My Seven Year Journey To the Solar Eclipse

The first (and last) time I stood in a Cracker Barrel gift shop, I was 14 years old, in South Carolina and miserable. Earlier, I had sat across from my parents at a table, mashing pancakes on my plate in a reprieve from our grueling descent down the I-95. My body felt as sticky as the table that the skin of my elbow clung to, and it no longer felt like mine as it swelled in new places, and I sweat between the slopes of my skin’s new curves. I did not want to be across from my parents, who my angst amused, and I was beginning to understand that to be a New York native on their first traversal South is one of general malaise — one’s world tilting on its axis with each passing roadside firework sale and gun store. The gift shop, called the “Old Country” store, was ligneous and carried an underbelly of unease: I could not shake the sense I had entered a universe where the word “post” had never been tacked onto “antebellum.” But the South had something I wanted, something I could not get: the Great American Eclipse. Inside the shop, my dad held out one of the 2017 eclipse merchandise shirts and said, “Look, Lilly! This is as close as you’re going to get to it!” My parents laughed as I walked away and left them standing in front of Moon Pies and American flags. While he was correct, because I did not experience the eclipse seven years before, I did get to see one on April 8, 2024. But, I did not evade that old sense of malaise as I journeyed again to a part of the country I had never been to before — this time farthest up North instead of down South I had been six years prior.

In 2017, by the time our journey down South would be over, my dad had driven 19 hours non-stop from New York to Florida — save for several stops at lonely gas stations in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia and the South Carolina Cracker Barrel. We went there for my aunt’s 90th birthday, and although the duration of our trip occurred around the August 2017 solar eclipse, my parents were not willing to extend our trip nor find accommodation to see it in totality. The eclipse fascinated me because of Henry, a friend of mine from school, whose enthusiasm for the universe I did not understand but excited me. There I was, for the first time in the South, passing through the lands the moon would darken though the sun would have the world be bright. I coveted what I could not have: being a part of something that felt momentous, and that I thought would be beautiful. I looked to the future towards April 2024, when I would be 20 years old, and the moon would cover the sun’s supreme blaze once again in my lifetime. As I cast my thoughts towards the future phenomenon, prospects of the woman I would be bloomed. What had seemed unfeasible nestled firm roots in my mind that did not wither through the years: the idea that I would be in control of my life, what I see and where I go. Hope blossomed at the freedom of adulthood, and with this thought I knew that I would see the 2024 eclipse.

A month prior to its date, I approached my friend Ella about spending the eclipse at her home in Oneida, New York, a city near Syracuse where the eclipse would reach totality. Ella speaks like an upstate New Yorker with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. “Egg” is pronounced like “eaag” and “milk” is “melk” when you are speaking with her. She also is one of the most generous people I have ever met, who spent $70 on decorations for our friend’s birthday party (sorry Luke, you weren’t supposed to know) and let me sing along to my music as she drove. We made it to Oneida the night before the eclipse, passing a hardware store called “Bucks and Bolts,” and a church with a sign that read “WE LOVE JESUS PRAISE HIM HE IS COMING 2024,” before pulling into Ella’s cul-de-sac. 

Ella was short for Eleanor before she legally changed her name. Eleanor as in Eleanor Rigby. Her big sister Jude said hello to us with a towel wrapped around her hair while the twins, John and Lucy, played Minecraft on the TV as their dalmatian Srgeant Pepper watched. Ella’s mother Kelly fawned over her children, calling them all “beautiful,” and the siblings hugged Ella upon arrival. When I am around families that love each other as they do — purely and with no reservations — I am startled by their unfamiliar ease. But then, I never want to leave. Always an observer of familial love but never knowing it, I brush against it on nights like these. We played the game Jackbox on the T.V., and I laughed along as Ella explained their inside jokes — often crude portrayals of their bonds and affections not atypical with siblings. 

When I saw Jude the morning of the eclipse, she was the first to say, “Today is the day the world ends.” Ella woke up a little after, not knowing what Jude had said but behaving in the inadvertent, alike way that sisters often do, declared it was the apocalypse. New York State was cloudy and in the low 60s on what the sisters believed was the potential Armageddon, and the clouds could obscure the eclipse from our viewing. Ella and I headed towards the Adirondacks attempting to escape the thick, milky puffs covering the blue in the sky. 

“Republican county,” Ella called our surroundings as she drove up the two-lane rural road. As we began our journey, Beyonce started to croon her country that we listened to all the way up: “Nothin’ really ends / For things to stay the same, they have to change again.” 

A shirtless young man with raven-colored hair that hung down to his chest — so skinny each contour of it jutted out, his bones apparent under his skin — waited with a wagon for us to pass so he could cross the road. I turned and stared at him as we sped away, and he dragged the wagon behind us like a ghostly keeper of the boundary to my journey further upstate. 

We glided past decay. Rotten, dilapidated houses with rusted red roofs fell in on themselves — bursting with crumbled wood and the glass shards of broken windows. Who lived here? Where did they go? A family threw a frisbee around the outskirts of a cemetery, their Border Collie sniffing the dirt next to graves and a little boy hanging his legs out of the popped trunk. A sign read “My dog is smarter than Biden” and another in bright, red letters declared “TRUMP 2024.” 

Chickens, horses and pigs grazed in their pens surrounded by bare trees and dry grass. Tractor parts lay on the sides of the road, next to spray painted signs advertising firewood and fresh farm chicken. The road had swerving skid marks, where it looked like someone had crashed and died, and squinting old people sat in pull-out chairs and stared at us as we drove by. Churches with towering wooden crosses sent messages via marquee signs: “GOD BLESS AMERICA” and “DON’T LET YOUR SIN ECLIPSE THE SUN.” The smell of manure followed us.

We saw a yellow sign with a horse and buggy that designated an Amish community, and Ella howled in excitement when an Amish man with a long, scraggly beard rode in a carriage led by his trotting horse. He saw us and waved with a huge grin, and Ella screamed even louder. As we passed another young man — him in his horse and carriage and us in Ella’s green Kia soul — we wondered if they knew about the eclipse.  

We arrived at the ski resort, where the smell of manure was still ripe and the sky cloudy. Ella’s family had also driven there, and Lucy, who learned I grew up in Queens the night prior, was giddy at my presence. “You’re in sh*t smelling upstate!” she said. Families sat on picnic blankets and in pull-out chairs while Bruce Springsteen played on the radio. Ella and her sisters did back bridges with their hands on each other’s knees and their stomachs splayed in an arch towards the still bright sun. The eclipse, though not as clear, was still visible via our glasses through the clouds. We watched the dark of the moon take over the sun’s deep orange, until flocks of birds burst from the mountains with urgent flaps of their wings. Everything went dark as if it was midnight and not 3 p.m. People cheered and clapped around us, and as I watched what I had so desperately wanted to see seven years ago, Ella asked if I was happy. To be there with her and her wonderful family, everyone’s eyes trained not on one another but towards something larger than us all, I could say I was — I really was. 

On the drive home, naked branches swayed far up into the sky, touching the burnt orange color that had begun to blend in with the blue. The sun was no longer covered but descending. Cars sped past us before Ella pulled back into the perfect, paved roads of her suburbia — affixed with upright houses and leashed dogs trotting on sidewalks. 

I texted Henry, and he told me that he did not see this eclipse because he was driving. The thought of him behind the wheel was strange to me, since he was so short when I knew him, his feet would not even reach the pedals. I had forgotten that I would not be the only one growing up. On my journey to see each eclipse — the first a failure, the second a success — I saw how different the urban world I grew up in is from the rest of New York and the nation. Once I thought everything was within my reach, and I harbored elite sentiments because of where I come from. However, I have been forced to face there is so much of America that I do not know. As I begin to see patches of American life, I understand that to be in America is to encompass everything. It’s shit smelling upstate, and shit smelling train stations. It’s putting a price on fresh farm eggs from the side of the road and buying a dozen at Walmart. It’s airconditioned stores selling guns in the North and restaurant chains with pre-Civil War undertones in the South. It’s me: seeing parts I never have before, and taking it in like the sun’s light swallowing the moon’s whole. Although there is so much I do not know, I look for America with no limits, no prejudices, and experience things I never have before.

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About Lilly Sabella 60 Articles
Lilly Sabella is a third-year student from Queens, NY. This is her first semester as Features Editor and her fifth semester on The Oracle. Previously, she served as News Editor. You can reach her by emailing and read more of her writing on Substack at