When Travel Dreams Fade – The Eclipse That Wouldn’t Wait

I knew I was tempting fate when I published that ‘travel plans’ post in January…

I’m sitting here writing this tale of discarded travel plans, wondering whether I should have let it get to me so much.

Why is this even an issue? I ask myself. The law of averages tells me it’s N.O.R.M.A.L for a travel blogger, isn’t it? No, scrub that, it’s normal in everyday life. We’ve all been there, having to soak up the disappointment of cancelling a much-looked-forward-to holiday or other exciting event, due to those pesky ‘circumstances beyond our control’?

Lake Baikal, Siberia. 5 hrs later my RTW trip came to an end due to illness – one example of curtailed travel plans..

It shouldn’t be a big deal. But as a unique and memorable travel adventure, this trip was off the scale. And the series of setbacks leading up to this moment at my laptop…well…I couldn’t have made it up.

For ages, it seems, I’d been dreaming about setting off for the airport – ever since the idea had burst onto my mind a couple of years ago like the brightest, most sky-spanning firework you’ve ever seen.

 

Why These Travel Plans Were Special

Anyone who has read my post looking forward to 2017 travels will be in no doubt as to what my prime focus was for this year –  the USA total eclipse of the sun on August 21st.

I’ve had the good fortune to see one before, in France back in 1999. The same eclipse that clipped the Cornish coast in the UK. Some may remember the eventual cloudy British outcome, with Patrick Moore stoically keeping the commentary going on the BBC’s coverage.

Viewing a Total Eclipse Safely

Projecting the sun onto card, in a field, somewhere in norrthern France 1999.

This year’s eclipse, which spans the entire breadth of the USA, is particularly accessible, and it’s a pretty big deal as far as States-side tourism goes. Every accommodation provider within reach of the path of totality (where the sun’s light will be completely blocked out by the moon’s shadow) has been fully booked for months. Campsites in the region are bursting at the seams, RV bookings have surged, and special events laid on.

Total eclipses don’t often appear in places with such a good infrastructure and advanced services, so it’s a rare opportunity to engage a great many people in the beauty of the cosmos.

And I intended to be there, as the sky goes deep purple in the daytime, joining in with many others experiencing the same thing. If that wasn’t already enough….

Safe eclipse viewing by the crowd at the Petroglyph National Monument Annular Eclipse Event. Photo by Luke Fields

Why They Were Really Special

A total eclipse of the sun is a breath-taking and incomparable event on its own. But what if you mix it up with one of the all-time classic travel experiences? It had come to me in a moment of inspiration, the kind you wish you could bottle up for future use.

Route 66, the famed Mother Road of America – this was the perfect complement for the eclipse, and for very good reason…..

When I’d begun to properly plan my eclipse trip the previous autumn, I couldn’t decide where in the USA to base myself. The path of the eclipse runs from Oregon in the north-west, to South Carolina in the south-east, sweeping over no less than 14 states, each of them with their own appeal.

Oregon, for example. It’s the starting land point for the eclipse and has garnered a lot of attention as a destination in recent years.

Or how about one of the great mid-western states such as Kansas or Nebraska – both of which are slap-bang in the middle of Tornado Alley. I could mix up the eclipse-chasing with a spot of storm-chasing, or, as I call it ‘tornado-running-away-from’.

Storm cell over land in Kansas. Photo by Patrick Emerson

But I was also drawn to the lushness and chequered history of South Carolina, and the romantic notion of bidding farewell to the eclipse at Cape Romain Harbour, the last piece of land touched by the eclipse path.

I was spoilt for choice. Then I remembered a previous discussion with my travelling companion-to-be, of whoop-whooping along the classic Route 66 in a convertible car, with hair and scarves whiplashing our faces.

At just shy of 2,500 miles long, Route 66 crosses from Chicago in the north-east to Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast.

Say ‘classic road trip’ and I’ll bet it’s what comes to mind.

And it occurred to me – if you superimposed the eclipse path over Route 66 on a map, you’d be planting a massive virtual kiss on the American landscape, with the two tracks meeting in the modest little town of St Clair, some 50km or so from St Louis, Missouri.

It was perfect. My mission (and I wholeheartedly chose to accept it) was to set off along Route 66 from Chicago about a week before the eclipse, and make my way to St Clair for the big day itself.

X marks the spot…where Route 66 meets the Total Eclipse of the Sun (circled in red)

I had no reason to believe this was going to be anything other than utterly awesome.

 

What Went Wrong?

The first sign I may not be able to pull this one off came last October. My travel buddy backed out of the trip unexpectedly. Her son had decided to get married in the same month as the eclipse.

A happy reason, of course, except it meant accommodation and vehicle costs couldn’t be shared. I wasn’t sure if I could stretch to covering it all myself. But at that stage, it was more of an inconvenience than an out-and-out dealbreaker.

Challenge number two came in the shape of a thyroid nodule, found by ultrasound whilst looking for something else (isn’t that always the way?!). A biopsy in December followed, which resulted in an ‘indeterminate’ diagnosis. It meant surgery – removing the nodule was the only way to find out for sure. And so I unenthusiastically stepped onto the conveyor belt of hospital consultations, referrals and uncertainty.

Before I even had a chance to decide what that meant for my eclipse extravaganza, the third and final obstacle slapped me in the face one Monday morning in mid-March.

I was being made redundant.

It ended up being a quick ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’ and I was out the door by early April.

It was ‘only’ a part-time travel position, but it was my financial bread & butter whilst I developed the writing side of my work. There was no spare funding in a carrier bag or under the bed. I could carry on for a couple of months, but my little financial security blanket had been whipped away from me.

Priorities changed and finding a new source of income whilst waiting for a date with my surgeon reluctantly took precedence. But the thought of quitting ­­my eclipse/route 66 extravaganza…. just NO. I’m supposed to be writing about astrotourism for crying out loud!

Still, a compromise was becoming increasingly necessary…

 

Knowing When to Call It Quits

There was nothing to be done about the eclipse itself.

Word credit to eclipse2017.org

But a Plan B was taking shape –  I’d cut the trip down from 3 weeks to 1, and base myself in St. Louis, Missouri. A city with a deep musical legacy that would keep me in exploration mode until I nipped down the highway to St Clair for my appointment with the cosmos. Far from ideal, but I’d still be combining the eclipse with Route 66, if only one point along it, and not the whole thing.

A road stop instead of a road trip.

It was June and getting late in the day to book decent flights, and I was still juggling job-searching with worrying about the forthcoming surgery, now due at the end of that month. But I was at least excited again, and mentally leapfrogged all concerns to imagine nights in smoky jazz clubs and two minutes under a blackened sun.

St Louis Jazz Venue. Photo by Paul Sableman

I was soon jolted back to reality. A phone call less than a week before the surgery date, brought a second reschedule and a new op date of the 27th July – less than 3 weeks before I planned to leave for the USA. It was all unravelling before me. With a standard 2-week recovery period, I’d probably still not be in the right condition for the considerable travel, hustle and bustle involved.

A 5cm surgical wound to the front of your neck does NOT easy sky-observing make!

A few more days dripped by before I came to my senses and ditched the dream trip, completely and irrevocably, with no thoughts of a Plan C. A trip of that nature needs methodical planning and a reasonable amount of certainty that you’re going to be fit enough to see it through – or at least no obvious reason to doubt it.

It’s not the first time that major plans have played the game of chance with unforeseen circumstances – and lost, the most notable example (see first photo) being when I had to curtail my round-the-world trip after catching pneumonia, in Irkutsk, Siberia of all places.

But this time, it felt personal. I was gutted, pretty mad at the world, and resentful of my situation.

 

What Could I Do About It?

Dwelling miserably in the doldrums wasn’t going to do me any good.

Health comes first, always. If you have that, most things are possible. My worries aren’t over quite yet, but the surgery is done. And while I was waiting those last few days, I kept myself positive by focussing on new travel ideas.

Perhaps another extended backpacking trip was due, the last one being South America in 2012.

Fond memories of South America, Round One. On the Death Road in Bolivia.

In fact, why not South America again, I thought? It keeps drawing me back, and I missed so much the last time – especially the astronomical observatories in the Chilean Atacama Desert.

A consolation astro-trip to compensate for the loss of another was on the cards.

Meanwhile, the planets keep spinning, I told myself, and there’d be another total eclipse one day. To find out exactly when and where, I checked on one of the most useful websites I know, Time and Date, and suddenly, I’d gone full circle, from excitement, via doubt and crushing disappointment, right back to gleeful excitement. Here’s why……

Incredibly, in less than 2 years’ time, the next total solar eclipse passes over Chile and Argentina. Who knows whether I’ll get to this one, I take nothing for granted. And I’ll still feel a massive pang of envy as I watch the news reports next week, showing crowds of excited eclipse-watchers experiencing the eerily darkened American skies.

But renewal of hope is a great tonic, so right now, as we often say in astronomical circles, things are looking up.

 

Have you ever had to give up on the travel dream-of-your-lifetime? How did you deal with the disappointment and what did you learn from it all? I’d love to hear your examples – there’s comfort in solidarity!

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Sara Dobak

Hi, I’m Sara, founder and writer at Travel Continuum, where I write about my global travel experiences, with a special passion for the stars and sustainability. I believe in the power of education through travel, and here I share the tales and tips that I find interesting and inspiring. I hope that you do too. continuum /kənˈtɪnjʊəm/: a sequence of elements where the extremes are very different, but each individual stage is barely distinguishable from the next. Something that keeps going, changing gradually over time…like the seasons.

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8 Responses

  1. Lucy says:

    How frustrating! Sometimes all these things align (eclipse pun not intended!) and things just don’t seem to want to work out. Good luck for the next one though – hope it all comes together. I missed out on a trip to Sri Lanka on my round-the-world trip as there was a lot of trouble there at the time but still hope to make it there one day.

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Thanks Lucy, me too. I suppose civil and/or political unrest is a regular cause of postponed trips – am sure another chance to visit Sri Lanka will come up though 🙂

  2. It’s been hard as your friend to watch you go through all these trials and I felt gutted for you that you could no longer go as I know what it meant to you. So now I’m wondering, how much would a trip like this cost? Now there’s a thought! Remember I’m thinking of you.

    • Sara Dobak says:

      You’re one of the few people who really appreciated how much it meant. The USA trip would have cost up to £4K for the full Route 66 combo – or between £2-3K for a reduced version. Chile costs are MUCH lower (although flights likely to be pricier) – but DEFINITELY a thought!! 😉

  3. Anna Parker says:

    Crossed fingers for Chile. And as for the thyroid, I had that too and had the whole thing removed ten years ago. Best thing I did, it was making me ill. You did the right thing!

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Thanks Anna – I had no idea you’d experienced that. I’m finding many people saying something similar. I had no thyroid issues at all, my main hope now is that the cyst they removed is benign – then it’s onwards and upwards!

  4. I do hope the planets align for you in July 2019. In the meantime hope you’re soon back to full fitness. The ash cloud put paid to a trip to Venice for me with a stay at the Cipriani and return home on the Simplon Orient Express train. D’oh.

    • Sara Dobak says:

      Thanks Suzanne – me too! And I hope you got your chance at Venice/Orient Express…or that you will soon!

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