A total eclipse in southern Illinois

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Tuesday, August 22, 2017

I watched the Great American Eclipse from Red Bud, Illinois - you can find it on this map, which appeared in our August issue. // All photos: Astronomy: Alison Klesman

Like many Americans lucky enough to live in or travel to the path of totality on August 21, I witnessed my very first total solar eclipse. For me, this historic event took place in southern Illinois, nearly 400 miles from Astronomy’s offices in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It was not only a moving experience, but an exciting and fun one as well.

My journey began Sunday afternoon; I’d driven down to my father’s house in a south suburb of Chicago the day before. Just before we left, though, I got a look back at the last time a member of my family had seen a total solar eclipse. My late grandmother was aboard a cruise ship during the total solar eclipse visible from the Black Sea in 1999, and she had managed to get a great picture of totality from her ship. She’d even kept the program book and eclipse glasses she’d been given.

From Countryside, my father and I made the four-hour drive to a hotel in O’Fallon, IL, just north of the path of totality and southeast of the city of St. Louis. Monday morning, our plan was to get up early and head south, aiming for a town called Red Bud, well inside the 70-mile-wide shadow of the Moon. Although still north of the center line, Red Bud would see 2 minutes 20 seconds of totality, and would ideally offer an easier location to get into — and out of — before and after the eclipse.

My grandmother (on the right) booked a cruise during the Black Sea eclipse. She even got a pretty good picture during totality!

The big day

Monday morning dawned with scattered high clouds and a forecast of hot weather and partial clouds, with a chance of rain in the afternoon. I watched the news nervously that morning, as storm systems in Iowa and Kansas seemed to leave only a narrow corridor of clear skies, though that corridor seemed on track to pass right over our viewing location. Not knowing what traffic we might encounter, we set out from O’Fallon at about 7am; fortunately, while the roads were likely busier than an average Monday, they weren’t subject to heavy eclipse traffic yet and it only took about 30 minutes to reach our destination.

Once in Red Bud, we set up in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen along the main street and waited, excitement and hope mounting as the sky stayed clear, with only scattered high clouds and a ready view of the Sun. As the hours ticked by, the parking lot slowly filled with other eager eclipse-watchers. Shortly after the restaurant opened at 10:30am, its lobby was filled with families enjoying an early morning treat and discussing their plans to either continue south or stay put as the main event approached. My father and I chatted with another pair of travelers who’d originally planned to continue south, but ended up making the decision to stay in Red Bud for the eclipse and avoid the building traffic that might affect their trip. A quick look at Google maps confirmed that the roads were definitely getting congested as time went by.

The forecast as of about 6:30am on Monday morning.

Our partial eclipse began at 11:50am; by then, the temperature was already about 90 and the Sun was beating down from a mostly clear sky. Minutes before, we made our way outside to catch the Moon taking its first bite out of the Sun. We then settled in to wait for totality with drinks, snacks, and umbrellas, often checking the progress of the Moon’s shadow across the face of the Sun.

The real show begins

As one o’clock neared — totality would begin at 1:18pm — the environment began to change noticeably. We discovered that creating a cross-hatch pattern with your fingers would produce crescent images of the Sun when projected onto the ground, as would the holes in a straw hat. Every once in a while, I’d suddenly worry that a cloud had started to cover the Sun, only to look up and see the area was clear — the light had begun to dim and subtly change color. There were a few fluffy clouds starting to approach from the south, but the most worrying of these fortunately dissipated and passed well out of range of the Sun at least 20 minutes before totality (we all breathed a massive sigh of relief). A friend watching the eclipse about 40 miles away in Arnold, Missouri, later told me a cloud there had obscured the Sun about five minutes before totality. When it passed with minutes left to go, the crowd there cheered.

My father and I are ready for the show!

The closer the clock ticked to 1:18, the eerier things got. The sunlight started to take on a strange, almost smoky pallor, and a few cicadas began to pipe up. It grew noticeably cooler (much to our relief) and the breeze seemed to pick up. Venus became readily visible. Perhaps 30 seconds before totality, the streetlights along the road suddenly popped on, and as the last sliver of the Sun disappeared, everyone around me reacted with exclamations of wonder.

Totality felt like the shortest two minutes of my life. I tried to commit everything to memory — the way I could see twilight colors around the horizon, the exact color of the light, the intense chorus of crickets and cicadas that had started up as soon as darkness fell. The lights were on all around us, along the street and in the drive-through of the bank behind us and under the pavilions of nearby gas stations. The corona seemed huge, streaming outward from the Sun in long, thin filaments on either side.

Making a cross-hatch pattern with your fingers will reveal the progressing eclipse.

I admit I tried to snap about four pictures on my phone. I’d allotted myself about ten seconds to do so, and determined that regardless of how they turned out, after that I’d put the phone down and focus on the experience. That’s exactly what I did, and I’m glad — while I did manage to capture the color of the sky above us and an image of Venus next to the Sun, my phone was absolutely not sensitive enough to show the disc of the Moon blotting out the Sun, and trying to get a good picture would have wasted time I didn’t have. I’m much happier with the experience I had, though I’m also not sorry I tried for just a few seconds to see if I could get a picture worth sharing.

Too soon, the color of the light changed subtly again, and the upper right-hand portion of the blotted-out sun seemed to burst with red. Even as the crowd reacted, the second diamond ring appeared, a brilliant light that signaled totality was coming to an end. As the world around us lit up again, people were triumphant and excited, and I managed to get a few pictures of the odd light before it began to change too much.

I knew beforehand that everyone I’d spoken to had to be right — totality has to be experienced in person, and watching a video or looking at a picture simply can’t compare. A total solar eclipse is an amazing event that is both subtle and dramatic, slow and fast. Some things change almost imperceptibly over time, some quickly and suddenly, and there are effects that simply have to be experienced to be truly appreciated. As the Sun reappeared and daytime returned, I thought of several things I should have done: set my phone to record our surroundings, or remembered to look for shadow bands. But I’d been swept up in the experience, and I think that’s truly what an eclipse is supposed to be about. I can’t say how glad I am that I saw this eclipse where and when I did, nor am I truly regretful about the things I might have done but didn’t. Maybe next time, I’ll practice with my phone and the full moon ahead of time, or simply record a short video of totality. Maybe next time, I’ll remind myself to check for shadow bands, or bring a thermometer to watch the degrees drop. But this time, I got to experience totality with a crowd of great people, including one of the family members most responsible for my interest in astronomy. 

Well before: Everything looks normal!

Immediately after: The streetlights are still on and the light has a strange color and quality to it.

It's not over yet

Once the Sun returned, our eclipse experience wasn’t quite over. The crowds immediately began to thin, and traffic along the main road began to pick up. The clouds that had so conveniently stayed at bay started to finally cover a greater percentage of sky. We packed up and took to the road, and this time, we did run into that predicted eclipse day traffic. It’s the same effect with which every concert- or event-goer is familiar — people may trickle in before things get underway, but everyone leaves at the same time. The small-town roads were definitely the most congested, but even once we hit the highway near St. Louis, we still ran into plenty of backups. We watched as the GPS’s predicted travel time failed to budge, even while the clock marched forward (and we stayed put). All in all, I think our travel time was about two hours longer heading home, but even sitting in traffic, we agreed that the experience had been more than worth it. I texted a few close friends for details on their views, then checked my social media to find other friends across the country recounting their experiences as the shadow passed.

I don’t believe this event was over-hyped in any way; I do believe it showed everyone in the United States yesterday the stunning show that nature can put on, and how much we can benefit from experiencing it together. Already the Eclipse Megamovie project is starting to compile the longest continuous Earthbound view of the solar corona ever recorded, and the internet is flooding with pictures more varied, original, and exceptional than I maybe even expected.

I hope that the excitement and interest in this eclipse and future eclipses only grows, and I know that I, for one, am looking forward not only to the pictures we’ll receive at the magazine, but also to that next American eclipse in 2024. 

An experienced photographer in our crowd managed to capture the eclipse just as totality was ending.

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