I remember being jerked awake. And instantly freaking out. Like, spaz mode, momentary out-of-body overreaction that would have made me pee my pants laughing if someone had been lucky enough to catch it on camera.
I asked what happened, out of breath, turning my head to the left, desperately looking for an answer. It was dark. I had been sleeping, that weird car sleep you get when you don’t realize you actually fell asleep. And I felt the car veer quickly to the right, the wheels squealing as we came to an abrupt stop on the shoulder of the highway.
We hit a deer.
We were two hours into what we knew would be a once-in-a-lifetime, 20-hour road trip. And we were stopped. Steam or smoke or something airy was wafting out from under the hood.
A damn deer. In August. In Arizona.
We found the next exit off the highway, scoured our phones for an available hotel room at nearly midnight, grabbed a couple beers and hunched over a bit in a slump of defeat. We wouldn’t be making it to Idaho. Which meant, we wouldn’t be making it to see the solar eclipse.
The radiator was shot. It was draining red fluid like a stuck pig. The grill on the front of the car couldn’t hide the evidence of our collision, with deer hair sticking out at an angle and a smear of shit lining the underside of the hood. The front quarter panel on the passenger side was dented in, and the passenger headlight was just hanging on. It was quite a look.
That was our first detour. And it would lead to a few more. And those detours led to one of the most incredible trips of our life.
If we’re honest, detours are usually a pain in the ass. They’re almost always unexpected. They almost always pop up when you’re running late. They generally mean more traffic, and often involve some jackass who doesn’t use his blinker or won’t let someone merge. And there’s a high probability of expletives.
Detours require patience. And flexibility. And, on this trip, a sense of adventure.
That one detour led to Ron sourcing a new radiator at a local auto parts store. It led to a YouTube tutorial, so he could learn how to triage our wounded chariot. It led to me having time to visit with an old friend, one who I’ve known for years but also haven’t hugged in years.
It led to a warm afternoon in the parking lot of O’Reilly Auto Parts, Ron’s kids in the back seat and me searching for a way to file a freelance story on deadline. So, I started walking. Right down Route 66, until I hit the local library and met a man who knew how to “hack into university email systems” and “make pottery,” an oddball confession he bestowed upon me while I filed my story from a bank of public computers.
With a new radiator, a stock of snacks and a sense of optimistic adventure, we bounced back from that 12-hour detour and continued north after Riley insisted. I mean, who doesn’t leave the fate of a trip to a nine-year-old?
After all, we only had 18 more hours to go.
We drove through the night, inhaled the eclipse-focused energy that Idaho Falls offered every visitor that next morning, and tried to find a place to set up camp. Because, we didn’t have that set up yet. We figured we could crash as a walk-on at a local campground. We only needed one night now. But most of the campsites were full.
Go up the road there, and on the right you’ll see a field.
That’s what a local ranger told us. So we detoured. And when we did, we found the most unreal, secluded peninsula that had been seemingly waiting for us. Really, I think it was. Out past the field the ranger mentioned, closer to the water, down a bumpy, muddy path sat this skinny clearing big enough for the four of us, our two tents and our camping chairs.
And that little spot led to even more firsts. It was my first time camping on public land. It was the first time I didn’t absolutely lose my shit when I saw a snake. It was the first time I ever saw or heard a bald eagle in a natural setting. As if to make the experience untoppable, we were able to sit and listen as three bald eagles called to each other and flew from tree to tree, less than 100 yards from our campsite.
It was a little insane, to be honest. It was like we were living in an adventure ad, with the back hatch on the car popped open and our tents just off to the side, bald eagles leisurely cruising by. No big deal. At all. Except it totally was.
And then came the eclipse. To watch as darkness gradually fell on our little peninsula, to hear the birds fall to a confused silence, to feel the temperature drop – it was absolutely goosebump-worthy. And at that moment of totality, when that blazing white ring was all that escaped the silhouette of the moon, I knew the payoff was in that detour. We were right where we needed to be, in that moment.
“Dad,” Riley screamed, as Ron and I were looking everywhere but up just before totality. “Look at the sun!”
You can photograph an eclipse. And we did. And you can read about one. Which we did. But nothing compares to seeing it. Or feeling it. Or hearing it. It’s an image and a feeling and an experience that we’ll never forget. It was a wild, energized moment that reminded you of your place in the universe. Your tiny place.
And at that moment, our tiny place was a breathtaking peninsula surrounded by bald eagles, cast in the shadow of the moon at mid-day. And that’s one hell of a detour.