Eleven Hours on the Road

Ron Karpinski 1999


A total eclipse of the sun occurred yesterday, casting a broad shadow over much of central Germany.  At half past noon, day became night.

Such an event takes place only once every hundred years or so.  For weeks ahead of time, the media hyped the upcoming phenomenon, churning the populace into a frenzy.  When the big day finally did arrive, most people treated it as a national holiday.

A colleague invited my wife, Irmi, and I to an "eclipse party."  He lives in Buehl, a small village in southern Germany near the French border.  The town lay in the direct path of the eclipse, so his garden offered an ideal spot from which to view the spectacle.

Other people had similar plans.  Many cities along the route organized parties in large parks and open squares, anticipating huge crowds.  Across the land, people not living in the path of the eclipse traveled to places that were.

Irmi thought it wise to hit the road by eight in the morning, in order to arrive at the party by eleven thirty.  Unfortunately, half the German population had the same idea.  Of the roughly forty-two million passenger vehicles registered in Germany, half were passing south through Frankfurt when we entered the autobahn.

Near Darmstadt, four lanes of traffic narrowed to two.  From there, traffic slowed to a crawl, lurching along a few feet at a time.  It took nearly four hours to reach Heidelberg, normally a one-hour commute.

At noon, with our destination still an hour away, we began searching for places to pull off the road; but most rest stops were already filled to overflowing.  Police had cordoned them off, to prevent any more cars from entering.

Each rest stop looked the same, a sea of shiny metal spilling across the parking lot.  Picnic meals had been set up on the grass, and hundreds of tripod-mounted cameras pointed skyward.  People milled about, sporting cardboard 1950's-style 3D glasses.

A few miles short of Karlsruhe, Irmi pulled into a rest stop and squeezed her company car up against a guard rail near the entrance; thus, we came to occupy the last remaining plot of bare earth for a mile in all directions.  Wearily, we crawled from the car and stared at the sky, elbow-to-elbow amid thousands of total strangers.

Suddenly, I felt the urge to go to the bathroom.  The timing could not have been better, for every other soul stood in the parking lot, eyes transfixed on the heavens in anticipation of the looming darkness, leaving the rest rooms empty.  It would have been an easy dash over to the men's room, but Irmi would not allow it.

"Listen," she said, "a total eclipse of the sun happens only once in a hundred years, so the least you can do is hold it like a man and stay here with the rest of us to watch it.  I do not want you bragging for the rest of our lives that you spent the Great Solar Eclipse of 1999 relieving yourself in the men's room."

Thanks to thick clouds overhead, we didn't need any of those special glasses for which others had paid five bucks each.  The clouds did a good job of filtering the sun's bright rays.  Our naked eyes could clearly make out a solid black disk creeping across the surface of the sun, a shimmering white ring forming along its edges.

As advertised, at exactly 12:31, the moon slipped completely in front of the sun, casting a black swath across a huge slice of earth.  For two long minutes, day turned to night.  Standing in the dark, I had the eerie feeling that it was time to go to bed . . . and that I had somehow missed my dinner.  Then it grew light again.

We arrived at the party an hour late.  Those who had viewed the eclipse from our friend's garden compared notes with those of us who had witnessed it from the side of the road; all agreed that the effort to get there had been well worth it.

By five in the afternoon, we assumed that the crowds had dispersed enough to begin the journey home; but all those cars that had clogged the roadways on the drive south had only reversed direction.  Now they inched their way northward.

Retracing our route from Buehl, it took two hours to reach Karlsruhe, usually a twenty-minute journey.  There, Irmi opted to exit the autobahn and try her luck on the back roads.  It is possible to arrive at Frankfurt from Karlsruhe without taking the autobahn; but, as we discovered, it is a long and winding road.

Much like back in the states, small two-lane highways here pass through the heart of each town along the way; frequent traffic lights hinder progress.  Several times along our route, where the highway paralleled or crossed under the autobahn, traffic on the smaller road backed up for miles.

As darkness fell - real darkness - passing road signs became harder to discern.  Twice, we had to backtrack following wrong turns.  Cars entering and leaving the road ahead caused us to brake constantly.  In the rainy night, blinding red taillights and glaring headlights wore on the eyes.  At long last, the Frankfurt skyline came into view.

At eleven o'clock in the evening, Irmi turned the key in the front door, and our odyssey came to an end.  It had taken eleven hours on the road, just to experience two minutes of total darkness.  We wondered if it had been worth it.

Already, there is talk about the next solar eclipse.  Astronomers say another one will occur in this region on September 3, 2081.  I think I'll pass.


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