Stories from a Wanderer – Coincidences Are What You Make of Them

I woke up on the morning of the eclipse and had no idea what I was going to do. This was actually in line with many weeks of eclipse plans, in which I planned and unplanned and replanned, knowing full well I would not make up my mind until the day of.

Perhaps this is because I haven’t been able to think of the eclipse as an event of intrinsic importance or meaning, shrouded in mystery to be uncovered by my witness. The Moon has a path; the Sun has a path; paths cross and align with the Earth by coincidence.

In any case, I had been planning and unplanning in grand and mundane ways for several days pre-eclipse, when I happened upon something on the news – something political, having to do with population and red and blue and so forth – that discussed the 98th meridian. It was a term that rang a bell, but little more. It became an itch that I needed to scratch, so down the rabbit hole I went.

What I discovered: the 98th meridian is where the West begins – the Great Plains, the arid climate, the scarcity of trees. The 98th meridian arguably limited Southern expansion, won the Civil War and saved the Union. It created the Old Wild West. It’s where the wind goes sweepin’ down the plain and where the Ingalls pulled up their wagon and lived in their little house for a time. It’s the line where the government decided Indian Territory began. In sum, the 98th meridian is a way to envision where Manifest Destiny hit a wall of grass and East became West.

While a meridian line is a concept requiring imagination, the 98th meridian is also remarkably visible on maps of climatic regions (this Scientific American article), in photos of night lights seen from space (a cool NASA photo) and on population maps.

I learned that the importance of the 98th meridian as an east-west divide was first conceptualized by historian Walter Prescott Webb in The Great Plains, said to be a grand and visionary piece of 20th century history writing. I had “meridians” on my mind at the same time I was making, dismissing and remaking my eclipse plans.

On the morning of the eclipse, my fumble fingers made Google Maps zoom down suddenly and I found the town of Meridian – named after its relative proximity to the 98th meridian. It also happened to be in the center of eclipse totality with more than 4 minutes of viewing time. I realized that I myself live at 97.8 degrees latitude, so let’s call my home the 98th meridian as well. This all seemed like an enticing coincidence.

I set out for Meridian. Though still ready to change my mind on a whim, it happened that the state highways were flanked by wildflowers and I felt like Dorothy on the yellow brick road to Oz. When I arrived, the courthouse lawn and town baseball field were filled with chairs and telescopes and running children and straw cowboy hats. People had set up grills and coolers. Someone was selling hotdogs for a buck. The eclipse had become an informal festival. I parked the car and bought coffee and an excellent apple fritter.

As charming as all this was, I finally decided I’d prefer a more private eclipse viewing. I relinquished my parking spot and headed out. Before long, I happened upon an empty picnic area along the highway and settled in with eclipse glasses. I adore Texas roadside picnic areas. This one was by a sleepy pond with kelly green cow fields in the background. They are often the sites of historic markers and this one was no exception. Behold! I had stumbled upon the childhood home of John Lomax.

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John Lomax, and his son Alan Lomax, are heroes of mine. They were folklorists and musicologists who traveled extensively to gather the lyrics and record the tunes of folk music, cowboy songs and lullabies, prison and work songs, spirituals, slave songs and dances that go back to Africa, mountain music, Mexican border music, minstrelsy and vaudeville and blues. All that forms the backbone of American music. They recorded Huddy Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, and Jelly Roll Morton. Alan was the first to find and record Muddy Waters. What a fun coincidence. I’d happened upon a fine spot for my eclipse viewing.

The clouds parted, the sky turned blue and the eclipse was exactly what I expected, exactly what it was supposed to be: unusual, eerie, moving, beautiful. Lovely Venus even made a cameo appearance.

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Finally, slightly dazed, I drove back through town to find my route home. The streets were still teeming with happy folk, lots of waves and smiles and popsicles. For a moment I second-guessed myself, alone in the car listening to the radio. Perhaps I should have been more social.

Then, NPR closed out a portion of their special coverage with a song about eclipses, sung by Bessie Smith and recorded by Alan Lomax. The day had become silly with coincidences.

That’s all anything is, really. Coincidence. We make meaning where we think we see it. I had a lovely day rambling up and down the 98th meridian. What I make of it, at least for now, is that I have more to learn and do in Texas before I go wandering off for good.

greta ode
Greta Ode is currently enjoying “tiny house” living in Weatherford, Texas. She has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and is an editor and contributor to Tandeta Journal. Her work can be found on Substack at “Ramble, Bramble.”

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