On August 21, 2017, the shadow of the Moon raced across the U.S. from Salem, Oregon to Charleston South Carolina at an average speed of over 2,000 miles per hour. About twelve million lucky people lived along the path of totality. At least seven million more traveled to get inside the path to see one of the most inspiring natural wonders of a lifetime – and I was one of them.
This is the story of my personal eclipse experience with my family, as well as an exploration of the shared experience for all of us.
How could I say “no”?
My eclipse journey started several years ago, when my sister Kathy suggested that we should all plan to see the total eclipse in 2017, which would be passing through southern Illinois, a reasonable drive of several hours from her home in Lafayette, Indiana. The Earth, Sun and Moon combine in a complex dance to produce a total eclipse that is visible somewhere on the Earth approximately every 18 months, but the Earth is a big place. This was rare opportunity to travel to one relatively easily and share it with my family. (I have a fairly large family, so try and keep up.)
We couldn’t know what events lay ahead for each of us, just a few short years in the future. Trish would be diagnosed with cancer, waiting for the results of her latest scan while we traveled to the eclipse. A couple of months before the event, her house would catch fire and she’d lose almost everything she owned. Kathy would be in the hospital, recovering from a fractured leg and wrist. She would be released just in time to travel to the path of totality on August 21. Shari would be anticipating the wedding of her youngest son, just a few days after the event. She would finish the seating chart on her laptop just hours before we started our “sisters’ road trip” to see the total eclipse. We didn’t even know our new sister, Andrea, yet. Most of us would be just getting to know her on the journey.
We Settled on Carbondale as Our Eclipse Destination
As time grew closer, we started to formulate our plan. We finally settled on Carbondale, Illinois, where Southern Illinois University planned an eclipse party that promised educational speakers, wheel chair accessible seating, public restrooms and other conveniences. We pictured ourselves sharing the event of a lifetime with 30,000 others and we had it all planned.
- We ordered our tickets for the Saluki stadium event several months in advance. I was so early that when I called the ticket office agent wasn’t even aware that they were advertising an eclipse event. Within 30 days of my call, the entire stadium was sold out.
- We bought our authentic eclipse safety glasses well in advance from a reputable source, again, well in advance. By the time we were using them to watch the eclipse, people in speeding cars were begging us to sell them. (More on this later.)
- We decided to meet at Kathy’s house and drive to Carbondale the day of the event.
- We found a company that rents specialized vans to transport people in wheel chairs.
- The van would be delivered to Shari when she got off work at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana.
- I would fly from Phoenix, Arizona to Chicago.
- My brother Dave would meet me in Chicago and drive me to Elkhart, Indiana to meet Shari and Trish at the hotel that had become home-away-from-home for Trish and her three cats.
- Before we hit the road, we would stock up on water, soda, snacks and sandwiches for the road trip. (My family really doesn’t like to go hungry.)
- We would drive the van to Kathy’s house in Lafayette and stay the night.
- My brother Mike and his family would drive from Chicago to Bloomington and stay the night, then drive to Carbondale the next day and meet us at the stadium.
- We heard that people were dressing in costumes for the big party, so my sister Trish (the creative one in our family) made custom T-shirts for us.
- On August 21, Andrea would meet us at Kathy’s house for a “sister’s road trip” and we would drive to the eclipse and back the same day. (About 300 miles each way.)
It seemed so well-planned. Then stuff started to happen.
We almost had to break Kathy out of “Hospital Jail”
A few days before the eclipse, Kathy had been hospitalized for a minor accident in her home. The day before the eclipse, the hospital was refusing to release her. Trish got on the phone and was able to explain that this was no ordinary family event – it was a trip to totality and Kathy had to go. A “very chastened” doctor met with Kathy and worked out the arrangements for her release. By the time we got to her house on Sunday night, Kathy was waiting for us. (I had a half-baked plan spinning in my brain that involved breaking Kathy out of the hospital in the middle of the night, but luckily, sanity prevailed and we avoided our first obstacle.)
We found out that we needed a “Plan B”
When we first started our plan, little Carbondale, a college town of 26,000, seemed like a nice quiet place to go. Just days before the eclipse, national news outlets starting featuring Carbondale as one of “the” destinations, since it was one of the few cities in the path of totality that would afford viewers the longest experience. This happens because the Earth is curved, so the Moon’s shadow travels more slowly on the part of the Earth that bulges out. Suddenly, it seemed that half the Midwest was planning to be in Carbondale, and heavy traffic was predicted all along the major corridors to get there. Shari and I realized that we needed a “Plan B.” We looked at the path of totality online and chose some alternative locations to view the event. This turned out to be a very good idea, as most eclipse pilgrims relied on the press to tell them where to go – causing a massive rush to reach Carbondale at all costs.
We Got Creative with the Van
No road trip would be complete without decorating the vehicle, so Shari dug up some washable paint she used when her kids were in school and we made a sign to let everyone on the road know our intentions.
When we piled in Monday morning, we realized it was more than a tight squeeze, the result of some miscommunication about how the van would be configured for our journey. It wasn’t long before I realized it would be much more comfortable if one of us sat on the floor next to Kathy, so we took turns for the rest of the trip. Problem solved!
Growing up in Indiana, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing miles and miles of corn fields pass by as you drive from town to town. Looking out the window from the ground up gives you a different perspective, however. I missed a lot of details of the trip, but I saw the blue sky and puffy white clouds – a good omen for an event that required clear skies to be fully appreciated.
Some nice stops along the way
Trish had consulted her doctor and he recommended stop at least every two hours, so she could keep her circulation going by taking frequent walks. This imperative gave us all an excuse to enjoy the trip along the way.
Thank you, Royalton, Illinois!
Mike made it to the stadium with about two hours to spare and called us to check on our progress. We were supposed to meet in our seats at the stadium, but, according to Google, we were still about ninety minutes away – it would be close. Over the next half hour, Google kept re-routing us through charming little Illinois towns, avoiding Interstate 57, which had become heavily congested. Soon, Google’s predictions made it clear we would never make it in time. We double-checked on our phones and realized that we were well within the path of totality, so we started looking for a good place to stop and see the show. Our needs were simple. We needed a level, paved place to park the van so Kathy could get out and drive her wheel chair and we needed some shade to protect us all from the sweltering heat and bright Sunlight.
We weren’t the only ones weaving our way through the chain of Illinois towns along the path of the eclipse. We were part of a steady stream of cars, obviously following similar directions on their phones. When we got to Royalton, Illinois, we found the perfect spot. An abandoned gas station on the corner of the main street offered us plenty of pavement and shade, thanks to the metal canopy that once protected the gasoline tanks. Our spot was across the street from the fire station, where two firemen were sitting in lawn chairs, waiting for the eclipse. I strolled across the street to invite them to join our party. I was a little surprised that the town was almost deserted, with the eclipse starting in only minutes, until I spoke with the firemen. They were under the impression that you “had to be in Carbondale to really see it,” thanks to the crazy press coverage. It seemed that folks on the road had the same impression, as car after car sped by us, desperate to reach Carbondale, with no hope of making it there in time. All the while they were already in great position to see the eclipse, if they had only stopped.
There is no replacement for experiencing a total eclipse in person
A total eclipse is both a shared experience and an intensely private one. Each person is ultimately alone with the universe as the shadow of the moon passes over.
I thought I was prepared to experience totality with an informed eye. The sudden drop in temperature, the strange darkness that put everything in sharp relief were things I had expected. I didn’t expect the surface of the Sun to be so orange, or to be able to see surface details on the Moon as the Sun’s rays reflected off the Earth back to the Moon.
At the first moment of totality, I knew I would see the Sun’s atmosphere, usually hidden by the brightness of the light from the surface. I just didn’t realize it would be so beautifully tenuous and changeable, as though it were a delicate sea creature.
I expected to hear crickets start chirping in the middle of the day but was surprised when they fell eerily silent a few minutes later, perhaps confused by the whole thing. The quaint street lights that lined the roads of Royalton all turned on at the same time, along with the automatic headlights on several cars. The most spectacular effect was the “diamond ring,” which occurs right before and right after totality. If you are fortunate to have the right angle, the last rays from the Sun’s peak through the mountains of the Moon and send a brilliant flash of light, like a diamond shooting out of one side of the eclipsed Sun. With the edges of the Sun still showing as a thin band of light, the effect looks like a brilliant diamond ring. We all saw this effect at the same time as the Moon began to recede from its position. We were too amazed to manage more than a collective gasp.
My sister Trish turned to look behind her and was the only one to see a fleeting glimpse of the shadow of the Moon as it rushed away from us. In that moment, I gave a private thought to our brother Patrick, who died shortly after childbirth. I never met him, but he was part of the family experience, just the same.
So many things were eclipsed that day
As a small business owner, I think about my business almost constantly. But on the days before, during and after, I found I wasn’t worried about deadlines, invoices, healthcare or taxes. I saw two people who are battling deadly diseases forget their struggles for a moment and just bask in the sheer joy of it all. I like to think that other things were eclipsed that day, too. No doubt many Republicans stood next to Democrats and shared this great event, not once thinking of the political differences that are tearing this country apart. I like to think that the experience that united us for a few seconds will have a lasting effect in our psyche.
I hope that an entire generation was witness to the power and glory of science. The realization that science, which illuminates our world, may ignite a renewed interest in science and engineering – and the social commitment to support it. It must be hard to hold on to “flat Earth” thinking when the evidence of the curvature of the Earth is displayed in the shadow of another sphere across its surface. How many more myths and lies were put into question on that day? I hope an entire generation of young people were encouraged to think for themselves and use their wonderful brains to find the answers to life’s greatest questions, rather than decide what the answers should be and then go out and find a cherry-picked collection of distorted facts to support the desired result. I hope an army of teachers re-committed to teaching the scientific method and found renewed hope in their mission.
Let’s do it again!
A total eclipse is like a roller coaster ride; as soon as it’s over you want to go again. Fortunately, it is happening again in the U.S. – in 2024. While the eclipse in 2024 won’t cover as much of the country as The Great Eclipse, it will pass through Carbondale again and the university is already planning their next party. (Catch their countdown clock on their website.) Next time, totality will last over four minutes, so I’m sure the press will be all over it as a destination again. Just remember that the path of totality will be much broader than the few destinations that become media favorites.
Maybe my family will make it all the way to Carbondale next time, or maybe we’ll just find a nice, quiet spot inside the path of totality and throw our own party. Either way, I’m planning on sharing the experience with people I love – and some new friends I make along the way — to look up and wonder while the world stands still again. I hope you’ll be there, too.