It was a solar love-in or, as some called it, “Moonstock.”
Across the nation, people gathered along the line of totality to celebrate Monday’s solar eclipse as if it had some deep spiritual meaning.
And to many of us who gathered in southern Illinois to watch it, it did.
For months, excitement had been building as people made travel plans, bought special eye-wear and practiced photographing the sun. All attention was on the impending two-plus minutes of totality, when the moon would pass in front of the sun, creating an eclipse that would simultaneously darken the path and brighten the moods of earthlings.
In the weeks leading up to the astronomical event, I couldn’t help but wonder if the joyous anticipation we were feeling was the same sensation felt by ancient peoples when they paid homage to the sun or moon.
It was both energizing and inspiring to see so many humans, of all ages and all walks of life, some with bed rolls and backups, some in high-end SUVs, all mobilized to take part in this brief yet historic event, the effects of which were totally dependent on the weather.
We arrived in southern Illinois a few days early, along with thousands of others. Almost immediately, we met engineers from Boston and teachers from Northern Illinois University and super friendly, super excited locals. There were retirees from Peoria, travelers from Columbus, Ohio and families from just about everywhere. Among waitresses, shop workers and college kids the fervor was outright.
At check-in, the receptionist told us some scientists from Spain were staying at our motel and that NASA was set up at their other location down the road.
On the day of the event, Marian Catholic and other Chicago area high school kids would arrive on buses.
The movement was national and the epicenter local, as southern Illinois would experience the longest duration of totality, but the excitement was universal.
I am not entirely sure what motivates my husband and I to chase these kinds of things.
Surely, some of it is curiosity. We just love “being there” and actually witnessing history, whether it goes according to plan or not.
But in a world overrun with negativity, we have also come to love the buzz of big events, especially those that arise organically to unite people in a positive way. We once traveled with our kids and my sister’s family to Cocoa Beach, Fla. to watch a space shuttle launch. Hundreds of us gathered along the coast, all eyes cast to the heavens. Last year, we headed straight into the thick of the Cubs World Series celebration.
It’s almost as if we need this kind of rush.
We are hardly alone, as thousands of eclipse chasers can attest. There seems to be an openness, a comfortableness among people in pursuit of like things, as the question “Where y’all from?” became almost ubiquitous this past weekend.
There was a blurring of professional lines, too, as regular Joes mingled with rocket scientists. Everywhere we went, the mood was laid-back, chill, hopeful.
Much of it, of course, is our universal fascination with space. The enormity and mystery of it all. But there was a mystical side to the fervor, too. Perhaps it was the dance moves the heavenly bodies were about to make, perhaps it was gravitational pull or planetary fellowship.
Before he passed, my father-in-law told us how he’d once traveled all the way to the Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the top places in the world for stargazing, to witness a solar eclipse. He’d gone because his mother had reminisced about an eclipse she’d seen as a child.
Big moments connect us even as they make us feel small. They give us stories to tell. And, it seems, there’s an innate desire to hand those stories down.
Long before the weekend, we’d made plans to view the eclipse with my sister and her husband, who live in the area.
On Saturday, we stopped by the Blue Sky Vineyard, near the Shawnee National Forest. Just beyond the grapevines was the point of the longest duration of totality, marked for selfie convenience. The vineyard pulled out the stops with live music and booths offering food, souvenirs and tarot card readings.
Nearby, in the tiny town of Makanda, we found the path of totality marked by a orange line running through the Rainmaker Studio. Mark Winters and Eddie Wright were only too happy to tell the story of how a French scientist had visited them years ago to inform them the shop was in the line of the eclipse. They said they didn’t believe it back then, but were pumped about it now.
At the Garden of the Gods Sunday, parking lots spilled over and trail traffic was heavy. Throughout the state park, campers had set up tents. Despite the 95-degree heat, the paths were mobbed, with many “going off-trail” to snap photos atop giant rock formations.
In the town of Carbondale, vendors had set up booths selling jewelry, T-shirts and artwork. All in anticipation of the Monday afternoon show.
Everywhere, it seemed, people were hyped. But some were nervous about it, as two hotel workers told us locals were fearful of losing cellular service and power (neither of which happened) during the eclipse and thus had been stocking up on groceries and medications.
Early on eclipse morning, we headed to Saluki Stadium, where NASA and media from across the country were set up.
We met a cameraman from Oswego who invited us to peer into a telescope he’d set up outside the venue for a glimpse of sun spots. Adler Planetarium folks helped us use a solar filter to snap photos of the sun and capture the spectrum, which can help scientists determine the amount of helium and hydrogen in the giant star.
Art Maurer, director of the Trackman Planetarium at Joliet Junior College, had lent me a pair of solar binoculars, which I shared with several others, including a graduate student from Honduras and a Naperville man and his son.
Inside the stadium, scientists spoke to hundreds about space, Einstein’s work and eclipse viewing safety. Meanwhile, outside, a carnival offered rides and games while food vendors hawked corn dogs, burgers and loaded tater tots.
Several people succumbed to the nearly 100-degree heat while waiting for totality but in the moments leading up to it, as promised, the temperature cooled.
In the stands, the party atmosphere revved up as the transit began. The Saluki cheerleaders took the field, Star Wars characters lined the sidelines, images were blasted on the Jumbotron. When they played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” people in the stands began dancing.
It was quite the spectacle. But the best was yet to come.
As anticipated, around 1:20 p.m., as the moon moved farther across the sun, darkness fell, with only a perimeter of light ringing the horizon. In the eastern sky, opposite the sun, we could see Jupiter.
After hundreds of miles and months of planning, we had finally arrived at totality.
Before I’d left home, Maurer had advised, “Don’t spend all your energy trying to get photos. Take time to just enjoy the moment.”
And so I did. I put down my camera and the binoculars and, wearing my special shades, just looked up.
And that’s when the skies turned on us.
With clouds hovering, the fear that we’d come all this way and waited all this time for nothing began to set in. We silently reminded ourselves that even if we didn’t get to see the “diamond ring,” the burst effect created when light begins to appear again after totality, this whole incredible undertaking would still have been worth it.
But then, suddenly, the clouds cleared and the famous burst of light appeared.
I saw it. I didn’t capture it on my camera; I just experienced it — with my eyes and my soul.
A roar erupted from the stadium. People cheered, clapped and stomped their feet.
Over and over again, I heard, “This is the coolest thing I’ve even seen,” or “ever done.” People talked of “doing it again” when the next eclipse is expected to pass over Carbondale in 2024.
With daylight restored, we wished our family members and stadium mates safe travels and headed back to the parking lot, where some celebrants were tailgating.
We were practically glowing as we exited the lot and then we realized there would be a price to pay for partying so hearty, even if our celebration had been alcohol-free.
Swells of traffic coupled with road construction and more than a few fender benders made for a miserable drive back to Chicago. It took us 12 hours to make the typically four-and-a-half hour trek north on Interstate 57. We pulled into the driveway just after 2 a.m.
Next morning, we were emotionally spent and simultaneously inspired. Like other event junkies, we suffered an “eclipse hangover.” The transit was history. The gathering had dispersed. The fervor was gone.
But the bright shining memory remains.
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Publish date : 22 August 2017 | 10:31 pm