges, briefly revealed in their fullness, could blind me to the beauty of the rest—but only if I looked at them too hard without the proper lenses to save me from what I saw.
I could embrace the circumstances of my life and the people in it for what they were and the moments we had.
I could appreciate the beauty of the others in my life’s orbit as each of us lives out our own once-in-a-lifetime totality, two minutes at a time.