The Great American Solar Eclipse: Worth every bit of the hype

Photo credit: Wednesday Cahill

Two days ago, the United States came together to celebrate the Great American Eclipse of 2017. I know that sounds like a cheesy name, but when you deconstruct that sentence, it is factually accurate. This eclipse was spectacular. Hands down, but we’ll talk more about that later. The eclipse was also solely a Unites States affair – it was only visible from the United States of America – the first time that has happened since before the United States became a country – 1257 CE (that one also went through Carbondale, IL). And indeed, people did celebrate this event.

I travelled with a friend and three of our five children to Du Quoin, IL. If you’ve never heard of Du Quoin, that’s ok. Most people in Du Quoin can’t find it on a map. But it is about 10 miles outside of Carbondale, IL. Carbondale is home to Southern Illinois University and labels itself the “Crossroads of the Eclipse”, which is appropriate because the next total solar eclipse (in seven years) will also cross Carbondale, IL.

The community of watchers

So, there we were in Southern Illinois with the 96-degree weather, hanging out with 1,000 of our closest friends at the Du Quoin fairgrounds. It’s funny, but being among literally thousands of people, all of whom were there for the exact same reason, made us all friends and neighbors for about 24 hours or so. If experiencing a solar eclipse is great, celebrating it with lot of other people is better.

Starting at 7:00AM, we mingled about, chatting about what we’d see, exchanging photography tips, and just sharing stories. Our children ran about with a gaggle of other children from every corner of the US. I spoke with travelers from Minneapolis, MN; Buffalo, NY; St. Petersburg, FL; and even some folks from my neighboring town of Algonquin – we’d travelled 7 hours south, just to end up next to each other again.

New friends

One new friend, Bill Weiss, is a hobbyist Astronomer, and member of the St. Petersburg astronomy club, was a delightful treat to find. He rigged his Celestron telescope with a funnel and fabric from an old-school projection TV. The telescope projected the image of the eclipsing sun onto the fabric and showed us all an accurate reflection of the celestial event. The key benefit being, a whole group could (and did) stand around and watch the event – no glasses needed. His granddaughter, Wednesday Cahill, snapped the leader image for this article, by the way.

Another wonderful couple, Larry and Sharon Karch, decided that the best way to celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary would be to drive down from Chicago and camp out to watch the eclipse. They brought with them some fun activities that kept our kids entertained – including a colander through which we projected dozens of encroaching eclipses (eclipsi?) onto a white board.

The community that formed there made the heat just a little bit bearable, and the day just a little bit more exciting. But what happened next was truly breathtaking.

The event

As the time approached, the land around us got just a little darker – much like a sunset. There was a lot more red and a lot less blue all around us. In the last twenty seconds before totality, the lights fell, like the house lights just before the curtain opened on a play. But this was no ordinary show. What came next left many people around us truly speechless.

As the moon blotted out the last bit of sun, we removed our glasses to take it all in. A dark circle hung in the air with streams of silver steaming around it, like a living crown of white fire. It was something straight out of a superhero movie – because no natural phenomenon could possibly look like this – but this did. It was, put simply, marvelous to behold. People around us wept. Others cheered. Both were equally appropriate reactions.

photo credit: Elise Taylor

The temperature dropped by 10 degrees, almost in an instant. I made the mistake of trying to take a couple of photos – disastrous attempts, by the way. Fortunately, that was not my priority. I set the Moto Z2 Force 360 camera to video the world around us, and then simply looked up. One set of neighbors added some appropriate levity by playing the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey, followed by Pink Floyd’s “Dark side of the Moon”. Sure it was cheesy, but damn was it uplifting.

The end

Finally, two minutes and four seconds later came the call “Glasses on!” and a tiny diamond peeked out from the edge of the awe-inspiring circle. With that, the eclipse ended. Applause, and a little heartbreak followed. Unanimously, we all wished it could have lasted longer, but we’ll have to wait for seven years to see it again. We all made the rounds, shaking hands and hugging – we really were a community – and before long, we headed out, back to home. I spent a total of fourteen hours in the car to watch two minutes of an eclipse – and it was worth it.

Every. Damn. Minute.

Because, if you were outside the path of totality, you were able to witness a neat show. But for those lucky enough to be in that 70-mile wide path, we witnessed an awe-inspiring, magnificent show that touched us to our core. It’s hard to describe what a difference it is, unless you’ve seen it. It’s literally the difference between night and day. It’s the difference between playing a game on an Atari 7800 and an Xbox One. It’s that big of a difference.

So, in seven years, on April 8, 2024, when another, longer eclipse makes its way across the US (or some other time in your part of the world), I can only implore you to be there. Make plans, and be there. Do it. You will not regret the decision, nor any inconvenience that comes of it. Total solar eclipses are relatively rare. When the opportunity comes along, I promise you, this is something you need to see.