Infinite Ascent.

by CJ Quineson

Clouds over Rochester

total (lack of a) solar eclipse


I knew that the eclipse was coming for quite some time now; people have been talking about it online, and friends have asked me if I had travel plans, since last year. Jeffery invited me to go on a road trip with him, for example, but I declined because I didn’t want to be in a several-hour long car ride “just to see an eclipse.” My roommate, Brian, asked me if I wanted to go with him on a bus ride, and I again said no, because I didn’t like long bus rides either.

I didn’t make any plans until around three weeks ago, because I thought I was too cool to watch a total eclipse. I’d watched a partial one before; the eclipse of March 2016, and you see the sun turn to a crescent, and get neat little shadows. It was a tweet, I don’t remember which, that convinced me that watching a partial eclipse was completely different from watching a total eclipse, and that it’d be worth travelling for this.

Even the description of the eclipse brought me a sense of awe. I saw a flash of the person I was, the teenager interested in astronomy, before high school and college made me jaded. And I thought that maybe this was a chance to connect with that person.

I looked up which cities in totality were reachable by train, and settled on Rochester. Trains from Penn Station to Rochester that arrived on the weekend before the eclipse were all sold out. The only one that had spots was a train on Monday morning, which I got tickets for; it sold out soon after as well. Trains back on Monday and Tuesday were also sold out, so I got a train on Wednesday morning, and guess what? It sold out a few days later too. I looked for hotels, most of which were sold out, but I snagged a double room in downtown within walking distance of the train station.

The Friday before the eclipse, we had a standup at work, and people talked about eclipse plans. Serena mentioned that she and her husband had plans to go to Dallas, but considered changing them last-minute due to forecasts of clouds. Then Vincent messaged me, and said he was going with Jeffery; they also considered upstate New York, but might end up somewhere else, due to forecasts of clouds. I looked up the forecast for Rochester, and it was partly cloudy.

On Sunday evening, Brian and I made plans to leave the apartment at the same time. He was going to the bus terminal, and I was going to the train station, but we were leaving at around the same time anyway. At Moynihan, we hug, he leaves, and then I’m alone, and I knew I’d be alone for the next few days.


The train was full, as promised. I’d taken the Amtrak several times now, going up and down the Northeast Corridor. Usually, I’d do some work on the train; the wifi was slow and unstable, but I didn’t need a good connection to write code and review pull requests. But I’d taken the day off, and my devices struggled to connect to wifi anyway. I filled the seven-hour ride with some naps, and played some games I downloaded the night before.

A conductor makes some announcements. “We have a sold out train today, folks. You will have to sit with someone else. Make a friend.”

The person sitting next to me was awake the whole time. He looked around my age, maybe a few years younger. He had a document pulled up; some sort of business proposal. I wondered if he was going up to see the eclipse too. He opens Canvas. On his calendar, he has an event called “SEE THE ECLIPSE!” I learn he’s an undergrad at Syracuse. He opens his messages, and makes plans for lunch, with people I assumed were college friends. My curiosity didn’t reach the point of talking to him.

Hushed conversation filled the train, and got louder as the morning went on. Two people, seated somewhere behind me, were talking about the eclipse. How it was such a beautiful coincidence, how the moon and the sun were so precisely sized and distanced, how the path of totality painted a stripe across the continental United States, how rare of an event it was for a total solar eclipse to happen so close by. And then they talked about the weather. How the forecast called for full cloud coverage at the time of the eclipse, but that there was still hope for little windows to clear out, enough to observe the sun, if only for a glimpse.

The train arrives at Rochester, a few minutes before the start of the eclipse. I alight the train, along with fifty or so others. I message Brian. He tells me he’s on a car to Geneseo, where he said there was a better chance of having clearings in the clouds. I consider calling a Lyft and heading west, for the same reason. I decided against it, because I didn’t think I’d make it in time, and I didn’t want to deal with the traffic driving back.

I exit the station and start walking. I follow another group of people, who led me to a small park in front of High Falls. A few dozen people were already there, waiting.

The park was a section of grass overlooking the Genesee River. There was a small terrace and a fenceline, separating the park from the drop to the river bank. The waterfall and the river were a dull light brown. In the background was a section of the Rochester skyline, which was shorter than the Manhattan skyline, giving a wide view of the western sky—the section where the sun would be, had it not been covered by clouds.

Huge gray clouds, everywhere I looked. Large puffy balls, thin wisps, peaks and valleys, rings and ripples.

I sit on a patch of grass and wait.


Around me were people who, it seemed, were better prepared. A few sat on folding seats. Some were toting eclipse glasses, and a few kids were putting them on and looking at the sky, as if they needed the glasses to protect their eyes from the gray clouds. A few people had those professional-looking cameras, DSLRs; one camera even had a lens longer than my forearm.

My phone tells me the eclipse started. On Discord, the first pictures of the eclipse show up. The start of a partial eclipse looks like someone took a little bite of the sun. The clouds remained in the sky, dark and imposing, but no matter; I’d seen a partial eclipse before, and it’s cool, but nothing life-changing. I message Brian:

CJ: any better down there?

Brian: Nooooope

CJ: well, itll get dark! and itll get colder

Brian: Yeah!

Brian: Apparently colors change too

CJ: yep

In the span of a moment, I switched from hoping for breaks in the clouds to hoping that the clouds would get pretty. It’ll get dark, it’ll get colder, colors will change. All true about being in totality, even if it was cloudy, and all things I haven’t experienced. But that’s cope, my mind says, you spent a thousand dollars to see the sky get dark for a bit?

Standing next to the fence is another person who looked about my age. He seemed to be the only other person alone at the park. He had a black Patagonia jacket and a brown Timbuk2 backpack, classic techbro apparel. I think I saw him on the way out of the station too; we must’ve been on the same train. He took a few pictures with his phone, but he was mostly looking at the river, the waterfall, and the clouds.

I had an urge to talk to him, a stronger one this time. I wanted to ask if he was also here to watch the eclipse alone; if he also travelled from New York and is staying in a hotel; if he was also sad about the clouds. My mind sets up an elaborate scene. Standing up, walking to the fence, saying hi, asking a question, chatting, laughing, finding out we were staying in the same place, making dinner plans together. None of that happens.

I head to Twitter. Pictures of the sun start washing up on my feed, a bright crescent against a clear sky. There’s a picture of a tree, its leaves forming a cascade of crescent-shaped shadows on a sidewalk. Someone posted a picture with a grid of these crescent shadows, its caption praising the colander as a scientific instrument.

Then I look up Rochester. Someone said that the clouds were “typical disappointing Rochester”; someone else said that Rochester had “lost the mandate of heaven.” There’s a picture of the cloudy gray sky, captioned “beautiful eclipse view from Rochester!” Another person says they were sorry for all the people who traveled for hours to get here.

There’s a few minutes left before totality. The sky began to dim. More people have come to the park. Families, mostly; some groups of friends. I see people pointing at the sky, trying to show the sun to their companions, maybe, or hoping that if they pointed hard enough, the clouds would part. No two people were pointing at the same place. The conversations I overheard were mostly in Spanish, not a lick of which I understood.

And I feel lonely. Surrounded by all these people, yet lonely, because loneliness is defined in contrast. What I want, even more than I wanted the clouds to miraculously break apart, was a friend. A person I knew. I was there with hundreds of other people, but they were all strangers. I wanted someone I could complain to. Someone I could hug and hold the hands of when the sky went dark for three minutes. As if some part of em was scared that the sky would go dark, and stay dark forever; as if the sky didn’t go dark every single night.


The sky gets darker, like I’m watching a timelapse of a sunset. In five minutes, it goes from an overcast shade, to the kind of darkness that happens before rain. And then totality happens—

and people yell, and clap, and cheer—

and the sky turns black, filled with dark clouds outlined by pale shades of light, and the streetlamps flicker on, and the birds go quiet, and the dogs start barking, and the background chatter somehow gets quieter and louder at the same time, and a baby’s crying, and the fringes of the dome of the sky turn orange and pink, and the phones go up, and I lie down, stare up, who knows where the sun was? It didn’t matter, right?

I anchor my body to the ground, suspend my attention ever upward, abiding by every sensation, pushing down the thoughts and doubts I had about how differently this day could’ve gone. I try channeling the sense of awe that brought me here, like I could will myself into experiencing magic if I thought hard enough. The awe’s there. It’s weak. It’s fading every second.

Three minutes pass. It gets bright again. People yell, and clap, and cheer. And then they leave. Slow first, then quick. Ten minutes after the sky started turning dark, and now it’s like nothing happened.

I stay in the park, still hoping for a clearing, a window, a spot of sunshine, anything that’d make sitting here better than staying in my hotel room. Give me a partial eclipse, give me a patch of blue sky, anything!

But nothing happened.


The feelings flood in faster than I can label them with words. I feel disappointed. Like I was cheated against, or that I cheated myself. I feel regret, a weight in my pockets, like something pressed down on my thighs and disappeared, leaving that pins-and-needles feeling. Then the words come: why did I come here, it said, if all I got was the sky going dark and then bright again?

I release my effort suppressing the voices in my head. The more I let go, the sharper the voices become. My mind starts tallying the million other ways today could’ve gone. The feelings gather more words: everyone out there is having an amazing experience, or, coming in expecting to be changed wholly, coming out having seen little orange tints around the clouds.

The feeling brings up past feelings. A feeling of missing out, maybe? Why do we call it a fear of missing out? It’s less like fear, and more like wanting. It’s a longing for belonging. It’s the “give me my sophomore year back” feeling. It’s like grief, or at least, the Kübler-Ross model. I’ve felt it a million times before, and I’ll feel it a million times more, or so the thought goes.

It brings to mind SPARC, a summer camp I was a junior counselor for last year. It’s been described to me as literally life-changing, a kind of indelible experience, one that gave direction to many of the people who were involved in it. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but those were the expectations I carried into it. Big expectations for a ten-day high-school summer camp, I guess.

Toward the end of SPARC I had a one-on-one with David, where I told him that I didn’t know what I was doing, or why I was there. I told him about the high expectations I had, and how, in retrospect, I knew they were overblown. I concluded that, even if the only thing I got out of SPARC was having fun, meeting people, and a sense of fulfillment, it’d be enough. It’s not enlightenment, but it’s still a good deal.

There isn’t anything like that for my Rochester trip. I got, what, a day off work? Offset by the inconvenience of a seven-hour train ride. Why did the eclipse have to a spiritual event, the thoughts go, why did you have to make it about changing your life? I dunno. At this point I’m looking everywhere for something that’ll make me feel better. Maybe I’ve heard a biased set of stories, but enlightenment always seems to strike in an instant, usually in meditation, but also while experiencing beauty or whatever. If I’m open to it happening any time, it’ll happen, right?

I check my phone. No messages. I don’t know why I was expecting any.

I stand up and begin to leave, in that one-foot-in-front-of-another way, in the way I do when I don’t want to think about things. Feel the contact of my feet against my socks, the pressure coming up from the ground, how it travels from the heel to the toe and back to the heel again. In front of me, a few meters ahead, is the guy I saw earlier, the one with the Patagonia jacket and the Timbuk2 backpack. We walk in the same direction, toward downtown, for a few minutes. And my mind drifts again. What if we did end up in the same hotel? Maybe now I’ll build up the courage to talk? A block away from my hotel, he turns left, and I go right.

I check in. It’s only been a month since I last stayed in a hotel, for a work offsite, and before that it’s been… years? It’s the first time I got a hotel room for myself, for the sole purpose of travelling, as I usually couchsurfed. As a kid, hotels always excited me, but that all felt so long ago. I get my keycard, and head up to my room. It’s a bit dim, so I open the blinds, see the clouds beginning to clear, and the sun starting to peek through.


I open my laptop and check Twitter.

People are overblowing it, right? How much do people mean it when they say the eclipse was “life-changing” or “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life”? No, the joy of life isn’t in the extreme things. It’s useless if you come back from vacation and are fundamentally unchanged. You can’t rack up one extraordinary experience after another and hope that by the end of it you’re different, because change doesn’t happen like that, change is a long, slow process, years and years, of mundanity and suffering, right?

That’s not true. Yeah. I’m sad because I was hoping to rediscover some of that lost joy of being a kid. I tried to be excited about something, anything, for the first time in a while. It’s been months since I’ve been excited about anything. And I was excited! I found that joy, for a brief moment, I found it! And then I lost it again, and now I’m sad again, and that’s what’s supposed to happen, right? The good years have always been behind me. I once introduced myself saying that I peaked two years ago, and this has been true for the last five years. It’s a joke, but part of me believes it.

And that’s not true either! Yes, it isn’t. I’m not missing out on anything, least of all anything that’s going to change my life. There’s nothing wrong with myself, or with my self. Lots of people have gotten to where I want to be—to be truly happy—without having done the things I want to do, so it’s not necessary for me to follow my wants.

To be truly happy, then. Maybe you could call it fundamental okayness, or equanimity, or enlightenment, or whatever. I’ve tried lots of things that people said would be life-changing, and none of it made me feel particularly changed. Not going to MIT, not falling in love (or at least trying to), not meditating every day or whatever. I’d hoped that any of these would at least start me on the right path. But why would watching a total solar eclipse, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a confluence of many factors, what a triumph of human accomplishment it is, that we can predict these to the minute, but why would watching anything change my life?

Maybe I’m not trying hard enough. Or maybe I’m trying too hard. But how am I supposed to know that trying more, or trying less, or doing something different, or doing the same thing, or whatever, will change my life in the way I want it to, will make me truly happy? Do I have to keep trying thing after thing, hoping something will work? Maybe I want someone to tell me no, what I’m looking for is impossible, it’s impossible for me specifically, because I’m special, because I’m destined to have that little nagging suffering forever. If I believed that, I’d still suffer. But at least I’d suffer in peace.


I go out and walk through downtown Rochester. It’s like someone took a suburb, evicted everyone, tried to get some businesses to move in, got some of them to move, and boarded up the rest of the buildings. The downtown feels hollow. People walked around, which at least didn’t make it feel like a ghost town, but where those people came from or where they’re going is a mystery to me.

I stop at an empty intersection. It’s not like Manhattan, where I’m surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers. The sky is wide above my head. The large clouds have all left, leaving a mostly clear sky. The sun is setting, and trailing it are familiar colors. Pale oranges, hints of pink, around me, everywhere. A hemisphere of colorful sky and thin wispy clouds. There I was, standing on the sidewalk corner, watching a sunset, the sunset, the same sunset. An everyday, ordinary sunset, and it was pretty.

How narrow would a lifetime be, if experiencing nature’s beauty was relegated to once-in-a-lifetime experiences! How dreadful it would be if I could only find wonder in mythical things, in all that shines and sparks! How incomplete would 99% of my life be, if I lived it only to see the 1%! Life’s too long to hope for the extraordinary to rescue my day-to-day.

If I ended the post here, though, it’d feel dishonest. It all sounds too hopeful. The whole feeling that arises when I think about my trip to Rochester isn’t a renewed sense of appreciation for the mundane. That’s only one of the feelings, and not even a particularly strong one. All the feelings that arise feel weak, though there’s one that feels most salient.

It’s a muted, pulsing whimper. It’s clinging, a clinging to the feeling of being sad, sadness clinging to itself, looping onto itself, because sadness looks for the other sad things and tries to make itself more sad. It’s repulsed by the hope, it doesn’t want to believe in it. My instinctive response is to try to be louder than the sadness, to console myself with all the words I’ve written here. But maybe that feeling is doing all this clinging because I’m not listening to it in the first place. Because I’m not letting myself to be sad. Maybe I need to step in the subway and cry.

I get dinner at a bar, and walk back to the hotel. As a kid, hotels always excited me: being in a composed room, sleeping in a fluffy bed, having a huge TV screen. I bury myself in the luxury of it all. I slump on the bed, and my mind drifts. I saw a flash of the person I was, a flash of the person I am, a flash of the person I always will be, because there’s no need to change, and there never was any change, and there doesn’t need to be any change, because I’m the same, the world’s the same, everything’s the same. I take a nice, long shower. I sleep. It was nice.