Eclipse Day part 2

The minutes ticked by slowly waiting in our hotel room for the eclipse to begin. I obsessively checked the weather forecasts while the kids watched TV and played on their iPads. I kept glancing outside, watching other hotel guests arrive or leave, while some sat on the benches outside the doors. We had planned to setup shop in the grassy area just across the street from the hotel, which would afford us a nice view of the sky. Added bonus:  a few shade trees could help keep us somewhat cool in the muggy heat.

But something just didn’t feel right to me about sitting right outside the hotel. For one, there were street lights everywhere. I knew the lights would pop on as soon as it became dark and I didn’t want to compromise our view. I began to search for nearby parks and found one about 2 miles away. Tiff agreed with me that we should try heading there (it was 10:15 at this point) and see if there were any parking spots. There was a playground and soccer fields, so we figured there would be plenty of places to setup. If we couldn’t find a spot to park, then we’d just come back and stick to our original plan. We packed everything up and hit the road.

The highways were surprisingly empty. The visions of clogged freeways that had been reeling through my mind since last week were shattered. Paranoia rose up in me. Why were there so few people around? Did they know something we didn’t? Had they retreated to another location after reading a forecast I hadn’t seen? I didn’t know.

We arrived at the park and it was similarly empty. A few kids played on the playground equipment, a few couples had setup chairs and one family had setup a shade canopy. We found a nice shade tree and plopped down our chairs and coolers, then lathered up with sunscreen because it was sunny and HOT. I’m not sure what the temperature was during that time, but I’d estimate 95 with 210% humidity. Even in the shade the sweat poured from us. The kids played a little bit on the playground equipment, but it was just too darn hot.

Our eyes stayed skyward. Nerves tickled in our stomachs (at least mine). The day was looking perfect. How long would it last? A few small puff balls of clouds floated lazily on the horizon, nowhere close to the sun. Time seemed to slow as we waited. The eclipse began. Fiona really enjoyed looking at it through her solar viewer. She quipped, “The orange has a bite out of it!”. A very good observation, I thought.

Every few minutes we’d check the progress and with each new view, it became more and more spectacular. However, larger clouds were beginning to loom on the horizon. I checked the wind, watched the directions of the clouds. Some came close, but none blotted out the sun. Time kept ticking slowly by. I read some articles out of a Weird Wisconsin book to save the battery on my phone so I could take video of our reactions when the totality finally came. I threw the football around with the girls. All the while my eyes never strayed from the clouds.

By this time the sun was halfway covered up and it seemed like we were looking through a pair of sunglasses. It was surreal, to say the least. It began kinda like having the sun covered by a cloud, but quickly slid into the sunglasses view. More and more people were pulling into the park, but still not very many. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought for sure the crowds would be massive. A bus full of school kids pulled up and they setup in the pavilion not far away. They were high schoolers and most were just happy to be out and about. I don’t think they realized what they were about to witness.

10 minutes to go. One large cloud loomed in the distance—the only one that I estimated to pose us any threat. I setup the tripod. We’re gonna make it, I told myself as I checked the clouds again. We’re gonna get a clear view of the totality! Street lights popped on around the park. Crickets began to sing and the world beyond their tapestry of song was still and silent. The temperature had dropped some, but the humidity was so high I still felt as if I was wearing a shirt made of the sun’s rays.

2 minutes to go and the video was recording. Jubilation was setting in. The clouds were nowhere near the sun. This was happening, we were going to see it. We watched through the viewers as the sun’s glow became a tiny sliver and then…disappeared.

Viewers came off and a surge of emotions overtook all of us.  The sun’s corona pulsed and swirled at
the edges of the moon in the center. Goosebumps sprouted all over my body and my breath caught in my throat. Venus appeared off to my right. I squinted hard and could see faint Mercury lurking at the northwest edge of the swirling corona, the first time I’ve ever been able to view the planet with my naked eye. I can’t even really describe to you how it looked or felt to give it any justice. It was such a mix of emotions—happiness, humility, wonder. The moon was not a perfect sphere in the middle. You could see the jagged edges of the mountains and valleys. I snapped a few photos with Tiff’s phone, having to turn down the exposure all the way and zooming in halfway, but it still wasn’t even close to the real thing. Soon the moon began to slide off and the Diamond Ring appeared, which was a marvelous sight in its own right and something I missed at first because I didn’t want to take my viewers off too quickly.

In the moments following the totality, a feeling of jubilation overtook me. I can only equate the feeling to having just won something momentous.  The feeling you get after training for something so long and then you conquer it. I felt almost numb, for a few minutes afterward, still reeling in the surreal nature of the entire event. All the travel, the worry, the heat, the looming traffic—it was all worth it. I had experienced something so spellbinding and profound, a milestone event in my life and in the life of my family. How lucky was I to have shared the experience with all of them?

We took one last look at the retreating moon and sun, then packed up our stuff and headed for the car. Already many cars were exiting the park. We got the girls setup with their devices, added more water to the cooler, punched in the coordinates into the GPS (my cell phone never stopped working this entire trip, which was something I figured would happen) and set off.

We headed north to St. Louis. Traffic wasn’t bad at all! I couldn’t believe it! Then we got within 30 miles of St. Louis and hit our first traffic jam. The worst of it was getting onto the freeway, but once there we seemed to move at a steady 25-30 mph for about 20 minutes, then traffic sped up again. That wasn’t so bad! We made it through St. Louis and into Illinois with only one more small slowdown. Then reality hit. Google kept suggesting alternate routes to save time, but those routes were going to take us through the heart of East St. Louis, so I declined. I had no intentions of being stuck in traffic jams in the heart of a city that was supposedly one of the most dangerous in the US, so we braved the traffic jams on the interstate. These were mostly small, 10-15 minutes of slow traffic. We were making pretty good time, no big deal! 

Then we turned north on 55. 

Apparently, all of Illinois was taking this interstate north. We were heading toward Rockford, but we also had Chicago-bound traffic on this route as well. Nearly 3 hours of stop and go traffic ensued. I started out fine. I had mentally prepared myself for this. However, my bladder had filled up nearly an hour in to all this and I was increasingly becoming stressed. I did NOT want to get off the interstate. I told myself we would not exit until the kids requested to stop for bathroom breaks. Nearing the 3 hour mark my spirit broke and I couldn’t take it anymore. Fiona was requesting a bathroom break as well. We were nearing some town (Litchfield maybe?) so we pulled off there and found a gas station that miraculously had an open gas pump as soon as we arrived. I limped into the bathroom and found that things were coming up aces for me. A urinal was open. I stood there for probably 10 minutes, nearly flooding the place and testing the abilities of the drain. It passed, but with some difficulty. We nabbed some gas station food before heading out the door and wading back into the freeway masses and filing north like a herd of mechanical zombies.

With bladders emptied, treats in hand and spirits renewed, traffic began to break apart and we were moving at a good clip once more. We ran into one more slowdown near Springfield, which Google deftly re-routed us around through some of the more interesting parts of the city. At one point, we saw a pretty purple building advertising “$5 couch dances”. Conveniently, it was right across the road from Walgreens. No, we didn’t stop.

By the time we stopped for the night, we had driven 9 hours with one 10-minute stop at a gas station. The kids were troopers and I applaud them. I plowed through almost the entire audio book, We are Legion, We are Bob (HIGHLY recommended, by the way) and we crossed back into Wisconsin. Under normal conditions our progress would’ve taken approximately 5 hours. I’m glad that I don’t have to deal with such traffic on a regular basis.

And so our Great Total Eclipse Adventure comes to an end. We traveled many miles, saw many new things, didn’t get on each other’s nerves and created memories none of us will ever forget. If the skies clear tonight, I just might grab my telescope and turn my eyes back toward the heavens, something I haven’t done in quite some time.

Will we do it again in 2024? You betcha.

Thanks for following along. We had a blast. I hope you did too.



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